Top Five Revelation Commentaries

Introduction.  Revelation commentaries can be frustrating to many readers because they do not always answer the questions people have about the final book of the New Testament. There are some excellent commentaries on Revelation, but a great many more which are just plain bad. I have commented in the past about reading Revelation as an example of apocalyptic literature which uses metaphors and other imagery to convey some sort of “literal truth.” The problem is that most people are not very good at interpreting metaphors in the context of the first-century Greco-Roman world. A good commentary will help unpack these metaphors, a bad one will twist the metaphor around and make it something unintended by the author.

Presuppositions are a major factor for selecting a commentary on Revelation. If one assumes that the book is about the future return of Jesus, then the imagery in the book takes on a prophetic value. If one assumes that the book is a veiled description of events of the first century (whether the fall of Jerusalem in A. D. 70 or persecution of Christians later in the century), then there is no “future” in the book. It is possible to read the book as a graphic description of the struggle between good and evil at any time in history, so that there is nothing in the book which is specifically predictive. (I have several posts on futurist, preterist, and idealist interpretations of Revelation.) Most recent commentaries reject a single view of the book preferring to blend two views, producing a commentary which grounds Revelation in the first century yet emphasizes the value of the book for every Christian throughout church history even to the second coming of Jesus.

One aspect of Revelation commentaries which might be frustrating is the preoccupation with John’s allusions to the Hebrew Bible or other Second Temple Period literature. This is certainly true for Aune and Beale. Both of these books are rich with potential allusions to other texts, often listing dozens of possibilities. Older commentaries are not as worried over the allusions to older books and some (especially evangelical) commentaries are not interested in parallel material in 1 Enoch or other apocalyptic literature. While I continue to find this sort of work fascinating, it is possible that the “search for allusions” has run out of steam.

David Aune, Revelation (3 Vol.; WBC; Dallas: Word, 1997). At more that 1200 pages, this commentary is the most detailed written in the Word series on any book and sets the standard for Revelation commentaries for years to come. His exegesis of the Greek text is excellent. He places the book in the context of the first century and demonstrates that much of the imagery in Revelation is at home in the apocalyptic writings popular among Jews and Christians at the end of the first century. He offers detailed textual comments and syntactical observations. Aune has an encyclopedic knowledge of Greek and Jewish source which he brings to bear on every line of the book of Revelation. For example, when he interprets the sixth seal in Rev 6, he provides a summary of “ancient prodigies,” or unnatural occurrences in Greek and Roman literature. In the space of two pages, dozens of primary sources are cited. It is possible that some (or, many) of the texts Aune cites are not particularly helpful. For example, in his comments on the angel coming down from heaven with chains to bind Satan in Rev 20:1, he lists 1 Enoch 54:3-5, 2 Apoc. Baruch 56:13, Sib. Or. 2.289, as well as Jude 6 and 2 Peter 2:4. Since all of these are examples of Jewish apocalyptic literature known in the late first century, they are all legitimate “parallel” material. But then he goes on to list several examples of chaining gods (Apollodorus 1.1.2), the Titans (Hesiod, Theog. 718) and even the chaining of Prometheus (Odyssey 11:293). While it is certain that binding Satan is a common “apocalyptic motif,” whether it is “derived” from Greco-Roman myths is more tenuous. Nevertheless, Aune’s awareness of the literature of the Second Temple Period enriches his commentary greatly.

Greg Beale, Revelation (NIGTC; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2000). Beale’s mammoth commentary followed Aune’s and is equal in size and value to scholarship. Beale has written a great deal on “Old Testament in the New” issues, so it is no surprise to find large sections in this commentary devoted to John’s Hebrew Bible sources. His interest is in John’s use of the Hebrew Bible so there is less reference to Greek and Roman sources than in Aune’s commentary. Beale includes a twenty page summary of his view of what constitutes an allusion and his controlling method for deciding what may be an allusion and what is not. He describes his approach to the book as a “redemptive historical form of modified idealism” (48). By this he means that the symbols of the book of Revelation had some specific referent in the first century which will provide some comfort or teaching to Christians throughout history, but will find ultimate fulfillment in the future. In the commentary proper Beale works through the Greek text phrase-by-phrase, commenting on syntactical issues where appropriate. The style of the commentary tends to use a smaller font for textual details, allowing a reader to skip over these elements. Like most readers of the Greek of Revelation, Beale puzzles over some aspects of John’s style, finding in many cases that he employs a Semitic syntax more than Greek. Beale has a number of excursuses devoted to how specific metaphors functioned in Judaism. For example, after his commentary on Rev 9:19, he has a page on serpents and scorpions in Judaism. While a page does not seem like much, there are dozens of references to the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic texts unpacking the metaphor of a scorpion. One criticism: a single 1200+ page volume is unwieldy to use, even with the lighter paper. I would have liked Eerdmans to publish this book in at least two volumes. The spine of my copy has split near the center.

Grant Osborne, Revelation (BECNT; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2002). It is hard to imagine that an 800+ page commentary should be considered brief, but in comparison to Aune and Beale, Osborne’s commentary more efficient and user-friendly. I find his introductory material very well written and insightful, celebrating what he called the “hermeneutics of humility” (16). Osborne is aware that reading Revelation generates more questions than answers and advises students of Revelation to be humble in their exegesis, willing to not understand everything in the book. He includes about 18 pages on the theology of the book. He includes two pages on Mission in Revelation, a topic which is not among the first things one thinks of when reading Revelation! Osborne’s approach to the book is to combine futurist and idealist readings of the book, with an emphasis on the future. He defines apocalyptic as “the present addressed through parallels with the future” (22). In the commentary proper, Osborne moves phrase-by-phrase through pericopes, commenting on the Greek text with transliterations provided. Greek does appear in the footnotes, where he makes more detailed syntactical observations. After the exegetical section, Osborne offers a “summary and contextualization” section, drawing out theological insights of major sections.

Robert Mounce, The Book of Revelation, Revised Edition (NINTC; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1977, 1997). Mounce’s commentary is brief because he does not spend the time searching for John’s sources or worrying over potential parallels. While the commentary is quite aware that John stands on the foundation of the Hebrew Bible and that there is parallel material in other Jewish apocalypses, Mounce wrote his initial version of this commentary prior to the rise of scholarly preoccupation with sources. Mounce reads Revelation as reflecting his own culture, but understands that “the predictions of John…will find their final and complete fulfillment in the last days of history” (45, first ed.). He finds this blending of John’s present and future consistent with the nature of prophecy in the New Testament. In the preface to the revised edition of commentary Mounce states that he still has the same basic approach to the book and he remains a premillennialist, but he has a deeper appreciation for other views of the book. (Another difference between the editions is that the Revised uses the NIV rather that the 1901 ASB). The body of the commentary is based on the English text, with details of Greek grammar relegated to the footnotes. I think that this is a good commentary for the busy pastor or layman who wants a bit more in-depth study without the details of Aune or Beale.

George Ladd, A Commentary on the Revelation of John (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1972). If the measure of a classic commentary is wear and tear, then Ladd’s commentary on Revelation certainly qualifies for me. My copy 1983 reprint is fairly well marked, the spine is broken and pages are falling out. I suppose it is possible that the paperback binding was not designed to last, but I have used this book often over the years. This is a brief, easy to read commentary, but there is a great deal of depth to the book as well. With only 14 pages of introduction, Ladd is focused on the text rather than method. (In his defense, he treats the theology of the book of Revelation in his New Testament Theology.) He blends preterist and futurist methods as a representative of what is now known as ‘historic premillenialism” (see page 261 for his millennial position). Ladd reads the books as applicable to the first century, but also as a prophecy of the return of Jesus in the future. Occasionally he weighs alternate views of the book in the commentary, as he does in treating the measuring of the Temple in Rev 11, for example. The commentary proper is on the English text, only rarely does he deal with Greek directly and always in transliteration. This makes for an easy-reading commentary for the laymen.

Conclusion. There are quite a few quality studies I have left off this list to keep it to “five top commentaries.” I still consult R. H. Charles ICC Commentary, even though it is a rather dated.  I reviewed Gordon Fee’s recent commentary here, and Elaine Pagels book on early Christian apocalyptic, Revelations, here. What have I omitted which you have found helpful for your study of this difficult book of the New Testament? What is the “classic” every pastor should have on their shelf?

 

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

Top Five 2 Corinthians Commentaries

Introduction. Commentaries on Second Corinthians necessarily must deal with the relationship of the letter to First Corinthians, both in terms of the chronology implied by the letter and the somewhat difficult problem of sources. It is possible, for example, to read the books as containing two or three different letters, Bornkamm saw as many as eight smaller letters in the book! The reasons for this are obvious to the reader of the book, it has a somewhat choppy outline and there are several abrupt changes. If there are interpolations in the book commentators then must ask if came from Paul or another early Christian writer. Paul does mention a “severe letter” and there are several implied visits to Corinth (by Paul, Titus or others). Commentaries can be overly distracted by these issues and do not manage to get to the text of 2 Corinthians.

Another problem all 2 Corinthians commentaries must deal with is the opponents implied by the letter. Who are the “super-apostles” described in chapter 11? Are these the Twelve? Does Paul have in mind non-Christian teachers who are claiming apostolic authority? If so, how are they related to Jerusalem and / or the Judaizers mentioned in Galatians?

Murray Harris, 2 Corinthians (NIGTC; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2005). Harris’s commentary is another excellent contribution in the New International Greek Text series by an expert on the second letter to the Corinthians. He also contributed the commentary on 2 Corinthians for the Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Zondervan, 1976). He has a lengthy introduction dealing with the problem of the sources, concluding that “here are fewer difficulties with the hypothesis of the letter’s integrity” than with any of the suggested theories he surveys (p. 51). The introduction also deals at length with the “painful visit” and Paul’s travel plans. Harris also has a lengthy piece on the opponents of Paul in the letter, surveying all the major suggestions and offer what is (to me) a judicious understanding. He states in summary, “although claiming to be Christian, were in reality ‘Judaizers’” (p. 85). I would recommend this 125 page introduction to anyone wishing to study either of the Corinthian letters. The body of the commentary is a detailed exegesis of the Greek text of the letter, treating lexical and syntactical details. I particularly appreciate his tendency to lay out three or four options before setting on his own. Eerdmans published Harris’s “Expanded Paraphrase” of 2 Corinthians, which is simply the text of the letter.

Ralph P. Martin, 2 Corinthians (WBC; Waco: Word, 1986). This is something of a classic commentary on the letter and one of the better WBC volumes. Word commentaries excel in giving bibliographies at the beginning of sections, Martin’s commentary provides complete bibliographies on exegetical problems (literature on composition issues other than commentaries, for example, or the section on Paul’s vision in 12:1-10). These are complete through the early 1980s and include German and French articles as well as English. The actual commentary follows the format of the series, giving a bibliography for the section followed by textual notes, form/structure, and then the actual commentary. Martin’s brief “explanations” after the commentary draw out implications of the text for a larger Pauline theology.

Colin Kruse, 2 Corinthians (Tyndale, Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1987). I have not included any from the Tyndale series yet, but this slender volume by Kruse is worth reading. Kruse replaced the commentary by R.V. G. Tasker in the Tyndale series (1963), both are handy although exceptionally short compared to Harris. Kruse does a nice job dealing with the composition questions in just a few pages. His comments are on the English text although they reflect the Greek as much as possible. This is a excellent choice for the busy pastor who wants a brief overview of the main problems of a text for preparing a sermon.

David Garland, 2 Corinthians (NAC; Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1999). Garland’s introduction to the letter argues for the unity of 2 Corinthians, although the details of that argument is the commentary itself. He finds a great deal more unity in the letter, and shows that the letter is better understood as we have it in the canonical form. The body of the commentary deals with the Greek via the English text (all Greek is transliterated). He does an exceptional job comparing Paul’s rhetorical style with Greco-Roman orators. Garland’s commentary is in dialogue with major commentaries, but the text is readable and useful for pastor or layman.

Victor Paul Furnish, II Corinthians (AB; Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1984). This is the only commentary on my list that takes a multiple source seriously, suggesting five separate letters as sources for the compilation of 2 Corinthians, although two of his five sources are now lost, a first letter to Corinth prior to the canonical book and the “tearful letter” (letter C). Chapters 1-9 and 10-13 are two separate letters. Furnish also suggests Galatians and chapters 10-13 are composed and sent about the same time, helping to show that the opponents in 10-13 are the Judaizers of Galatians. But these matters should not distract from the value of the commentary, some of Furnish’s “expanded comments” are excellent and shed a great deal of light on the text. Like all Anchor volumes, Greek appears only in transliteration in a “notes” section.

Conclusion. I was going to only include four commentaries in this list, possibly because I included two by Harris and mentioned both Tyndale commentaries in passing, but thought better of breaking my own rules. Second Corinthians is perhaps the one Pauline book where I have spent the least time.  I usually deal with “The Corinthian Correspondence ” rather than the second book by itself.

What ought I be reading on this very important book?  What commentaries need to be added to this list?

 

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

Top Five 1 Corinthians Commentaries

Introduction.  Commentaries on Corinthians are necessarily different than Romans commentaries because the letters to the Corinthians deal with specific social and ethical problems in Paul’s churches. Because of this there is less rumination on theological issues than the social background which resulted in problems reflected in the letters. In order to really get at the heart of these letters, there is a need to understand the problems of Christianity in a Greco-Roman context. For this reason, I favor commentaries on Corinthians which attempt to explain the cultural and social factors behind the ethical and moral problems in the books.

Another complication for studying the Corinthian letters is the relationship of Acts to the letters, as well as the implication of at least four letters from Paul and several visits. Chronological issues can be distracting (and to some readers, superfluous), but it is important that a commentary sort out those problems so that the text can be read properly.

Anthony C. Thiselton, 1 Corinthians (NIGTC; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2000). Like most of the NIGTC series, Thiselton’s commentary is magisterial. At over 1400 pages, the commentary contains highly detailed exegesis and theological interest. Thiselton also includes what he calls a “posthistory reception” of the text (Wirkungsgeschichte). Here he draws on the apostolic fathers, patristic, medieval, Reformation, and modern eras and briefly summarizes how each age has read the text of 1 Corinthians. These are interesting, although they go beyond what is typically included in a commentary (although Bruner does this in his Matthew and John commentaries). Eerdmans did publish another version of this commentary, A Shorter Exegetical and Pastoral Commentary. For most pastors, the shorter commentary will be sufficient.

Gordon Fee, 1 Corinthians (NICNT; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1996). Fee’s commentary replaced the NICNT volume on 1 Corinthians by F. W. Grosheide (1953). If I recall correctly, this was the first of the NICNT replacements, and is a considerable “upgrade” to the older commentary; mine is unfortunately in the older format (short and fat), making it very difficult to read! Fee’s commentary is a good example of why long series update their volumes from time to time. Grosheide was a fine commentary, but much has been said on 1 Corinthians since then, especially with respect to the impact of cultural and sociological studies. The text of the commentary is focused on the English text, but the footnotes contain the details of Fee’s Greek exegesis for those interested. There are some oddities in Fee’s observations, especially his contention that the difficult command in 1 Cor 14:34-35 is an interpolation into the text.

David Garland, 1 Corinthians (BENTC; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2005). Garland’s commentary begins by setting the letter in the context of Roman Corinth. This is a brief but very readable introduction to the social / cultural issues lurking in the background of the letters. The format of the commentary follows the pattern of others in the series, Greek is include in the commentary but always transliterated, textual notes are placed the “additional notes.” Garland’s commentary seems more in tune with the Hebrew Bible and other Second Temple Period literature than Greek and Roman sources, providing a helpful correction to other commentaries in this list.

Ben Witherington, III, Conflict and Community in Corinth (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1995). Like Witherington’s other commentaries in this Socio-Rhetorical series, there is a wealth of background material here which will enhance one’s reading of 1 and 2 Corinthians. In this series I particularly appreciate the excursuses, labeled “A Closer Look At.” His five pages on glossolia in Corinth are excellent, likewise his section on Rules for Meals. The introduction to the books isone of the best I have read. Since these books are letters, Witherington attempts to develop Paul’s rhetoric, employing technical language of the Greco-Roman orator. This is not overly burdensome but may confuse readers not familiar with terms like Probatio.

Bruce Winter, After Paul Left Corinth (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2001). This is not exactly a commentary, but it is one of the most helpful books I have ever read on the social and political situation of Corinth in the middle of the first century. Winter is a historian who asks the simple question, what happened in the church at Corinth after Paul’s 18 months there? His answer is that the members of the church were swayed by the social and ethical world of Roman Corinth, as well as enormous political pressures on members of the congregation to participate in civic duties. There is a wealth of background material in this book which everyone trying to deal with the problems of the Corinthian church must take into account.

Conclusion. Those are my five, and I know I have left some important ones out.  Let me know 1 Corinthians commentaries you have used, what else is helpful for studying these important books?

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

Top Five Romans Commentaries

Introduction. Romans commentaries are usually as concerned with Pauline Theology as the exegesis of the text. This is natural, since Romans must be the center of any attempt to systematize Pauline Theology. As I have observed in a few previous posts, it is difficult to create any sort of systematic theology (especially Soteriology) without standing on the foundation of Paul. Romans commentaries therefore often must wade into the murky waters of systematic theology in ways that Gospels commentaries usually do not.

Another factor to consider is the New Perspective on Paul. Since the mid 1970s there has been a move away from the more traditional of Paul found in Augustine and Luther (and represented by traditional Reformed commentaries on the book of Romans). E. P. Sanders sought to read Paul as a representative of Second Temple Period Judaism rather than through the lens of reformed systematic theology. His observations have been challenged, but the influence of this “new perspective” casts a shadow on every commentary written on Romans written in the last 25 years. I have included Dunn (representing the New Perspective) and Cranfield and Schreiner (representing the Traditional View).

C. E. B. Cranfield, Romans (ICC; 2 vol. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1975). Cranfield replaced the venerable Sanday and Headlam volume on Romans in the ICC series (available for free via Google Books). Since that volume appeared in 1904, much has happened in Pauline studies! Cranfield’s commentary is a masterpiece of exegesis, covering the nuances of the Greek text of Romans with detailed syntactical comments. Cranfield excels in bringing the syntax to bear on theology. For example, in Romans 5:12, he gives six options for understanding the relative clause “in whom all sinned.” He shows why some ought to be dismissed on exegetical grounds, but others are dismissed for theological reasons (one is too Pelagian, for example!)

Douglas J. Moo, Romans (NICNT; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1996). Moo’s commentary on Romans is massive, just a bit over 1000 pages. Remarkably, the introduction is a mere 35 pages! Like many of the newer contributions to the NICNT series, this commentary on Romans engages the Greek text, making exegetical observations primarily in the footnotes. I find that too many of these notes are simply the Greek word. If they had been allowed in the main text, the notes would be far fewer. Moo has a handful of favorite dialogue partners, often playing one off of another; occasionally a footnote is simply the name of the scholar who suggests a certain reading. Moo includes systematic theology as a part of the discussion on a few occasions, especially in places where theology is affected by an exegetical point in the text (imputation of sin in Rom 5:12, for example).

J. D. G. Dunn, Romans (WBC; 2 vol.; Nashville: Word, 1988). One would think that Dunn’s commentary on Romans would be the flagship of the new perspective on Paul, and to a large extent it is just that. Dunn says in his introduction that he intentionally writes his commentary to read Paul in the context of first century Judaism, specifically as described by Sanders. His commitment to this is seen from the very first line of the introduction, “Paul was a Jew. He was born a Jew and brought up a Jew. He never ceased being a Jew.” In fact, the Jewish literature of the Second Temple Period appears more often in this commentary than any other surveyed here. In the exegetical section of the commentary Dunn deals with the details of the Greek text, but in his explanations he begins to create a Theology of Paul (his Pauline Theology is the fruit of his labor in the text of Romans).

Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans (BECNT; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1998). Like most of the Baker Exegetical series, Schreiner’s commentary is aimed at the busy pastor and layman. He states in his preface that he intends the commentary to be “meaty,” but not so dense that reading distracts from Paul’s own words. With respect to “new perspective” issues, this commentary is decidedly traditional. Schreiner in fact dedicates the book to John Piper. But this does not mean that the commentary is a parroting of Calvin or Reformed theology. Schreiner carefully weighs the sometimes dense syntax in order to develop Paul’s thought. In the section on Romans 5:12 (“in whom all sinned”) he develops a number of views on the difficult phrase yet settles on a more or less reformed view of the text (original sin, imputation).

K. P. Donfried, The Romans Debate (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1977, revised 1991). Including this book instead of another commentary might be a criminal misuse of my prerogative as the list-maker. My reason for including this non-commentary in a list of key commentaries is that the books listed above are noticeably light in introductory matters. Given the importance of the text of Romans, it is understandable that a commentary simply move through the text in order to tease out Paul’s meaning. But each book in this list comes from a perspective theologically and the writers make many assumptions about what Paul says before they approach the text. The Romans Debate collects important articles and book sections on the problems one faces trying to build a “theology of Paul.” There are some real classics in this collection, it is well worth the price of the book to have these essays gathered into one place.

Conclusion. Where’s Wright? I did not include Wright’s commentary on Romans since it is embedded in the New Interpreter’s Bible, and I have not read it! I think that Abingdon needs to publish the Romans commentary separately. My guess is that would sell much better than individual volumes of the larger NIB.

Worse – D. Martin Lloyd-Jones is not on the list.  I can already hear people complaining – so tell me, what commentaries have you found useful (and why)?  Who has been (criminally) omitted from this list?  What classic commentary on Romans should be read by everyone who wants to understand Paul’s thought?

 

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

 

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