Tips on using commentaries to study the Bible

W. Hall Harris III's picture

In a previous post we talked about different kinds of commentaries and how they can help the Bible student understand a particular passage more effectively. This time I would like to give some specific tips on using whatever commentaries you have available, regardless of whether they are fairly technical or more popular.

In general, the more technical a commentary is, the more effort and care it will take to read it and follow what it is saying about the biblical text. It helps to find out whatever you can about the commentary's author before you begin. For example, let's say you are going to read in the IVP Commentary Series volume on 1 Peter. The author is I. Howard Marshall. You could either use Google or Wikipedia to look up the name. The Wikipedia entry for I. Howard Marshall gives the following: "I. Howard Marshall is an Emeritus Professor of New Testament Exegesis and Honorary Research Professor at the University of Aberdeen (Scotland), specifically in the department of Divinity and Religious Studies. He is also the Chair of the Tyndale Fellowship for Biblical and Theological Research and was formerly President of the British New Testament Society and Chair of the Fellowship of European Evangelical Theologians. His main interests in research have been the Gospel of Luke and Acts, the Pastoral Epistles, and aspects of New Testament theology. He has been particularly concerned with the work of Luke as both historian and theologian." Both Marshall's association with Tyndale Fellowship and the Fellowship of European Evangelical Theologians would tell you that Marshall is a British Evangelical scholar.

Turning to the text of the commentary itself on the passage you're studying, the first thing I would do is read it through quickly to see if it's possible, from the commentary, to get a feel for the biblical author's argument flow within the passage. Some commentaries are better at setting the argument out than others. Next, I would look for major problems in the biblical passage that are discussed in the commentary. For each of these, I would focus in on a couple of things: (1) For a given problem, how many possible solutions are discussed? (2) What kind of evidence does the commentator give for the various options, and especially for the option he/she prefers? (Almost always when a commentary discusses various options to solve a problem, the option preferred by the commentator is given last.) At this point, if you are really doing some serious Bible study, it would probably help to pull out a pencil and some paper and begin taking notes (or use your word processor on your computer if you prefer). More complicated problems might have several possible solutions, with several different reasons given in the commentary for and against each possible solution.

At this point, especially if the commentary is a pretty technical one, it's time to start thinking about the kind of reasons the commentator gives in support of the various views. Biblical commentators are human, just like everyone else (even if they don't write like normal humans) and some of the reasons they give for the various views are going to be better than others. One thing is very important: You can't decide which is the better interpretation just based on statistics. An interpretation with 20 reasons given in its favor is not automatically better or more certain than an interpretation with only 2 or 3 reasons, if most of the 20 reasons are weak and the 2 or 3 are strong reasons.

Another important thing to look for is what kind of reasons or support does the commentator give in support of his/her preferred view? For example, if the commentator says, "The passage cannot mean 'X' because Paul never says it that way anywhere else in the New Testament," how does the commentator know this is not the only time in the NT that Paul says 'X'? Or, "Every other time Paul uses the word 'Y' it means this, so that is what it must mean in this passage." How does the commentator know, if word 'Y' can have a different meaning according to the lexicon, that Paul is not using that different meaning here for the only time in his writings?

One thing that you can check pretty easily: If a commentator gives other scripture references as support for an interpretation, you should look them up and read them to see if they say anything close to what the commentator is talking about. Surprisingly I find that scripture references to other passages are sometimes misquoted, even in published and edited commentaries. Perhaps this goes back to the days when many commentaries were written out longhand and then typeset, and the commentator's handwriting may have been less than clear.

Finally, I don't recommend reading only one commentary on a given passage. If at all possible, read at least two, even if one is a lot simpler and shorter than the other. This serves as a kind of check and balance on the views and interpretations.

And as a final note, it's worth pointing out that the NET Bible First Edition (full edition), either online or in print, has enough notes to be practically a running commentary on the biblical text by itself. In some of the longer and more complex notes, the NET Bible note even lists various interpretations of the passage or verse, sometimes with numbered options for convenience! The NET Bible -- better Bible study for all!


Dr. Hall,

What do you suggest for pastors who may not have access to or own multiple commentaries(or is not able to afford them? The approach I have is to try as able to get at least one critical commentary (or two if possible) and one pastoral/application based commentary such as one from the NIVAC series or the Interpretation series.

Also what are your thoughts about Danker's 'Multipurpose Tools for Bible Study'?

Brian Fulthorp

W. Hall Harris III's picture


I think your plan is a good one. It's pretty much what I recommend to my students. Because the question is an important one, I'll deal with Danker's Multipurpose Tools and some other resources in an upcoming post.

Hall Harris