How To Buy A Commentary for Bible Study

I’ve been posting about using digital tools and we started talking about commentaries. Here’s the rub: there are a whole mess of Bible commentaries.

It’s not enough that we have the printing press and modern theologians writing a whole mess of them; we also have 2,000 years of church history filled with commentaries.

But not only that, we have the commentaries by unbelievers, agnostic believers, people who are closer to deists than anything, heretics, heterodox, and people who just have a pet agenda to push forward.

For the person who is studying their Bible, who has put in some sweat and tears on exegesis, I think it’s smart to invest good money on solid commentaries while simultaneously avoiding all the garbage that’s out there.

At this point, some folk might be quick to recommend a digital version of William MacDonald’s two volume commentary on the Bible. Yeah, it’s good for what it is—a quick hitting devotional through the Bible. But a main source for commentary it is not (sorry—neither is Matthew Henry’s.).

And frankly, no single volume commentary will be. Not even a single publisher of commentaries. If you want some real commentary tools for studying your Bible, you’re going to have to approach it like a stock portfolio: diversify.

So here are some links to resources that let you broaden your horizon on what commentaries to look for when shopping:

Free: Check out Best Commentaries for reviews on, well, commentaries. The site compiler picks up his information from some books that you should definitely buy but also touches on some writers that are on the web (like Keith Mathison over on Ligonier Ministries or Jeremy Pierce, a Chrisitan philosopher who blogs over at Parableman). For those strapped for cash, this is a great place to start but definitely think about investing in the Not-Free section.

Not Free but Must Own: pick up D.A Carson’s New Testament Commentary Survey. He’s a solid evangelical and reformed professor, pastor , and exegetical expert and this book will save you loads of money. He reviews commentaries, rates them based on skill level, but unfortunately only stays within the realm of the New Testament. The Kindle edition is roughly seven bucks which you can spend just by skipping Starbucks tomorrow.  But don’t let your heart be troubled, Tremper Longman III has an Old Testament Commentary Survey which does essentially the same thing as Carson but for the OT. For 8 bucks Kindle version, you can’t go wrong with this two stepper. And lastly, you should consider also picking up John Glynn’s Commentary and Reference survey. It’s the most expensive of the two since it’s not only commentaries, but it helps the commentary purchasing endeavor.

Note: you might not want to purchase commentaries in only digital versions. Digital versions are great, in that you can take them anywhere in your computer (especially if you purchased the Perfect Electronic Bible) but you’ll more often never get the discount you might find on a print version. I’ve bought print versions that are marked up with highlighters for under three bucks; I could never buy a digital version for that low.

So consider if you need to buy a digital version of any commentary before buying one. In fact, you might even want to use inter-library loans to get your hands on commentaries without buying them—it’s a great way to try before you buy.

Next post, how to actually use a commentary.

Crossposted at Digital Sojourner

UPDATE from Jeremy Pierce over on Facebook: I’m finding the guide by John F. Evans to be excellent. Carson, Longman, and Glynn are five years old already. Evans’ latest edition is only two. He has more detail on his most-recommended volumes, but his list is pretty comprehensive, and I find myself agreeing with him more often than not. He even cites a number of reviews in academic journals for many volumes, for those who want to pursue more depth in their evaluations before buying. It’s worth looking at, at the very least for stuff that came out between 2007 and 2010 (of which there’s plenty of good stuff).

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Why You Should Use A Commentary For Bible Study

I’ve been posting about using digital tools to aid in a Bible Study. I’ve repeatedly mentioned reading the Bible, and that’s no different at this point where I want to merely state (without substantiating it very much—really can’t do all that in under five hundred words) that you should be using commentaries.

First, why you should be careful with commentaries:

  1. Some of them take a non-Christian approach to studying the text.
  2. Some take an agnostic approach about God’s work in history.
  3. They can be perverted to give a sense of secret knowledge.
  4. They might take you afield from the text if you refuse to stick with the text.
  5. They can be expensive.

But now, why you should use them:

  1. The best authors have studied history; you most likely haven’t.
  2. The best authors are expert in original languages; you mostly likely aren’t.
  3. The authors have interacted with other authors and have had their ideas scrutinized by experts in their field; you most likely haven’t.
  4. They’ll provoke you to think about the text outside of your normal ways of thinking.
  5. The Holy Spirit wasn’t only given to you: he was given to all Christians. Including the very smart ones who write commentaries.
  6. The Holy Spirit works in time so that means that very old commentaries might be just as helpful to you as modern ones.
  7. They provide a way to check your understanding of Scripture against the broader community.
  8. They predicate their work on a lifetime of studying a passage; you most likely haven’t
  9. Because  they give you hard work to provoke your brain for hard thinking.
  10. Because Spurgeon said so: “In order to be able to expound the Scriptures, and as an aid to your pulpit studies, you will need to be familiar with the commentators: a glorious army, let me tell you, whose acquaintance will be your delight and profit. Of course, you are not such wiseacres as to think or say that you can expound Scripture without assistance from the works of divines and learned men who have laboured before you in the field of exposition. If you are of that opinion, pray remain so, for you are not worth the trouble of conversion, and like a little coterie who think with you, would resent the attempt as an insult to your infallibility. It seems odd, that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves, should think so little of what he has revealed to others.”

Next I’ll deal with how to buy a commentary.

Crossposted at Digital Sojourner.

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How To Come Up With Your Own Bible Headings

We’ve been looking at this idea of studying the Bible using digital tools and we left off with tips on note taking. At this point I want to combine all the things we have thus far (reading the text of alternate versions across translation methodologies finally settling on a parallel work screen with note-taking tools on hand) and start examining the text.

If a person is proficient in original languages I’d probably suggest starting there since they can see the breaks in the passage (that is, if you’re reading any Greek text post-minuscule) but the average student probably doesn’t need to go there.

Many versions have a ton of scholarship backing the translation; the ones I’ve recommended (except the MSG) will probably give you the best footing. But, if you’re committed to the go-to-Greek-text: Nestle-Aland27/UBS4.

First, identify sentences. This is usually easy since, with the verse numbers turned off, you’ll probably just identify them with punctuation.

Next, identify paragraphs. A paragraph is a collection of sentences based on a common idea. This is usually pretty easy too since a lot of modern versions already come with paragraph breaks.

You might notice in your parallel reading that versions break them down differently. This is why you’ll want to also identify when the author changes what he’s talking about.

This sounds similar to a paragraph in that it’s dealing with an idea. But an idea might go through several paragraphs and still be about that one subject. What’s nice about identifying the Big Idea first, you can more easily identify the movement within the block.

For example John 9. The entire chapter has one idea/story: the man who was born blind is healed. Within that section there are several paragraphs comprise the entire unit: the discussion, the healing, the man alone, the man meeting Jesus again. But in all cases, it’s one unit of thought. This is called a pericope.

Usually modern versions divide periscopes by headings but we’ve turned them off. Sometimes you’ll read the text and realize that the pericope seems to continue. In other cases you’ll find that maybe there should be more pericopes than the translation suggests. By studying the text without the headers, we get to try to discover the unit of thought for ourselves, or at the very least come up with a heading which is more understandable for our personal notes.

  • Online: Sentence diagramming tools might be helpful. The good thing is that you can do a variation of this with just about any word processor or email program.

The Word <-subject

——-|In the Beginning <–time marker

—————-|was with God  <–modifies subject

—————-|was God <–modifies subject

  • Downloadables: BibleArc is a tool that’s available for a suggested yearly donation of $10 but they’ll work with you if you can’t afford that. Basically they have a method for you to breakdown sentences (or even collections of sentences) visually portray connecting thoughts. You can also check Sendraw, an opensource program by UCF’s Department of English that lets you diagram sentences. If you don’t know (or don’t remember) how to do that, check this easy walkthrough.
  • Paid: I personally haven’t seen anything like BibleArc in the expensive paid for suites though they do have many other interesting tools. For example, logos has a compare pericope tool which lets you compare what each version has decided was a unit of thought. It also has a very handy Word tree, which lets diagrams a word in relation to other thoughts within specific passages. Also for the iPad, you might want to check out some mind mapping apps.

When you’re done with this, you’ll be able to apply your own headings to the sections.

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How To Take E-Notes

We’ve been highlighting features for digitally studying Bibles and in this post I wanted to touch on note-taking. Admittedly, everyone has their own method of taking notes. I personally love outlines. Others need to record jottings of whatever stood out to them. Yet others need to record entire messages as mp3’s and use those as their go-to-guide. I’ve been highlighting tools that can be used for bible study and I wanted to list a few for taking notes during the entire process.

Basically all you’re doing is storing the information you’re discovering in a format that is easy to come back to at a later date. You’ll want that information to be accessible wherever you need it and that means preferably using some form of cloud storage. And yet, you want to be able to take robust notes without sacrificing quality just so that you can save online.

  • Online: A rough and dirty tool is your email program. If you’re using something like Gmail you can just open up an email and send it to yourself. But if you’re already using Gmail, just launch Google Docs which is pretty fantastic. It has the ability to do word processing, spreadsheets, and even presentations all for free. I don’t like how it is super easy to get disorganized so you have to make sure you’re using the folders feature, but even then, it’s just a laundry list of folders. I guess it doesn’t matter since it’s all backed with the power of Google’s search engine to find your file. Microsoft also has their SkyDrive, which is also free. Microsoft has freely downloadable tools that you can put on your computer for saving to the SkyDrive; with Google you’ll have to change a setting that lets you access Docs offline.
  • Freeish: There’s actually some great outright free tools that you can use for note taking and cloud storage so that you can access the things all the time. OpenOffice is a fantastic suite of office applications that can be used on multiple platforms AND it can read Microsoft files. Did I mention it’s free? You can also download something like or Dropbox so that you can back up your notes to the web for accessing wherever you may be at a later point.
  • Not-Free: Apple has their iLife suite which is pretty nice and Windows 7 usually ships with the Windows Live software which integrates with that Live Documents thing I mentioned above but both of these are outshined by the sheer power that is Microsoft Office. It is frankly unsurprising that this is the go-to tool for word processing, spreadsheets and presentations. If you’re going to pay for any type of word processor, this should be it.

Cross-posted at Digital Sojourner

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How To Do A Parallel Bible Reading

We’re talking about using some digital tools for Bible study with emphasis on highlighting general pros and cons to each tool. If you recall, our text is John 1 but we left off still in the reading stage. This post is also going to be about reading but instead on a focus on parallel reading. (Note, to ward off any Evil Eyes: I intentionally changed the order of the Greek to visually correspond with the English so (1) I don’t want to hear the complaint and (2) it doesn’t matter because the subject is still essentially grammatically underscored. There, bases covered.)

Parallel reading in Bible Study has a somewhat different meaning, even if connected idea, with schooling.

In schooling, it’s when you have a student and a teacher (or a reader and a more proficient reader, or a parent and a child) read the same text, makes notes on it, and talk about it. We get to see how one reader interpreted a specific text versus another reader. As an example, get kids to read Animal Farm and then get them to read it in High School with their teacher.

Dual-language speakers know that all translation is interpretation. In other words, to get the words in the original language to mean something to the person reading in their own (and different) language, you have to do interpreting: be it words, idioms, or ideas.

So parallel reading in a Bible study is when you have two (or more) versions up against each other. Here’s our key text in a couple of different versions.

  • Online: All the online sites let you do parallel reading. Some (like Bible Study Tools) put the verse on one line which makes comparative reading simple. Few (like Bible Gateway) allow a comparison of more than two texts in the same window.  Others (like NET) just have the parallel in a tab listing the other versions—feels kind of clunky to me. Most of them do a horrendously poor job comparing with original languages either relegating the feature to the Interlinear Bible or not helping out the reader see where the words coincide. Even a reader of Greek might want to quickly see the textual comparison without hunting and gathering what the English translating committee finally settled on. The NET does the best job by highlighting the corresponding translated word as well as where the word is used in the same chapter. Also, the NET’s translation notes returns dividends for anyone who invests time with them. Anyone doing parallel reading online might have to use multiple tools.
  • Freeish: The Freeish downloaded tools usually have the ability to compare about 4 versions simultaneously. Of course you’re still limited to the versions you have a license for which means that it might not be as free as you first thought. The one to one comparison of the English and Greek text is usually not the greatest so you might find yourself falling back on the Online tools like the NET’s comparison tool.
  • Not-Free: Not all paid-for tools are created equal so you’ll find that some do a better job with the parallel reading feature than others. Logos gives you a ton of material to work with and uses a lot of tabs and windows (which can be daunting) but also has a handy translation river tool that visually shows you the variation from a particular version. Bibleworks does a fantastic job of comparing original language to a given translation and it’s really intuitive. I haven’t checked out Accordance in years so I can’t really comment on it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is just as good as the other paid-for products.

What we’re doing here, if we don’t know the original languages, is understand what the original language is saying and consulting different versions, and the scholarship behind them, helps that. We’re not trying to pick which translation sounds the best.
Crossposted at The Bible Archive.

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How To Read A Bible Outside Your Comfort Zone

We started this bit on studying the Bible using different tools to highlight their strengths and weaknesses. In this post I want to shed some light on reading in different versions.

Reading in your known version should take under five minutes, possibly even a minute. Your mind is putting the sentences together quicker than your eyes see them.

What you want to do while studying is read the entire book again, but this time we’ll jump outside of the comfort zone of our translation’s methodological sphere. Confused? Let me explain.

Each version has a methodology to how they translate the original language.

Some translations try to convey the words and structure of the original language in the receptor (that is, the translated to) language. Those translations are trying to employ a methodology called formal equivalence.

Other translations try to convey what the original language is trying to get across the original readers. The words are doing something and these methodologies want to translate what those words are doing into the receptor language. The translations are using functional equivalence.

The thing is, all versions are essentially on a line that approaches the original language. The only way you can have a one-to-one form and function correspondence is if you have the original language. (Read a great book by Gordon Fee on this subject or a great article about different versions by Wallace.)

So what I’m really saying is that one should read outside of the sphere of what we’re used to so that we can really read the text. My personal preference picks from three points on the line, bolding what I think are absolutely the best options: [NASBESV]-[NIVHCSBNET]-[NLTMSG]. The MSG is by far the least preferable on this list since it doesn’t have group scholarship behind it, but it’s still good just for letting us see what the text says.

  • Online: On Bible Gateway, pick a different version on the pull down and read. This is available on almost every online site so don’t feel restricted to Bible Gateway.
  • Freeish: Pick a different available version from the tabs.
  • Not-Free: You should have a library or catalog within the program that should let you pick a different version. Some might already have five versions pre-picked on different tabs in the background.

Crossposted at Digital Sojourner.

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How To Read An E-Bible For Studying

I want to highlight features of different tools—be they online only, downloadable, or something you just have to pay for. Of course, we won’t be able to do this all in one post, so you’ll have to tune in.

Our pretend-to-study text will be John 1:1. This will help us to have a constant reference point throughout the series and perhaps will allow us to see comparisons and differences in the medium.

Before you study anything, you have to read. It applies to the Bible. It applies to Shakespeare. I strongly suggest picking up Adler’s How To Read A Book, but that’s just to underscore this one point. You. Must. Read.

Read the full thing. By “full thing” I don’t mean reading the verse that you want to study; I mean reading the entire book, preferably in one sitting. This is, of course, more difficult (impossible?) with bigger books.

  • Online: Hop over to the Bible Gateway and pick our favorite translation for a one sitting reading. You type out where you want to read and then go to the Page Options button and turn off headings, cross references, verse numbers—all that stuff. Mind you, there are some really good online Bibles for serious study so don’t think we’re going to stay here.
  • Downloadable: Open the program of choice (MacSword/E-Sword/Xiphos) and pick your favorite translation that’s available for free—unfortunately that’s not a lot. You’ll quickly discover that due to licensing issues, you have to pay extra for Bible modules. Turning off the extras is usually located under either the Options or View menu but since you have the restrictions on the versions, you might just want to use the free online option.
  • Not-Free: If you spent over a hundred bucks on the program, it most likely has your favorite version but turning off the extra information varies from program to program.

Turning off the extras allow you to read the text without the influence of someone else’s headings and without the visual stop-points of verses.

Crossposted at Digital Sojourner.

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