I need a commentary. How do I choose which one to use?
If you need a commentary for a class, your instructor has likely provided a list of commentaries to choose from, so you should use that list to find one. Beyond that, commentaries seek to explain the meaning of the biblical text. There are a variety of commentaries to choose from and the "right" one for you depends upon your goal for using a commentary. Here are some major categories with examples.
· One-volume commentaries
Most commentaries cover a single book of the Bible or sometimes only part of a book because the commentary would be too large otherwise, such as those on Psalms, Isaiah, or the Gospel of John. Some commentaries, however, cover the entire Bible in one volume. In order to do this, such a commentary, like the New Bible Commentary, gives a high-level explanation of a book’s contents. There is simply not space to explain every verse. Instead, one paragraph might explain an entire chapter of a book, like Romans 4. One-volume commentaries can be useful for getting a general idea of what a book is about, and sometimes individual verses will be explained but this type of commentary is not suitable for detailed study or exegesis of a biblical passage.
· Devotional commentaries
· These are commentaries that focus on the “application” of the biblical text. While some effort is made to explain a biblical book, the purpose of this type of commentary, such as Hebrews by J. Vernon McGee, is to edify believers and help them see ways to live out what the Bible teaches. Devotional commentaries do not generally discuss debates over how a given passage is to be understood nor do they provide bibliography to use for research. Since devotional commentaries are not seeking to be academic or acknowledge academic issues or technical points for interpretation, they are best used for devotional reading and generally should not be used for academic work.
· Academic, non-technical commentaries
This “category” is fairly broad and this is not a technical name for everything that might fit here. This category represents an array of commentaries that seek to elucidate the meaning of the biblical text, either primarily or exclusively. Application of the text, or devotional reading of the text, is not the focus of such commentaries. This type of commentary will generally be somewhat larger than a devotional commentary because academic, non-technical commentaries usually engage scholarly issues related to the biblical book and its interpretation. They often have lengthy introductions that deal with matters of authorship, place of writing, date of writing, audience, and so forth. They generally discuss debated maters of interpretation and point out differing views of particular scholars. Within these parameters, such commentaries range widely in size. For example, the Tyndale New Testament Commentary on Matthew by R. T. France is much thinner than the New International Commentary on the New Testament volume on Matthew, which was written by the same author. While some commentaries in this category will have few footnotes, others will have lots of footnotes. This category is appropriate for someone who is researching the meaning of a biblical text but who does not have specialized training or knowledge of the original languages in which the Bible was written, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Many commentaries are written as part of a series, and therefore have a similar approach and level of detail. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament series has far more information than the Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries series but about the same amount of detail as the Anchor Yale Bible commentary series. Some commentaries seek to play both the academic commentary role and the devotional commentary role. One example is the NIV Application Commentary series. Each volume in this series seeks to explain a passage of a book, followed by a section on “Bridging Contexts,” which describes themes and ideas in the passage that are relevant for today, followed by a section on “Contemporary Significance,” which shows ways that the message of this portion of a biblical book applies to Christian life today.
· Academic, technical commentaries
This is the most detailed type of commentary. It is intended for scholars and students who have background knowledge in the subject and have some level of competence in reading the original language(s) the biblical book was written in, such as Hebrew for Genesis or Greek for 1 Corinthians. In this type of commentary, linguistic issues are dealt with in detail, as are exegetical, structural, and other matters. Examples would include the Word Biblical Commentary series and the International Critical Commentary series. It is possible to benefit from using an academic, technical commentary without the ability to read original languages or a background in the issues are discussed but such a user will not gain as much as a reader with this knowledge. Given the detailed interpretation of individual verses, these tend to be the largest commentaries, though again, this is a relative term and might not prove to be true in every case.
So readers should choose a commentary based upon their knowledge and purpose. There are two additional issues that one should keep in mind. First, commentaries have ideological perspectives. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries are going to be clearly Evangelical while the International Critical Commentary volumes do not have an Evangelical perspective. Second, the original publciation date of a commentary is important. For academic work, it is best to not use anything over thirty years old. Scholarship advances so rapidly that the state of the discussion of a biblical text thirty years ago may have changed dramatically. This is even an issue for works that have a recent copyright date but in fact are often more than two hundred years old, like Mathew Henry's Commentary on the Holy Bible. While this edition was published in 1979, Matthew Henry died in 1714, so it is much older than 1979. One can usually avoid this problem by avoding devotional or one-volume commentaries.