The Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture Series

A Review Essay

The Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture (CCSS) series is structured with the intention of meeting the need of the universal Church in studying Sacred Scripture in a manner that is both informative and insightful, while staying faithful to the grounds that form Sacred Tradition. The series weaves together a tapestry of sound scriptural commentary and orthodox doctrine, liturgy, and moral living. The series itself is intended to include seventeen volumes, covering the entire span of the New Testament. The principle thrust of the series is, therefore, to interpret Sacred Scripture “in accord with the same Spirit by which it was written” (Dei Verbum 12). To achieve that, the editors and authors make a careful, articulate effort in ensuring that the texts of the Sacred Canon are interpreted within appropriate context, magisterial Tradition, and the analogy of Faith, whilst ever ensuring that its spiritual sense is brought forth, demonstrating the reality that Scripture is ever alive and active.

Each of these books are designed such that they include numerous tools to further the cause of the study of the Sacred Word; some of these tools include exegesis, reflections, cross-references to the Catechism, the Lectionary, biblical and patristic sources, quotes from the Saints, and sidebars which illustrate contextual data pivotal to a holistic comprehension of the text. More than anything, the series strives to uphold historical and pedagogical continuity within Church Tradition in its treatment of the New Testament.

James, First, Second, and Third John

Anderson, Kelly, and Daniel Keating. James, First, Second, and Third John. Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017. 304 pages.

In that light, as yet another masterly addition to Baker Academic’s series, James, First, Second, and Third John does not fail to deliver. This seminal tome — co-authored by Kelly Anderson of Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary and Daniel Keating of Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit — stays true to the series’ anima of traditional continuity whilst maintaining a heartfelt balance between being academic and pastoral.

The Epistle of James – Kelly Anderson

Kelly Anderson’s scholarship in treating of the Epistle of St. James is nothing short of penetrating. Despite that, its presentation maintains an air of simplicity that allows it to be welcome to both the academic inquirer and the everyday Catholic in search of deeper appreciation of the Divine Word. The introduction to the commentary does much to cover the groundwork of authorship, genre and style, purpose, structure, and overall theological paradigm. The central premise of the entire work is based on the central premise of the book of James, which is that the Gospel, the “word of truth” (Jas 1:18) as believed and lived out in practice, is the source of man’s Salvation for “faith must be accompanied by conduct that manifests the New Life in Christ” (8).

Going with the structure of the Letter of James as the framework for the commentary, Anderson carefully maps out the erudition and pastoral ardor behind the Letter of James, keeping the reader’s eye ever on the fact that, as a pastoral letter to the diaspora or dispersed members of the twelve tribes of Israel, James is wont to treat of the Mosaic Law and its practice as fulfilled by Christ’s New Covenant. Anderson demonstrates that James, therefore, is in no way negating the necessity of good works in the lives of the faithful but is, instead, enforcing the supremely elevated reality that suffering and perseverance now take on a grace-filled element inasmuch as it compels and brings about spiritual maturity in Christ (19).

Anderson treats of what is perhaps the most controversial verse in all of the epistle by devoting an entire chapter to it. In analyzing James 2:14–26, she carefully breaks up the discussion into the subtopics: firstly, faith without works being dead; secondly, the faith of demons; and, thirdly, the works that justify. Included in the analysis is a sidebar discussion on the misconceived notion of post-Reformation scholars that James was writing a curative response to the “erroneous” Pauline assertion that it is faith without works that justifies. Anderson writes that “this seems unlikely. It is possible, however, that James is addressing a misunderstanding of Paul’s teaching” (63) elaborating how, due to a variation in audience, both epistles address different extremes of the same issue. Both men, however, proclaim the one Gospel that works should flow only “as a manifestation of a life of genuine faith in Christ” (63). Anderson cites Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s General Audience of June 28, 2006, wherein the supreme pontiff succinctly and perspicaciously treated of the seemingly contentious issue of the sacred texts: “Saint Paul is opposed to the pride of man who thinks he does not need the love of God that precedes us; he is opposed to the pride of self-justification without grace, simply given and undeserved. Saint James, instead, talks about works as the normal fruit of faith.”

From there, the rest of the commentary on the epistle errs on the side of a more pastoral treatment, perhaps in keeping with the original voice of the inspired author of the epistle himself, or perhaps in keeping with the principle of ensuring a wide audience reach. Owing to this, most of the commentary emphasizes James’s episcopal, paternal counsel for his readers, beseeching a prayerful, repentant, liturgical, sacramental life. The commentary explicitly treats of the Sacraments of Reconciliation and the Anointing of the Sick to this end (116, 117). In closing her analysis on the Letter of St. James, Anderson reiterates James’s exhortation of evangelization unto the faithful: “The Christian is called to be the one who brings back a sinner. The Greek . . . [epistrepho] refers to leading someone to conversion, the change of mentality and lifestyle that results from recognizing one’s error and returning to the way of truth” (120). This line perhaps serves as the most coherent summary of James’s premise for his letter; Anderson does well in drawing the attention of the reader to this throughout the whole commentary of the Epistle of James.

First, Second, and Third John – Daniel Keating

It quickly becomes clear from the beginning of this commentary that there has been a shift in voice and pen. Keating approaches the text with an astute logic and somewhat surgical precision, standing in contrast to Anderson’s almost phenomenological modus operandi. This sudden change in voice lends itself to some discordance for the reader who undertakes the work in the same sitting or in a short span of time. Nonetheless, it must be admitted that Dr. Keating’s calm sagacity is indicative of a passion for Scripture that runs deep, as only still waters can. This breath of fresh air does well to offset the initially perceived stylistic disparity.

Dr. Daniel Keating begins his commentary on First, Second, and Third John by offering the reader a cursory overview of each of the epistles:

The first letter, 1 John, by far the most substantial of the three, offers a profound teaching on Christian faith and love. Second John (thirteen verses) is a brief letter of greeting from the author to a local church. Third John (fifteen verses) is a personal letter from the author to a certain Gaius, a leader in a local church.

From there, he goes on to expound on key themes in First John, stating how the latter two of the Johannine epistles are themselves too short to see significant thematic development (124).

From the outset, Dr. Keating does a commendable balancing act of evincing Johannine authorship of the Epistles and the Fourth Gospel without spending too much time and energy turning a good portion of the work into an argument on authorship. In fact, Keating suggests that the best way to read and practice exegesis on each letter is to read all three letters as intrinsically united, for “by reading each letter in the light of the other two, we can gain insight into obscure or ambiguous passages and reach a better understanding of what John is saying in each letter” (124). It is precisely because of this that Dr. Keating attributes the letters to “the pen of the same author” (124), a position held in general consensus with most modern commentators and, incidentally, one that saw distinct opposition in centuries past. Dr. Keating goes one step further, to then make the logical position that

the author of 1 John is the beloved disciple himself and that the same hand wrote both the Gospel and the Letters. [For] not only do the clear and simple cadences of 1 John match those of the Fourth Gospel . . . but also the authoritative tone of 1 John and the author’s testimony that he saw, heard and touched the “Word of life” (1:1–3) point not to a second generation follower of the beloved disciple but rather to one who heard Jesus speak and who lay upon his breast (John 13:23). (127)

It is in applying this bold but necessary principle of unified, Johannine authorship to all three epistles and the fourth Gospel that Dr. Keating proceeds with the exegesis that takes place in the rest of the commentary.

The treatment of the Prologue to 1 John is nothing short of pulchritudinous, and rightfully so, for, in his own words, the material he analyzes is “both beautiful and challenging” (137). Here, Dr. Keating goes on to mention in sidebars how John doesn’t just desire to expound a theological reality of the Word of God being made flesh, but that there is an end of koinonia (read: “communion”) in mind, for “in 1 John, koinonia describes both our fellowship with God and with one another — a rich communion of life and bonds of love that are meant to characterize the faithful” (140). This is an apt prelude to his brilliant division of the first epistle — i.e., “First Movement: Walk in the Light,” “Second Movement: Walk in Righteousness,” and “Third Movement: Walk in Love.”

Throughout the work, Dr. Keating’s penchant for penetrating examination of themes comes through clearly. As in his earlier works, his masterful assessment of biblical, doctrinal, and historical development is presented in a manner that is illuminating, engaging, and spiritually edifying. Dr. Keating’s symphonized commentary walks the line between being doctrinally astute and popularly accessible, leaning more on the former than the latter. True to his signature scholarship, Dr. Keating’s work is deeply immersed in patristic tradition, citing such Fathers as Didymus the Blind and Clement of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus the Confessor, Ignatius of Antioch, and St. Augustine in strengthening his exegesis. Doing so, Dr. Keating does well to illustrate not only traditional continuity but also how the truths of the Epistles are, at once, ever ancient and ever new.

The principle thrust and underlying theme of Dr. Keating’s work here may, perhaps, find some crystalline synthesis in his treatment of 1 John 2:16:

In describing what is “in the world,” John may be making a subtle reference to the sin of Adam and Eve in the garden. After being tempted and lied to by the serpent, Eve looks on the fruit of the tree and sees that it is “good for food,” “pleasing to the eyes,” and “desirable for gaining wisdom” (Gen 3:6). These three qualities are similar to what John warns against here, especially when we recognize that Eve’s “desire for wisdom” was in fact a desire to “be like God” (Gen 3:5 NRSV) in a prideful way. (165)

Just as the Evangelist brought believers right back to the first words of Genesis at the beginning of his Gospel, so in his epistles, Dr. Keating points out, the Evangelist harkens back to Genesis with the iteration that a life pleasing to God is one that seeks not “all that is in the world.” Instead, it is only “whoever does the will of God [who will remain] forever” (165).

Intriguingly, Dr. Keating draws from one of his most notable works, Deification and Grace, in treating of a subsidiary, albeit crucial, theme in John’s epistles, i.e., the deification of the Christian. Much can be said about his breviloquent analysis of the theme within the epistle, but of noteworthiness in this regard is his utilization of Maximus the Confessor’s On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ, wherein the latter treats of God’s outpouring of his own glory in fullness unto the souls of his faithful.

Dr. Keating’s analysis of John’s latter two epistles run along the same vein as John’s own treatment of his epistles, i.e., with the central message of the Love of God compelling the faithful away from sin into a life of knowing that “they have eternal life dwelling within them” (234). To that end, John, and Dr. Keating in similar stride, emphasize celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation and the centrality of intercessory prayer in the lives of the baptized. Dr. Keating brings to a climax his erudite treatment of all three epistles as follows: “Jesus has called those who follow him his friends. He has elevated us to a great dignity: not just to be servants or hired laborers, but friends who walk as his companions and come to know his mind” (273).

 

As a collective tome, James, First, Second, and Third John exhibits differing approaches to the sacred texts. It is coherent, and obviously so, that each of the authors penned one commentary, i.e., Anderson wrote James and Keating wrote First, Second, and Third John. Because of this, the difference in style stands out, almost to a fault. The shift in tone and analytical perspective was so clear that in concluding one’s reading of Anderson’s commentary on James, one needs to step back to accustom oneself to the disparity in treatment before going deeper into Keating’s commentary on First, Second, and Third John. This, however, is but a small hurdle to overcome.

 

The Gospel of Mark – Dr. Mary Healy

Healy, Mary. The Gospel of Mark. Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008. 352 pages.

Dr. Healy’s commentary on the Gospel of Mark is the first in the Catholic Commentary on Scripture Series. It may be safe to surmise that this is the commentary that set the tone for the rest of the series and, as far as benchmarks go, this work set a good one. Dr. Healy’s commentary is without a doubt admirable in its own right. Dr. Healy brings to it her trademark acumen of merging historical accuracy with Scriptural insight, probing the four senses with lucidity throughout the work. Owing to the fact that the Gospel of Mark is, in and of itself, a concise, straightforward book, at first glance one might be tempted to conclude that all that there is to be gained is immediately apparent from its literal sense. Dr. Healy’s commentary evinces that this is not the case. Despite its brevity, Dr. Healy does well to draw out the hidden richness and profundity so intricately woven into the text. Very early on, it is evident that the approach of the book is to be both soundly historical as well as speculative.

Dr. Healy mentions very early on that “one of the most striking features of the Gospel of Mark is the theme of the ‘messianic secret.’ Although Jesus does mighty works of healing and deliverance, he repeatedly insists that these works not be publicized . . . and forbids both people . . . and demons . . . to reveal his true identity” (53). Many readers would wonder immediately at the seeming lack of imprudence of Christ’s keeping his identity a secret. Dr. Healy elucidates that “Jesus’s messianic identity is a deeper mystery than any of his followers yet fathom, and it must be unveiled gradually” (53). She goes on to demonstrate how the politico-historical milieu of the time was one that awaited a triumphant military messiah, a role that stood in stark contradiction to the kind of liberation Christ had come to bring his people, i.e., salvation from sin and death. Christ’s deliberate secrecy of his actual identity was precisely in this interest, i.e,. of avoiding “sensational reports [that would] generate a false and distorted messianic enthusiasm” (53) about his person and ministry. Other noteworthy treatments of historical placement are in her providing the genealogy of Pilate and Herod. Doctrinally, Dr. Healy draws from magisterial Tradition to expound on areas of the Faith such as sacramentality, eschatology, ecclesiology, and liturgy. To that end, the sidebar on page 79 analyzes, albeit briefly, the question of the alleged siblings of Christ (Mk 3:31–32; 6:31). In it, she writes of the limitations of the Aramaic language, the widespread application of the Greek adelphos, and St. Jerome’s long-held tradition that those words refer to children of St. Joseph from an earlier marriage (CCC 500).

Ultimately, while the work is ordered for a more popular audience, it doesn’t fail to deliver by way of breadth of scholarship. The end result is a sound, compelling, insightful read of the Gospel of Mark — rendering readers both appreciative and edified. Because of this, however, the more serious scholar of Sacred Scripture will find many areas lacking in deeper presentation. What the work does allow for, nonetheless, is introductory snippets, as it were, for deeper research. One such example is the sidebar on page 36, wherein she treats briefly on Christ sanctifying the waters of Baptism via St. Maximus of Turin’s Sermon on Holy Epiphany. Much could have been done to draw correlations with similar-minded theologians, such as St. Hipolytus and St. Ignatius of Antioch, to name a few. Perhaps this series is not the place for the drawing of such interrelationships. Perhaps this is its exact aim: to pique the reader’s curiosity, to compel them to dive deeper into the riches of the Gospel of Mark, leading them to the commentaries of other giants of the Faith. St. Thomas Aquinas comes to mind in this regard.

 

Conclusion

Finishing multiple books in the series allows one to see Baker Academic’s ingenuity in employing multiple authors to work on the series. Whilst scholars work to stay faithful to magisterial Tradition, each brings to the table their own styles and capacity: idiosyncrasies as well as strengths. Perhaps it is best left to the individual reader to determine if this is a case of many heads being better than one or, contrastingly, one of too many cooks spoiling the broth. My personal opinion is that, as commentaries on Sacred Scripture with a decidedly more conventional, popular appeal, these particular works fit the bill to a T; perhaps a little too well for some works in the series. This is not to say that the more ardent student of Sacred Scripture has no wisdom to glean from it, merely that speculative Scripture scholars are not the intended primary readership of the work.

In concluding this review, one must, of necessity, laud the minds and hearts behind the CCSS series. Never has there been a more streamlined, popular series produced with as much uniform consistency in modern Catholic Scripture commentaries as this series from Baker Academic. It goes without saying that purchasing the whole series will indubitably serve to benefit anyone who finds themselves anywhere on the spectrum of Scripture study: the everyday Catholic to the scholar of Scripture. As a series that is unequivocally not meant for speculative scholarship, all students of Scripture will still find gems of wisdom to glean throughout each of the works. If anything, completing the series should form a system in the mind of the reader that, one hopes, will form a sound, indestructible substratum upon which further study will be built upon. In this regard, Baker Academic and the editors and authors perform an invaluable service to the Church and the world with this series. Unquestionably, it will serve innumerable generations to follow.

Marcus Benedict Peter About Marcus Benedict Peter

Marcus Benedict Peter hails from Malaysia and has been involved in teaching, faith formation, missionary work, and evangelization of the Faith since 2008. He has ministered and spoken in Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, India, and the United States. In 2018, he received his MA in Theology at Ave Maria University, Florida. Marcus regularly writes and creates content for his website, www.marcusbpeter.com, where he does work on Catholic biblical theology, apologetics, and evangelization. At present, Marcus and his bride, Stephanie Mae Peter, live in Marin County, California, and teach fundamental theology and Sacred Scripture at Marin Catholic College Preparatory High School.

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