If you dare to publish a bible with commentary, you’re very brave! A sneering chorus of outrage and hot condemnation awaits you no matter what you do. So many have affixed theological blinders to themselves and will condemn you to the flames for any view that does not narrowly reflect their own. Such people are the rule these days, not the exception! But with bravery Bishop Robert Barron sticks his neck out and submits the Word On Fire Gospels.
I’ve received my copy, and physically it is a wonderful edition. It comes either hardbound or leatherbound, I got the leather. The first impression is the beauty of the book. The paper is high quality, the pages are thick and well-glossed, the typesetting is top notch. The book is filled with sharp graphics, and abundantly annotated with asides. It is the physical size of many complete bibles, but it only contains the four gospels — that is a measure of how much commentary is packed within this thing! This book is primarily a running commentary. It does contain the full text of each gospel, but you are better off with a standard bible if your goal was simply to pick up and read a gospel. This book wades leisurely through the gospels, constantly stopping to highlight and to remark on aspects for contemplation.
I haven’t had the chance to read the entire book, I dove straight into my favorite gospel, Mark. He’s the apostle who dives straight in, right? Seemed fitting! Mark cuts to the chase, he does not mess around. Immediately I found profit. Immediately the commentary taught me something I did not know – the Tetramorph! The Tetramorph is the four symbols, each one associated with a different gospel or gospel writer, which appear in Christian art. St. Matthew appears as a man, St. Mark a lion, St. Luke an ox, and St. John an eagle. Did not know this! (see below). Then the commentary immediately gave me a few insights for contemplation, and these are very good insights.
I’ll mention two insights, but there were more. Both were prompted by the first speech of Jesus in Mark’s gospel, in which Christ exhorts us to repent and to have faith, for the Kingdom of God is at hand. So what is meant by ‘repent’? The commentary introduces the concept of Metanoia, based on the Greek word used by Mark for ‘repent’. This word introduces overtones that the English translation lacks. Metanoia involves a change of mind, a change of perspective. “Repent and change your perspective” is the fuller meaning. The second insight applies to the word ‘faith’, which in the Greek emphasizes not just belief but also strong trust and even invitation. “To have faith is also to allow oneself to be overwhelmed by the power of God,” the commentary explains. The commentary contains a lot more, just on these first words of Christ in Mark. Differences between the pusillanimous and the magnanimous are explored, for example, and the imminence or even the current actualization of God’s kingdom.
The other bits commentary that I read did at one point introduce a surprise to me when it introduced the claim that the original sin, causing the fall from Eden, was fear. What? I have heard the blame cast on disobedience before, and on pride. The idea that fear is the culprit was novel to me, and yet the claim was made as if it were a natural, obvious assumption. Maybe this was covered in a previous area (remember, I had jumped into the Gospel of Mark and therefore skipped a long way into the book). But that was a notion that needs to be explained to me. This highlights a reality that you must keep in mind when reading any exegesis or commentary: be mature! Use discernment. Don’t freak out and condemn a man to the flames because he surprises your understanding or crosses your beliefs. Take this rather as an opportunity to explore a point of view perhaps not natural to your own! I don’t know if I will accept the claims about fear and original sin, or if I will to what degree that I would. But either way, it is something to consider and to contemplate!
Giving fuel to these contemplations is what this book excels at. I can already recommend it. Even in the portion of it that I have read so far, it has paid for itself!
In the Tetramorph, Matthew features a man because his gospel begins with a genealogy.
In the Tetramorph, Mark is a lion, because his gospel begins with St. John the Baptist — roaring in the desert!
In the Tetramorph, Luke is an ox because his gospel begins with Zechariah, a temple priest. The ox represents the sacrificial animals that belong to priestly duty.
In the Tetramorph, John is an eagle because his gospel begins by soaring upwards — in Heaven.