What is a Bible Commentary?



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Bible commentaries are the most common resource people use when they want to understand Scripture better.

From professors, to pastors, to bible study leaders, to Christians who just want to learn more about the Old and New Testament, commentaries are beneficial study aids that help them grown in their knowledge of the Word of God and help them live out their faith.

bible commentary example
A one-volume bible commentary

The general aim of bible commentaries is to shed light on the meaning of Scripture, whether that relates to the original languages of the bible, a historical or cultural insight, or application to modern-day life.

After reading this article, please see Best Bible Commentary Series: The Top 50.

What exactly is a bible commentary?

A bible commentary is a reference tool that contains helpful explanations about a word, verse, or passage of Scripture.

The word “commentary” refers to the authors who are “commenting” on the bible by means of description, analysis, clarification, summary, application, definition, as well as using other helpful teaching techniques, to help the reader understand the text.

Bible commentaries come in many shapes and sizes and the information below will guide the reader through which best fits their purposes and budget.

Also see, best Revelation commentaries for more examples of bible commentaries.

Who uses bible commentaries?

Anyone who wants to understand Scripture better may choose to use a bible commentary. However, those who most often use commentaries are:

Pastors: Most pastors preach from Scripture once a week and teach from it even more. The bookshelves in their home or office usually contains multiple volumes of commentaries on Old and New Testament books.

Many pastors have favorite commentary authors, series, and even single volumes.

There is wisdom is reading the insights of authors who have been studying a particular book of the bible for decades, and most pastors lean on these authors to supplement their own reading of the bible.

Teachers: Teachers in a church body may not have as many commentaries as their pastors, but they likely have a collection of study aids, including commentaries.

Professors at bible colleges and seminaries may even have more commentaries than pastors because of their research and teaching needs.

Most experts on a particular book of the bible have extensive knowledge about how others (e.g. denominations, scholars, historians) understand the text, because the history of interpretation is important to their work.

Also see, best one-volume bible commentaries, which are great for beginners.

Students: Men and women who are getting an education that includes bible training, such as future clergy, missionaries, and counselors, use commentaries to assist their learning.

Learning from experts is important in any field, whether it’s psychology, accounting, or nursing. Studying the bible and theology isn’t completely different. There is wisdom in consulting those who have studied the bible for decades.

Readers: It has become more common for Christians who are not in full-time ministry, or a teacher, or a formal student, to read and use commentaries simply because they love to study God’s Word.

There are many commentary series available today that target this demographic, which didn’t use to be the case.

These kinds of commentaries don’t focus on the original languages or the history of interpretation so that a wider audience can benefit from the comments.

Also see best John commentaries to see more examples.

Features of bible commentaries

There are many different kinds of bible commentaries because readers have different purposes in using them and authors have various purposes in writing them.

Just like a person would choose a hammer, and not a wrench, to pound a nail, there are commentaries for different jobs. Theologian D.A. Carson writes:

For an effective teaching and preaching ministry, commentaries take their place among other essential tools. But since different kinds of tasks often require different types of tools, useful commentaries are of more than one kind. [1]

Length: Like any other kind of book that offers readers explanations on a certain topic, the length of a commentary suggests the kind of content it offers.

This doesn’t mean shorter commentaries are lesser in quality, but that a 200-page commentary on Romans will have different content than an 800-page commentary on Romans.

Commentaries that are less than 100 pages, for example, will probably have the same general information that is found in the notes of most study bibles.

A multi-volume commentary on Romans that is thousands of pages (yes, they exist) would likely not be beneficial to most readers.

Depth: Unless a reader is a pastor or professor, commentaries that breakdown the original languages of Hebrew or Greek will probably not be helpful to most people.

Sometimes depth is reflected in the size of a commentary, but not always. Some commentaries on the Hebrew and Greek text may be a few hundred pages, while an introductory-level commentary may be twice the size because it has illustration, charts, and photographs.

It’s best to read the back cover of the commentary and the author’s preface or series introduction in the front of the book to learn who the target audience is.

Focus: Some books that are called commentaries have more visual aids and funny anecdotes that explanations on the meaning of Scripture.

Such books have their place on the bookshelves of many readers, but they are not commentaries strictly speaking, but more like bible study helps or sermon notes. Other commentaries focus on a specific topic.

For example, there are commentaries that only reflect on cultural background matters, others that only reflect on theological issues, and still others that only reflect on application to modern day life.

Basic types of bible commentaries

Technical commentaries: Technical commentaries give the reader explanations on the original languages of the bible.

The author writes in English, but many of the Hebrew, Aramiac, and Greek words are printed in their own script, though sometimes they are transliterated, making it difficult for readers not trained in those languages to follow along.

Technical commentaries are best for pastors familiar with the original languages and those doing academic research such as professors and scholars. Technical commentaries tend to be the most expensive in the genre and can sometimes exceed $100.

Application-focused commentaries: Some commentaries not only offer readers helpful explanations of Scripture, but they also include applications to help people live out the text.

Application-focused commentaries contain explanations that are based on the original languages of Scripture, but they mostly avoid technical discussion and original-language words and phrases.

This kind of commentary is beneficial to Christian ministry because it highlights the relevance of the bible for modern living. This kind of commentary is often very affordable with new copies selling for $15-$25.

Expository and exegetical commentaries: Other commentaries are considered “expository,” which basically means they seek to to explain something.

Within the genre of bible commentaries, expository commentaries are not as in-depth as technical commentaries, but they are more focused on explaining the text and less focused on application.

The target audience for this kind of commentary is pastors who have regular preaching responsibilities.

Preaching/Homiletic commentaries: These kind of commentaries read like printed sermons. Often writer by preachers, explanatory sections may begin with an illustration or quotation before discussing the text, because that is how many sermons start.

Some well-known pastors “write commentaries” like this, yet it’s often the case that someone transcribes their sermons and then a publisher prints them in a collection.

Their target audience is readers who enjoy the preacher’s teaching, but generally speaking, pastors themselves as well as professors, find other types of commentaries more helpful.

Devotional commentaries: This kind of commentary is like a glorified bible study. It contains more substantial information than booklet-sized study aids, but not as much as in-depth commentaries pastors and professors use. Devotional commentaries emphasize application more than other topics.

Specialty commentaries: Some commentaries focus on socio-cultural matters. Others are devoted to historical topics, and still others center on theological matters.

Some new commentary series are centered on biblical interpretation within a certain global context, such as Asia and Africa.

Study bibles: Study bibles, strictly speaking, are not commentaries, but the notes and articles in them provide similar, although basic, information like is found in commentaries.

Also see, the study bible comparison chart that compares over 40 different study bibles.

Formats of bible commentaries

Commentaries are published in various formats. Common formats include (1) whole-bible commentaries, (2) multi-volume commentary series’, and (3) stand-alone volumes.

A whole-bible commentary, also called a one-volume commentary, is single-volume book that is divided into 66 different sections, one for each book of the bible.

Some whole-bible commentaries have multiple authors, while others are written by a single author. Some are concise versions of commentary series, while others are written as one-volume books.

A multi-volume commentary series is a set of books, which can be three volumes or dozens of volumes, that often have multiple authors and provide readers with substantial amounts of information.

In commentary series, it’s common for larger books of the bible (e.g. Genesis, Isaiah, Acts) to have their own volume. In some series, larger books of the bible have two or three volumes.

Smaller books of the bible may be included in a single volume (e.g. the Minor Prophets, 1-2 Thessalonians, 1-3 John).

A stand-alone commentary is a volume (or volumes) that cover one book of the bible or multiple books that are commonly together (e.g. 1-2 Peter). These commentaries stand alone because they are not part of a series.

Other commentary options

Older commentaries: People have been writing bible commentaries on New Testament scripture for 2,000 years and on Old Testament scripture for even longer.

Many older commentaries can be accessed online because they are in the public domain, which means that no individual or publishing company owns their copyright.

As the saying goes, free is a very good price, yet readers should use discernment when using online commentaries to make sure the information is biblical and accurate.

Simply doing an internet search on a passage, and then believing or teaching what information is offered in the first few results is not the best approach to using bible commentaries.

Non-English commentaries: Thousands of commentaries have been written in languages other than English. Commentaries were written in Latin for centuries.

In the last few centuries, a countless number of commentaries have been written in various European languages, especially German, French, Italian, and Dutch.

As more people are speaking Spanish in the United States, the home of the largest Christian publishing companies, more commentaries will appear in that language.

Here is a list of currently-available Spanish-language commentaries.

Furthermore, as the Church grows in Africa and Asia, more and more will be written in native languages.

Electronic-only commentaries: Given the popularity of electronic readers, like Kindles and tablets, commentaries that only appear in electronic form will rise.

The cost of producing such commentaries is significantly less expensive for publishers and the cost is often passed on to consumers.

Electronic commentaries may soon be more common in some places in Africa and Asia, where it may be difficult and expensive to ship a set of hardback comments, but it’s easier, given reliable internet service (which is not a given), to download the same commentary set in five minutes to an electronic reader.

Take the next step

The next step for some people may just be to buy an inexpensive paperback commentary in a series that is their skill level.

Another person may choose to use a free online commentary, after it has been vetted for trustworthiness.

For others, however, the next step is to utilize a mid-level or technical commentary. Increasing in knowledge of the bible and how to live out your faith is worth the time and investment.

Please see the Bible Commentary Comparison Chart to compare dozens of commentary series.

Please see the One-Volume Bible Commentary Comparison Chart to compare whole-bible volumes.

Please the Study Bible Comparison Chart to compare dozens of editions and formats.


Footnotes:

  1. Source: D.A. Carson, New Testament Commentary Survey, 4th Edition, p. 15

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