Choosing commentaries for your library

W. Hall Harris III's picture

On one of my earlier posts about using commentaries in Bible study, I was asked a question about what commentaries to use and how to pick them. It occurred to me that this is a topic I cover in my Introduction to Exegesis class and it would probably be of benefit to comment on it here. What I'm talking about is not which commentary to use on a particular Bible passage or book, but the more general notion of how do I choose commentaries for my personal library. Related themes are (1) How many commentaries do I need? (2) What mix of technical, non-technical, and devotional commentaries works best? (3) How do I pick the commentaries? and (4) What about using commentaries in electronic (software) format versus printed commentaries?

(1) How many commentaries? We all have a tendency to think that more is better. The fact is, many Christians around the world cannot afford large libraries. Printed books (and most software) is expensive. Unless you're the pastor of a large church that provides you with a generous book budget in addition to your salary, it is unlikely that you will just go out and buy as many commentaries on the Bible as you can get your hands on. And even if you did acquire a large number of commentaries on each book of the Bible, you would probably not have time to read them all anyway. Therefore it's best to start small and be selective. And when you're looking for commentaries, if your budget is tight, remember you don't have to buy them all new. There are plenty of places on the Internet like Amazon.com where you can find used books at a real bargain. I do this all the time and often pay less for the book itself than the cost of shipping and handling. Just for an example I checked Amazon for the Wycliffe Bible Commentary and found a used one in paperback for $3.28 and hardcover for $7.97 (both plus shipping).

(2) What mix of commentaries to begin with? I recommend to my students as an initial goal to get one technical or semi-technical commentary and one more popular, applicational, or devotional commentary on each Bible book. Even that is pretty ambitious, but since most of my students are going to be pastors, teachers, missionaries, or Christian workers I think that is realistic. If you are not in that category starting with a good one or two-volume commentary on the entire Bible (New Bible Commentary, Wycliffe Bible Commentary, Bible Knowledge Commentary) may be perfectly adequate for your personal Bible study. Even for busy pastors these brief commentaries have their usefulness, because not every message a pastor has to do is a Sunday morning sermon. Sometimes it's a ten minute devotional talk before an evening prayer meeting. For that, a one volume commentary or a devotional commentary may be all you need.

(3) How do I pick the commentaries? Recommendations from friends, your pastor, or asking in an online forum can get you recommendations. Another place to go (or if you're a pastor, Bible college, or seminary student yourself) are published guides like D. A. Carson's New Testament Commentary Survey, 6th ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007) or John Glynn's Commentary and Reference Survey, 10th ed. (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007). Also helpful is F. W. Danker's Multipurpose Tools for Bible Study, rev. ed. (Augsburg Fortress, 2003). If you're at a school, your school library ought to have one or more of these. At a church, these are good additions to the church library. When picking commentaries to add to your library, don't add things beyond the level you're comfortable using. That means if you don't have some formal theological training you might want to stay away from full technical commentaries, because they can be intimidating reads even for pastors and seminary students.

(4) Bible software deserves another post of its own. But generally, software versions of commentaries offer some advantages over printed versions, especially in the ability to search for terms, topics, and scripture references easily. A Bible commentary is not your typical book that someone will sit down and read cover to cover. It's more of a reference work, consulted on specific passages or topics. For that, software makes searching easy. Having said that, it's pretty much a matter of personal preference. How much of your personal Bible study you do online or on your computer will affect whether you want commentaries in software format. Many of my former students who are international students or foreign missionaries absolutely prefer commentaries in software format because they don't have to move around heavy boxes of books when they travel.

Finally, of course, there are online tools and reference materials, like the NET Bible notes, which function much like a commentary and often give multiple options for interpretation. These are always available online for free and are a part of the NeXtBible Learning Environment provided by bible.org.

Comments

Thanks for some useful thoughts. In addition to Carson and Glynn, a helpful guide to commentaries is Jim Rosscup's Commentaries for Bible Expositors. Rosscup is a little bigger and more detailed than the other guides, and includes a helpful ranking system as to the commentaries he believes to be the best for each book in different categories (technical, expositional, devotional).

Another helpful text is David R. Bauer's An Annotated Guide to Biblical Resources for Ministry. It was published in '03, so anything newer won't be included, but it's still a very helpful resource, and Amazon has it new for $11.53.

Logos has a very useful commentary product guide covering a wide variety of commentary series. Each series is marked for its intended audience: scholars, pastors, and laymen.

I personally find that having my commentaries in digital format makes them far more useful. I look forward to your post on Bible software.

Most of you may know this but you can get several commentaries for free at www.e-sword.net . I love the e-sword program and use it extensively for preparing sermons.