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