I am frequently asked my opinion on the “best” commentary available. Often this come from a student who is graduating and a relative wants to buy them a commentary set as they head off into ministry. Sometimes I hear this from pastors who are planning on preaching through a book and want to know what commentaries are the best for their preparation. For some reason students think that getting the most expensive commentary set they can find is best, but while it certainly makes them most of the generosity of their relatives, it rarely is the wisest decision.
I usually advise people not to buy a full set of commentaries as a single purchase for several reasons. First, rarely does a “full series” of commentaries have equally valuable volumes. While I think that Brown’s commentary on John in the Anchor Bible is a classic, Matthew and Mark and not particularly helpful, and Genesis is not really worth buying. Similarly, Craig Evans’ commentary on Mark in the Word series is excellent, while Ralph Smith’s volume on the minor prophets is not very good. I cannot imagine many pastors buying the full International Critical Commentary, but if they did, the volumes on Genesis and Deuteronomy are so old that they are of little value beyond their place in history. The later volumes in the ICC (Cranfield on Romans, Goldengay and Payne on Isaiah 40-55) are extremely valuable.
The second reason I do not recommend buying a full set of commentaries is that it is unlikely any pastor will make good use of a full set of commentaries in their ministry. A new pastor, for example, might preach through a short book or do a series of Bible studies on a section of the Bible, but never would they use enough of a 30 volume set to make the purchase worthwhile.
A third problem with full sets is that many popular sets come from a single author. It is possible that this will not bother some readers, but a steady diet of the same perspective is not very stimulating. When I graduated from college I bought a full set of Lenski’s commentary on the New Testament. There is nothing wrong with Lenski’s commentary, but the perspective is not always what I need when studying a text. The same is true for the popular MacArthur Commentary.
Aside from looking intimidating on the shelf, there is not much reason to buy a full set of commentaries.
Instead of a full set, I recommend buying commentaries on sections of the Bible you intend to work through as part of your sermon preparation. For example, since I know I was going to be preaching through John over the last year, I collected four of five serious commentaries on John. This allows me to have more than one commentary on the book I am studying and I spent far less than I would have if I had bought a “full set.”
There are some exceptions to this. I have often suggested to new pastors who want a “full set” to look at something like the Expositor’s Bible Commentary from Zondervan. The set is evangelical, if not conservative evangelical. The sections of the set I have used interact with the original languages, but do so in footnotes so that someone without familiarity with Greek and Hebrew (or, failing memory of Greek and Hebrew) can use the reference without difficulty. With respect, I often recommend this set to youth pastors who have limited time to prepare for Bible studies, or laymen who may be overwhelmed by Cranfield’s ICC volume on Romans.
Another exception might be a full set of commentaries in the Logos library, especially if they are on sale. I bought the full New American Commentary series a few years ago when it was available at a special price. If the deal is good, perhaps a full set is a good buy. Usually this doesn’t happen very often, though.
Over the next few weeks I plan to work my way through the New Testament and give some recommendations for the “top five commentaries” on individual books. This will allow me to offer my opinion on a number of excellent commentaries, but also allow readers to offer their suggestions for additions to my brief list.
Index for the Top Five Commentary Series
Matthew Mark Luke John Acts
Romans 1 Corinthians 2 Corinthians
Galatians Ephesians Philippians Colossians
1-2 Thessalonians Pastoral Epistles Philemon
Hebrews James 1 Peter 2 Peter & Jude
Letters of John Revelation