How to Study the Bible: Commentaries

biblepage-781x1024For those new to serious Bible study, a “commentary” is a book that explains one or more books of the Bible in detail, generally verse by verse. Most commentaries are published as part of a set intended to cover the entire NT or entire OT or both. But many excellent commentaries are published as stand-alone volumes.

There are far too many commentaries for me to cover them all, and the quality varies from series to series, and volume to volume. But maybe I can offer some thoughts to help sort through the overwhelming amount of information contained in commentaries.

First, I do not use old, out-of-copyright commentaries. The Internet and Bible software are filled with archaic commentaries that, in their day, were excellent. But a lot happened in the last century to greatly improve Bible scholarship. For example —

* We discovered vast troves of First Century papyrus writings that shed new light on the language of the NT.

* We discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls,  that shed new light on both the OT and the NT.

* Bible scholarship became more Americanized and Anglicized and less German — which opened minds to the Jewishness of the scriptures, especially the NT.

* Bible scholarship of the evangelicals caught up with and often exceeded the mainline scholarship. More denominations began to contribute to mainstream scholarship, making it more democratic and more representative of the church-universal.

* Pauline studies were revolutionized by the work of E. P. Sanders and those who followed him, forcing a fresh, largely very healthy reconsideration of assumptions about Paul made in earlier decades.

* More archaeological discoveries of the Bible lands were made in the 20th Century than the preceding centuries combined.

* More ancient manuscripts of the Bible were found, leading to our having the best texts to work from since the early Second Century.

* Vast amounts of excellent scholarship compounded, with new studies contributing to even more new studies, so that there has been an ongoing dialogue about every Bible issue of consequence among more scholars than ever.

The times they have been a’changing.

Now, I could make a similar list of false, liberal teachings in academia, and be no less truthful. But the foundations of evangelical, conservative scholarship have never been stronger. We live in an age of incredibly rich, worthwhile scholarship that respects the authority of scripture. And we live in an age when trash can be published for scholarship. Both are true, but the bottomline is that most commentaries published in the last few decades are vastly superior to those that preceded them.

But that doesn’t mean that the great commentators of earlier ages have nothing to add. It’s just that they worked at a comparative disadvantage — and the more recent commentators had the benefit of the older guys when they did their work. To borrow from Isaac Newton, today’s great commentators stand on the shoulders of giants, but the guy on top sees the best.

Second, I don’t use one-volume commentaries, that is, a single book that covers the entire NT or OT. There’s just not enough there there. If that makes any sense. If you have a top notch study Bible, then a one-volume commentary won’t take you much further in your studies.

Third, I borrow before I buy. Your church library should provide you with access to many excellent commentaries. Or a friend’s library. Or a local university library. Or a public library. Commentary sets can be very expensive, and it’s best to be sure. In fact, if you have access to a good lending library, nothing beats free.

Fourth, I don’t like commentaries marketed to a single denomination. Even my own. I need to hear both sides of the case. I need to know why people disagree with what I was taught as a child.

So what do I recommend? In fact, there are lots of commentaries and commentary sets that are excellent — more than I can recommend. But if you read my blog enough to know what I quote from, those are the commentaries I like the best.

Since shortly after college, I’ve relied heavily on the New International Commentary series. Many of the best commentaries on a particular book are found in this collection. And the publishers are continuously updating volumes as scholarship warrants, keeping it up to date. The OT set costs $868 on Amazon. The NT set costs $837. Obviously, few people will want to spend that kind of money on a commentary set, but many people will be able to buy individual volumes to teach and study from.

Leon Morris’s NIC on John’s Gospel, Gordon Fee’s commentary on 1 Cor, and Robert Mounce’s commentary on Rev are classics, considered among the very best. Very few later commentaries have been written that don’t refer to the NIC series.

Watch for sales at the major book publishers and Bible software companies.

Also excellent, but not as detailed, are the Tyndale commentaries. Like the NIC, these have been around 40 or so years, but old volumes are constantly being updated or replaced with newer scholarship, keeping the set fresh. The NT set costs about $250 on Amazon. The OT set is $405. The scholarship is close to equal with the NIC series, but the volumes are thinner, giving the author less space in which to express himself. There is less commentary in the set, but the quality is still usually excellent. Logos sells the combination in electronic form for $225.

I increasingly find myself turning to the Pillar commentary series. I’ve been amazed how often the Pillar commentator explains the text better than any other. But you can’t even buy the complete set on Amazon. Logos offers the NT set for $422.

Among the most scholarly series is the New Interpreters Bible. N.T. Wright wrote the volume on Romans, and it has become a classic commentary. The NT and OT set is sold by Amazon for $343, which is a bargain compared to many of its competitors. Logos sells the electronic version for $600.

Authors

Another way to buy commentaries is by author, and there are many authors whose work I admire, including (in no particular order) —

* D. A. Carson

* Leon Morris

* F. F. Bruce

* Scot McKnight

* N.T. Wright

* John Walton

* Gordon Fee

* James D. G. Dunn

* Richard Hays

* Douglas J. Moo

* Ben Witherington (esp. his Socio-Rhetorical Commentaries) (the Logos complete set would make a nice late birthday present).

* Christopher J.H. Wright (love his Ezekiel commentary. Perhaps the best single commentary I’ve ever read.)

Recommendations

The Best Commentaries website accumulates reviews and tries to create a more or less objective ranking of the best commentaries for each book of the Bible. Not surprisingly, the New International Commentaries do very well.

The same site includes a list of recommendations by Scot McKnight. Better yet, Matt Dabbs has accumulated a more detailed version of the list at this post.

D. A. Carson publishes an occasional list of recommendations. Here’s his most recent list.

Conclusions

A good commentary can be an eyeopening entrance into an OT or NT book. I love a good commentary. But I try to be careful not to waste money on commentaries I won’t actually use. And I try to buy on sale or clearance. Wait long enough, and you’ll find the deal you want.

Lately, my purchases have all been electronic — which helps me in my writing and keeps my wife from moving precious books into the basement. But there’s probably less advantage to having electronic versions of commentaries as compared to other resources, as it’s really easy to find the part that refers to a given verse — they’re all verse by verse. Electronic searching isn’t all that necessary. So for the right price, I’ll still buy hard copies
— particularly of individual volumes.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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3 Responses to How to Study the Bible: Commentaries

  1. Jay Guin says:

    Kevin,

    Thanks very much for that link. I remembered seeing it but couldn’t find it. Matt did us all a great service pulling those posts together.

  2. Kevin says:

    And thank you for bring Scot McKnight to my attention. I have used his recommendations along with Best Commentaries to build my library in Logos. I am Largely content with my NT library having several commentaries of each book…now to the OT.

    BTW, I heartily recommend McKnight’s NIVAC commentary on Galatians. Anxiously awaiting his NICNT on Colossian.

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