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What are the Best New Testament Commentaries?

March 31, 2014

NT Commentary Survey

D.A. Carson’s 2013 update to his New Testament Commentary Survey puts the book into its seventh edition. Having come six years since the last edition, the new edition is substantially revised and updated to include just about every significant commentary on every book of the New Testament. The Survey rarely misses a volume.

Carson goes book-by-book through the New Testament and suggests what he thinks are the best-written commentaries and why. He also offers introductory notes and principles for selecting commentaries and series, as well as 14 pages on New Testament introductions and theologies to consider. The number of books that Carson surveys is impressive.

I found Carson’s survey to be much more detailed and up-to-date than its Old Testament counterpart. He makes mention, for example, of the brand new Teach the Text commentary series. And he seems to have already examined the relevant ZECNT volumes that had been released before this survey went to press. So anyone using this book can be assured that not much ground is left uncovered.

Of course, it’s impossible in 175 pages or so to get detailed analysis of each commentary. For the most part, Carson is able, in just a couple of sentences, to give the reader a really good idea of what each commentary does well, and whether or not to consider adding it to one’s library. One always knows what top two or three commentaries Carson would suggest on a given book of the New Testament (and why).

There are times where Carson’s evaluations are left unexplained, or when he fails to evaluate a commentary in accordance with its own purposes. For instance, he criticizes a New Testament introduction on “Intertextual Development of the NT Writings” for focusing “so narrowly on intertextual connections that other axes are unhelpfully ignored.” Or a socio-rhetorical commentary on Matthew is faulted for not including enough “penetrating comment on structure, grammar, and sometimes theology.” The discerning reader can overlook this and not be deterred by it.

Carson’s writing style is engaging, enjoyable, and downright funny at times. Of his own commentary on John, he writes, “Carson’s work is rather more difficult for me to assess.” He pulls no punches in his critiques. A reviewer could multiply examples, but here are just a few quotations:

  • “…despite the superfluity of cutesy remarks that are in constant danger of distorting the picture of who Jesus is…”
  • “…his grasp of Greek is mechanical, amateurish, and without respect for the fluidity of the Greek in the Hellenistic period.”
  • “…the result is a disappointing monument to misplaced energy.”
  • “…his reconstruction of the church situation is so quirky that it cannot be recommended except to readers who are devoted to quirkiness.”

I was surprised that a short guide like this would contain such strongly expressed opinions, but the more I read on, the more useful I found them to be–even as I realized that some of Carson’s assessments are subjective and need to be weighed. (He too blithely, in my opinion, dismisses reader-response criticism.) He is an excellent writer and somehow manages throughout the book to avoid many reviewers’ clichés, which is no small accomplishment when covering this many commentaries!

Carson is (refreshingly) not at all reluctant to call out unacknowledged borrowing, which occurs in commentaries more often than one would hope.

Carson’s goal is:

to provide theological students and ministers with a handy survey of the resources, especially commentaries, that are available in English to facilitate understanding of the NT.

In this Carson has succeeded, even in entertaining fashion. If the reader is willing to overlook the few critiques mentioned above (as I largely have been), she or he will find this a good desk-side companion to help wade through the world of myriad commentaries.

Thanks to Baker Academic for the review copy of NT Commentary Survey. You can find it here (Baker Academic) and here (Amazon/affiliate link).

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