Commentaries for Christmas: A Guide

No, not commentary about Christmas, but Bible commentaries one can buy for self or others for Christmas – that is the focus of this article. Since you may have not yet done all your Christmas shopping, my suggestion is to invest in some good commentaries. And they make for great gifts as well.

Given that I have around 550 commentaries (a good tenth of my total library) I can speak to this subject to some extent. But first, I better offer a defence of why I have so many. There are 66 books of the Bible you know, so that simply averages out to around 12 per book. Of course some Bible books may warrant more commentaries than others.

Thus I only have five commentaries on the book of Esther, but I have 24 on the important NT volume of Romans. Different commentaries offer different things, so having a number of them may not be amiss. Some are more devotional in nature. Some are expository – basically a collection of sermons.

Some are more critical in nature, offering plenty of historical, cultural, linguistic, textual and exegetical assessment. So the commentary or commentary series you get will depend on which areas you are interested in. All worthwhile commentaries should do a good job of elaborating on the text, relating it to context, and offering the general theological themes throughout.

Lest it be objected that we can allow commentaries to crowd out what God might say to us directly through Bible reading, well, yes and no is my response. Yes, there is always a danger that any Bible aid or supplement can take over the priority of simply reading and carefully studying the Word of God for ourselves, and allowing God’s spirit to speak to us.

But no man (or Christian) is an island, and we all need each other. God has given teachers to help the rest of the body of Christ for example. And if you go to church, you will hear sermons. What is a sermon other than simply a reflection or commentary on parts of the biblical text?

So if we are happy to have our faith grow by listening to the sermons and teachings of others audibly, then why object to growing spiritually by the writings, teachings and commentaries of others visually? Whether reading or listening, we are sitting under the wisdom and learning of others, and we can all value from that. But I discuss this further here:

Because I teach, preach, and write a lot on biblical and theological matters, having a number of helpful commentaries available is quite essential. Most folks of course will not need or want as many commentaries as I have. But there can be good reasons to build up a good personal library of commentaries.

The truth is, we are always making new discoveries, such as archaeological or historical discoveries, or uncovering new manuscripts and texts (think of the Dead Sea Scrolls, eg), or learning new insights into the cultural and social life of ancient Israel and the early church.

So the production of new commentaries will continue until the Lord returns. Older commentaries of course can be of great value, but they need to be supplemented with the newer, critical commentaries. While an entire set can be purchased, many folks will like to get a few good commentaries on Bible books they are especially interested in.

And we are all called to grow in our own faith by learning more about what the word of God teaches, and we all have a role to play in discipling and teaching others. So we need to leave the elementary teachings of Scripture and move on to the meat of solid doctrine and theology. Commentaries can help us to do just that.

So anyway, back to Christmas. Let me offer a few suggestions here. I have already elsewhere listed some of my fav commentaries by book, and discussed how to choose a good commentary:

I could just leave things at that, but because these articles are getting on to three years old, let me update things a bit here. So let me finish by mentioning a few titles and a few series. As I have said before, out of the thirty or so more or less conservative, evangelical commentary series, I still very much like the New International Commentary series for both Testaments (NICOT, NICNT).

Begun way back in the 1950’s the set is still not yet complete. But it is getting there. So long has it been around that a number of the original volumes have already been replaced by newer and larger works. For example, Grosheide’s 1953 commentary on 1 Corinthians of 400 pages was taken over by Fee’s superb 900 page volume in 1987. Presumably in a decade or two that will also be superseded.

Image of The First Epistle to the Corinthians (The New International Commentary on the New Testament)
The First Epistle to the Corinthians (The New International Commentary on the New Testament) by Fee, Gordon D. (Author) Amazon logo

Or consider the 200-page commentary on James by Adamson. It was an OK volume, but it since has been replaced with a very fine work of 500 pages by McKnight which appeared just last year. These NIC volumes keep getting better and better.

And when Lane came out with his superb 650-page volume on Mark in 1974, everyone said it would be a standard work for decades to come. And it has been, although Rikki Watts is busy at work on its replacement (although he informs me he is not going in for overkill, as many new commentaries seem to be, with zillions of pages and zillions of secondary sources).

Thus if you grab anything in the NIC series you are sure to get a very helpful volume indeed. So always keep a look out for that. But other somewhat newer series can also be very good as well, such as the Pillar New Testament Commentary series (PNTC), the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament series (BECNT), and the New International Greek Testament Commentary series (NIGTC) for those of a somewhat sturdier constitution. Also worth keeping an eye out for is the relatively new Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament series (ZECNT) which has around eight volumes so far.

As to individual books, preferences will again depend on what you are looking for in a commentary. Take the book of Acts as a case in point. Older reliable volumes include those by F F Bruce, Marshall, Stott, Witherington and Pohill. But there have been a bunch of new heavy duty volumes appearing lately.

In 2007 for example Darrell Bock came out with a very good commentary for BECNT. And in 2009 David Peterson also produced a helpful volume in the Pillar series. And just late this year two more welcome additions have come out: Eckhard Schnabel’s almost 1200-pager for ZECNT, and the first of a projected four-volume set by Craig Keener. So there has been a real boom in Acts studies and commentaries of late.

It would be impossible for me to properly reply if someone asked me for my favourite commentary, as there are so many good ones on so many books. And my preferences may not be the same as others of course. So as I say, purchase a commentary on a single Bible book from a reliable series such as NIC, or stick to a reliable name in Old Testament scholarship, such as Goldingay, Longman, Waltke, C. Wright, etc., or in NT scholarship, such as Beale, Carson, Schreiner, NT Wright, etc.

Happy reading and Merry Christmas.

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5 Replies to “Commentaries for Christmas: A Guide”

  1. Hi Bill,
    There are so many good commentaries out there now, and I have recently caught the bug – in buying a few. I have been buying one or two on most of the NT books. A mix of pillar, becnt, zecnt, nivac and NICNT. It is so costly and hard to narrow down which ones to buy. I have been using Carsons book as a guide and too and your suggestions. I hear that Carson will have a new guide out next year which will be helpful. I am hoping to look at ZECNT on acts hopefully soon when it comes into Koorong.
    Have a great Christmas.
    Stephen Nicholas

  2. Have you read Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Jerusalem? If so, what’s your take on it? Should I bother?
    Mavis Marion Hartnell

  3. Thanks Stephen

    Yes it can become an addiction, and it sure can be expensive. A number of mine were purchased second-hand over the years, but most were bought new. But I must confess I can be impatient, so I will often order my comms direct from overseas instead of waiting till they are sold here.

    Yes Carson’s NT guide (6th ed., 2007) and Longman’s OT guide (4th ed., 2007) are both great, but both are getting rather dated, so looking forward to new editions of each.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  4. Hi Bill,

    There is a new free commentary on 1 Corinthians by Shogren online. He did the 1-2 Thessolonians in the ZECNT series. It is quite impressive with pastoral applications throughout.

    Steve Nicholas

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