In response to my two previous posts about commentaries, several readers have asked me for recommendations on commentaries. This is a little like asking me to recommend a Bible translation (see here for my thoughts on that), but this request actually calls for more critical opinion. That said, it would take me days to go through all 66 books of the Bible to make recommendations. Thankfully, scholars out there have already done that! There are two inexpensive books whose aim is to survey commentaries:
Old Testament Commentary Survey, by Tremper Longman (160 pp)
New Testament Commentary Survey, by D. A. Carson (160 pp)
Both these books list commentaries by title and have some brief annotation of opinion.
Before getting to some of my own opinion, I need to remind you of the basis for my own opinion. When someone asks me to recommend a commentary, I’m going to favor commentaries that engage the original languages. I have little interest in those who don’t. The potential for being misled by skimpy devotional or homiletical commentaries into thinking you now understand a verse or passage when you really haven’t even scratched the surface is great. You need to learn how to use and benefit from commentaries that engage the original text. The bare minimum for doing that is to learn the Greek and Hebrew alphabets, English transliteration for Hebrew and Greek, and become fluent in grammatical concepts that are important for interpretation. To that end, a year or so ago I was part of a project at work (Logos) that aimed to teach people these skills, along with proper word study method. The result was Learn to Use Greek and Hebrew (check out the video of yours truly talking about the product). It’s expensive, though well worth it (I do not receive any commission in case you’re wondering!) It has been the company’s most-sold product since its inception. If you are in ministry, you can get a discount. Beyond this minimum, I recommend taking a “first year” introductory course in Greek and Hebrew. I will be offering self-study courses in Greek and Hebrew once again in 2012, starting after July 4. I’ll announce something about those courses sometime in January on this blog. For now, here are sample syllabi that were used in earlier courses: Beginning Hebrew and Beginning Greek.
Now time for some recommendations. As a precursor, recall how I described commentaries in a previous post:
Commentaries basically break down into three categories (these are generalized categorizations; sometimes the lines blur):
1. Popular commentaries
* focused on the English text
* surface-level observations made on the basis of the English translation
* usually not verse-by-verse; tend to offer summary thoughts on sections
* comments not aimed at deep interpretation, but practical application of the biblical content to one’s spiritual life
* comments guide the reader toward an intended interpretation
* offers brief, general interpretations without analysis of other views
* no analysis of original languages or background context
* moderate cross-referencing
* little or no space devoted to introducing the book (date, author, occasion, structure, etc.)
2. Expositional commentaries
* focused on the English text, but will include comments related to the original languages
* original languages will be presented in transliteration
* original language content usually focused on word studies / meanings; little discussion of grammatical or literary issues, though that can be present (often in footnotes, not the running commentary)
* usually verse-by-verse exposition starting with a well-known English translation; can be word-by-word
* makes an attempt to take the reader through interpretive options
* offers non-technical introduction material
* will periodically include discussion of ancient cognate literature (e.g., rabbinic writings, Josephus, a word from another Semitic language) and background material
* periodic discussion of variant manuscript readings
* periodic discussion of literary features (e.g., parallelism, genre)
3. Scholarly commentaries
* the writer includes his or her own translation in the commentary
* verse-by-verse, word-by-word comments
* original language word presented in either transliteration or the actual Greek/Hebrew/Aramaic characters; English translations of phrases in the flow of the commentary usually translated, but not always (some don’t bother at all)
* detailed discussion of grammatical and syntactical observations in the text; original language competence is assumed (1-2 year level)
* detailed discussion of extra-biblical literature relevant to interpretation
* detailed analysis of relevant literary features and structures
* concerted effort at informing the reader of all interpretive options that have been published, with assessment of strengths and weaknesses
* discussion of critical issues relating to date, authorship, redaction (editing history of transmission), text-critical variants in other manuscripts
* used by scholars, graduate students, and pastors who have facility with biblical languages (and care to use them for sermon prep)
* SHOULD be used by seminary students who have facility with the biblical languages (at least a year)
My recommendations would be in category three. If you take the advice given above, you can get a lot out of these commentaries. I favor the following sets for non-specialists, though, since these sets don’t major on higher-critical issues of how the biblical text may have been edited, what sources may have been used. Most of that stuff is of little or no relevance to exegesis. These sets still closely engage the text; use transliteration; and take the reader through the interpretive problems, evaluating various positions. The one drawback of sets is that buying them in one shot is expensive. But at least in digital (Logos) you can pay in installments. But you can always buy them one at a time (print or digital). These sets are all available through Amazon or CBD, but I have inserted links to the digital versions of the sets.
New International Commentary of the Old Testament (NICOT)
New International Commentary of the New Testament (NICNT)
whole set, 40 volumes
New American Commentary (NAC); both OT and NT; 31 volumes thus far
Expositor’s Bible Commentary (EBC); both OT and NT; complete at 12 volumes, so less detailed
JPS (Jewish Publication Society) Tanakh Commentary (JPS; incomplete – only 9 volumes so far – but the Torah is done and worth the price of all the rest).
Logos has commissioned scholars for its own commentary set, but only a couple volumes are done.
I also highly-recommend Beale and Carson’s Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. This is an essential resource.
The above list excludes sets I also recommend. I have excluded them because they are more dense and may not be as accessible to most readers (i.e., they use Greek and Hebrew characters, have lots of discussion about textual criticism, and go into higher-critical issues). They are:
Anchor Yale Bible Commentary (AYBC, 83 volumes OT and NT; in my view, this is a very uneven set — some volumes much better than others — and so volumes in other sets, including the ones recommended above with links, are better). For the gems in this series, see the links below.
Word Biblical Commentary (WBC, 59 volumes OT and NT; volumes here are mostly useful for exegesis; they are *all* quite good for text-critical discussion).
New International Greek Testament Commentary (NIGTC; an incomplete set, 13 volumes thus far; very detailed; a personal favorite).
Hermeniea (heavily involved in critical and literary issues; I use these mostly for textual criticism, but the discussion can be quite informative; I have mostly used the volumes on Daniel, Ezekiel, and 1 Enoch; very good, but for specialists). Old Testament (39 volumes) and New Testament (31 volumes).
Continental Commentary Series (incomplete; 19 volumes thus far; Westermann’s three volumes on Genesis are wonderful; Wildberger on Isaiah was very good; used these in grad school).
Beyond sets, there are individual commentaries to recommend. The two short books noted above that survey commentaries are very useful in this regard. Shorter recommendations are available at the Denver Seminary website: Old Testament and New Testament (for this one you need to scroll down to “Major Commentaries”). I plan to revisit these links and make PDFs of the commentary pages, highlighting the ones I like most. But that is for another post.