I recently reviewed about fifty commentaries on the book of Romans as part of a major writing project. I included commentaries from John Bengel’s of 1742 to the latest that I could get my hands on. I wanted to examine the state of play in commentary writing on Romans over most of the modern period. I eliminated the popular and “application-oriented” commentaries, and concentrated on those that present themselves as treatments of the text of Romans. If any book of the New Testament should bring out the best in commentary writing, Romans should be the one—and was I sadly disappointed.
No, I did not read through every commentary, but I concentrated on their introductions and especially Romans 5:1-11, a passage that I have written on many times and hence know something about. I wanted to see how up-to-date each commentary was for the time in which it was written (note this!), in the following areas: Greek language and linguistics, textual criticism, theology, literary and epistolary and rhetorical issues, audience concerns, and history of interpretation.
I gave precedence to Greek language and linguistics, because I strongly believe that commentaries should be commenting on the text, not primarily on other commentators—as so many commentaries are—and because, whatever else it is, New Testament studies is a text-based discipline. I also strongly believe that most interpretive problems are caused by language can only be resolved by study of language, and that we need to use the latest and best resources available for this task.
The linguistic issues also have an impact on the major text-critical problem in Romans 5:1, the use of the subjunctive or indicative of the verb ἔχω/ομεν. I was also concerned with reconciliation as a theological issue, how Romans 5 fits within the argument of Romans as an example of epistolary or rhetorical analysis, and related topics.
At the end of my exhausting analysis, I have to admit that I was sadly disappointed—though not entirely surprised. I could only find six commentaries that stand out for their overall strength—
Joseph Agar Beet, Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (1877; 7th ed.; London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1890).
William Sanday and Arthur C. Headlam, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistles to the Romans (1895; 5th ed.; ICC; Edinburgh: Clark, 1902).
Heinrich Schlier, Der Römerbrief (Herders 6; Freiburg: Herder, 1977).
J. P. Louw, A Semantic Discourse Analysis of Romans (2 vols.; Pretoria: Department of Greek, 1987).
Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996).
Herman C. Waetjen, The Letter to the Romans: Salvation as Justice and the Deconstruction of Law (NTM 32; Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2011).
Not all of these are without blemish, mind you. But these are the best I could find. I cannot comment on each of them here, but they each stand out in the time in which they were written—and some of them have not been superseded.
You probably notice that a number of your “favorite” commentators are missing. Absolutely. I won’t mention names, but some of their commentaries were already out of date the moment they were published, not only linguistically but in other areas. I do not insist that the commentaries agree with me on any particular area, including linguistics, but they at least need to show awareness of the issues and address them appropriately—ignoring them is not the solution, and certainly not the means to convincing or responsible exegesis.
One of the major shortcomings of commentaries of the late twentieth century is their continued dependence upon language tools first developed in the nineteenth century! This may have been appropriate when Beet and Sanday and Headlam wrote, but it is not appropriate for commenting in the post-Barr and verbal-aspect-inspired era of New Testament studies. Few commentators have fully grasped the implications of modern linguistic thought for their handling of the Greek text, and many continue to commit lexical fallacies that Barr warned us against.
I believe this deplorable condition is not only the result of a lack of adequate preparation for the task—however, many commentators are clearly not up to speed in recent interpretive thought, especially linguistic. It is also the fault of New Testament studies as a discipline and publishers as a whole. New Testament studies for some time now has been a branch of theology, rather than being a discipline that emphasizes the latest linguistic and general knowledge—as did such commentators as Sanday and Headlam—but without losing sight of the importance of theology as a second order discipline (exegesis being first order). Publishers—and their buying public—also demand more and more commentaries in series, without allowing authors to take the time with their texts that they deserve or demanding that they reach a certain level of informed critical engagement.
So, there you have my take on commentaries on Romans.