The Definitive Guide to Bible Commentaries: Types, Perspectives, and Use

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Commentaries are tools in the toolbox of Bible teachers and preachers. But just as a woodworker will use a table saw, miter saw, and band saw for different purposes, Bible teachers will turn to different types of commentaries for different purposes. In this article, I’ll list different types of commentaries, commentary series by theological perspective, and how to get good ones.

I. Types of Commentaries

II. Commentaries from Different Theological Perspectives

III. How to Get Good Commentaries

I. Types of commentaries

Sermonic commentaries

Some commentaries are printed or reworked sermons. A pastor, or even an intrepid Sunday School teacher, who knows he wants to preach or teach on Ephesians in the future might do some advance preparation by reading Lloyd-Jones on Ephesians (eight volumes). However, sermon series like these are often too lengthy to be used during weekly lesson or sermon preparation. 

Calvin's Teaching on Job: Proclaiming the Incomprehensible God

Calvin’s Teaching on Job: Proclaiming the Incomprehensible God

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Exposition of Ephesians (8 vols.)

Exposition of Ephesians (8 vols.)

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Smaller sermonic commentaries, such as those in the Preach the Word or Reformed Expository Commentary series, can help orient the teacher to the big ideas and overall flow of a book. For instance, a pastor could read Christopher Ash’s commentary on Job in the Preach the Word series to give him a high level overview of the book of Job. This kind of overview study is especially helpful in books like Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs or Revelation where the overall approach to the book has an especially important effect on the interpretation of individual passages.

Preaching the Word Commentary Series Collection | PtW (40 vols.)

Preaching the Word Commentary Series Collection | PtW (40 vols.)

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Reformed Expository Commentary Series | REC (34 vols.)

Reformed Expository Commentary Series | REC (34 vols.)

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Expositional commentaries

Other biblical commentaries are expositional in nature while not being themselves sermons. The Bible Speaks Today and Focus on the Bible series contain brief expositional commentaries that could be read from beginning to end like a normal book. These commentaries are especially helpful for orienting the preacher or teacher to a large book like Jeremiah or Ezekiel. This type of commentary is also helpful for making sense of historical books in which understanding the development of the narrative is essential for proper interpretation. Some commentaries, like the Lexham Context Commentary or Andy Naselli’s Romans: A Concise Guide to the Greatest Letter Ever Written are specifically designed to help readers follow the flow and development of a book.  

The Bible Speaks Today | BST (55 vols.)

The Bible Speaks Today | BST (55 vols.)

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Focus on the Bible Series Collection | FB (46 vols.)

Focus on the Bible Series Collection | FB (46 vols.)

Regular price: $387.99

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Lexham Context Commentary (8 vols.)

Lexham Context Commentary (8 vols.)

Regular price: $299.99

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Romans: A Concise Guide to the Greatest Letter Ever Written

Romans: A Concise Guide to the Greatest Letter Ever Written

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Homiletical commentaries

Other commentaries, often designated homiletical commentaries, are designed to help with sermon or lesson preparation. The Teach the Text series divides the text into preaching units and seeks to provide the kind of information that a preacher needs to explain a text without including the kinds of more detailed discussions that primarily interest scholars.

Application commentaries

Application commentaries, like the NIV Application Commentary series seek to help the pastor bring the text into conversation with the modern world. While these commentaries can be helpful, oftentimes applications are better made by pastors and teachers themselves, since they understand their people and current situation better than an author who may be distant in geography or time.  

Pastors, Write Deeper Sermons in Less Time

Expository commentaries

Larger expository commentaries such as The Expositor’s Bible Commentary and the ESV Expository Commentary seek to provide expositions of the text that are helpful for preachers and accessible to ministry leaders without formal training in biblical studies. References to the original languages, when they occur, are sequestered to their own sections, and Greek or Hebrew words are transliterated. For the preacher, this level of commentary is a helpful starting place. For the adult Sunday School teacher or women’s Bible study leader, this may be the primary commentary he or she uses.

Expositor's Bible Commentary, Revised Edition | REBC (13 vols.)

Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Revised Edition | REBC (13 vols.)

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New Testament, 5 vols. (ESV Expository Commentary | ESVEC)

New Testament, 5 vols. (ESV Expository Commentary | ESVEC)

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Good expositional preaching lets Scripture interpret Scripture. Expositors will therefore need to investigate passages other than their main text with care, but with less depth than the study of the main text. Topical sermons or lessons provide a similar challenge. Due to the number of passages involved, less time can be devoted to the study of each text. In this situation, brief but meaty expositions such as those found in the two sets named above are desirable. The Tyndale Commentary series or the Understanding the Bible commentary series similarly provide enough argumentation for the pastor and teacher to gain a decent, basic understanding of the passage while not providing too much detail.

Tyndale Commentaries | TOTC/TNTC (48 vols.)

Tyndale Commentaries | TOTC/TNTC (48 vols.)

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Understanding the Bible Commentary Series | UBC (36 vols.)

Understanding the Bible Commentary Series | UBC (36 vols.)

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Hybrid commentaries

Some commentaries combine the features of an expositional commentary and an exegetical commentary. The New American Commentary, available in Logos packages such as Platinum and now being reworked as the Christian Standard Commentary, the Pillar New Testament Commentary, and the New International Commentary on the Old and New Testament series exemplify this approach. These commentaries provide readers with a sustained exposition of given biblical books, and they also contain features that are exegetical in nature. Where relevant, these commentaries will engage in lexical and grammatical discussions regarding the original language text. However, these series transliterate the Greek and Hebrew words and may relegate more detailed discussions to the footnotes to keep the main text accessible to a wider range of readers.

These commentaries will often be the core resources for sermon preparation for pastors with standard levels of seminary training. They provide much fuller discussions than smaller commentaries, but they are not so long as to overwhelm busy preachers. They are also accessible to the dedicated lay teacher.

Exegetical commentaries

Exegetical commentaries include series such as the following:

These commentaries trace the structure of passages, sometimes providing a discourse analysis of each pericope, deal with textual variants, discuss lexical and grammatical matters, and survey different interpretive options in detail. The Greek or Hebrew text is printed and transliterations may or may not be provided. Some of these commentaries can become overwhelming for the pastor. Thiselton’s NIGTC contribution on 1 Corinthians or Beale’s NIGTC contribution on Revelation are examples of commentaries for scholars that may overwhelm readers who do not need or want so much technical detail. (Note that both have published shorter commentaries on these books that are more useful to the pastor: Thiselton on 1 Corinthians and Beale on Revelation.) However, the pastor may turn to these commentaries when trying to work through a particularly knotty issue. Others in this category, especially those in the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary series and the Kregel Exegetical Library seem to have kept pastors more in mind. This category of commentary is essential for the pastor who is studying the text in the original languages.  

Kregel Exegetical Library | KEL (10 vols.)

Kregel Exegetical Library | KEL (10 vols.)

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Zondervan Exegetical Commentary Collection | ZEC (19 vols.)

Zondervan Exegetical Commentary Collection | ZEC (19 vols.)

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Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament | BECNT (18 vols.)

Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament | BECNT (18 vols.)

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Evangelical Exegetical Commentary (EEC) (44 vols.)

Evangelical Exegetical Commentary (EEC) (44 vols.)

Regular price: $999.99

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Apollos Old Testament Commentary | AOT (11 vols.)

Apollos Old Testament Commentary | AOT (11 vols.)

Regular price: $249.99

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Word Biblical Commentary | WBC (61 vols.)

Word Biblical Commentary | WBC (61 vols.)

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The New International Greek Testament Commentary Series | NIGTC (13 vols.)

The New International Greek Testament Commentary Series | NIGTC (13 vols.)

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1 Corinthians: A Shorter Exegetical and Pastoral Commentary

1 Corinthians: A Shorter Exegetical and Pastoral Commentary

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Revelation: A Shorter Commentary

Revelation: A Shorter Commentary

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Hebrew or Greek handbooks

Ideally pastors are developing their sermons from a study of the biblical text in the original languages. However, sometimes basic points of grammar and syntax have become rusty. Hebrew or Greek Handbooks, such as those in the Baylor Handbook on the Hebrew Bible, the Baylor Handbook on the Greek Text, and the Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament, helpfully provide more detailed grammatical and syntactical help than a normal exegetical commentary would provide. The UBS Handbook series, made for Bible translators, also fit in this category.

Baylor Handbook on the Hebrew Bible Series (5 vols.)

Baylor Handbook on the Hebrew Bible Series (5 vols.)

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Baylor Handbook on the New Testament Series (8 vols.)

Baylor Handbook on the New Testament Series (8 vols.)

Regular price: $178.99

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Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament | EGGNT (13 vols.)

Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament | EGGNT (13 vols.)

Regular price: $284.99

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UBS Handbooks Series: Old Testament, New Testament, and Deuterocanonical Books (66 vols.)

UBS Handbooks Series: Old Testament, New Testament, and Deuterocanonical Books (66 vols.)

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Theological commentaries

While handbooks on the Hebrew and Greek text focus on grammar and syntax, theological commentaries, such as the Two Horizons Old and New Testament Commentaries or the Evangelical Biblical Theology Commentary, provide more attention to the theological themes of the books under consideration. Some of these commentaries come in two parts: an abbreviated exposition of the book, section-by-section, and an expanded survey of the major theological themes found in or raised by the book.  

Two Horizons Commentary Series (23 vols.)

Two Horizons Commentary Series (23 vols.)

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Evangelical Biblical Theology Commentary (EBTC) (8 vols.)

Evangelical Biblical Theology Commentary (EBTC) (8 vols.)

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Socio-rhetorical commentaries

“Socio-rhetorical” commentaries—those by Ben Witherington and Craig Keener are some of the best known—focus on the social world that informs the biblical text and on the ancient forms of rhetoric which shape how a book is written. 

Specialized commentaries

Specialized commentaries focus on particular features rather than on expositing or exegeting books in their entirety. For instance, the Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament focuses only on texts in which the New Testament is quoting or alluding to Old Testament texts. The Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary is one of the best among several commentaries that focus on the historical and cultural background that informs the biblical writings. The Lexham Geographic Commentaries also provides explanations of the geography in which the events of the biblical books took place. Sometimes the location of biblical events is debated, other times the location of the events is significant for the meaning of the text. These geographic commentaries touch on these issues in greater detail than other commentaries. Other commentaries, such as the Exegetical Summary series by SIL or the Lexham Research Commentary series summarize the scholarship on given texts and serve as an entry point into the commentary literature.

Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament

Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament

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Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary | ZIBBC (9 vols.)

Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary | ZIBBC (9 vols.)

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Lexham Geographic Commentaries (6 vols.)

Lexham Geographic Commentaries (6 vols.)

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Exegetical Summaries Series (34 vols.)

Exegetical Summaries Series (34 vols.)

Regular price: $499.99

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Lexham Research Commentaries (33 vols.)

Lexham Research Commentaries (33 vols.)

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The pastor or teacher has a wealth of modern commentary resources at his fingertips, but historical perspective is also important. Commentaries like the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, The Church’s Bible, and the Reformation Commentary on Scripture gather comments from patristic, medieval, and Reformation interpreters and gather them into a verse-by-verse commentary format. The Bible in Medieval Tradition and The Wiley Blackwell Bible Commentaries provide a more summary treatment of historical understandings of the text.

Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture Complete Set | ACCS (29 vols.)

Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture Complete Set | ACCS (29 vols.)

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The Church's Bible | CB (6 vols.)

The Church’s Bible | CB (6 vols.)

Regular price: $189.99

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Reformation Commentary on Scripture Collection | RCS (20 vols.)

Reformation Commentary on Scripture Collection | RCS (20 vols.)

Regular price: $559.99

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The Bible in Medieval Tradition Series Collection | BMT (5 vols.)

The Bible in Medieval Tradition Series Collection | BMT (5 vols.)

Regular price: $129.99

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Wiley Blackwell Bible Commentaries | WBBC: Old and New Testament (22 vols.)

Wiley Blackwell Bible Commentaries | WBBC: Old and New Testament (22 vols.)

Regular price: $1,417.70

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Best of all is to read ancient commentaries in their entirety. Ancient Christian Texts is one series that is reprinting patristic commentaries (see also the Fathers of the Church and Ancient Christian Writers series).

Calvin’s commentaries are readily available in English. And the Crossway Classic Commentaries and Banner of Truth’s Geneva Commentary series also provide reprints (some abridged, in Crossway’s case) of older commentaries.

Calvin’s Commentaries (46 vols.)

Calvin’s Commentaries (46 vols.)

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Crossway Classic Commentaries  Series Collection (26 vols.)

Crossway Classic Commentaries Series Collection (26 vols.)

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Commentaries from different theological perspectives

In addition to knowing the different kinds of commentaries available, pastors and teachers should be aware of the theological bent of the major commentary series.

Lutheran

In addition to Luther’s own commentaries on Scripture, several significant sets are Lutheran in perspective. These would include older sets such as Keil and Delitzsch’s commentaries on the Old Testament and Lange’s commentary on the whole Bible. The Concordia Commentary is an excellent recent exegetical commentary series written from a decidedly Lutheran perspective. The detailed, careful exegesis modeled in this series makes it valuable for interpreters outside the Lutheran tradition as well. (Logos offers Lutheran packages as well.)

Reformed

The Reformed world is known for its commentaries. In addition to the commentaries by Calvin and the Puritans, several significant series are Reformed in character. The New International Commentaries on the Old and New Testaments began under the editorships of E.  J. Young and Ned B. Stonehouse as a series from a Reformed perspective. However, the series soon became more broadly evangelical, and today the editors are Methodist. Hendriksen and Kistemaker’s series on the New Testament is from the Reformed perspective as are the Reformed Expository Commentary series and the Lectio Continua series. Using the term “Reformed” broadly, the ESV Expository Commentary series would also fall into this category. (There are also Reformed packages available on the Logos platform.)

Wesleyan

Some sets are explicitly Wesleyan, such as the Wesley Bible Study New Testament Commentary, The Wesleyan Bible Commentary, and the New Beacon Bible Commentary. The best known and most significant commentaries from a Wesleyan-Arminan perspective have come from authors writing standalone volumes or contributing to others’ series. These would include Ben Witherington, who has written commentaries on every New Testament book, Craig Keener, who is known for his massive commentaries and facility with New Testament background material, David DeSilva, and Grant Osborne, who has a whole New Testament commentary series in his own name in addition to volumes written for others’ series. (There are also Methodist & Wesleyan packages on the Logos platform.)

Baptist

The best-known Baptist commentary series is the New American Commentary series, now being reworked as the Christian Standard Commentary. Baptist commentators—Thomas Schreiner being a notable example—have made contributions across a wide variety of sets. 

Dispensationalist

Commentaries from a dispensational viewpoint can be found in a variety of sets. For instance, some contributors to The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, the New American Commentary, the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the Old and New Testament, and the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary have been written from a dispensationalist viewpoint. Likewise, several contributors to the now defunct Wycliffe Exegetical Commentary series were dispensational in perspective. Harold Hoehner’s standalone commentary on Ephesians is dispensational in orientation. The Bible Knowledge Commentary is a two-volume commentary on the whole Bible written by scholars associated with Dallas Theological Seminary, a flagship dispensationalist seminary. 

Broadly evangelical

Numerous series could be characterized as broadly evangelical. They contain contributions from a variety of denominational backgrounds. Commentaries in this category would include the following:

Other series still claim the banner “evangelical” but are probably best characterized as representing the evangelical left. These series would include contributions from scholars who would be more open to source criticism, pseudonymous writing within the canon, historical errors within the biblical text, and an openness to the idea that some texts that present themselves as historical are mythological or parabolic in genre. This would be the case with numerous volumes in the Word Biblical Commentary, to some in the Apollos Old Testament Commentary series, and to a few of the newer entries in the New International Commentary series. Baker has also recently launched several Baker Exegetical commentaries on sections of the Old Testament, and it seems that these will tilt in this direction. 

Non-evangelical

There are also numerous non-evangelical biblical commentary series that the evangelical might wish to consult. The Anchor Yale Bible, International Critical Commentary, Hermeneia, and Illuminations series tend to be ecumenical and critical in their orientation. Nonetheless, evangelicals will find treatment of the Hebrew or Greek text, surveys of the history of interpretation, and enumerations of proposed interpretations useful in the best of the commentaries in these series. In some cases, evangelical authors have contributed volumes to them. The Anchor Yale Bible volume on Obadiah, for instance, provides a stronger defense of the integrity of the text than the New International Commentary volume on the same book.

Every commentary is written with a distinct purpose and from a particular theological perspective. The wise pastor or teacher will be aware of these factors as he uses these tools.

How to get good commentaries

A great place to look for commentary recommendations for a given Bible book is bestcommentaries.com. The commentaries are ranked by experts, and there are icons letting you know if a given volume is available in Bible software such as Logos. Other helpful lists include Ligonier’s annotated listing of the five best commentaries for each book of the Bible, and Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary’s “Basic Library Booklist.”

The Logos Bible study platform is a good place to purchase commentaries. When buying commentaries in paper form, it is usually best to select the best volumes on each book. In Logos the best option is to take advantage of economies of scale and to look at the whole commentary sets that are included in certain base packages. Logos Gold includes multiple commentary sets aimed at pastors, for example; Logos Platinum includes those and more, aimed at pastors and academicians. Look at which series has the most recommended commentaries for your purposes and purchase accordingly.

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Brian Collins

Brian Collins is a worldview specialist at BJU Press in Greenville, South Carolina, and an elder at Mount Calvary Baptist Church. He blogs at exegesisandtheology.com.

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Written by Brian Collins