Saturday, May 12, 2007

Bible Commentaries 1

Part 2 | Part 3 | Individual Books

I think this is the sort of post I'd have found useful in the past. Over the last year or so, I've used a lot of Bible commentaries. One point worth making over and over again is that there is more variation between different commentaries in (almost) any one series than there is between similar-ish series. When choosing a commentary, there are several factors to bear in mind.

Why do you want to use one? Is it for personal devotions, for trying to understand a difficult bit of the Bible, for preparing a sermon or a Bible study, for academic work?

What level of background do you have? Do you want something that will assume lots of theological terms and a reasonable proficiency in the original language or something that will ignore it altogether?

I'm aiming today to think about commentary series which are available in paperback, then might move on to some of the heavier ones later. It's worth mentioning that Parableman has his own recommendations, which are pretty good.

Bible Speaks Today

This is probably the series I've seen for sale most often over the years. They generally read like moderately academic sermons - the kind of level I'd expect to hear at the CU at a fairly academic university.

However, the standard of them is somewhat variable. At best (like Stott on Acts, Romans and Ephesians or Wright on Ezekiel), they are pertinent, challenging, clear and really help to understand the text better. But quite a few of them are just long-winded and obtuse ways of saying obvious stuff in a way that isn't especially challenging.

If you get a good one, they can be great to use devotionally, or maybe for a Bible study leader.

Crossway Bible Guides

Simpler than BSTs, very clear, but not much depth. They tend to state the obvious quite a bit and just put some application questions. I've only used a few of them, but they seemed ok. If you want to get to know the Bible better and find it hard to understand or if you're a group leader who doesn't read a lot, they might well be helpful.

Tom Wright's "For Everyone" Series

I've tried them a few times, but really can't get into them. He seems to make comments which are interesting in themselves but don't really go too well with the text and don't really apply it. Probably similar to Crossway in academic level. Quite a few people I know find the translation (which is freshly done by Tom Wright) useful though.

Tyndale Series

These aim to be more of a verse-by-verse commentary than any of the others so far. In my experience with them, there seems to be a big difference between the Old Testament ones (with a few exceptions) and the New Testament ones. The OT ones are usually much too short for the book of the Bible they are dealing with, so don't have space to do more than state the obvious, with a few exceptions (e.g. Wenham on Numbers). The one on Jeremiah (longest book in the Bible) doesn't even look long enough to fit the full text of Jeremiah in! The NT ones are about the same size as the OT ones, but with much shorter Bible books and the format really comes into its own there.

There is commentary on the original language (well, in the NT ones anyway), but you don't need to be able to read or understand Greek at all to use the commentary - it's usually made clear what's going on. Depending on the author, they can be really well applied as well. I've found Grudem on 1 Peter and Stott on 1 John to be really helpful.

At their best, the Tyndales and BSTs end up pretty similar and are probably the best paperback commentaries available. At worst, there's little point buying them, however little they cost.

Books of Sermons

Some of these can be really good as well, and are often the best thing available in paperback on that book. Examples inclue Dale Ralph Davis on Joshua-2 Kings (1 volume per Bible book), Kendall on Jonah.

New International Bible Commentary

This is another very variable series, not just in the quality but in what the authors try to do. Some (e.g. Wright on Deuteronomy) are not that different from books of sermons and can be really good (Wright is). Others (e.g. Provan on 1&2 Kings) do pretty much verse-by-verse with little application, though Provan does it well. Others try anywhere on that spectrum, with varying degrees of quality.

Reading the Bible Today

They try to do a kind of "written exposition" that is part way between the BST and Tyndale styles. It ends up giving only one interpretation of the passage, which isn't always the obvious one, but which gives some food for thought and useful ideas for preaching. But I wouldn't want to prepare a Bible study with this as my only commentary.

Sheffield Academic Guides

These are actually quite useful for getting an overview of a book and seeing what people say about it. It's often the most useful paperback for revising the book for an academic exam, but don't expect them to view the Bible as true.

Reformed Expository Commentaries

See here for my thoughts on the only one I've used.

Choosing a Commentary

Ideally, always read at least part of it before you buy it. Find a difficult verse in the book or a verse you know quite a bit about and see what several commentaries say. If you can't do that, my recommendation for paperback commentaries for fairly literate people (but don't have to be a supergenius) would be roughly as follows:

  • New Testament
    • If Stott wrote the BST, get that
    • Otherwise get the Tyndale
  • Old Testament
    • Is there a good book of sermons on that book? (I've mentioned some above) If so, get that
    • Wright on Deuteronomy (NIBC), Wenham on Numbers (Tyndale), Kendall on Jonah, Motyer on Isaiah (not Tyndale)
    • otherwise BST is probably your best bet. Some are great, but don't expect them all to be. There is a problem with lack of good commentaries on chunks of the Old Testament. NIVACs are often better and at the same sort of level, but are hardback and generally more expensive.
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