Building a New Testament Library: Gospels and Acts

Joshua Leim

In this short article, I offer recommendations for excellent commentaries and a few monographs that will help pastors and other Christian leaders read the Gospels and Acts with exegetical precision, theological acumen, and pastoral sensitivity. Not all of the commentaries that I mention will do all three, but I assume that those studying the biblical texts carefully will be consulting more than one commentary or monograph. In 2018, Joel Green produced an excellent list for this series, and I highly recommend that readers consult his list as well. Occasionally, I overlap with Green’s recommendations, but largely I have made new suggestions.

The Gospel according to Matthew

If there were one commentary on Matthew that I would not do without, it would be Dale Bruner’s superb two-volume commentary, The Christbook: Matthew 1–12 and The Churchbook: Matthew 13–28 (Eerdmans, 2004). Bruner combines (1) careful exegesis of Matthew, (2) close engagement with critical scholarship, (3) extended discussion of important theological issues, and (4) attention to pressing pastoral questions. In my view, his work has not been surpassed in terms of its intended goal. Second, the recent commentary on Matthew by Jeannine K. Brown and Kyle Roberts in the Two Horizons New Testament Commentary series is superb (Eerdmans, 2018). While the commentary section (Part I) is not as exhaustive as some, it provides excellent exegetical engagement with the text. Parts 2 and 3 are where this commentary shines. In Part 2, the authors offer what amounts to a “theology of Matthew.” In Part 3, the authors take on some difficult theological and social issues in relation to Matthew, and their discussion is thoughtful and engaging.

Third, I have repeatedly turned to David Garland’s Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary (Smyth & Helwys, 2001). Garland’s commentary is particularly helpful for illuminating the narrative shape of the Gospel—that is, how exactly Matthew tells the story of Jesus. Moreover, for a relatively short commentary, he provides a good bit of ancient cultural material against which to understand Matthew (e.g., ancient rhetoric, first-century Judaism, etc.). Lastly, though more technical and not in the evangelical tradition, Ulrich Luz’s three volumes on Matthew in the Hermeneia series remain highly valuable not only for his careful reading of Matthew, but also especially for his engagement with ancient Christian sources (Fortress, 2001–2007). Luz consistently dialogues with premodern interpreters, introducing his reader to a perhaps unknown world of Christian voices from the past.

For a helpful monograph on Matthew, look to David Bauer’s recent The Gospel of the Son of God: An Introduction to Matthew’s Gospel (IVP Academic, 2019). If one were teaching/preaching through Matthew, Bauer’s book would be invaluable for gaining a comprehensive and coherent vision of Matthew that is up to date.

The Gospel according to Mark

If there were one commentary on Mark that I would not do without, it would be James Edwards’s commentary in the Pillar New Testament series (PNTS; Eerdmans, 2001). Edwards is simply an excellent reader of Mark, and he unpacks Mark’s theological riches with penetrating insights. For example, in his discussion of the dire implications of Peter’s rejection of Jesus’s suffering vocation in Mark 8, Edwards quips, “A wrong view of Messiahship leads to a wrong view of discipleship” (256). There is a whole theological world packed into that statement! Second, Joel Marcus’s two volumes in the Anchor Bible series are superb (Yale University Press, 2002–2009). Marcus’s commentaries are not in the evangelical tradition, but they are unsurpassed in their attention to exegetical and historical detail. While I do not follow all of Marcus’s conclusions, I always learn a great deal from his work given his careful attention to the text and his expansive knowledge of early and rabbinic Judaism.

Third, Sharon Dowd’s short Reading Mark (Smyth & Helwys, 2000) is helpful for discerning the literary shape of Mark’s Gospel. Like Garland’s book mentioned above, Dowd is particularly concerned to help the reader see the shape of the narrative—that is, just how carefully Mark has told his story of Jesus. I have used her insights frequently for teaching, because so often I find that students and parishioners have never been taught to read the Gospels as stories. Lastly, an excellent resource for Mark’s theology is David Garland’s A Theology of Mark’s Gospel (Zondervan Academic, 2015). Like Bauer’s book on Matthew mentioned above, Garland helps the reader grasp the major theological, historical, and literary issues in studying Mark.

The Gospel according to Luke

I am hard-pressed to name one “must have” commentary in relation to Luke, so here I will refer to four commentaries that I have found myself returning to again and again. First, Robert Tannehill’s Luke commentary in the Abingdon series (1996) is excellent. Tannehill is a ground-breaking scholar of Luke, and this commentary makes more accessible some of his academic work. Particularly, Tannehill is good about not getting lost in the weeds of hypothetical historical reconstructions “behind” the text. Rather, he focuses on the final form of Luke’s narrative and the overall “logic” of the story while not neglecting to provide the sort of detailed engagement necessary for careful exegesis (e.g., relevant historical information, clarification for Greek words, etc.). In a similar vein is Charles Talbert’s Reading Luke (Smyth & Helwys, 2002). Talbert is attuned to the careful craftsmanship of Luke’s narrative, and he also brings a wealth of knowledge of ancient rhetoric to illuminate Luke.

Third, Joel Green’s volume in the New International Commentary on the New Testament series (Eerdmans, 1997) remains a standard among Lukan scholars. Green’s commentary is somewhat unique in that it does not tend to treat background historical issues at much length (e.g., who was the author of Luke, who exactly was the audience, etc.). Rather, Green is focused more on Luke’s narrative in its cultural milieu and how it invites the audience now into a new reality, the kingdom of God. Fourth, James Edwards’s relatively recent commentary on Luke in the PNTC series (Eerdmans, 2015) proceeds in a vein similar to his Mark commentary and is likewise full of exegetically derived theological insights. It is more historically oriented than Green’s, and I find that reading Edwards and Green next to one another is rewarding.

Finally, an insightful monograph on Luke’s theological and social vision from a Latin American perspective is The Liberating Mission of Jesus: The Message of the Gospel of Luke, by Darío López Rodriguez (Pickwick, 2012). Spanish speakers will benefit from the third, expanded edition: La misión liberadora de Jesús: El mensaje del Evangelio de Lucas (CENIP, 2017). Rodriguez is a Peruvian scholar-pastor working among impoverished communities in Lima, Peru, and he provides a “lived” reading of Luke’s holistic vision of the kingdom.

The Gospel according to John

Marianne Meye Thompson’s commentary on John in the New Testament Library (Westminster John Knox, 2015) is superb. Her introduction alone is well worth careful reading and reflection as she judiciously navigates questions of history and theology in Johannine scholarship by thinking with John. In the commentary proper, she is highly attuned to the narrative shape of John’s Gospel, his rather unique style of writing, the OT allusions embedded in the narrative, and the cultural milieu of the Gospel. Second, Craig Keener’s two-volume commentary on John repays sustained attention (Baker Academic, 2010). Keener is known for his exhaustive coverage of any given topic, and his John commentary is no different. I recommend Keener to readers looking for thorough treatment of exegetical and historical issues in John.

Third, I recommend Charles Talbert’s Reading John (Smyth & Helwys, 2005). Like his Reading Luke, Talbert pays close attention to the literary and rhetorical features of John’s Gospel and thus helps the reader make connections often missed in more traditional verse-by-verse commentaries. Last, I strongly recommend Richard Bauckham’s monograph Gospel of Glory: Major Themes in Johannine Theology (Baker Academic, 2015). Bauckham is a Johannine expert, and although he has not yet written a major commentary on John, this volume provides the reader with rich insights into John’s key themes and simultaneously teaches one how to read John exegetically-theologically. As a final note, I would also point to the forthcoming commentary on John by David Ford (Baker Academic, 2021). It should be excellent.

The Acts of the Apostles

Luke Timothy Johnson’s commentary on Acts in the Sacra Pagina series (Michael Glazier, 2006) is full of exegetical and theological insights. Johnson is well known as a scholar of Luke and Acts, and he carefully reads Acts as a coherent narrative with attention to how Acts connects with the Gospel of Luke, the role of the OT in Luke, and the “prophetic” mission of the church. Ben Witherington’s The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Eerdmans, 1997) is also a reliable, single-volume commentary on Acts. Witherington navigates judiciously some of the difficult social, historical, and theological issues pertinent to Acts, providing a sort of running exposition of the text.

A third commentary well worth engaging is Willie Jennings’s recent and unique volume on Acts in the Belief series (Westminster John Knox, 2017). Jennings’s commentary—like the series—attempts to read Acts theologically against the backdrop of contemporary ecclesial and cultural issues (e.g., racism, nationalism, etc.). Jennings is less concerned about extensive conversation with Acts scholarship and more interested in helping the church think with the revolutionary theological vision of Acts. I also recommend two monographs in relation to Acts. The first is C. Kavin Rowe’s World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age (Oxford University Press, 2016). Rowe’s work is technical and requires careful attention, but it is so richly rewarding for thinking about the shape of the church’s existence in the Greco-Roman world and, by extension, today, that it is worth the effort. Particularly, chapters 4–5 of that book cast a vision of Christian/ecclesial existence (from reflection on Acts) that is, in my view, unsurpassed. The second is Joel B. Green’s Conversion in Luke-Acts (Baker Academic, 2015). Green’s work is also somewhat technical, but his focus on the journey-shape of conversion in Luke’s two volumes connects careful reading of Luke and Acts with current thinking about embodied human life.

Posted Oct 27, 2021