On Using Commentaries

Before launching into this new series on the Top Commentaries for New Testament Studies, I want to make a few observations about commentaries in general. First and foremost, a commentary ought never take the place of reading the text of the Bible. I study should begin by reading the passage to be studied several times through, in context, with a pencil in hand. Make your own observations before opening a commentary. Preferably this reading should be in the original language, but if that is not possible, read through in several different English translations.

When I use commentaries for preparing for a class, sermon or Bible study, I usually have a commentary which is “first off the shelf.” This is usually from a well-known author, someone I know and respect. I like the way the commentary is laid out and I can usually find what I need quickly and easily.

For serious research, there are also commentaries which are “classics.” These are so important that it is hard to write anything serious without at least consulting this book, whether you are in complete agreement with the author or now. It is strange to me that in virtually every commentary on John, Bultmann is constantly cited (if only to argue with him). Perhaps the “classic” for you will be a favorite from your denomination. Whatever this case, this book is something you simply return to are re-read because it is a joy to read.

As I mentioned in the previous post, I tend to buy a new commentary (or three) as I start a new series or begin to teach a new class. It is a sad thing for me to hear a sermon from a pastor who obviously has not read anything new since their college or seminary days. If I read a journal article and there is no awareness of what has been written on the topic in the last ten years, I am suspicious of the article. This is not to say “old is bad, new is good,” but often new commentaries provide insight based on advancements in scholarship. By reading the “latest” on a particular biblical book, you are likely to learn something new.

Once you read one or two commentary sections on your passage, it is easy to read five more. Some of the smaller commentaries may take only a few minutes to consult and will often yield an observation about the text other commentaries have missed. Do not think that a thick commentary is necessarily better than a small one!

One final comment.  I am fully aware that commentaries cost a great deal of money and that not every pastor or Bible student can afford to invest $50 in a single book.  On the one hand, I see the purchase of a good commentary as an investment in a tool which will be used to do your work properly.  If an auto mechanic objected to the price of quality tools, I would  wonder about the quality of their work.  If my doctor tried to get away with medical equipment he picked up at a yard sale, I would quickly find another doctor.  In the same way, a Bible Student (pastor or scholar) ought to be willing to invest in some good tools so that they can do the very best they can in preaching the Word of God.

On the other hand, it is possible to use local libraries as a resource.  I happen to live in an excellent area for theological studies, there are four or five serious Bible College or Seminary libraries within driving distance to me.  You may not need purchase every commentary you want, if there is a library nearby.

Appendix:  Here are a few useful abbreviations for commentary series used in the Society of Biblical Literature style guide.  I will be using these abbreviations frequently in the posts which follow.

BECNT    Baker Exegetical Commentary for the New Testament (Baker)

ECC         Eerdmans Critical Commentary (Eerdmans)

ICC          International Critical Commentary (T&T Clark)

NAC         New American Commentary(Broadman & Holman)

NCB         New Century Bible (Eerdmans)

NICNT     New International Biblical Commentary on the New Testament(Eerdmans)

NIGTC     New International Greek Testament Commentary(Eerdmans)

TNTC     Tyndale New Testament Commentary (InterVarsity)

PNTC     Pillar New Testament Commentary (Eerdmans)

WBC        Word Biblical Commentary (Word)

Index for the Top Five Commentary Series


Introduction to Series on Commentaries

On Using Commentaries 

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

Conclusion:  Last Thoughts on New Testament Commentaries

6 thoughts on “On Using Commentaries

  1. Good comments. I basicly do the same. I agree that Books are tools and investments. At the same time there are times that the Pastor makes so little, that it is very hard to invest when you are trying to live. Example, my first church was 100.00 a month in 1972. However, I have always had an agreement with my wife to invest any money that came in from doing weddings or funerals go toward books. Over 40 years in ministry I have built a good library with and about 33% came the extra money. Need to remember mechanics and doctors make more than twice the average pastor, and most of them do not pay for their own tools. Another suggestion is that in one church I was able to get a little book allowance (50 a month).

    • I am an advocate for a church including a book budget among the pastor’s “perks.” Even if that is as little as $100 a year, the pastor can at least add a few strategic books to his library. Making full use of used bookstores, that $100 can go a long way. Many pastors I know use “wedding money” for books.

      I have two advantages. One is that I live in Grand Rapids, so Eerdmans and Baker Bookstores are within a ten minute drive, not to mention several seminary libraries. Second, I have had several retiring pastors give me large libraries, with some excellent books that I either could no longer find (thanks Jerry!)

  2. Good advice, particularly the reminder that the biblical text should be central. I am blessed to have three major theological research libraries within 45 minutes of my residence. This helps tremendously.

    However, I’ve been building my commentary library slowly (I’ll likely not be here forever) along some of the same lines. One area that I’ve found which is helpful is used books and used bookstores which often don’t know what they have in certain texts. Also major book websites will often have used copies (that are in excellent shape) for fairly good money.

  3. Your statement in bold letters is indeed of the utmost importance. While commentaries can be a good source of information, they can also be a source of misleading information. My wife and I have reduced the size of our library by about 80%. We now have about
    160 or so books. Even the ones left, though we value them the most, I do not treat them as perfect. Only the holy scriptures in the original writing are perfect. We who seek to be perfect as Christ is perfect, ought to study the scriptures with the utmost care and prayer.

  4. I can’t believe how many grammatical errors occur at the beginning of this article. This distracts me from learning from what you have to say.

    • I saw one, which I fixed. Any others you need to point out?

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