I have been spending some time collating lists of free Bible commentaries. But first, I want to share where others have worked tirelessly to make them available.
Many readers will know that you can compare a dozen English Bible translations side-by-side on BibleHub; you can see even more by clicking “Additional Translations”; but did you know that you can also search a dozen commentaries on a verse?
The nearly “infinite scroll” can be taxing on a mobile device, but BibleHub is still the fastest and easiest way to get a sense for what classic Protestant commentaries have said about a verse. If you are just getting started on a verse and don’t have access to a big theological library, I definitely recommend starting there.
BlueLetterBible is a great website for checking the Hebrew and Greek quickly. On the mobile app, you can download several translations easily, and you have access to a nice variety of resources, somewhat similar to BibleHub. It also has a few classic commentaries like Matthew Henry, and a few contemporary commentaries like Chuck Smith, David Guzik, and J. Vernon McGee. BLB seems to follow a specific theological school so the commentaries there are constrained by this.
CatenaBible.com includes verse-by-verse comments on the Bible, mostly from Church Fathers like Ambrose, Augustine, and Chrysostom. You can easily look up a verse and see quite a few comments, all (amazingly) in English. It is difficult to find collections of Church Fathers’ writings in English, and that makes this a very valuable resource.
In reality, a ‘catena’ (Latin for “chain”) is a collection of biblical commentaries, usually from Church Fathers, arranged together in canonical (or verse-by-verse) order for easy reference. Along with the Jewish Mikraot Gadolot, medieval “catenae” were predecessors of modern study Bibles. Lord willing, the mass digitization of world libraries will eventually make apps and repository websites like Catena, BibleHub, and BlueLetterBible into unbelievably rich sources of information; for now, all of them draw from different public domain material.
My one complaint about CatenaBible is that it is not easy to see the source documents that these comments are drawn from. This is confusing if you want to buy a print version, or read the comment in the original language. I am honestly surprised by how difficult it is to find the works of the Church Fathers, and CatenaBible is a step in the right direction.
Post-Reformation Digital Library (PRDL)
PRDL is an impressive resource for finding books between 1500 and 1800. Similar to the Online Books Page and Reformed Books Online, PRDL is not a repository, but a collection of lists showing where other websites give access to commentaries. What’s special about PRDL (unlike Reformed Books Online) is that it is organized as a database, which means that you can use a variety of different search terms to find a book: date, author, topic, title, etc. Unlike others, it is also a funded academic research project (though it incorporates and vets contributions from volunteers).
As one instance of PRDL’s value, I spent an hour looking for commentaries from the 1500s which I saw cited in a theology book: Brenz, Musculus, Pellikan, and others. After an hour of searching for (Wolfgang) Musculus on archive.org, Google Books, worldcat.org, and Google, I could not find a digital copy of his commentary on Genesis. There is great difficulty because the title used medieval orthography, so his name could be spelled Mvscvlsvs, and library websites may or may not update that to Musculus, etc. To my great relief, you can type his name into PRDL, and you can see 178 of his works on his author page, including several editions of his Genesis commentary. What a brilliant website!
Unlike all the other sites listed here, PRDL is multilingual, so you can find commentaries in English, Latin, German, French, Dutch, and probably a couple of other European languages. PRDL is part of a funded research project which explains its tremendous erudition and quality—it is much more than a blog. I highly recommend checking it out if you are looking for contemporaries of Luther and Calvin; but it is very incomplete when considering the English Victorian era, which was a very rich time for the publishing of Christian books.
Reformed Books Online
Reformed Books Online claims for itself that it is the “best and largest” collection of Bible commentaries online—I suppose the authors mean in English. It is very useful in that it includes organized links for a large number of commentaries, many taken from PRDL. But it leaves out quite a number of commentaries, especially comments from Church Fathers, medieval commentaries, and any of the great Jewish writers. The site omits or downplays many useful Arminian resources and, following their great father Spurgeon, takes great care to “warn” readers of any Arminian authors. It is clear that most of the bibliography work was done by consulting other works by Spurgeon and Cyril Barber, not by scanning through libraries or digital repositories, which include many works not listed here.
Reformed Books Online also sets up Spurgeon as sole arbiter of which old commentaries should be read, the authors not taking time to write their own reviews. Spurgeon’s 1876 book on Bible commentaries is routinely quoted as the only authority on the quality of a work, so that even his admirers must tire of hearing of it. Sometimes I think “only Spurgeon” is the sixth sola, as Reformed readers seem to know no other preacher or writer between Whitefield (d. 1770) and the present day. We would do well to bear no heroes on our shoulders, and to test everything by the testimony of two or three witnesses.
The Sefaria Digital Library is a Jewish resource, and I highly recommend it to Christians who want to find historic Jewish wisdom on the Hebrew Bible. If you are totally unininitiated, you may want to start by reading a few passages from the Midrash Rabbah (6th century), or Ramban (13th c.). You can also read the Talmudim here, which are important though not exactly “commentaries”.
Sefaria is amazingly well-indexed, so you can click a Bible verse and find upwards of 100 comments, ranging over many centuries—which is unbelievable, when you consider that Reformed Books Online lists only 70-odd commentaries on Genesis, and the sources listed in Sefaria don’t overlap with those. Most on Sefaria are from medieval Jewish writers, but some, like the Targumim and some of the Midrashim, are much older.
Sefaria does have many books that are in Hebrew only, so you may have to do some scrolling to find those that are translated into English (especially on mobile devices). This is great if you’re learning Hebrew; if you’re not, it may be a chore. In any case, any student of the Hebrew Bible should be aware of this wonderful repository.
StudyLight.org has 128 (mostly Protestant) Bible commentaries (in HTML) including many that I have not found anywhere else, even in PDF format. Examples of less-noticed commentaries here include Adam Clarke (early Methodist), Ellicott’s Commentary (late Victorian), Paul Kretzmann (an early 20th-century Lutheran author whose biography of Krapf we published), and Charles Simeon (an Anglican who was extremely influential in early modern missions in a number of ways).
StudyLight is impressively thorough and well-indexed, and reading on a mobile device is seamless, apart from the ads. Aside from older, public domain commentaries, it also incorporates several modern commentaries that are used by permission. I recommend scrolling through these to see what’s there.
I have one caveat: the commentary given there as “Thomas Coke” (a Methodist) is in fact just a plagiarized reprint of William Dodd. I am not sure if Coke’s commentary includes some original material or is entirely a reprint, but students of the Bible should just consult Dodd’s 1770 commentary.
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