Which Commentary is Best?

Today’s guest post is from Dr. Steve Runge, a scholar-in-residence at Logos Bible Software and author of the Lexham Discourse Greek New Testament, Lexham High Definition New Testament, and the forthcoming Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament: A Practical Introduction for Teaching and Exegesis.

I get asked this question a lot, a people seems somewhat disappointed by my response of “It depends on what you’re doing.” It’s like being asked what the best tool is in my garage: the answer will always be “the tool best suited to my task,” depending on what I’m doing. Here’s what I mean.

When tackling a tough passage I’ll typically consult scholarly commentaries like the Anchor-Yale Bible or International Critical Commentary volumes, and even from the forthcoming Continental Commentary Series among others. I can guess your first question: “Why in the world would I want to read Claus Westermann on Genesis or Hans-Joachim Kraus on the Psalms, aren’t these guys pioneers in source and form criticism?” Why yes, as a matter of fact they are. But they also knew their Hebrew better than most folks alive today, and they have spent most of their lives studying these books in far greater detail than I ever will. I may not share their presuppositions about Scripture, but there is much to commend their exegesis.

One of the biggest hurdles I had to overcome in seminary was being willing to learn from someone with whom I disagreed with on certain issues. I learned to read past differences in order to learn from their expertise. In a previous post I mentioned the value of older commentaries, noting that many times you will find a more robust engagement of the text on works by Godet, Olshausen and Alford, who were not distracted by the modern issues that can preoccupy new commentators. But this is not to say there is never a time to interact with critical scholars. Like any tool, each one has its strengths and weaknesses, each contributes something to the process.

Before you get the wrong impression, you need to know that I also make regular use of more devotional commentaries. The Focus on the Bible Commentaries and Christian Focus Biblical Studies Collection are great examples. Getting the difficult exegetical questions answered is not all there is to studying a passage, you also need to be able to clearly and relevantly communicate what you have learned. If you like the academic side of things like me, you too may struggle with seeing the bigger picture of a passage: the theme, flow or theology of a passage or book. I can have all the greatest information in the world, but it is useless to the congregation if I cannot present it in a way that they can understand.

Most often the more technical issues never get mentioned in the sermon, but are more about me feeling like I have handled them. Less-academically oriented commentaries—yes, even the warm fuzzy ones—are a great safeguard against missing the “forest” because of looking too closely at a piece of bark on a single “tree”. I read devotional commentaries just a critically as I do the scholarly ones, sifting wheat from chaff.

So which commentaries are best? The ones that you need for what you are working on. Just like I use my hand saw for some applications and an axe for another, building a diverse collection of commentaries can be a great boon to your study. The academically-oriented volumes can address specific questions, whereas the “lighter” ones can provide great ideas for how best to present what you have found.

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Written by
Ryan Burns
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  • While I generally prefer “weightier” commentaries, I have been blessed by the series I got with Portfolio: Getting to Know Jesus. Fairly comprehensive and always pastoral/discipleship oriented.
    I do appreciate those commentaries that try to deal with the flow and big picture of the text, whether it be Witherington, in his Socio-Rhetorical series, or RT France, who, in his NIGTC series, likes to precede verse-by-verse commentary with an extended discussion and overview of the pericope.

  • Have the Focus on the Bible Commentaries been updated? I thought that R.C. Sproul wrote the commentary on Romans and not Paul Barnett.

  • If you are like me and was hoping this blog would actually mention some specific commentaries, here’s a site I use frequently to check out preferred commentaries. Its a compilation of numerous seminaries and well known pastor’s favorite’s lists. It also incorporates Amazon ratings and other sources to create a score 1-10 for every commentary imaginable. Check it out: http://www.bestcommentaries.com/best

  • Hey, Steve,
    Thanks for mentioning the Continental Commentary Series. I see that is “Gathering [a lot more] Interest” since the last time I looked. Here’s hoping it will actually get “Under Contract”!
    All the best,
    Steve Maling

  • Jarred, good observation. In the 1995 edition, Sproul did in fact write the Roman’s commentary. In the latest edition, published in 2007, Barnett wrote the Roman’s section. I spoke with the manager of our pre-pub department and he’s looking into it a little more to see if Christian Focus still has the rights to the Sproul edition and if we might be able to add it to the pre-pub collection. We’ll keep you posted.

  • Hi Steve,
    Thanks for your post. I agree with your basic point: finding the tool most appropriate to your task. But I just want to articulate that I do not seem to fit your assumed audience. You did not accurately predict my first question (I can guess your first question: “Why in the world would I want to read Claus Westermann on Genesis or Hans-Joachim Kraus on the Psalms, aren’t these guys pioneers in source and form criticism?”). I would ask, Why wouldn’t you want to read these authors? Why should source or form criticism be some sort of demon that must be overcome to get at the “real” benefit of their work: their knowledge of the Hebrew language?

  • consider reading the bible more and communicating w/ God The Holy Spirit and He will give it. Often times we spend too much time trying to be smart in the reading of materials and in essence we over-look the answer which is under our nose.

  • Besides task orientation, skill level is an important aspect of choosing a commentary. I can handle a hammer and a saw with some degree of proficiency, but there are other tools with which I might just kill myself. Some commentaries are for the “professionals” and others are for around the house. Working in a Bible school overseas, I discourage putting overly liberal books in the school library. I am aware of students in other schools who were not able to handle the material maturely, and as a result were not able to hold firm to the faith. Eventually, students need to be to that level, but they must be prepared. Likewise, when I am preparing, I don’t have the time to read commentaries that are sermons committed to writing. Devotional commentaries are also distracting, because they are so often out of place in another culture and can be superficial in application.
    You not only need the right tools for the job, but the right person for the tools.

  • Hi Steve,
    Thanks so much for (favorably) mentioning Westermann and Kraus. I learned so very much from reading them while I was attending seminary at Perkins School of Theology. They do have so much to offer, which is why I jumped on signing up to buy the Continental Commentary Series.
    Fortunately, Logos is able to offer the Preacher’s Commentary from Nelson as you note. Alas, they are no longer able to offer the Interpretation series from WJK. I’d be curious to see where that collection would come off in your review.
    Thanks for the your insight into the commentary arena. I greatly appreciate your time and efforts to put together this review.

  • Good Post. Liberal scholars provide great historical background to what is happening in the ancient near east.

    • I have a good knowledge of the bible and am looking for a good commintary on the book of revelations .I believe we will see the return of Jesus Christ in a few years .I believe this because of the prophecies of Daniel. The one world system that the world is trying to set up now and what’s going on in the Middle East .Israel being surrounded by her enemies .So anything that’s has come out lately up to date in depth commentary that you could recommend on these two subject would be most welcome Thank You John

Written by Ryan Burns