By Christopher Reese
Those of us who preach and teach are no strangers to using commentaries. As the years go by we typically find a few favorites that we adopt as our go-to resources. But sometimes we need something more in-depth, or that has better suggestions for application, or that provides outlines or illustrations for sermons. In these cases we can always ask a friend or colleague, but there are also several resources online and in print that can quickly help us home in on the best commentary for our current need. Let’s look at some of the best of these resources.
Probably the best online resource for finding and evaluating commentaries is the site bestcommentaries.com. This site “combines reviews and ratings from journals, books, and users to create an aggregate ranking for Biblical commentaries.” You can find top commentaries by Bible book or series, and clicking on an individual commentary brings up a page with links to retailers, reviews pulled from various sources, and often a Google Preview of the book, which allows you to read selected excerpts.
For example, clicking on “Top Commentaries by Book” brings up a list starting with Genesis. According to the site, the two commentaries on Luke with the highest ratings are Robert H. Stein’s in the New American Commentary series (B&H Publishers) and Darrell Bock’s two volumes in the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Baker Academic). Clicking on Stein’s volume opens a page with links to seven different retailers, and reviews from seven different sources, including Amazon.com. A Google Books preview allows you to read a sizeable excerpt from the commentary on the same page.
Back on the main page, you can also look up commentaries by series. Hovering your mouse over the “Series” menu brings up a full list, and you can mouse over the abbreviations to see the full titles spelled out. Clicking on the New American Commentary (NAC) series, for example, brings up a page with every commentary in the series, along with its ranking, and links to retailers. This feature comes in handy when trying to find a new volume in your favorite series.
A final helpful resource is the “Libraries” page. Here you’ll find links to recommended collections of commentaries such as “Essential Commentaries for a Preacher’s Library,” “Best Expositional Commentaries,” and “Essential Pauline Commentaries.” The collections are drawn from books (such as John Glynn’s mentioned below), journals, and ministry websites.
As an added bonus, bestcommentaries.com also features lists of other study tools like systematic theologies, grammars and lexicons, and biblical studies volumes.
Resources in Print
If you want to know what a leading biblical scholar thinks about a particular commentary, there are no better resources than the Old Testament and New Testament Commentary Surveys published by Baker Academic. The Old Testament volume is written by Tremper Longman III, and the New Testament by D. A. Carson. The books are updated on a regular basis to include the most recent commentaries. The authors provide a brief description of each commentary’s emphases and viewpoints, describe its level of difficulty, and supply an evaluation. Having two respected scholars weigh in on most available English commentaries will give you much food for thought in choosing one.
Along the way, the authors also share some insightful wisdom about commentaries in general. For example, Tremper Longman III writes,
“The right way to use a commentary is as a help. We should first of all study a passage without reference to any helps. Only after coming to an initial understanding of the passage should we consult commentaries. Neither should we let commentaries bully us. Many times they will be of great help, but sometimes the reader will be right and the commentaries will be wrong” (p. 3).
D. A. Carson quips that “just because a commentary stands within the evangelical tradition does not necessarily mean it is a good book. It may be thoroughly orthodox but poorly written, uninformed, or quick to import from other biblical passages meanings that cannot rightly be found in the texts on which comment is being offered” (Preface).
A final print resource that is somewhat older is John Glynn’s Commentary and Reference Survey (Kregel Academic, 2007). This volume provides ratings of about 900 commentaries, and also includes other reference works such as language resources, surveys, theology, and church history. Glynn makes note of the level of difficulty for each volume, and categorizes the theological perspective of the author into Evangelical, Evangelical/Critical, Conservative/Moderate, and Liberal/Critical.
Resources in Software
Purchasing hardcover commentaries can often add up quickly, especially if you’re collecting a full series. One of the best ways to buy commentaries at a substantial discount is through Bible software. You can routinely save 50 percent or more off of the retail price by buying individual volumes or sets through software such as WORDsearch.
You also get the added bonus of being able to search the commentary for keywords, and reading Scriptural cross-references without leaving the “page” you’re currently on—avoiding the need to flip back and forth in your various Bible versions. You can also easily cut and paste text from the commentary into a word processor, which is great for sermon preparation.
One of the most helpful features of programs like WORDsearch is the connecting together of the various resources in your software library. So, for example, if you’re reading a commentary on the gospel of John and come to the verses about Nicodemus, you can highlight his name and quickly open a Bible dictionary to learn everything that Scripture says about him. If you’re preparing for a sermon, you can open your sermon illustration resources and find all that mention Nicodemus. These are great timesavers for creating sermons or lessons for small groups.
I hope the resources above prove valuable in helping you find your next commentary, and using it to its greatest potential.
By Christopher Reese