How To Choose A Bible Commentary And Why You Should NOT Use One

There are 9 rules that will help you determine which Bible commentary to get.  But should you even use one in the first place?  We'll take a look at when and if you should use one.

The Right Commentary Will Offer Depth And Challenge Your Theology

A simple search for "[Book of the Bible] Commentary" will bring up a near endless list of commentaries.  How do you cut through the clutter?  How can you tell which offer the most value? If you're new to the Bible, it's hard to tell which are the good ones and which are the bad ones.  Even worse, you may have a bad one and not even know it!  The 9 rules below will help you navigate the overwhelming world of Biblical commentaries and narrow it down to a more manageable selection.

9 Rules For Choosing A Bible Commentary

1.  Avoid whole Bible commentaries

Look for a commentary that addresses only the book of the Bible that you are studying.  Commentaries that address the entire Bible just don't have the space to tackle the text in depth.

2. Avoid a set of commentaries by one author

An entire set limits you with one perspective and may not be as thorough as individual commentaries. Buy individual commentaries as you study through the different books of the Bible.    The same goes for buying a whole set of a particular series, since the quality may vary, so avoid them if you can.  

3. Pick a scholarly commentary, not a devotional/expository/popular commentary

A scholarly commentary will give greater depth and interact with the Biblical text in a much more serious way than a devotional commentary.  Devotional commentaries do serve a purpose and give practical application but they are basically written sermons that don't offer what the serious Bible student is looking for.  Matthew Henry, Everyman’s Bible Commentary, J. Vernon McGee’s notes and Warren Wiersbe’s commentaries are not what you're looking for. However, some scholarly commentaries can be quite technical, so if you're not quite at that level, look for a scholarly work that is a little more readable and geared for the general public.  The following rules will better define what a scholarly commentary is like.

4. Verse by verse

A good scholarly commentary will examine the Scriptures verse by verse - word by word even.  It will let the text speak for itself and give a detailed analysis.  Avoid commentaries that briefly review the text and then pontificate the author's favorite theology.

5. Interacts with extra-Biblical literature

Extra-Biblical literature can add additional insight to the Scriptures.  We now have many manuscripts and ancient texts to draw from and if your commentary doesn't utilize these, you're missing out!  Not only can ancient Jewish works, such as the Book of Enoch and the Book of Jubilees help give historical and cultural background but ancient texts of the surrounding cultures of Israel provide helpful information.

6. Original languages

Look for a commentary that interacts with the original languages.  The author should be competent in the Greek, Hebrew or Aramaic that is relevant to the text.

7. Newer

It's not that today's commentators are better or smarter than their predecessors, it's that they have so many more resources.  We've had so many archaeological finds and ancient texts discovered just in the last century.  Today's technology also gives commentators a huge advantage.  Personal computers and Bible software can greatly assist in research.

8. Go digital

As impressive as a set of physical commentaries can look on a bookshelf, you really should go digital if you can.  Bible software such as Logos will link to other helpful resources that you use in the software.  At the very least get something that is searchable on a computer.

9. Look for commentators that are open to mirror-reading

Not all commentators are open to mirror-reading because of its controversial nature. Look for a mirror-reading friendly commentary.  Be warned though, just because they mirror-read does not mean they mirror-read well.  Judge their mirror-reading for yourself and use the information from this site to help analyze it.  Here are a few commentators that are at least open to mirror-reading: John M. G. Barclay, Nijay K. Gupta, Douglas Moo, Ralph P. Martin, David Garland, and Robert Jewett,

Should You Use A Bible Commentary?

Everyone is different but in short, the answer is no... at least, not at first. Give yourself a chance to get to read the text and get to know it.  Read it over and over and over and over... you get the idea.  You basically want to do a Vulcan mind meld with it, so to speak.  Simply reading your Bible is not considered "research" but it will give you a chance to become familiar with the themes, keywords and phrases.  @@Get to know the Book of the Bible you are studying before being challenged by a commentary@@.

On the other hand, if you're already familiar with the book of the Bible that you are studying and have already gone through a commentary or two, then you may find articles from academic journals helpful.  Journals narrow their focus on very particular parts of Scripture. Websites such as Sage Journal provide access to many journals, sometimes for free.

Header Image PHOTO CREDIT: brett jordan cropped from original