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Using Bible Commentaries

In my experience, most students who venture beyond just reading the Bible have heard of Bible commentaries. But in case someone reading this hasn’t heard the term before, I should explain. A Bible commentary is just what it sounds like — a book that provides comments on the Bible. Commentaries are most commonly written one a particular book of the Bible (e.g., a commentary on Genesis), but they can actually span several books (e.g., a commentary on the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament) or the entire Bible.

Commentaries that cover the entire Bible (all 66 books) are usually multi-volume sets that collectively run thousands of pages. However, there are actually one-volume commentaries on the Bible. Covering all 66 books in one volume, though, means you aren’t saying much about the Bible’s contents. The more detailed the analysis, the more pages, the higher the word count, and the more volumes are needed.

Using Bible Commentaries: What Kinds of Commentaries are There?

Aside from page count, there are many other differences between commentaries. All commentaries are not created equal. Not even close.

Commentaries basically break down into three types (these are generalized categorizations; sometimes the lines blur):

1. Popular or Devotional Commentaries
  • Comments focus on an English translation, not the original languages
  • No analysis of ancient context or introducing the date and occasion of the book
  • Comments are not verse-by-verse; tend to offer summary thoughts on sections
  • Comments are not aimed at explaining things in detail, but practical application
  • Comments guide the reader toward an intended interpretation
2. Expositional Commentaries
  • Comments focused on the English text, but will include some insights related to the original languages
  • Original language words will be presented in transliteration
  • Original language content usually focused on word studies; little discussion of grammar or literary study
  • Usually verse-by-verse exposition starting with a well-known English translation
  • Makes an attempt to take the reader through interpretive options
3. Scholarly commentaries
  • Author presents his or her own fresh translation in the commentary
  • Verse-by-verse, phrase-by-phrase, word-by-word comments
  • Original language words appear in either transliteration or the actual Greek / Hebrew / Aramaic characters
  • Detailed discussion that moves beyond word study; grammatical observations are made that presume the reader has some original language competence
  • Detailed discussion of extra-biblical literature and literary features relevant to interpretation
  • Concerted effort at informing the reader of all interpretive options that have been published, with assessment of strengths and weaknesses
  • Discussion of critical issues relating to date, authorship, and editorial history of the book, including textual variants in various manuscripts
Using Bible Commentaries: What are the Best Bible Commentaries?

Given that there are several types of commentaries, there is no “best” Bible commentary. Even within one type (e.g., scholarly commentaries), it’s not possible to say one is superior in every way to all the others. Still, I have my own preferences and recommendations.

For general reference and commentary recommendations, there are two books that briefly describe strengths and weaknesses of hundreds of Bible commentaries:

Old Testament Commentary Survey, by Tremper Longman (160 pp)

New Testament Commentary Survey, by D. A. Carson (160 pp)

Both these books list commentaries by title and have some brief annotation of opinion.

Of the three kinds of commentaries I sketched above, my recommendations will focus on scholarly commentaries for a simple reason: those are the ones I use. Since I don’t use the others, you’re best served by reading through the two books linked above for the other kinds.

In terms of commentary sets that are complete (or mostly complete), here are the ones I think are most useful, mainly because they don’t get bogged down in critical jargon but stick to clear interpretative content (“complete” means all the books of the OT or NT are included):

  • New International Commentary of the Old Testament (NICOT; complete)
  • New International Commentary of the New Testament (NICNT)
  • New American Commentary (NAC);both OT and NT; 31 volumes thus far
  • Expositor’s Bible Commentary (EBC);both OT and NT; complete at 12 volumes, so less detailed
  • JPS (Jewish Publication Society) Tanakh Commentary(JPS; incomplete - only 9 volumes so far - but the Torah is done and worth the price of all the rest).
  • Evangelical Exegetical Commentary (EEC); incomplete; see this link for available volumes
I also highly recommend Beale and Carson's Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. This is an essential resource.

The sets that follow may not be as accessible to most readers (i.e., they use Greek and Hebrew characters, have lots of discussion about textual criticism, and go into higher-critical issues). But some volumes in these sets are indispensable for serious analysis of the text. They are:

Anchor Yale Bible Commentary (AYBC, 83 volumes OT and NT; in my view, this is a very uneven set -- some volumes much better than others -- and so volumes in other sets, including the ones recommended above with links, are better).  For the gems in this series, see the links below.

Word Biblical Commentary (WBC, 59 volumes OT and NT; volumes here are mostly useful for exegesis; they are *all* quite good for text-critical discussion).

New International Greek Testament Commentary (NIGTC; an incomplete set, 13 volumes thus far; very detailed and some personal favorites in here).

Beyond sets, there are individual commentaries to recommend. The two commentary survey books noted above are very useful in directing readers to individual works. Shorter recommendations are available at the Denver Seminary website: Old Testament and New Testament (for this one you need to scroll down to "Major Commentaries").


Listen to Dr. Heiser’s Naked Bible Podcast

What do you think?
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