How I Choose Commentaries

commentariesAfter I posted my annual review of the books I heard and read over the past year, an acquaintance asked me how I chose the commentaries I use. I gave it a bit of a think, and though I have no particular “method,” I thought I would share what I have learned over the years anyways. Maybe it will be helpful.

I’ll start from the beginning.

Within just a few months after the Lord saved me in college, my thirst for biblical knowledge began to increase enormously. I quickly amassed a small shelf’s worth of theological books, and because my discernment was profoundly immature, I unwittingly gathered books from a variety of authors, some good, some not so good. I was also persuaded by the study philosophy I was picking up from my favorite pastors, like John MacArthur, that said if I planned to teach a book from the Bible, I need to get every commentary on that particular book I can get my hands on.

It took me a little time to figure this out, but honestly, such a philosophy, though well-intentioned, does have its practical limitations. To the point, I only had so much room in my house for book shelves, and so much room for books on those shelves. If I wanted to pick-up commentaries, I would have to be more selective in what I purchased.

Now, certainly ebooks, Logos, Bible Works, and Kindles have helped with the collection of an extensive theological library. I am personally not a big fan of ebooks. Maybe in the future for those wishing to persuade me. I just have a love affair with the way a book, especially a weighty, technical commentary, feels in my hands and the pages flip with my fingers. Odd, I know; but it’s me and I am not changing anytime soon.

At any rate, rather than buying physical books that sit on a shelf taking up wall space in your living room, books can now be collected electronically. The number is merely limited to your electronic storage space, which, unlike your house, can be expanded almost indefinitely. So a person can have upwards from 5 to 50 shelves worth of books on his Kindle that he can take with him anywhere.

However, even with the growing popularity of ebooks, the electronic commentaries can be pricey. That is especially true for the editions that sync with Logos or Bible Works so that they are searchable. If you are a normal guy like myself, and you have limited funds, you still want to use some wisdom when it comes to purchasing commentaries.

I have always wanted to have at least one or two commentaries on every book of the Bible. That seemed easy enough to obtain and would give me roughly 132 books I needed to keep shelved. Obviously, some books of the Bible may have more choices with commentaries than others, say for example Romans as opposed to Obadiah.  Moreover, the study philosophy I have developed is to have at least 3 or 4 really good commentaries on a particular book I plan to study and teach. Because the bulk of my study is from the NT, I have more commentaries on the NT than the OT.  Still, I have learned to narrow my choices down in order to have what would be the best offerings I can find.

One of the first things I learned was to read the bibliography of those pastors or teachers who put out an excellent commentary on whatever book of the Bible. They had to have prepared themselves, so I was curious as to what authors influenced their thinking to write their own commentary. When I would pick up one of the Lloyd-Jones’s commentaries for instance, I would look in the back to read who he consulted for his studied. I’d make a list, and once I had the opportunity to physically review the books on my list, I would pick those commentaries I thought were especially detailed and full of good information.

And in turn I would search those bibliography for even more recommendations. Over time, as I taught Bible studies and preached, I would begin to develop favorite writers who offered a lot to my preparation. For instance, I believe D. Edmond Hiebert is entirely underrated and under appreciated.  He wrote a handful of commentaries for the NT, and everyone of them is just absolutely outstanding. Homer Kent is another good author whose commentaries are small and sometimes woefully short, but always packed with great information. Yet, even with this method, I can only go so far because I could potentially run across a ton of excellent commentaries and again, I reach my shelf limitation.

It has also been helpful to have a world-class theological seminary and Bible college library at my disposal because I can check out the commentaries under consideration, and use them a bit to determine if there is any one I would want permanently. Not everyone has the privilege of a seminary library in your backyard, but if you do, I would recommend availing yourself of it as much as possible.

Thankfully, the internet has provided a platform for reviewers and there is a website called, Best Commentaries. It is a consortium of reviewers who rank the best commentaries around categories like “exegetical” and “devotional” etc. In fact, this is probably the number one recommended source because the site is extremely user-friendly, maintains a section for reviewers for both OT and NT books, and links you to even more good lists of recommended commentaries like Detroit Theological Seminary and Jim Rosscup’s commentaries for expositors. But even that website has a few short-comings and commentaries that are “ranked” low I just shake my head over. Hiebert’s stuff is not even mentioned. I find that to be a joke.

Ultimately, I would encourage young students to discern wisely before investing what could potentially be a lot of money for commentaries. Ask around from trusted men who have taught the Bible for a long period of time what they think. If you can borrow them or check them out of the library, try to use them first in your study prep and determine how useful they truly are.

And, perhaps some other folks will tell us how they have learned to evaluate commentaries in the comments.

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12 thoughts on “How I Choose Commentaries

  1. I agree that Hiebert is a secret too well kept. Martyn Lloyd-Jones is always profitable. I am growing in my appreciation of Douglas Moo, but his name cracks me up. Sorry.

  2. Tim Challies has also been doing a once a week or so series on the best commentaries, trying to identify the top 3 or 4 commentaries on every book in the Bible. That would probably be helpful too.

  3. I agree, Fred–bestcommentaries.com is indispensable! I’m so glad the internet has afforded us an opportunity to have a more up-to-date version of resources like Carson’s “NT Commentary Survey,” which would of course have to get updated every five or six years or so. (Though before bestcommentaries, both his NT commentary survey and Longman’s OT commentary survey were tremendously helpful!)

    I also think the bibliography route is helpful. I’d go a step further, though, and suggest that people start with a bibliography found in a good OT/NT Introduction (see Zondervan’s excellent volumes–Longman and Dillard on OT, Carson and Moo on the NT). Everybody should have a good OT/NT introduction in their library for advanced study, and the bibliographies there will give you a good overview of a broad range of scholarship.

    In general, I’ve found that it’s hard to go wrong among the entries of the Pillar series for NT books (with particularly awesome entries from Carson on John, Moo on James, Colossians and Philemon, and O’Brien on Ephesians and Hebrews), and the NIC series for the OT (Waltke on Proverbs, Thompson on Jeremiah, and Oswalt on Isaiah is simply STELLAR).

  4. your choice of commentaries is probably influenced by the idiotic MS, a dumb school concerned with fundamentalisms.

  5. Since I teach laypeople, it is not helpful to present them with a lot of technical information from commentaries. But I read them for my own education and/or edification. Sometimes it is harder to read the on line material for a lengthy time, but there is a lot of it out there, much of it free. I like to compare and contrast as I go before deciding which one is most authentic and suited to the needs of my class.

  6. So is your choice of commentaries influenced by those dumb seminaries that are concerned with pleasing the “academic” world and accommodating theological liberalism? wondering.

  7. it is not helpful to present them with a lot of technical information from commentaries.

    I think it can be extremely beneficial if you package it properly and in a manner that they can learn. One of the worst thing a teacher can do is insult the intelligence of his audience by assuming that they are either too unsophisticated or not interested in the subject. Help them take baby steps in those regards.

  8. I’m not sure how the ranking system, etc. on bestcommentaries works (I didn’t thoroughly examine its criteria) but I was surprised by some of the rankings. For example, I am preaching through Ephesians. I agree that Hoehner and O’Brien are probably the best. Thielman is ranked down a ways, which is fine, he is okay but not great. However, I have found Arnold’s commentary to be excellent (up there with Hoehner and O’Brien) but he has no ranking at all.

  9. I’m the creator of bestcommentaries.com, and I’m glad to see that you’ve found it helpful. For those wondering where the rankings come from, it’s basically just an average score from all the published reviews I can find and reviews from site users. Think RottenTomatoes for commentaries.

    So if there’s a commentary you think should be rated higher (Arnold on John) or a book that’s missing (Hiebert on John), please recommend or review it so other’s can benefit from your knowledge and experience. Thanks so much!

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