I was recently asked some good questions about commentaries — basically, which ones are the best? To answer that, here are a few thoughts about which commentaries to use, as well as some practical advice to save you some money.
Most scholars would advise not to buy a complete commentary set. This is because some volumes will be strong (even spectacular), while others could be fairly weak. With 66 books of the Bible and various scholars contributing, you’ll usually see diversity within a whole commentary set.
For that reason, it’s better to buy individual commentaries. To do this, I’d recommend the following:
(1) Buy a commentary as you study each book. For example, as you read and study James, then get a commentary (or 2 or 3) for James. This is a good approach, so you don’t overspend by buying too many commentaries (i.e., for books you are not yet studying).
(2) Check BestCommentaries.com for a recommendation of which commentaries to buy. This helpful website gathers ratings for commentaries and provides rankings for each book of the Bible. When purchasing a commentary, if the #1 rated commentary is too expensive or too technical, aim for a commentary in the top 3 in the rankings. (You can also see recommendation lists, or “featured libraries,” from pastors and authors; I would notuse those as an absolute list, since those lists are not infallible, but those lists can be helpful to consult.)
Long term, you’ll probably want several commentaries for each book of the Bible. However, budgets are limited, so be sure to start with the kind of commentary that you need. Commentaries are usually categorized according to their primary purpose: technical (for in-depth exegetical study), pastoral (for sermon preparation), and devotional (for personal study and application). Don’t waste money on a commentary you won’t use, so start with the one that you need. For example, if you need a commentary for an exegesis paper, start with a technical commentary before a devotional commentary.
Of course, there is overlap between these categories, but each commentary has a primary audience in mind and a primary purposefor the content. You’ll want to consider that before purchasing a commentary. For example, technical commentaries can be fairly complex; they assume that the reader has some knowledge of Greek/Hebrew and/or some seminary background. I recommend reading these, but be sure to recognize that they can be time consuming due to their depth. They are worth slogging through, but as you do so, don’t get discouraged, since everyone else is also struggling through them! (In many cases, you would not read these through, but consult these for difficult sections or individual verses.)
In the “real world” of practical ministry, pastoral commentaries are often a good go-to, since they provide a good balance between scholarly and practical content. They will discuss the most important technical issues, but they do not get bogged down in the minutia. This is really helpful when planning a sermon or Bible study.
That being said, the primary benefit of a complete set is the price. If you see commentary sets on sale (e.g., $300), then it can be a worthwhile investment, since individual commentaries can often cost $15-30 each. While it’s a matter of personal preference, I recommend using sets within Logos or similar Bible software. Printed sets take up a lot of space, and it’s wonderfully convenient to read commentaries on your phone, at the library, at your church office, etc. Plus, digital commentaries can save time, since you can search them and move around much faster.
As far as sets go, here are some of my recommendations:
Technical. New International Commentary (OT/NT), Word Bible Commentary, Baker Exegetical Commentary, Hermeneia Commentary
Pastoral. New American Commentary, Pillar NT Commentary, Expositor’s Bible Commentary, IVP New Testament Commentary, Tyndale Commentary, Zondervan Commentary
Devotional. NIV Application Commentary, New Bible Commentary, The Bible Speaks Today, The New Testament for Everyone
Lastly, and importantly, remember these tips:
(1) Read more than one commentary. Bible scholars are not perfect, and you don’t want to only hear from one scholar. An individual scholar may miss things in the text — or may misinterpret passages — and you need to hear what others have to say about a text. The best illustration I’ve heard compares Bible commentaries to sports radio: You want to “tune in” and hear a lot of people talking about an issue.
(2) Be bold and disagree with what you read. You are also an educated Bible reader, and you are also a scholar, so you can interact with what you read. Don’t think of commentators as “lofty” in the sense that they are beyond critique. Yes, commentary writers are intelligent and can present their ideas well, but do not let that intimidate you.
(3) Know the perspective of your commentary. Be aware of who the author is and where he/she is coming from. If you’re unsure, check out their educational background, a review of their commentary, or read his/her other works. Ultimately, you want to analyze the content of the text itself, but you want to be aware of any potential bias in the text. (And to avoid your own embarrassment, you don’t want to quote an author out of context to support a view that he/she might not fully hold.)
(4) Compare commentaries outside of your comfort zone. Commentaries provide an insight into what people think and are talking about. You don’t want to only read commentaries that you are comfortable with, or else you will be thinking inside of a tank. You want to read a diversity of commentaries, so that you are aware of the issues and debates about a given text. This can strengthen your sermons, as you engage and interact with opposing viewpoints. (This also includes reading commentaries from other cultures, so you can expand your worldview.)
(5) Use different kinds of commentaries. Use technical, pastoral, and devotional commentaries according to the occasion. Think of having a “well rounded diet.” If you only read technical commentaries, you might lose sight of real-life application; if you only read devotional commentaries, you might oversimplify the text. So be sure that you use all three as you continue in your ministry.
(6) Balance old and new commentaries. Don’t believe the lie that we moderns “know so much better” than those before us. Consult older works to see what people like Augustine, Calvin, Wesley, etc. had to say about the Bible. At the same time, be sure to consult recent commentaries (particularly those written after the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls) in order to consider current discussions. Make sure to find the wisdom in both old and new.