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Biblical Studies Research Guide: Using Commentaries

This guide will walk you through the basics of Bible-related research.

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Commentaries

Commentaries are the bread and butter of an exegetical paper. They generally come in a series. Each book will cover a small portion of the Bible, ranging from a few chapters in a large book like Isaiah to several books in the case of short ones such as the minor prophets.

Commentaries break down the whole Bible verse by verse, analyzing the language, historical context, literary significance, and more. They are the first place to go if you want background on a particular passage.

SBU's commentaries are located in the tall shelves labeled Reference, near the copier and the bathrooms. They are on the first shelf, front and back.

Examples of commentaries include the following:

  • ICC - International Critical Commentary series
  • NAC - New American Commentary series
  • NICOT - New International Commentary on the Old Testament series
  • NIVAC - NIV Application Commentary series
  • WBC - World Biblical Commentary series

Finding Commentaries by Book of the Bible

The most convenient way to choose the right commentary for your research is to consult BestCommentaries.com. This online resource was created by Dallas Theological Seminary. Among its most useful features is an algorythm that ranks commentaries based on reviews and citations.

It should be noted that BestCommentaries.com has a strong tendency to favor conservative evangelical scholarship, as both Dallas Theological Seminary and many of the website's most prominent reviewers are conservative and evangelical. So, while BestCommentaries.com is a very valuable tool, its does not necessarily lend itself to a completely equal and balanced approach.

At the top of the page are drop-downs for Old Testament and New Testament. Select a book from this drop-down menu, and it will show you the top-ranked commentaries for that book. Note: SBU might not have the top commentaries for each book, so consider searching the catalog first.

Finding Commentaries by Series

Different commentaries are written by different authors with different perspectives and for different purposes. That means... well... they're all different. There are two very general ways to classify commentaries:

  • Practical vs Technical
  • Liberal vs Conservative

Technical commentaries are focused purely on the academic and critical aspects of a passage: its context, its literary meaning, its sources, etc. A practical or devotional commentary will focus more on how to apply a particular passage for sermons or personal spiritual formation. In short, technical commentaries target scholars, and practical commentaries target pastors. Some commentaries try to do both.

Conservative vs liberal commentaries has to do with the theological assumptions that are present in the commentary. Most commentaries make an effort to state the theological direction in which they lean. Conservative commentaries take for granted the truth of orthodox Christian doctrines such as the divinity of Christ, the inspiration of the Bible, the personal attributes of God, etc. A liberal commentary starts with few or none of these assumptions and attempts to let the text of the Bible "speak for itself" in a sort of theological vacuum. Both approaches are valid and are useful for different purposes.

The tendencies within a commentary series can vary quite a bit, as many different authors are responsible for the individual books in the series. However, editors and publishers try to keep a consistent tone and approach throughout the entire series. Below is a brief overview of several commentaries, where they fall on these spectra, and other comments. (These assessments are based on a combination of scholarly reviews and blogs and are by no means "official." Take them with a grain of salt.)

Technical vs Practical: 0 = completely technical, 5 = mixed, 10 = completely practical

Liberal vs Conservative: 0 = completely liberal, 5 = neutral, 10 = completely conservative


AB - Anchor Bible Commentary

Technical vs Practical: 0
Liberal vs Conservative: 2

The Anchor Bible Commentary, published by Yale Press, is a project that started in the 1950s. It has over 100 volumes and is still incomplete. The series is part of a larger collection that covers a wide array of subjects in religion, sociology, and anthropology in the tradition of 19th- and 20th-century liberal arts scholarship. It is an extremely exhaustive and comprehensive series, but it is disliked by many evangelical scholars because as a whole it has no theological attachments and often arrives at conclusions contrary to orthodox Christian tradition. Some of the older volumes in the series are quite dated and should be supplemented by more contemporary commentaries.

BECOT/BECNT - Baker Exegetical Commentary on the Old/New Testament

Technical vs Practical: 4
Liberal vs Conservative: 7

Perhaps the most technical series that is still geared towards pastors, the BECOT/BECNT gives a thorough treatment of the text and interacts a fair bit with the original Greek. The series remains true to the evangelical tradition while still being comprehensive and fairly technical.

Broadman's Bible Commentary

Technical vs Practical: 8
Liberal vs Conservative: 10

Broadman's is a product of the Baptist Sunday School Board in the 1970s. It was one of the earlier efforts to create an evangelical survey of biblical criticism. It is based on the RSV. It is quite short and non-comprehensive. A fairly dated series, these volumes should probably be referred to only if they have been recommended to you by someone knowledgeable on a subject.

BO - Berit Olam

Technical vs Practical: 5
Liberal vs Conservative: 5

Berit Olam is a unique and fairly new series. It is not overly technical, but unlike other non-technical commentaries, it does not focus on pastoral application. Instead, it emphasizes the literary structures of the Bible especially with respect to Hebrew written and oral traditions.

EBC - Expositor's Bible Commentary

Technical vs Practical: 8
Liberal vs Conservative: 9

The books in this series are very brief, which is both its greatest strength and greatest weakness. It presents overviews of the theological significance and critical issues of each passage but does not provide any in-depth treatment. As the series title suggests, it is focused on giving pastors a big-picture overview of the text in a way that makes it applicable for teaching and preaching.

HERM - Hermeneia

Technical vs Practical: 2
Liberal vs Conservative: 0

This is a very technical series with an emphasis on making connections with other ancient literature. The series description on the publisher's website (Fortress) makes it clear that the aim of the series is purely critical and that it attempts to remain completely neutral on any theological issues.

ICC - International Critical Commentary

Technical vs Practical: 0
Liberal vs Conservative: 2

This series was the peak of critical biblical scholarship a hundred years ago. Many were published in the 19th century. Some are still useful, but only consult a volume if someone specifically recommends it to you. Many of the volumes are available for free online at archive.org.

IVPNTC - IVP New Testament Commentary

Technical vs Practical: 10
Liberal vs Conservative: 10

This series is very abridged and is focused on presenting the text in a way that it useful for Bible teaching. It is available for free at BibleGateway.com.

JPS - Jewish Publication Society Torah Commentary

Technical vs Practical: 1
Liberal vs Conservative: 5

A very high-quality and balanced commentary on the Torah. It is particularly strong in its discussion of historical context and rabbinic traditions. It is quite technical and often deals directly with the Hebrew text.

NAC - New American Commentary

Technical vs Practical: 6
Liberal vs Conservative: 8

This series is published by a Southern Baptist organization. It puts an emphasis on the theological content of the text from a conservative evangelical perspective. Like the EBC, it is focused more on practical application than on scholarship.

NIB - New Interpreter's Bible

Technical vs Practical: 3
Liberal vs Conservative: 4

The NIB, published by the United Methodist group Abingdon, attempts to present a balanced and ecumenical approach to the Bible that still respects orthodox traditions. The commentaries treat the text verse-by-verse and then as an entire passage, utilizing both the NRSV and NIV translations. It is noteworthy that the commentaries also treat apocryphal books.

NICOT/NICNT - New International Commentary on the Old/New Testament

Technical vs Practical: 4
Liberal vs Conservative: 8

This series is praised by many evangelicals. It is sufficiently informative while still being approachable to non-experts. Many of the books in this series are ranked very highly by BestCommentaries.com.

NIGTC - New International Greek Testament Commentary

Technical vs Practical: 2
Liberal vs Conservative: 7

This respected series is regarded as one of the most technical and exhaustive commentaries available that is consistent with an evangelical theological perspective. It interacts very heavily with the original Greek texts. It is often considered too technical to be suited for pastoral use.

NIVAC - NIV Application Commentary

Technical vs Practical: 7
Liberal vs Conservative: 10

Breaks down each passage in terms of literary and historical meaning as well as contemporary significance. Seems to have a goal of presenting context and critical issues but in a way that is useful for pastoral teaching. Published by Zondervan, a very conservative organization.

OTL - Old Testament Library

Technical vs Practical: 3
Liberal vs Conservative: 5

A long-running and well-respected series known most for strong historical criticism. Originally a left-leaning series, newer entries have tended to be more sympathetic to conservative theology and traditional interpretations of the text. Old volumes in the series are gradually being replaced.

PNTC - Pillar New Testament Commentary

Technical vs Practical: 5
Liberal vs Conservative: 7

This series is the product of D.A. Carson's objective of filling the need for high-quality evangelical commentaries on New Testament texts. The series is notably uncritical of traditional assumptions regarding historical context, authorship, and audience, and it is one of the least technical modern commentary series. Many of the commentaries are written by very well-respective evangelical scholars like Peter O'Brien and Douglas Moo, and Carson's commentary on John is the highest-rated commentary according to BestCommentaries.com.

TOTC/TNTC - Tyndale Old/New Testament Commentaries

Technical vs Practical: 8
Liberal vs Conservative: 9

This series is meant to be very approachable to non-scholar lay Christians. Some of the volumes are quite dated and are in the process of being rewritten.

WBC - Word Biblical Commentary

Technical vs Practical: 1
Liberal vs Conservative: 4

Noted for quality bibliographies at the end of each section. The editorial goal was to remain theologically consistent with an evangelical perspective, but the series has been criticized by evangelicals as being too liberal and has a reputation for being too technical for pastoral use.


Historical Commentaries

In addition, here are a few historical commentaries that are useful for understanding the history of biblical interpretation. They are not a good resource for actual exegetical work.

Calvin's Commentary

Jean Calvin's complete commentary on the Bible, written from 1540 to the end of his life. Many of the commentaries are actually lecture notes. Along with his Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536), these commentaries give great insight into the whole of Calvin's theology. Available online at CCEL as well as at SBU.

Matthew Henry's Commentary

Matthew Henry was an 18th-century Welsh Presbyterian pastor who wrote a verse-by-verse commentary on the whole Bible, published in the 1720s. This commentary series was very influential with more notable figures such as Spurgeon and Whitefield. Available online at CCEL as well as at SBU.

Maclaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture

Alexander Maclaren was a 19th-century Scottish Baptist and renowned preacher. His Expositions is primarily a collection of his sermon materials organized topically by passage of the Bible. Available online at CCEL.

Horae Homileticae (a.k.a. Expository Outlines on the Whole Bible)

This series was written by Charles Simeon, a prominent Anglican evangelical, in the early 19th century. It gives verse-by-verse and passage-by-passage theological commentary on the entire Bible.

Biblical Illustrator

Biblical Illustrator is a 19th-century collection of sermon materials for every verse of the Bible. The material comes from the author Joseph Exell as well as his famous contemporaries.

Pulpit Commentary

Written by Joseph Exell in the 19th century, this series gives a small amount of historical and literary context to each passage of the Bible and focuses heavily on providing related sermon material. Exell also wrote the Biblical Illustrator.

Preacher's Complete Homiletic Commentary

Another commentary by the prolific Joseph Exell, this series goes into theological detail on each verse of the Bible and gives sermon material for each passage.

Standalone Commentaries

It is worth mentioning that many excellent commentaries are not part of any series. These are best found using the library catalog. As you'd expect, standalone commentaries are much more diverse regarding conservative vs liberal and practical vs technical.

The ranking system on BestCommentaries.com does take into account many standalone commentaries.

Dean & Redford Personal Librarian

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