Favorite Biblical Commentaries: Protestant Canon
No biblical commentary series or set is equally good in every volume. Most series are quite irregular. So my advice to seminarians and others building theological libraries is always this: Pick one good commentary series to buy so that you have at least one volume on every biblical book. If I were just starting my theological library, my series would either be The New Interpreter’s Bible or The Word Biblical Commentary, but working pastors would also do well with the Interpretation series (aimed at preachers). After that, break up the other series, buying only the best volumes for your library. Only purchase commentaries that you have consulted (in a theological library) first–in preparing a sermon or an exegetical paper.
What follows are my favorite commentaries on every book in the Protestant canon, from Genesis to Revelation (as of this moment). I tend to favor perspectives that combine historical and/or literary critical methods with theological exegesis. On biblical books that are more central to my own “canon within the canon” (Käsemann). A good commentary helps you read the actual biblical text more closely, but is never a substitute for one’s own close reading of the biblical text.
I. Torah or Pentateuch:
Genesis: One of my favorite biblical books. I have several commentaries on Genesis from several different perspectives. For technical issues, everyone should consult Claus Westermann’s huge 3-volume Genesis: A Continental Commentary. (Augsburg-Fortress Press, 1994). But even in translation, Westermann is dense and cumbersome. My favorite 3 commentaries on Genesis are:
- Walter Brueggemann, Genesis. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. (Westminster/John Knox, 1982). Brueggemann has a gift, a charism, for biblical interpretation and it is on full display here.
- Pauline Viviano, Genesis. Collegeville Bible Commentary OT Vol. 2. (Liturgical Press, 1985). This is an excellent contemporary Catholic (and mildly feminist) interpretation. It is aimed at laity and put out by the publishing arm of the Order of St. Benedict. Based on the text of The New American Bible but with due attention to the underlying Hebrew.
- Eugene F. Roop, Genesis. Believers’ Church Bible Commentary, vol. one. (Herald Press, 1987). Roop, former Pres. and Professor of Old Testament at Bethany Theological Seminary is a minister in the Church of the Brethren. The Believers’ Church Bible Commentary series highlights the Anabaptist perspective of Mennonites and Brethren and is aimed at pastors and preachers.
While not strictly commentaries, the following works on “special topics” relating to Genesis are invaluable:
- Conrad M. Hyers, The Meaning of Creation: Genesis and Modern Science. (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1984). Very helpful in explaining to laity why “creation science” (or, more recently, “intelligent design”) attempts to defend the Bible by refuting biological evolution completely miss the point of the creation narratives.
- Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Overtures to Biblical Theology) (Fortress Press, 1986). A feminist reading of the Garden of Eden story as a “love story gone awry” and contrasted to the Song of Songs as a “love story healed.” Excellent introduction to rhetorical criticism and the “close reading of the texts” too.
Christian students of the Hebrew Bible or “Old Testament,” should also interact with Jewish perspectives. I find helpful:
- Nahum M. Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis. (Jewish Publication Society of America, 1989). Gives the traditional Hebrew text, the English translation of the JPS Tanakh, and Sarna’s commentary. Sarna is a rabbi trained in both contemporary critical exegesis and traditional rabbinic approaches.
- Robert Alter, Genesis: Translation and Commentary. (W. W. Norton and Company, 1997) Alter is a literary critic whose The Art of Biblical Narrative (1983) and The Art of Biblical Poetry (1987) revolutionized literary interpretations of Scripture in both Jewish and Christian circles.
- Jacob Neusner, Genesis Rabbah: The Judaic to the Book of Genesis: A New American Translation, 2 vols. (University of South Florida, 1985). Neusner has sought to renew contemporary Judaism by de-centering the Holocaust experience (which has dominated much Jewish thought since the end of World War II) and placing traditional Talmudic and Rabbinic perspectives in conversation with modern critical interpretation. Also helpful here is Neusner’s, Genesis and Judaism and Confronting Creation: How Judaism Reads Genesis.
- Brevard S. Childs, The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary. (Old Testament Library) (Westminster Press, 1974). The late Brevard Childs (1923-2007) was one of the great biblical scholars of the past century and this volume out of the Old Testament Library series continues to pass the test of time.
- George (Jorge)V. Pixley, On Exodus: A Liberation Perspective. (Orbis Books, 1988). Pixley is an Old Testament scholar and American Baptist missionary in Nicaraugua who has adopted Latin American Liberation Theology. His books are published under both the English name “George Pixley” and the Spanish, “Jorge Pixley.”
- John I. Durham, Exodus: Word Biblical Commentary 3. (Thomas Nelson, 1987).
- Terence Fretheim, Exodus (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching). (Westminister/John Knox Press, 1991).
For Jewish perspectives, I find helpful:
- Nahum Sarna, Exodus (JPS Torah Commentary) (Jewish Publication Society of America, 1991). Hebrew text, JPS English translation, and Sarna’s commentary.
- Michael Walzer, Exodus and Revolution (Basic Books, 1986). Walzer is a Jewish political philosopher. This is not a traditional commentary, but a study of the way this story of biblical political liberation has influenced numerous other political movements for freedom. Walzer concludes that 1. Wherever you are, it is probably Egypt. 2. There’s a better land/condition than slavery. 3. The only way from here to there is by joining hands and walking.
I admit it: Leviticus bores me. Except for the Jubilee laws, there isn’t much here that plays a part in my personal “canon within the canon.” When I’ve read through the Bible, I’ve had to read a few pages of Leviticus daily as I march through the rest of the Bible in order to avoid getting bogged down.
- Samuel E. Balentine, Leviticus (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching). (Westminster/John Knox, 2003). Balentine, a Baptist biblical scholar, almost makes the book interesting and preachable.
- Frank Gorman, Divine Presence and Community: A Commentary on the Book of Leviticus. (International Theological Commentary) (Eerdmans, 1998). Very helpful in relating the thoroughly strange world of Leviticus to our era.
Numbers (“Count those Hebrews twice!”) is only slightly more interesting than Leviticus.
- Katherine Doob Sakenfield, Journeying with God: A Commentary on the Book of Numbers. (International Theological Commentary Series). (Eerdmans, 1995).
- Martin Noth, Numbers: A Commentary. (Old Testament Library). (Westminster Press, 1968 ). Dated, but still the best technical commentary by one of best German form critics of the Old Testament.
- Gerhard von Rad, Deuteronomy (Old Testament Library). (Westminster Press, 1966). This is long out of print, but if you can find a copy, get it. Not only is von Rad brilliant on technical issues, but his excellent feel for Old Testament theology comes through despite the passage of time. 20th C. German biblical scholarship at its best. The replacement volume by Richard Nelson (2004) is nowhere near as good.
- Duane L. Christensen, Deuteronomy, 2 vols. (Word Biblical Commentary Vols. 6A &6B). Thomas Nelson, 1991, 2001.
- Walter Brueggemann, Deuteronomy. (Abingdon Press, 2001). Too brief for Brueggemann’s talents, but still helpful.
- Mark E. Biddle, Deuteronomy. (Smyth & Helwys Commentary Series) (Smyth & Helwys, 2003). This is good both for preachers and those leading adult Bible studies. The technical details are there for those who want them, but they are kept from being distracting for those reading for Christian discipleship. A nice feature of this entire series by Smyth & Helwys is that each volume comes with a CD Rom version.