Reading commentaries for the first time can be perplexing. Which one is best to choose? How do we read commentaries to maximize personal and communal engagement? How should we sift through the more academic verbiage? For those wondering, a commentary is typically a large book written about a single book from the Old or New Testament that moves chapter by chapter and verse by verse. These speculations embody the culmination of arduous years in passionate scholarly research, which seek to point out fresh biblical insight.
A good commentary should equip readers with the tools they need to read biblical text in a well-informed and life-changing way.
When the text is rightly interpreted, it can influence your moral output – such as love, contentment, and generosity. However, when the text is misunderstood, twisted, or propagandized, the Bible can easily become a danger that hurts global society.
Through these four simplified steps, you will eventually stand on your own instead of others’ interpretations. You will also begin to notice fallacies in a sermon, in a small group, or in the media sphere. Too often we say to ourselves, “that doesn’t sound right,” but we simply do not assess why. These four methods will support you in solving the why.
#1 Choose a Commentary from the Last 25 Years
Biblical scholarship has progressed greatly in the modern century. With the translation of recent archeological finds like the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Naaq Hamadi Codices, many changes have taken place. These include:
- Our understanding of Judaism in the first century – which affects how we read books such as Romans and Ephesians
- Our understanding of the Greek language has greatly expanded. With a deeper consideration of casual Greek, many words hold more complexity.
Despite common speculation, correct biblical analysis really does change with each generation. It interacts with the sciences like linguistics and archeology, while also arriving at new conclusions about how texts should be read, understood or applied.
Newer commentaries will be interacting with both past theology and present discovery.
#2 Ignore the Words in Parenthesis (at Least for Now)
When you start reading commentaries, you might get confused and discouraged by the constant parenthetical text. For example, you might be reading Craig Keener’s commentary on Matthew 11 and suddenly, in the middle of a sentence, see something like this:
(Jos. Life 66; Theissen 1991:36).
The first part (Jos. Life 66) informs the reader that the author learned what he wrote from Josephus’ book The Life of Flavius Josephus, page 66. The other part (Theissen 1991:36) simply references a scholar named Theissen and his writing on this passage from 1991, (called, The Gospel in Context: Social and Political History in the Synoptic Tradition) page 36. One day you might see a reference to a scholar whom you are familiar with, and will declare to yourself “I’ve read that scholar!” It truly is a great feeling!
#3 Don’t Get Bogged Down in the Details
Most commentaries begin with an introduction to the passage, develop with a verse-by-verse analysis, and end with a summary. The introduction and summary are often the most important parts. This is where the scholar ties his findings together.
- The verse-by-verse analysis might be a bit taxing to read. It contains ancient Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic and talks about how the words were originally used.
- The details usually take part in a debate with the commentaries written before them; some ideas from different scholars will be challenged, and others will be given argumentative support.
Some interpreters recommend skipping these parts if they are too difficult or colorless for you. If you find yourself in this situation, try navigating into the more applicable material.
#4 There is no Rush!
For some reason, many Christians are in a hurry to get somewhere, which reflects poorly on their personal study habits. They seem to think it’s effective to deeply study large swaths of Scripture in short periods of time.
Commentaries should be elevated in value because they force the reader to slow down and take in each paragraph’s scenery. Not only does this allow for improving dialogue, but also for internalizing the extracted truths.
Walking methodically through the text and resisting the urge to rush the learning process, yields a ton of fruit as well as spiritual discipline.
If you find yourself picking up a commentary now or in the future, here are a few recommended versions based from the book of Matthew:
The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary
(Thorough and contextual, but a bit pricey)
Donald A. Hagner: Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 33a, Matthew 1-13
(Very affordable, more scholastic. Focus on the Intro’s and Summaries of each passage)
Leander Keck: The New Interpreter’s Bible: Matthew – Mark (Volume 8)
(Well rounded and accessible, would recommend this for a wide range of people)
Rodney Reeves: Matthew (The Story of God Bible Commentary)
(A Favorite. Very easy to read!)
N.T. Wright: Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15
(Great for Beginners)
William Barclay: The Gospel of Matthew Volume I (The New Daily Study Bible)
(Inexpensive, super easy to read, can be used as a daily reader.)
Brian K Blount: True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary
(Covers entire New Testament in small bites from an African American Perspective)
Bruce Malina: Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels
(Covers entire New Testament, fascinating social study of 1st century Culture, not theologically focused)
This is an excerpt from Tommy Phillips’s larger blogpost, “How to Use a Commentary: 4 Ways to get the Most out of your Daily Study.” You can read the full article here.