What Is a Bible Commentary—and Why You Need One

Bible commentaries are one of the best ways to dive into the details of Scripture. But maybe you’ve been intimidated by the sheer number of sizes of commentaries (some are over a thousand pages).

We’ve broken down the different kinds of commentaries to make it simple (keep reading to learn more). For now, let’s start with the basics.

What is a Bible commentary?

Definition: Bible commentaries contain observations and interpretations surrounding a biblical text, typically organized according to the text’s sequential flow. Many times, commentaries cover a single book of the Bible, but sometimes they focus on a particular section (e.g., the Sermon on the Mount) or they include several books of the same genre (e.g., the Minor Prophets).

Most commentaries open with an introduction, which discusses who wrote the book and when, the historical background, the intended audience, and how that book fits into the main storyline and themes of the whole Bible. The introduction typically also highlights the structure and major themes of the book.

From there, most commentaries move through the book verse by verse or section by section, discussing important insights in the text. Discussion within a commentary can focus on scholarly analysis, lay-level exposition and application, or anywhere in between.

How can a Bible commentary help me?

A Bible commentary is no substitute for the Bible itself, but here are three ways they can aid you in your time studying the Word:

1. They can help you discover new information.

One way to use a commentary is to read it side by side Scripture. Start by studying a passage and considering any questions or takeaways, then turn to the commentary to see what other treasures you can find in that passage.

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2. They can help fill knowledge gaps.

Another way to use commentaries is to use them as a reference when you have questions about a passage. For example, you may come across a theological word, cultural concept, or biblical event you don’t know about—a gap between the original reader’s world and yours. A commentary can help you fill that gap by teaching you how the original audience would have understood those references. From there, you can apply the meaning of the text to your context.

3. They can help you avoid interpretive errors.

A Bible commentary is one of the best tools you can have on hand to check your own interpretation of Scripture against other respected pastors, scholars, and church leaders. They can help you avoid errors and misunderstandings about the Bible while improving your understanding of biblical passages and themes.

What kinds of commentaries are there?

Commentaries come in all different kinds, from highly technical analysis of Greek and Hebrew to devotional guides. Most can be classified as critical, exegetical, expositional, or application commentary.

There’s a lot of overlap in these categories, but here’s what they mean:

Critical commentaries

Critical commentaries, or “technical commentaries,” delve into the Bible’s original languages and offer a scholarly perspective on Scripture. They dig into text criticism and other academic research methods, and they are often theologically neutral or agnostic—they don’t argue for a certain interpretation. A good example of this is the International Critical Commentary New Testament (ICC) (33 vols.).

Exegetical commentaries

Exegetical commentaries bridge the gap between critical and expositional commentaries. Typically, these go verse by verse through a passage and are selective about what critical issues they engage with and which original language observations they include. They typically venture from observation to interpretation, often with a clear theological position. See what this looks like in the Exegetical Summaries Series (31 vols.).

Expositional commentaries

Expositional commentaries, sometimes called “pastoral” commentaries, are primarily focused on how to teach and preach the biblical text. Often, expositional commentaries like the Pulpit Commentary Series are taken from real sermons and refer to other commentaries for further research.

Application commentaries

Application commentaries, also called “devotional” or “popular” commentaries, offer biblical insight that doesn’t require years of theological training. These commentaries are designed to help laypeople take their Bible study to a new depth. The Bible Knowledge Commentary (2 vols.) is a solid application commentary to start with.

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How to know what kind of commentary something is

If you’re wondering what kind of commentary something is, it’s often right there in the name: for example, the International Critical Commentary New Testament (ICC) (33 vols.) is a critical commentary.

When the kind of commentary isn’t in the name, you can typically tell from the commentary’s description or endorsements whether it’s for academics, pastors, or lay leaders. (Or you can look inside. If you see a lot of Greek, Hebrew, and footnotes, you can pretty well rule out an application commentary.)

Which commentaries should I start with?

If you’re just starting out, start slow. Pick a few commentaries from pastors and theologians you respect, and see what they have to say on particular passages. 

From there, you can begin using commentaries more regularly in your Bible study.

Wait to use a critical commentary until you’re established in your knowledge of biblical Greek or Hebrew; otherwise, you won’t be able to engage with the author’s arguments. Critical commentaries are highly valuable, but only if you know how to handle them.

And any commentary you have in your Logos Bible Software library is “smarter” than hard copies. (Don’t have Logos yet? Get it free now.) Thousands of tags make searching for specific topics easy—plus, they’ll connect your commentaries to other books in your Logos library.

See how:

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Written by
Logos Staff

Logos is the largest developer of tools that empower Christians to go deeper in the Bible.

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