Choosing a biblical commentary

For some time I have been meaning to offer some perspectives on how to select a good commentary and which series / individual commentaries I recommend. Here it is!

Q1: What makes for a good commentary?

There are so many commentaries that it is difficult for the inexperienced to know how to assess what represents a good, mediocre, or even a poor choice. The first point to consider is that commentaries are works of exegesis and so they require the skills of trained exegetes, and preferably exegetes who are specialists in that particular biblical book. As a result I avoid, in descending order:

a) commentaries written by non-exegetes (avoid these altogether),
b) commentary series written entirely by one exegete (likely insufficient for most needs),
c) commentaries written by exegetes not specializing in the biblical book in question (acceptable but not ideal).

Regarding a), my concerns with commentaries by non-exegetes are typically:
i) they have not been properly vetted by a major publishing house (which is staking its reputation on the quality of the commentary rather than the popularity of the author),
ii) they lack critical engagement with / critical input from other experts in the field (at very least from a skilled editorial staff and peer comment, if not peer review. A very basic way to check this is to read the comments on the back cover. Are there any? Who are they made by—other exegetes? What are they saying?).

Q2: What types of commentaries seem best to focus on?

Given the above, I focus on commentaries written by exegetes who are specialists in that particular book of the Bible, and likely who are publishing in a well-edited series by a publishing house with a proven track record in this area (though some excellent works are not part of these series).

This means that I would typically “rate” commentaries in the following order, from best to middling (leaving off any commentaries written by non-exegetes as unacceptable):

1) Academic commentaries written by exegetes who are experts in the given book,
2) Application commentaries written by exegetes who are experts in the given book,
3) Academic / application commentaries written by exegetes who are not experts in the given book (or written by theologians, not exegetes),
4) Non-academic series of commentaries written by a single exegete.

Q3: What is the difference between “academic” and “application” commentaries?

The latter tend to be somewhat more approachable for the lay person, cost somewhat less, offer less argumentation for the viewpoints presented and put more focus on current application. Also, the price of a commentaries tends to align in descending order with its category, as I have indicated below.

Q4: So which series of commentaries would you recommend, in each category?

Before offering my choices in each of the four categories, above, it is important for me to emphasize that my training and specialization is in the areas of hermeneutics (both biblical and philosphical) and philosophical theology (again from hermeneutical perspective). So while my knowledge relates to biblical exegesis I am admittedly not an exegete myself. In other words, I too seek recommendations from other parties, such as my mentor or former professors, who are more exegetically grounded and have more exegetical training than I do.

That noted, here are my recommendations:

1) Preferred academic series $$$$-$$
* The New International Commentary on the New Testament (NICNT—Eerdmans),
* The New International Greek Testament Commentary (NIGTC—Eerdmans),
* Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Baker),
*? Word Biblical Commentary (Zondervan)—this series covers the entire Bible.

The Pillar New Testament Commentary (PNTC—Eerdmans)—less preferred
New Testament Library (Westminster John Knox)—least / not preferred

2) Preferred application-oriented series $$$-$$
* NIV Application Commentary (Zondervan),
* IVP New Testament Commentary (Zondervan).

Tyndale New / Old Testament Commentaries (IVP Academic)—budget option,
Application Commentary (Cross Centred Press)—not recommended.

3) Preferred non-expert exegetes / theologians series $$
Expositor’s Bible Commentary (13 volumes on entire Bible, ed’s Longman & Garland),
Brazos Theological Commentary (Brazos, a division of Eerdmans)—less preferred

4) Preferred non-academic series $
New Testament for Everyone (18 volume set), by N. T. Wright

Q5: What are examples of potentially less reliable commentaries?

Examples of commentaries in category a), by non-exegetes, that I would avoid:
-McArthur New Testament Commentary / MacArthur Bible Studies, by John MacArthur,
-Swindoll’s Living Insights New Testament Commentary, by Charles Swindoll,
-St. Andrew’s Expositional Commentary, by R. C. Sproul,
-Life Lessons Commentaries / commentaries by Max Lucado,
-Spurgeon Commentary Series / commentaries by Charles Spurgeon,
-Christ-Centered Exposition Commentary, by David Platt and various others,
-Jon Courson’s Application Commentary, by Jon Courson.
-John Walvoord Prophecy Commentaries, by John Walvoord and various others,
-The Bible Knowledge Commentary, by John Walvoord and various others,
-Anyone with a commentary on the entire NT, OT, or Bible.1

Coming next: Q6: What specific commentaries would you recommend?

Show 1 footnote

  1. I view N. T. Wright as likely the sole exception: he is the one of the most skilled exegetes alive today and is one of the—if not the—most prolific biblical scholar of all time.

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