FYI: Skip to the bottom for my list of recommendations
Reading a commentary while you study the scriptures is the best way to ensure that you are correctly interpreting the text. There is no shortage of people, even pastors, interpreting and teaching the Bible without any help from biblical scholars who have devoted their lives to helping you better understand the text and interpret it the way that it was meant to be interpreted.
First off, you might be asking “what is a commentary?”. Well, it is a book (usually pretty large) that is written about a single book of the Old or New Testament. They move chapter by chapter and verse by verse through the text and are often times the culmination of years of arduous and intense scholarly work. It’s like having an expert in biblical interpretation walking you through the text, pointing out things that you might never have seen.
A good commentary will equip you with the tools that you need to read the text in a way that is well-informed and even life-changing. When the text is rightly interpreted, it can make you a more loving and content person and a blessing to those around you. When it is misunderstood and the meaning is simply guessed at or even twisted to fit our own agenda, the Bible can easily become a dangerous book that can bring out tribalism and even promote idolatry that hurts the world at large.
So as an avid commentary reader and one who has made a daily habit of expanding my Biblical literacy, I wanted to write some advice to put you the path to well-informed biblical interpretation. My hope is that you will eventually come to stand on your own and not rely on the interpretive skills of others, even more so, I want you to be able to spot bad interpretation in a sermon, a small group, or in the media. Too often we say to ourselves “that doesn’t sound right,” but we simply don’t know why. Well, read these tips, grab a cup of coffee, and start interpreting.
#1 Choose a commentary from the last 25 years.
While certain long-established segments of Christianity tend to read commentaries from the 19th century, and all the way back to the medieval time period, I would recommend reading something much newer. Biblical scholarship has made huge strides in the recent half-century. With the translation of recent archeological finds like the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Naag Hamadi Codices, many things have changed:
– Our understanding of Judaism in the first century has been vastly altered, which affects how we read books like Romans and Ephesians.
– Our understanding of the Greek language has been greatly expanded. And with a deeper understanding of casual greek, many words have taken on more complex meanings.
– This is just the tip of the iceberg here, there are so many things that historians and archeologist have brought to the table, and this work is still being done, so try and keep up!
Despite what you have heard, biblical scholarship and how we understand the work of God and the church really does change with the academic work and scholarship of every generation. It interacts with the sciences like linguistics and archeology, and it comes to new conclusions about how different texts should be read and understood. Newer commentaries will be interacting with both the theology of the past and the newer discoveries of the day.
#2 Ignore the Words in Parenthesis (at least for now).
Some people start reading commentaries, but they get confused and discouraged by the constant parenthetical text. For instance, 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).
This can get confusing because you might worry that you are missing something. Don’t worry, you aren’t. In fact, go ahead and assume that if you don’t know what it is, then it’s not for you.
But here’s a quick crash course anyways: The first part (Jos. Life 66) is letting you know that he learned what he just wrote from Josephus’ book The Life of Flavius Josephus, page 66. The other part (Theissen 1991:36) is simply referencing a scholar named Theissen’s writing on this passage from 1991, (called, The Gospel in Context: Social and Political History in the Synoptic Tradition) page 36.
Remember, you are not missing anything. Don’t feel like you are stepping into the middle of a conversation. If there was something important to know, it would be written in the text.
In time, you will learn to move right on by without even noticing them. And if you keep reading, one day you will see a reference to a scholar that you’ve already read in those parentheses, and you will suddenly say to yourself “I’ve read that scholar!”. It’s a great feeling!
#3 Don’t get bogged down in the details.
Most commentaries start with an introduction to the passage, then they move to a verse-by-verse analysis, then they end with a summary and some thoughts. The introduction and summary are often the most important parts. That is where the scholar is bringing it all together.
The middle verse-by-verse will often be difficult to read. It will contain ancient Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic and will talk about how those words were used in their day. It will also often times take part in a debate with the commentaries that were written before them; some ideas from different scholars will be challenged, and others will be given more argumentative support. It is okay to skip these parts if they are arduous and boring for you and move to the meat of the applicable material.
#4 There is no Rush!
For some reason, many Christians are in a hurry to get somewhere, and their study habits tend to reflect that. They typically want to study large swaths of scripture in short periods of time. But the reason I love commentaries is that it forces you to slow down and take in the scenery of each paragraph. Walking slowly through the text and resisting the urge to rush through is a spiritual discipline that yields a ton of fruit.
So if you find yourself considering picking up a commentary (I highly recommend that you do!) Here are a few on my current commentary reading list on the book of Matthew which is what we are studying in the church where I minister (Watermark Tampa).
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, I would recommend this for a wide range of people)
Rodney Reeves: Matthew (The Story of God Bible Commentary)
(A personal 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)