What is the Best Bible Commentary?

I was asked this weekend what commentaries are worth using, for folks who don’t want to drink the Kool-aid of evangelical bible propaganda. Its a tricky question.

I’m not a huge fan of commentaries generally, as many give the false impression that the bible means something, usually that it means something very similar to the religious prejudices of the reader’s church tradition. If you want to be told what to believe, or to be told how the bible backs up everything you already believe, then there are lots of resources for you, but I’m not going to be able to help you find them.

There are, however, various commentaries that are serious, scholarly, and address the text on its own terms. Unfortunately it isn’t easy to know which is which if you’re just looking for something to help with your study.

One more caveat, before I give you my top three. I do not read or use one-volume commentaries. The bible isn’t one book, and so I don’t see how you can write a commentary on the whole thing. Particularly not a critical commentary. You may as well get yourself a good study bible (such as the Oxford Annotated Bible, 4th edition). The commentaries below are serious works, and they are therefore large. I don’t have anywhere near the complete set (which would run to hundreds of volumes for all three), but it is worth buying a volume on a particular book, if you expect to be studying it in depth. It looks like my study group will be embarking on an analysis of Acts, for example, so I will use this opportunity to catch up on recent scholarship on those books, and these commentaries are useful to set the groundwork for reading papers or monographs.

So my list:

3. The International Critical Commentary (ICC – Books titles begin with “A critical and exegetical commentary on …”) has been around for over 100 years. The first set of books are now out of copyright and available on archive.org (here’s a search for scans from the University of Toronto library — tweak the search for other versions), but scholarship has moved on and many of the books in the series have been recommissioned. For a preview of the commentary on Acts, here it is on Google books. The series is currently published by Continuum Press (under the T & T Clark imprint). The series list is available on the Continuum site

2. The Continental Commentary Series, by Fortress Press is a smaller series that is intended to bring major masterworks of international commentary to the English language. It is here you’ll find Westermann’s seminal (and epic) commentary on Genesis in three English volumes. The coverage tends to be very, very deep, but not very wide. In other words, the series only covers a small part of the biblical text (no Acts for me, for example). The list of the 20 current titles are on the Augsburg Fortress site.

But my default go-to critical commentary series is:

1. Yale University Press’s Anchor Bible Commentary series. Okay there are reports of some duds here (I’ve not found one myself, but I only have a selection). But there are also highlights such as Ray Brown’s work on the Johannine community, and a rather good book on First Isaiah. You can buy these in epic library sets from Yale directly ($2660 for OT, NT and OT apocrypha), or book by book from Amazon. Again the books are thoroughly scholarly (though less linguistically complex than the ICC, I find), but they tend to be much more concise than the Continental series. The series listing is on Yale Press’s site.

Anyone else got any favorite scholarly commentaries?

[Edit 2010-03-30: So I’m not American, and I kinda gave that away writing Coolade for Kool-aid. Thanks for the spot, Sabio]

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “What is the Best Bible Commentary?

  1. Hermeneia looks like a good series to read (though the price is prohibitive, it’s better to just borrow from a library).

  2. Ian

    Thanks Q, I don’t own any of them, but I’ve perused a few in the library.

    For future reference the series is published by Augsburg Fortress (as is the Continental series), and has a listing here, with a one page summary sheet available here.

    The series describes itself as “Anchored by a renowned board of editors, this monumental series has over the last 40 years produced the most authoritative and influential commentaries on the Bible in the English-speaking world.”

    What is interesting, looking at the list, is that there are volumes on works in the NT apocrypha: one on the letters of Ignatius, and others on the Didache, The Shepherd of Hermas and the Apostolic Tradition.

  3. imarriedaxtian

    It looks like my study group will be embarking on an analysis of Acts

    Can you do a blow-by-blow blog of your progress? It could be quite enlightening to follow your discussions. It will obviously help those of us who are not privy to these levels of analysis.

  4. Ian

    That might be an interesting idea. It would be a lot of long-form blog posts though, since we normally take a chapter or two at a time. I’ll have a think about how to condense things. Maybe blog on particular curiosities, for example.

  5. imarriedaxtian

    A succinct condensation will often help crystallize one’s thoughts. :-)

  6. Malcolm

    For Acts, I have Haenchen, Conzelmann, and Pervo’s commentaries; all are recommended (but Haechen may be my favorite), as are Pervo’s other books on Acts, such as Dating Acts. The classic Kirsapp and Lake is also useful, as are Dibelius’s Studies in Acts and O’Neill’s Theology of Acts. I also thoroughly enjoyed Mason’s Josephus and the New Testament, though it’s not remotely a commentary.

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