commentaries and more

commentaries & study Bibles: what’s the difference?

A commentary consists of interpretation of biblical text. It may include maps, charts, and other information, but its primary content is the author’s understanding of what the text means. A commentary may or may not reprint all or portions of one or two established translations of the Bible. Most large commentaries have more than one author, and many have a different author for each book of the Bible. Some commentaries attempt to fit all of their material under one cover, but it’s not uncommon to find many volumes making up an entire commentary.

A study Bible differs from a commentary in that the primary content of a study Bible is an established translation of the biblical text, which is bound under the same cover with pages of commentary and other information. Study Bibles comes in all shapes and sizes, and many are packaged to appeal to a particular group. There are Catholic study Bibles for teens, study Bibles linked to particular Bible-study programs, and during the year of faith there even was a study Bible tied to that. Some study Bibles include all of their material bound under one cover, but a few study Bibles separate their material into a number of smaller volumes, usually covering one book of the Bible or several small related books.

Authors of commentaries and study Bibles are as many and as varied as the books themselves. Everyone is entitled to an opinion about Scripture, but not all opinions are created equal. There are commentaries written by Scripture scholars with years of extensive academic background in biblical languages and history. On the opposite end of the spectrum are study Bibles compiled by lay authors with sincere love for Scripture but little or no familiarity with biblical languages or knowledge about the latest developments in translation.

Although many people love the extra information found in study Bibles, we find it less distracting to use a Bible that contains only the biblical text and cross references to other related Scripture passages. This is purely personal preference, however, somewhat similar to the way that one person will choose a Bible in a zippered case while another person looks for one with a leather cover and traditional gilt edging on tissue-thin paper.

study Bibles & Bible studies: what’s the difference?

Study Bibles and Bible studies share the same goal: to help people learn more about Scripture. The primary content of a Bible study consists of questions about the Scripture. While commentary usually is included in some form, it should be secondary to the questions, which are the vehicle through which people connect with the biblical text. In contrast, a study Bible usually presents its information primarily in the form of commentary. A study Bible may or may not also include a smattering of Bible-study questions.

When reading any commentary—including commentary found in study Bibles—it’s important to remember that the commentary itself isn’t sacred. It represents one or more authors’ interpretation of the Bible. (This also is true of the footnotes found in regular Bibles—they contain supplemental information that can be helpful but that isn’t the inspired Word of God.) Commentary can serve as a useful guide to understanding Scripture, but relying on another person’s opinion about the meaning of God’s Word is no substitute for reading the Bible yourself and thinking and praying about what it means in your own life. The Church encourages Catholics to do this, requiring only that we not interpret the Bible in such a way as to contradict anything found elsewhere in Scripture or in Church teaching. This, of course, requires that we know what’s in the Bible and that we be familiar with Church teaching.

Bible atlases

Looking at a map of a region described in Scripture can be helpful to understand what’s happening in the biblical text. Limited to maps locating places mentioned in the Old and New Testaments, Bible atlases may show many versions of the same geographical area at different times in salvation history. Like Bible dictionaries, Bible atlases come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Many Bibles and commentaries also include a few basic maps.

Bible dictionaries

Any Catholic who serves as a lector in his or her parish will appreciate the pronunciation guides in Bible dictionaries, but these also provide definitions and other useful information about words that appear in Scripture but not in contemporary English vernacular. Bible dictionaries range from pocket paperbacks that primarily focus on pronunciation and general meaning of words occurring in the daily Mass readings, to hard-cover books containing more than a thousand pages and including maps and supplemental information. Some Bibles include very limited dictionaries.


A concordance can be useful if you are trying to locate a particular passage of Scripture. It locates every occurrence of every word—though articles, conjunctions, and other frequently occurring words such as prepositions may be listed in a separate appendix. One caveat: Each concordance is based on a particular translation of the Bible. This makes it difficult to find a passage containing the word “you” in a concordance based on a translation that uses “thee” and “thou,” unless thou make allowances in thy search. Many concordances, including the well-known The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, are based on Protestant translations, which means they don’t include the deuterocanonical books and passages found in Catholic Bibles. A few Bibles include limited concordances, though these are more prevalent in Protestant Bibles.

some specific Bible commentaries

There’s much good information that can be gleaned from reading commentaries, but it’s wise to remember that these aids are intended as supplemental resources. Viewed in that light, we’ve found the following commentaries and study Bibles to be useful.

The Anchor Bible
Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York
Consisting of 44 volumes by nearly as many authors, The Anchor Bible series is an international and interfaith project featuring commentary by Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant scholars. Not sponsored by any ecclesiastical organization, it is not intended to reflect any particular theological doctrine. Its stated aim is to make the Bible accessible to general readers with no formal background in biblical studies, and to do this it relies on exact translation and extended exposition. The result may be somewhat more academic in style than its authors intended, but a patient reader will be rewarded with much significant historical and linguistic knowledge.

The Catholic Bible Personal Study Edition
New American Bible, Oxford University Press, New York, New York, and Oxford, England
This is the preferred study Bible for many Catholics. A large part of its appeal certainly is due to the fact that it’s confined to a single volume, making it easy to carry around. But it also excels at organization, and includes Reading Guides, a glossary, and a list of the lectionary readings for the weekday and Sunday Mass. The editors have made a conscious (and much-appreciated) effort to eliminate jargon from the commentary, and the layout features charts, maps, definitions, and other sidebars that add content and visual interest to the pages.

The Collegeville Bible Commentary
The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota
These two volumes (Old Testament and New Testament) feature straight commentary by a variety of authors writing about the individual books of the Bible. Based on The New American Bible, these commentaries vary widely in scope and writing style. While some are quite accessible, the the overall feeling is academic. The formatting does little to remedy the situation, and the reader who flips through these volumes will see nothing but page after page of gray type. The only attempt at graphic relief is found in the front of each volume, where a couple of pages of black-and-white maps have been inserted as what almost appears to be an afterthought. On a positive note, the  formatting includes bold-faced lead-ins that clearly label what section of biblical text is being addressed in any particular section of commentary, making it easy to navigate through the text.

The Navarre Bible
Four Courts Press, Dublin, Ireland, and Scepter Publishers, Princeton, New Jersey
The Navarre Bible includes the Revised Standard Version English text and the biblical text of the New Vulgate Latin translations. The commentaries in the 12 Standard Edition New Testament paperback volumes are different than those in the single-volume Compact Edition of the New Testament, and much more extensive. Prepared by members of the theology faculty at Navarre University in Spain, the commentaries draw on Church documents, exegesis of Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and the writings of St. Josemaria Escriva, who initiated the Navarre Bible project. Maps, charts, vocabulary boxes, and other frills are noticeably absent. The  commentaries appear as footnotes, and the type size, while smaller than the reprinted biblical text (a standard publishing practice), still is large enough not to discourage most readers. The Navarre Bible Old Testament is available in five hard-cover volumes.

The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes
Abingdon Press, Nashville, Tennessee
Too expensive for most people to afford for a home library and too unwieldy to carry around, The New Interpreter’s Bible nevertheless is a valuable Bible-study aid. It often can be located in good libraries. It consists of 12 large volumes featuring side-by-side translations of the Revised Standard Version and New International Version. The material is presented in small, manageable sections, and the large pages provide plenty of room for larger type than is seen in most commentaries. A variety of authors have written the material, and their styles (and relevance) vary widely from commentary on one book of the Bible to commentary on the next. A surprising  feature of The New Interpreter’s Bible is the lengthy, in-depth reflections included with each small section of biblical text and commentary.

The New Jerome Biblical Commentary
Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey
Another old-style commentary with page after page of small gray type, The New Jerome Biblical Commentary includes much useful information in a not-very-accessible format. It has a definite scholarly feel, and readers who are intimidated by Scripture probably will find this commentary even more intimidating. The academically inclined, however, will be intrigued by the topical articles addressing archaeology, historical reconstructions, gnosticism, and by the authors’ willingness to tackle theological issues.