What is an Exegetical Commentary? Get the Facts

There are different types of Bible commentaries, all of which are intended to help people understand the Scripture better. Some commentaries focus on the original languages of Scripture, while others are devotional in nature. Still others are exegetical.

Exegetical Bible commentaries provide readers with insight and understanding through the “exegesis” of the biblical text. The English word “exegesis” comes from a Greek word that literally means “to draw out.” Exegetical commentaries aim to “draw out” the original meaning of Scripture.

Exegetical Bible commentaries can be helpful to pastors, bible students, Sunday school teaches, small group leaders, and anyone else that wants to study the bible in depth for greater understanding.

Keep reading to learn about what you can expect to learn from an exegetical commentary, if it’s right for your purposes, and how it differs from other bible commentaries.

This website helps readers identify which commentaries are best for their purposes. See What Are the Different Types of Bible Commentaries? to learn more.

Exegetical commentaries seek to explain the original meaning of biblical books like Genesis

How are exegetical commentaries different than other commentaries?

To understand how exegetical Bible commentaries are different than other commentaries, it’s important to understand what “exegesis” is.

What is exegesis?

The word “exegesis” literally means “to draw out” for the purpose of explaining or interpreting. The opposite of exegesis is “eisegesis,” which is when someone “reads into” a text. Eisegesis ignores the intent of the biblical author and interprets the text based on the reader’s agenda.

“ex-““out of”; exegesis reads out of the text
“eis-““into”; eisegesis reads into the text

Studying the bible isn’t about reading “into” the text, but reading “out of” it to discover each author’s original intention. Understanding the original meaning of each passage of Scripture is the foundation to understanding how to apply the bible today.

Beyond the definition of the word itself, exegesis is the activity that provides the foundation for other aspects of biblical studies such as how a person applies the text to their life. Let’s look at some basic definitions of the activity from three of the best-reviewed books on biblical interpretation:

From How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth:

“Exegesis is the careful, systematic study of the Scripture to discover the original, intended meaning. This is basically a historical task. It is the attempt to hear the Word as the original recipients were to have heard it, to find out what was the original intent of the words of the Bible” (emphasis the authors’) [1]

From The Baker Compact Dictionary of Theological Terms:

Exegesis is the activity of interpreting the Bible by studying: (1) the grammar of the text, (2) the historical context of the text, (3) the genre, or literary type of the text, (4) the redemptive-historical context of the text, and replying on (5) the illumination of the Holy Spirit (p. 78-79). [2]

From The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms:

(Gr. exegesis, “interpretation,” from exegeisthai, “to draw out or to explain”) The act of interpreting or explaining the meanings of verses or passages of Scripture. (p. 112) [3]

Authors of exegetical commentaries practice the act of exegesis on each verse or passage of Scripture for the book of the Bible they research.

One of the books of the Bible that many people want a commentary on is Revelation. See best Revelation commentaries to learn more.

Exegetical commentaries explained

Authors of exegetical commentaries aim to explain the meaning of a book, most often passage-by-passage or verse-by-verse.

  • Passage-by-passage commentaries offer readers overviews of passages, and Sundays school teachers, Bible study and small group leaders, usually prefer them.
  • Verse-by-verse commentaries provide readers with more depth than passage-by-passage commentaries, and pastors often prefer them.

Mid-level exegetical commentaries

“Mid-level” commentaries, so named because they are in between introductory-level and advanced-level volumes, explain the original meaning of the English text, often using a popular translation like the NIV, ESV, KJV, NKJV or NASB.

Authors of mid-level commentaries base their explanations on the original-language text of the Old and New Testament, but only the fruit of their labor is shared with the reader, which makes them easy to understand. In other words, the reader doesn’t need to know the original language in order to maximize a mid-level commentary.

Advanced exegetical commentaries

Advanced exegetical commentaries, sometimes called “scholarly commentaries” or “technical commentaries,” exegete the original language of a biblical book.

For example, a technical commentary on Genesis exegetes the original Hebrew text. Likewise, a technical commentary on John exegetes the original Greek text. Technical commentaries are usually written by scholars for other scholars.

Contrast: non-exegetical commentaries

All bible commentaries “comment” on the biblical text, and in that way they are similar. However, commentaries can be very different from each other in how they approach the text, the focus of their content, and their purpose. Here are some examples of non-exegetical commentaries:

  • Bible background commentaries: This type of commentary focuses on the historical, cultural, and social backgrounds for each biblical book. While there are elements of exegesis in this kind of study, it’s not intended to be a holistic approach to exegesis, but only to certain elements of it.
  • Expositional or homiletical bible commentaries: This type of bible commentary comes from preached sermons. Sections in such commentaries often read like printed sermons, though some editing for publication is often involved.
  • Devotional commentaries: This type of commentary helps the reader reflect on their own spiritual life and relationship with God, often through offering guided reflections and application suggestions. Commentators of devotional commentaries often do the work of exegesis as part of their research, but their writing focuses on making Scripture relevant to today.

Exegetical commentaries may include some background information, and some may even conclude with devotional reflection, but that isn’t their primary purpose. The aim of exegetical commentaries desire to explain the content of verses in order to understand the author’s intent and each passage’s original intent.

Different kinds of authors write Bible commentaries. See Who Writes Bible Commentaries? to learn more.

What are the best exegetical commentaries?

Exegetical commentaries are especially popular with pastors for sermon preparation. Many are written by pastors and bible scholars who have spent years studying and writing on the Bible. Individual book reviews can be subjective, but there is some benefit to aggregating reviews.

These well-reviewed exegetical commentary series have proved helped to bible readers for years.

  • Expositor’s Bible Commentary (EBC): Originally written in the 1970’s and 1980’s, then revised and updated in the early 2000’s, this series has been a go-to resource for pastors for decades. It is conservative, evangelical, and mid-level in relation to it’s reading level.
  • Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament series (BECNT): Though not technical in nature, there is more information on the original Greek of New Testament books in these volumes than in many other exegetical commentary series. It would be best if the reader was familiar with Greek (though proficiency isn’t necessary). If not, they will likely not maximize commentaries in this series. The series doesn’t include Old Testament books.
  • New American Commentary (NAC): This series reflects Baptist theology, though volumes have been well-reviewed by readers from different denominations. It is a mid-level series.
  • New International Commentary on the Old/New Testament (NICOT/NICNT): This series likely has the most well-reviewed volumes of any exegetical series based on aggregate reviews. Some volumes are Arminian and others are Reformed. Readers must research individual volumes to learn the theological perspective of each author and volume. See the “best commentaries on _______” pages on this website to learn more.
  • Pillar New Testament Commentaries (PNTC): This New Testament-only series, edited by scholar D.A. Carson, has many well-reviewed volumes. Pastors love this series, but laypeople may want to choose another series that doesn’t assume readers have a seminary-level education.
  • Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the Old/New Testament (ZECOT/ZECNT): This series is the youngest on this list, yet it’s volumes have received excellent reviews. Volumes are well-organized and easy to read. They include information about the original languages, but it doesn’t overwhelm the readers.

Next step: Now that the reader has a better understanding of exegetical commentaries, a recommended next-step is to see See Best Commentary Series: The Top 50 to learn more.

[1] How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart (link goes to Amazon)
[2] The Baker Compact Dictionary of Theological Terms by Gregg Allison.
[3] The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms by Donald 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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