Thousands of commentaries have been written about the Bible, and it’s easy to become confused because these resources are written to various audiences. Choosing the “best” will depend upon the kind of analysis you desire. Commentaries are often divided into three categories:
Devotional/Introductory–the primary focus is application of the Word and growing in Christ. Lots of “how to” questions are answered.
Pastoral/Intermediate–these commentaries also contain application but are more information oriented. Some go deep into the history or cultural background of the text, while others pay more attention to linguistics. Lots of “what does it mean” questions are answered. Useful for any Christ follower and especially helpful to those who teach.
Technical/Advanced–primary value is to teachers and advanced students. Some technical commentaries focus on textual criticism (the reliability of the text), while others address linguistics (the text itself). Lots of minutiae. These commentaries contain Greek text (sometimes transliterated, sometimes not) and require familiarity with Koine Greek to extract their full benefit, but even those with no knowledge of Greek will find these commentaries useful.
My recommendations identify which category each book falls into. Some commentaries overlap; when they do, both categories will be noted (e.g., Pastoral/Technical). The recommendations are listed in order of their helpfulness to Bible students, teachers, and pastors.
There are only a few good commentaries on Paul’s first letter to Corinth; below is my short list.
The best general commentary on 1 Corinthians is by David Garland in the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Baker, 2003). Technical/Pastoral. Garland and Fee (see below) are similar in size and content, but Garland gets the nod because his writing is more accessible, and his discourse with other relevant works is less dated. The intro is short (23pp) and not very helpful. What I like most about Garland is his ability to succinctly explain the various interpretations of controversial passages before offering his own. He bolsters his arguments with snippets by other scholars and often uses their words to state his view of the passage. I don’t always agree with his conclusions, but that doesn’t stop me from ranking this as the best all-around commentary on the English text.
The best commentary on the Greek text (and my favorite commentary on 1 Corinthians) is by Anthony Thiselton in the New International Greek Testament Commentary (Eerdmans, 2000). Technical/Pastoral. This commentary is not for everyone (requires some knowledge of Greek), but advanced students will appreciate Thiselton’s perceptive comments. If I had to describe this massive (1424 pages!) volume in one word, it would be, “thorough.” Thiselton answers every linguistic question imaginable. Indispensable for an in-depth study of 1 Corinthians.
Lagniappe: Thiselton followed up his Greek commentary with a more accessible pastoral analysis, 1 Corinthians: A Shorter Exegetical and Pastoral Commentary (Eerdmans, 2006). The “suggestions for possible reflection” that follow each pericope are rich in application and especially helpful for teachers. Be sure to check this out when you are exploring resources for 1 Corinthians. It’s a great companion to Thiselton’s NIGTC, or it can be used as a stand-alone commentary by those who want the fruit of his study without having to wade into the Greek text it is based on.
Another good general commentary is by Gordon Fee in the New International Commentary on the New Testament (Eerdmans, 1987). Technical/Pastoral. I don’t always agree with Fee’s conclusions (e.g., his egalitarian stance and his claim that 14:34–35 is a scribal addition), but his astute insights on other parts of the text make this commentary easy to recommend to intermediate students. If budget is a consideration, compare Fee’s NIC with Garland’s BEC (see above) and choose the one that works best for you.
A book I recommend to new and developing teachers is by Craig Blomberg in the NIV Application Commentary (Zondervan, 1995). Pastoral/Devotional. Blomberg’s commentary is easy to read and understand, and it is a terrific resource if you are new to teaching or unfamiliar with this letter. But don’t let the NIVAC be your only commentary on 1 Corinthians. Couple it with Garland or Thiselton’s pastoral commentary.
Did I miss a commentary you are interested in? Drop me a line. These are not the only resources I am familiar with–these are just my favorites.
Next: Recommended commentaries on 2 Corinthians.