If you preach or teach frequently, you know the value of a good commentary. You may even have a handful within arm’s reach at any given time. Whether you use them in the early phases of preparation to find expository insights or later to check your work, these resources are immensely helpful for interpreting Scripture within the community of the saints, standing on the shoulders of those who’ve come before us.
But as we reach for these books on our shelves, have we ever paused to question what started this process of adding comments on the text of Scripture or why, after 2,000 years, Christians are still writing commentaries?
What’s the History of Commentaries?
Commentaries on Scripture have their roots deep in our history. In one sense, the fifth book of the Pentateuch—the book of Deuteronomy—is itself an inspired commentary on God’s Torah. Fast forward to the days of Jesus, and the first Jewish Targums begin to appear in writing. These paraphrastic explanations of the Scripture text began to show unity and diversity of interpretation within the Jewish community, guiding readers on how to understand (and even read) God’s Word.
In the following century, Christian leaders began producing commentaries and circulating homilies to provide help in the interpretation of Scripture. Some of the first commentaries on the New Testament—though sadly no longer extant—came from the catechetical school of Alexandria in Egypt and the pen of Pantaenus, a man who apparently went on to spread the gospel to India. The Antiochene school of interpretation—the church that formed the headwaters of Paul’s missionary journeys—also produced voluminous commentaries, often in the form of homilies. These commentaries sprung from writers and preachers such as (the theologically questionable) Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret, and the great Chrysostom, to name just a few.
Down through the Middle Ages and into the Reformation, commentaries on the Bible remained an ever-growing stream of output from the church and benefit to the saints. The most notable remains Calvin’s, which has enduring value for expositors and students of the Bible today.
The venerable tradition of biblical commentaries has served to press the church deeper into the Word, so long as interpreters have refused to make commentaries a shallow substitute for personal engagement with the text of Scripture.
Why So Many Commentaries?
When I was working on my dissertation on Colossians 1:24, multiple visitors to my home saw the stacks upon stacks of commentaries and other resources spread out on my dining room table and asked, “All this for one verse?” The answer is complicated.
The venerable tradition of biblical commentaries has served to press the church deeper into the Word.
More commentaries help because each author brings his or her personal perspective to bear on the text. The more commentaries you have, the better you’re able to sort out what’s normative and what’s an aberration.
More commentaries also help because each author approaches the text with his or her own purpose. Some commentaries are intended to make sense of the Hebrew or Greek text first and foremost. Others aim to present the broader theological aims of the book. Still others focus on exegesis of the text, bringing out the meaning of the passage at hand. Academic commentaries can tend toward critical matters, discussing issues of authorship, source, and form. Devotional commentaries tend toward practical matters, discussing issues of significance in the life of the believer. Each commentary is valuable based on its function.
Hole in Your Bookshelf
Back in 2018, when Don Carson proposed the idea of a new commentary series managed by The Gospel Coalition, it was natural to wonder, “With so many commentaries, why produce one more?”
As we evaluated this question, we came to the conclusion that yet another resource needed to be produced to do more than provide fodder to keep the lights on at a publishing house. Something new was needed because the current stream of commentaries has a gaping hole. We asked ourselves four questions about the commentaries currently on offer for the church:
- Is It Modern? Modern commentaries address a significant array of new questions facing pastors and teachers since Matthew Henry completed his commentaries on the Bible in 1710. Many modern commentaries exist to fit this need. But . . .
- Is It Understandable? Whole swaths of modern commentaries are written for academics, those with formal theological training and facility with the original languages. Helpful commentaries for lay leaders, rising elders, and the majority of global pastors who lack facility with Hebrew and Greek are sparse. But . . .
- Is It Trustworthy? Where you find modern and understandable commentaries, you’re likely to encounter a mixed bag of trustworthy and untrustworthy volumes. Some are self-published. Others are churned out by cults. Immense trust springs from resources with publicly stated theological presuppositions, a rule of faith that garners confidence from others who walk within the same long-standing tradition. With those few modern, understandable, and trustworthy commentaries, we ask . . .
- Is It Accessible? Can it be translated or retranslated without onerous rights and permissions? Can pastors-in-training receive digital or printed copies without violation of the law? Is it easily available online in a mobile-friendly, paywall-free environment?
When we asked these four questions, we found a gaping hole on our shelf. Thus started the six-year project that resulted in The Gospel Coalition Bible Commentary. With the final additions published online over the past weeks, the possibility of broader availability of quality commentaries for every Christian is now within sight.
Filling the Gap
Two weeks ago, TGC unveiled The Carson Center for Theological Renewal as an entity charged with the production, management, and stewardship of resources such as this new commentary series. Many other modern, understandable, trustworthy, and accessible resources need to be added to the shelf of every Christian.
In addition to The Carson Center, the attendees at TGC23 were invited to participate in a conference fundraiser to support the translation and localization of these commentaries into Spanish and Arabic. Over the course of the week, attendees participated in TGC’s largest conference fundraiser of all time—and we’ve been hosting conferences since 2007. Over $120,000 was raised to support the production of commentaries in these two languages.
Mina Yousef, TGC’s Arabic editorial coordinator, wrote to me when we first started discussing the project, “Available commentaries in the Arabic-speaking world are either liberal, Orthodox, or Catholic, and nothing is available online for free.”
For the Spanish commentaries, in conjunction with our team at Coalición por el Evangelio, we’re going one step further. We’re identifying a slate of Spanish-speaking theologians who can write new content for the Spanish edition, replacing rather than translating the English commentaries in areas of specialty. This approach will broaden the array of voices and provide a space for new Spanish-speaking authors to be heard in commentary form in their heart language.
How You Can Help
Given the importance of commentaries, the hole in the shelf, and the function of this commentary project at TGC to fill the gap, there are several key ways you can get involved and maximize the benefit of this project.
1. Use the commentaries. The more time you spend on the commentaries as you research and prepare to preach or teach or lead a discussion, the more value search engines attribute to these resources. Be blessed by these free resources and, in so doing, you’ll help others be blessed by them.
2. Share the commentaries. If you know a friend, pastor, or Sunday school teacher who’s teaching on a particular book, share a link with them. We recognize that TGC has a vast array of content, and it’s easy to miss the resources you may need the most.
3. Fund the vision. Would you consider how God might be leading you to link arms with The Carson Center as we begin to fill the gaps for the global church? Your giving will help us facilitate even more translation and localization projects and yet more critical resources such as a Bible dictionary, church history guide, and hermeneutics guide.
Next time you reach for a commentary on your shelf, remember you stand in a long line of Christians who’ve done the same. And many more Christians need the same opportunity to enter the tradition that has brought immense benefit to us.