Daily Bible Study Tips: Reader Questions Answered

Would you be willing to recommend several good commentaries? How do they relate to one another theologically?  What determines whether one is “good” or not?

(3/11/07)

Oh my.  This is difficult, because one man's Medes are another man's Persians.  A "good" commentary for me might not be so good for you.  All I can do is give you some general guidelines and the names and authors of some of my personal favorites.  All of my guidelines have exceptions in my list of personal favorites; no system is perfect.

The first thing to look for in a Biblical commentary is a heavy allotment of the text to scripture – maybe at a ratio of a paragraph of scripture to a page or two of commentary.  This keeps the focus on "Biblical" rather than on "commentary."  I prefer commentaries that have the scripture directly in the text, because I'm lazy.  Some excellent commentaries use scripture references instead, which does have the advantage that you can read whatever translation you like.

The second thing to look for is an author who is a scholar and a pastor.  Authors who are scholars only may tell you more than you really want to know about a lot of technical details that you aren't interested in.  Authors who are pastors only may slide into preaching rather than teaching.  (Preaching is fine, but it's not generally commentary.)
 
And to expand on the teaching, you want a commentary that explains the text, not one that merely offers a devotion on the text.  (Devotions certainly have their place, but that wasn't the question.)  Why does Laban say to Abraham's emissary that he should ask the girl?  Because girls in that culture couldn't be married off to someone against their will, and they got the bulk of the bride price.  I didn't know that!  At least, not until I read it in a commentary.  This kind of explanation not only broadens your understanding of the scripture, it immunizes you against commonly held but mistaken ideas like, "In Old Testament times, women were just chattel."  Nah. 
 
A good commentary is written by someone who lets the scripture, rather than his theology, drive the scriptural interpretation.  I can't remember offhand reading an actual commentary in which the author's theology was an important part of the interpretation.  I expect there are some, but you'd have to look for them.
 
The most important thing to look for is a commentary that stretches you vigorously in directions that are compatible with your theology and gently in directions that may be less compatible with your theology.  For example, I recently read "Figures of Speech in the Bible" by Bullinger, which isn't really a commentary, but it's a good illustration of this point.  Every so often, Bullinger would come to a figure of speech that is interpreted differently by Catholics and Protestants, and he would go off on what can only be called an anti-Catholic tirade.  If I were Catholic, I would have been very uncomfortable – it would have been too much of a stretch.  On the other hand, if I read something by a fine old Scottish Presbyterian and come to a defense of predestination, I can just raise my eyebrows and keep reading.  Unfortunately, you usually don't know whether the commentary follows this guideline until you're well into it.  If it does, read it again; if not, give it away.
 
Now here are some of my personal favorites. 
 
My favorite "one-volume commentary" actually isn't a separate commentary at all – it’s the study notes in the New Jerusalem Bible: Study Edition.  The study edition has really comprehensive cross-referencing between related passages in the Bible – from the OT forward to the NT, from the NT back to the OT, and to parallel passages in other books, for example.  It also has extensive footnotes, which range from telling you that some manuscripts have a different word to long explanations of doctrinal points.  Occasionally you get a little Catholicism, e.g., somewhere there's a footnote on the "brothers" of Jesus that says roughly "this really means cousins."  Well, maybe: I doubt it, but I'm a Protestant.  The New English Bible that I read has Oxford study notes, and they are also good, although not nearly as voluminous as the New Jerusalem's.  I suspect you can get good study notes of some sort with just about any translation you want – just make sure you are buying a "study edition."  Browse until you find a combination you enjoy.  A Bible with good study notes is going to cost in the neighborhood of $50 new.
 
My favorite commentary series is by Charles R. Erdman.  He has a little commentary on every NT book, I believe, and some OT books.  They range from good, solid works to wonderful works.  His commentary on Matthew is one of my very favorites.  These little books are available in paperback, used, for a dollar or two apiece. 
 
The commentary portions of William Barclay's series on the NT are a shade too scholarly and dry for my taste, but a lot of people like them.  The introductions, however, are excellent.  I especially recommend the introductions to the Gospel of John and I Corinthians.  This series is also available in paperback, used for a dollar or two apiece (thanks to Dave Hunter for introductions to Erdman and Barclay).   
 
Another scholar I like a lot from the little I've read is A. M. Hunter.  Zane C. Hodges has a fairly new book on James that I enjoyed and that my Greek teacher says is the only commentary that correctly interprets several critical passages. 
 
My favorite commentary on the Trinity is "The Mind of the Maker" by Dorothy Sayers.  This one has very little scripture in the text, but it's the most lucid and convincing explanation of the Trinity I've read.  The Cokesbury catalog occasionally has this and other works by Sayers.  Her liturgical plays are also excellent, although they are on the very outer edge of what I'd call commentary (thanks to Terri L. for an introduction to the plays).
 
A general companion to the OT – not really a commentary but more like a reader's guide – is "The Kingdom of God" by John Bright.  Its big brother "The History of Israel" by the same author might be even better if you really want to dig into the OT.  These books guide you through the major OT themes by focusing on the history of the people of Israel.  There are lots of scripture references, although not actual chunks of scripture.
 
And finally, every good Methodist should go to Google and type in "Wesley's Notes on the Bible" and choose one of the sites to bookmark.  Or you could go to e-Sword and download the software, whatever Bible translations appeal to you, and John Wesley's complete notes, all free (thanks to Les B. for the information on e-Sword).  This is pretty cool, because when you click on a verse, Wesley's comment on that verse comes up in another window right beside the scripture you are reading.
 
Commentaries will teach you a lot, but you have to read scripture for the commentaries to have any value at all.  Go to the bookstore and browse Bibles until you find one that you like reading.  If you aren't reading a modern translation, you probably aren't understanding what the text says, for two reasons: 

In conclusion, I will say it again:  the most important thing is to get and read a good, modern translation. 

Copyright 2007, 2010 by Regina L. Hunter

Opinions expressed on this page are solely those of the author, Regina Hunter, and may or may not be shared by the sponsors or the Bible-study participants.  Thanks to the Holy Spirit for any useful ideas presented here, and thanks to all the readers for their support and enthusiasm.  All errors are, of course, the sole responsibility of the author.

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