Commentary Reviews: Intro

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I have a commentary recommendations post that I continue to update. For those who have never used a commentary before, they help your study of the Bible by giving background on language, archeology, theology, poetry, and connections with other scriptures. You can take advantage of someone who has spent hours wrestling with the text to find its meaning, its purpose, its relevance to life, etc. A commentary is incredibly helpful in getting the details of the text while also providing a broader framework.

Every once in a while I do a major enough update to that post that I pull it forward to a new date to be at the top of my blog. It's basically a list of what commentaries I recommend on each book of the Bible in three different categories, according to level of detail and type of reader. I've already said some things about commentaries in general in that post. Some of what follows is a reworking of that, and some of it is completely new. What I've been looking to do for a long time is to expand on that list, with explanations of why I prefer certain commentaries over others, including discussion of other commentaries not in that list at all. The result will be a much more thorough look at the commentaries available on each book. I've decided to do this as a series of posts book by book. This post will serve as an introduction to the whole series, giving with some preliminary thoughts on commentaries in general. A review of the various commentary series will follow, and then I'll post an index for the series (starting with just the first two preliminary posts, of course) before moving into the first book of the Bible.

Commentaries vary in quality and usefulness for study of scripture as God's word, and some are too technical for someone without seminary or Bible school training. One of the things I hope this series will do is sort through which volumes are more helpful in which ways. Sometimes it's worth having a number of commentaries on a given book, and I plan to sort through the main resources on each book of the Bible, emphasizing the strengths and weaknesses of each book I discuss. Until that's finished, there are the lists in the above-linked post that just give the ones I recommend most highly in each of three categories, and I will also list some other resources that I refer to a lot at the bottom of this post.

Commentaries also vary in level of depth and academic rigor, and readability can vary quite considerably. I will refer to commentaries as basic, intermediate, or advanced, and here's what I mean by these terms. Basic commentaries are usually meant to be read cover to cover. These are usually straightforward expositions of the text, usually with a little more detail than you'd expect in a sermon but not the kind of thing a well-educated Christian should need any seminary or Bible school training to follow. They could possibly be used for personal study and can give the beginning Bible study group leader some pointers while bringing the fruit of scholarship (but not the details) to you.

What I'm callling intermediate or mid-level commentaries are intended for more experienced Bible study group leaders or pastors without as much formal training at the seminary level. These will generally not require Greek or Hebrew, but they give more detail than the more basic commentaries. These are still readable straight through, though they'll take more time and will seem less devotional and more academic. In many of them, the details, maybe even with original language fonts, will appear but only in footnotes. A few that I'll call intermediate mightl have Greek and Hebrew words along with transliterations and/or translations, but I won't call it intermediate if it assumes knowledge of the Greek and Hebrew.

Advanced commentaries are academic works, generally intended for the scholar or the graduate student. Someone with good seminary training should be able to use these with much profit. These are much more heavy-going to try to read straight through, though people with a scholarly enough interest will do so. I'm one of them. There are some commentaries that are so detailed that I won't try with them unless the author is just plain one of my favorites, but some advanced commentaries are much easier to read than others. Many of them assume some knowledge of the original languages, though a few very technical commentaries do not. Even of the ones that do, you can sort of follow most of them without that as long as you've got some familiarity with the basic issues. I don't know Hebrew, for instance, but I read commentaries on the Old Testament all the time, and many of them fit what I'm calling advanced.

One of the deficiencies of my original list in the above-linked post is that I simply don't have a list of my favorite advanced commentaries. What I have is a list of what I take to be the best scholarly commentaries. This doesn't amount to the same thing. Not all of these are evangelical, so evangelicals will first want to have some ability to sift through them for what�s valuable. Sometimes a commentary I really like is on the advanced level but not one of the most well-regarded commentaries by specialists in biblical studies. I intended my list to focus on what would be most valuable to someone who had to write a research paper in Bible school or seminary or to give the best background information and exegetical help to a pastor with good training. Some really good advanced commentaries didn't make the final cut under that description but may have been better than the commentaries that I listed for the intermediate or basic level for the book or books in question. I didn't think of this until I was done, and I didn't really want to add a fourth category, so I decided not to remedy it. This series will help do that.

I want to say something about where I'm getting all this from. I don't read all the commentaries I'll say something about cover to cover, and I'm probably going to say things about commentaries I haven't even held in my hands. I do have a significant commentary library that I constantly refer to, even reading some cover to cover. I also read lots of reviews of commentaries, in theological journals, ministry resources, and book-length commentary surveys. I often investigate further purchases through the libraries I have access to, including inter-library loan when the libraries I can get into don't have a book I want to look at. As a result, I have a fair idea of the strengths and weaknesses of different commentaries, and when I'm simply reporting the judgment of someone else I'll try to indicate that (and who it is whose judgment it is).

Here are some of the resources that I've found valuable (see the list of commentaries that I've already referenced a few times for links to specific reviews of specific commentaries):

David Howard, "On Commentaries"
D.A. Carson, New Testament Commentary Survey
John F. Evans, A Guide To Biblical Commentaries and Reference Works, Revised, 7th edition, 2005
John Glynn, Commentary and Reference Survey: A Comprehensive Guide to Biblical and Theological Resources
Tremper Longman, Old Testament Commentary Survey
David R. Bauer, An Annotated Guide to Biblical Resources for Ministry
reviews at Biblical Studies Bulletin
M. Daniel Carroll R. and Richard S. Hess, Annotated Old Testament Commentary
Craig L. Blomberg and William W. Klein, New Testament Exegesis Bibliography
reviews at Denver Journal
reviews at Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (see also here for some reviews not at the official site)
reviews in Trinity Journal
reviews in Catalyst
reviews at Review of Biblical Literature
Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth: A Guide to Understanding the Bible (appendix at back with list of commentary recommendations)
John Piper has a similar list of his own recommendations, but his is online.

2 Comments

Good if not Great post. Thanks for the direction.

Even better: The reviews in New Testament Abstracts and Old Testament Abstracts.

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