Biblical commentaries are not a new phenomenon. In their more modern form, they have been around for well over 100 years, but throughout Christian history, theologians have dedicated themselves to spending time patiently working through a biblical book, considering various questions and conundrums arising from the text, and pondering its meaning for today. And no doubt the work of writing biblical commentaries will continue on into the future. Every generation has new perspectives to offer, sometimes new insights into the text, and fresh questions to bring from the challenges and opportunities of culture.
I myself have written a few commentaries and I sometimes get the question: Why would we need new commentaries? If the Bible is ancient, and many commentaries have been written, hasn’t it all been said? Yes—and no. Yes, we have good theological and exegetical commentaries that have covered the whole Bible carefully. But many scholars, including myself, believe that there are always new things to discover and learn. And, yes, we can continue to improve on what has been done before. That doesn’t dismiss or reject commentaries of a previous generation, but we are always making new findings in archeology, our understanding of ancient history, and newly discovered ancient parallel literature (like the Dead Sea Scrolls), and we are advancing in our understanding of the Greek language from the era of the earliest Christians.
Be wary of free online commentaries
I know that it is tempting to Google information and hope for free academic resources online. And sometimes your wishes come true. But often what is available for free is public domain because it is very, very old. Now, that doesn’t automatically mean it is useless. But it is often the case that these older commentaries suffer from some problems that have been corrected in recent years. For example, an earlier generation drew a sharp distinction between “Judaism” ( Jewish life and culture) and “Hellenism” (Greek life and culture), and biblical authors and their perspectives were believed to have fit into just one of these categories. But we know now that, just as is the case with modern people like you and me, we are influenced by many different kinds of cultural factors. So it is with the biblical authors and characters.
You might have access to online resources through a library subscription or institutional databases. In that case, you might be able to access really useful and accurate resources.
How can you tell if a commentary is trustworthy?
How do you know if a commentary is trustworthy? My general rule of thumb, and it is not foolproof but just a somewhat arbitrary dividing line, is to look at commentaries published in 1980 or more recently. Here are some other questions to ask:
- Is the commentary by a reputable author? Does she or he have a reputable academic qualification?
- Is the commentary produced by a reputable academic publisher?
- Is the commentary part of a series? Is the series edited by a professional?
- Is the commentary endorsed (look at the back cover) by respected academics?
- Does the series description offer a specific type of methodology for the commentary?
Be warned: people can say whatever they want in commentaries. You might be getting faulty information. So, knowing the author is trustworthy is very important. I get lots of emails from church people who ask me, “I heard this theory. Is it correct?” or, “My pastor gave this interpretation. Is it legitimate?” Often, the answer is no: someone came up with a clever idea, and it is just a guess or a possibility.
If I am being honest, some new commentaries don’t really offer much new material, which is precisely why a book like this one is handy. Pastors, students, and sometimes even scholars benefit from tips about which commentaries offer the most insight.
This post was adapted from The New Testament Commentary Guide: A Brief Handbook for Students and Pastors by Nijay K. Gupta (Lexham Press, 2020).