What is a Critical Bible Commentary? Get the Facts

Critical commentaries, like other Bible commentaries, aim to explain the text of Scripture. The target audience for these commentaries is mostly scholars, though some pastors read them, too. So what exactly is a critical commentary?

In critical bible commentaries, authors take a “critical” view of Scripture. They often don’t accept the text at face value. Instead, they argue that the text has been manipulated in some way — edited, enhanced, erased, etc. — before acquiring its current and final form.

Critical commentaries are often controversial with readers who hold a high view of Scripture — meaning, they believe its inspired and authoritative —which is why evangelical pastors and Christians seldom utilize them to study the Bible.

What are some examples of critical approaches? Why do people like critical commentaries? What is their purpose and who is their target audience? For answers to these questions and more, please keep reading.

This website helps readers identify which commentaries are best for their purposes. See The Top 50 Bible Commentaries Series to learn more.

devotional bible reading
“I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways.” ~ Psalms 119:15 (ESV)

Critical and conservative Bible commentary

Critical commentaries interact with a a variety of fields such as: literary forms, historical accuracy, author identity, theme and message, socio-cultural setting, and more. Conservative commentators, and those with a high view of Scripture, often challenge critical presuppositions.

In the classic book Biblical Interpretation (link goes to Amazon), the authors describe the problem many critical scholars have with traditional, orthodox hermeneutics, i.e. biblical interpretation:

“Many Bible scholars, especially those outside evangelical circles, are calling for nothing less than a paradigm shift in hermeneutics. They find the old ways sterile, limiting, or misleading and believe it is time to do something new” (p. 427).

Conservative commentators aren’t disinterested or ignorant of the issues that critical commentators raise. Rather, they don’t presuppose that the text has been manipulated to the extent that it’s original meaning can’t be known.

As the authors of Biblical Interpretation add, “We grant that these new arenas of study can afford important insights to supplement traditional hermeneutics, but they also offer dangerous pitfalls when abused” (p. 428).

Besides critical commentaries, what other kinds of commentaries are there? See Types of Bible Commentaries: Which is Right for You? to learn more.

Presuppositions of the reader about the Bible

The approach the commentator takes to the text determines their conclusions. In other words, where they start dictates their direction and their destination. If a commentator presupposes that the Bible isn’t God’s divine revelation to people, their conclusions will reflect that.

As the table below shows, all readers have presuppositions. Critical commentators have them and conservative ones do, too.

Critical presuppositionConservative presupposition
Many hold to a moderate or low view of Scripture; some hold the Bible is true only in matters of faith and not history, science, etc., but some don’t hold that it’s true even in matters of faith.Many hold to a high view of Scripture; some hold to the doctrine of inerrancy, but not all; most hold to the inspiration and authority of Scripture

According to the authors of Biblical Interpretation, the conservative approach involves certain qualifications and presuppositions.

Qualifications of the interpreter:

  • Faith: “faith is foundational for a full comprehension of the Scriptures”
  • Obedience: a reader must be willing to put themselves “under the text” and “to submit one’s will to hear the text and obey its author”
  • Illumination: the work of the Holy Spirit “enables believers to perceive spiritual truth, an ability unavailable to unbelievers”
  • Membership in the Church: “We do not work in a vacuum; we are not the first ones to puzzle over the meaning of the Bible. We require the enrichment, endeavors, and assistance of our fellow believers to check our perceptions and to affirm their validity… such accountability guards against maverick and individualistic interpretations.” (p. 82-86)

Presuppositions of the interpreter:

  • About the Bible: Conservative interpreters believe the Bible is God’s inspired revelation to people; that it’s authoritative and true; that, being from God, it is uniquely powerful; that it’s inherent diversity, for example it’s numerous authors, creates “a marvelous and melodious symphony” (p. 92)
  • About the interpreters themselves: “The real division of the interpretive house does not usually occur on the levels of agenda or method (for interpreters often often share similar methods and goal); rather, it occurs on the level of attitude toward the Bible’s trustworthiness.” (p. 93)

Learn more about exegetical commentaries here: What Is An Exegetical Commentary?

Biblical criticism

Biblical criticism has a variety of expressions. Complicating matters is that certain terms can mean of thing to one group and something else to another. For example, the term “literary criticism” can have different meanings depending on if a critical or conservative commentator is using it.

To help the reader understand the general nature of the field of criticism —without an overwhelming amount of detail — here are three examples of criticism:

What is textual criticism?

The aim of textual criticism is to discover what the biblical author really wrote, as opposed to what the text presently reads in the Bible. To pursue this objective, critical scholars, in part, analyze the original-language words and compare the writing to other ancient documents.

Conservatives charge critical commentaries of presupposing that the biblical text in its present form isn’t accurate. They further charge that the commentators ability to research and verify (or not) elements of a passage should not be determining factors is authenticating a particular text.

Source criticism

Another question that critical commentaries seek to answer is what sources have been used in crafting the final and current form of the text. For example, a notable source-critical theory regarding the Pentateuch — that is the first five books of the Bible — is that four different unnamed authors wrote and edited it. And, no, one of them isn’t Moses.

Since the authors aren’t known, they are referred to according to the labels that theoretically reflect the content of their portion of the text:

  • Yahwist
  • Elohist
  • Deuteronomist
  • Priestly

Conservatives argue that there are good reasons to believe the Bible’s clear teaching in the Old and New Testament, including from the words of Jesus himself, that Moses wrote the first five books of the bible.

For example, John 5:46 reads,

“If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me.” (NIV, emphasis added)

Redaction criticism

Redaction refers to a document that has been edited or changed. This approach to the text holds that Scripture has been refined, erased, or manipulated in other ways.

Redaction critics want to know why texts were edited and what the final form is intended to communicate to the original readers. For example, texts may be redacted in order to convey a certain theological message that fits a book-wide theme.

Is a critical commentary right for you?

Scholars mostly write critical Bible commentaries for other scholars. Some critical commentary authors may want pastors to read them, but very few do because they are intended for ministry purposes.

And even fewer lay Christians read critical commentaries because their content is largely irrelevant to Christian living.

The book of the Bible many people want a commentary on more than any other is Revelation. See best Revelation commentaries to learn more.

[1] Biblical Interpretation. Craig Blomberg, etal.
[2] The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms. Donald K. McKim.

Daniel Isaiah Joseph

Daniel's seminary degree is in Exegetical Theology. He was a pastor for 10 years. As a professor, he has taught Bible and theology courses at two Christian universities. Please see his About page for details.

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