On Purchasing a Commentary

13 Jul

I love commentaries. The information, the depth of knowledge, and their stoic look on my bookshelf make me love commentaries. I have had no formal training in the Hebrew language, but a commentary on the book of Psalms may help me understand a word play in the original Hebrew. As for the amount of knowledge that goes into a commentary, Daniel Block spent 14 years writing his two-volume commentary on Ezekiel (you bet it’s on my shelf). And as to their look, I love the look of books (I also read them occasionally). I cannot bring myself to purchase commentaries on CDs or any other electronic method (i.e. Logos) because I love the feel of a book in my hands and the look of a row of books on my shelf.

However, there are serious issues with commentaries of which anyone desiring to use them should be aware.

  1. The theological slant of the author – it is tiresome to see commentators dance around issues such as baptism, women’s roles, and homosexuality.
  2. The focus of the commentary series – various series have varies foci. For example, the NIV Application Commentary (NIVAC) focuses on application. Each section of scripture is discussed in its original setting, it is then discussed in “bridging contexts”, and it is discussed for modern application. Ben Witherington’s “Socio-rhetorical” commentaries focus on just that – the society of the day and the author’s rhetorical approach in the book/letter.
  3. The author’s focus – Ben Witherington has written a commentary on almost every book of the New Testament. His commentaries are very helpful (especially his work on Acts) but his commentary on John (random example) is not going to be as detailed and deep as one written by someone who has devoted their life to John’s writings.
  4. Systematic theology – This comes down to how we view the Bible. Do we allow the Bible to determine our theology or does our theology determine how we read the Bible? For example, if you are a Calvinist, this is going to affect how you read the text. However, this may not be the easiest fact to ascertain from a commentary (and should probably not be the determining factor in the decision to purchase).

If you know some of these things going in, then you will not be surprised (i.e. if you know that Witherington’s focus is rhetoric, you will not be surprised that he breaks every speech in Acts into the ancient parts of a quality speech).

My preferences:

I am careful with any commentary that claims to be full of theological insight. However, I have had to get over this (to an extent) because many of my views of scripture flow against the mainstream.

I like my commentaries to be rich in philology, linguistics, and the like. I am not a master of Greek and I know almost nothing of Hebrew. The more a commentary can help me understand the original language, the better I understand the book.

And similarly, I like a commentary that helps me understand the surrounding cultures of Israel and the people of the Bible. In reading of Jonah’s fear of going to Assyria and Nahum’s joy over the destruction of Assyria, it helps to know some of the horrible things the Assyrian’s did to their victims.

I am not concerned with a commentary’s suggested application. The NIV Application Commentary has an application section after each division of text and I have never read it. I love the series because of the authors who have contributed to the series. But I am not a big fan of THEIR application.

These are just a few things to think about when purchasing a commentary. Much of this information, you can find in the books and articles I referenced in the previous post.

Good luck and happy commentary buying!

1 Comment

Posted by on July 13, 2009 in Commentaries


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One response to “On Purchasing a Commentary

  1. Nathan

    July 13, 2009 at 11:28 am

    I’ve often said that two of the worst things any Bible student can do is to read no commentaries or to read only one commentary. The former is to suppose that he alone can properly interpret a passage—and that he can do so with whatever limited knowledge of ancient cultures and languages that he has. The latter is do be led by the hand down the path of that commentator’s thinking.

    My preference is to read at least three or four commentaries by authors from different theological perspectives and different time periods—and if I’m really studying something, seven or eight. This forces me to wrestle with their individual interpretations of the text against mine, which allows all of our biases and preconceptions to come out in the open. Reading commentaries from multiple time periods helps shuffle out what issues are specific to a certain decade and which seem to be more relevant regardless of social winds.


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