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]