Making a “top commentaries” list of any Biblical book is difficult. Making a “top commentaries” list on Romans is next to impossible (but I tried it anyway). Due to the importance of the letter, there are close to a billion commentaries on Romans. I have left off several classics (Chrysostom, Luther, Calvin, Hodge, Barth, Kasemann) and some newer commentaries that are also helpful (Dunn, Fitzmyer, Schreiner, Jewett). So if any of these are your favorites, I don’t mean to hurt your feelings (I’ve benefitted from them as well). However, I’ve formed this list by thinking through what commentaries most helped my study of Romans all the while keeping in mind a wide audience net (scholars, seminary students, pastors, teachers, small group leaders, laymen). I’ve tried to include technical as well as non-technical commentaries and everything in between. Hopefully, you’ll find one or two (It’s Romans so maybe even three!) commentaries that will help you study this magisterial letter.
1. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (Two Volumes) by C.E.B. Cranfield (ICC)
This is simply a must-buy. Cranfield’s commentary, though somewhat dated, is still the best overall commentary on Romans. Cranfield succeeds in writing an extremely detailed commentary on the Greek text that also doesn’t lose sight of the big picture of the letter. Admittedly, you need to have a decent grip of Greek to even be able to read the commentary because he comments on the Greek text extensively (There is a non-technical abridgment for those who don’t know Greek, but I have not read it so I can’t comment on it’s worth). There are two downsides to this commentary. (1) It’s very expensive. The two-volume set is $140 on Amazon. If you have Logos…buy it now! It’s much cheaper (right now the set is $55). (2) It was written before the “New Perspective” really gained a foothold in New Testament studies. Regardless, Cranfield’s magisterial commentary on Romans is worth every penny. For any sort of academic study, this is a must. I also recommend it for teachers/preachers that know Greek.
2. The Epistle to the Romans by Douglas Moo (NICNT)
This is an exceptional commentary that is shorter (remember that this word is relative) and less expensive (and so is this word) than Cranfield. Although the commentary is on the English text, Moo makes plenty of technical comments on the Greek text in the footnotes throughout. Moo is an evangelical and this is reflected in his exegetical decisions, but he interacts with many scholars who don’t share his conservative views. He is of the “old perspective” camp, though he interacts and often sees benefits of the “new perspective”. When dealing with complex problems he balances quality and quantity well (Cranfield is so detailed that he’s not the best to turn to first if you’re looking for a quick summary of exegetical options). The strengths of this commentary are consistently solid exegesis and a good grasp of Biblical theology. This is often the first commentary I turn to when studying Romans and then go to Cranfield if I want more detailed exegesis. Thus, a combination of Cranfield and Moo is ideal. I recommend this commentary for academic study as well as for teachers and preachers. The more academic-minded laymen would also benefit from it greatly.
3. Romans by Michael Bird (The Story of God Bible Commentary)
I was pleasantly surprised by this commentary. I love Michael Bird (I recommend you read some of his other works) as a scholar and writer, but I just wasn’t expecting much from this commentary series, especially on such a complex letter like Romans. The commentary series focuses on interpreting specific books in light of the meta-narrative of Scripture (which I am all for). It’s less technical than other commentaries and moves to application more often than others. Bird does an outstanding job of explaining complex exegesis in a simple and profound way. He is very strong in Biblical theology and this dictates much of his reading of Romans. I would call this commentary a hybrid between the NICNT and the NIVAC: it’s both technical and applicational. Bird himself is also somewhat of a hybrid. He lives in the middle land between the “Old Perspective” and the “New Perspective”—keeping some of the old and incorporating some of the new. I’m probably closest to Bird when it comes this specific issue in Romans and Pauline studies in general. All in all, I highly recommend this book for scholars and laymen alike. It would be especially great to use for small group study, youth groups, and devotional reading.
4. Romans by N.T. Wright (New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary Volume IX)
This commentary includes Acts-Galatians. The Romans commentary is written by Wright. It is exhilarating. I’m not sure I have ever used that adjective for a commentary before, but it’s true. Wright is a brilliant thinker and an engaging writer. I don’t agree with a fair amount of his conclusions, but what you learn along the way is invaluable. Wright is a proponent of the “New Perspective” and I think that at times his perspective on Paul is more right than the old. Often, I find him to be correct in what he affirms and incorrect in what he denies. Whether you side with Wright or not on justification and the righteousness of God (covenant faithfulness in his mind), this commentary will make you think hard about the flow of Paul’s argument and Biblical theology. Additionally, not to be missed are the application sections; some of them are pure gold. I recommend this commentary wholeheartedly with the caveat of making sure you have another commentary that balances out the discussion. It is not overly technical so all could benefit from Wright’s commentary.
5. The Epistle to the Romans by Leon Morris (Old PNTC)
No longer being produced in the Pillar New Testament series, but still available through used books outlets. Additionally, Eerdmans has reprinted this commentary as a stand-alone paperback. Morris has written extensively in the field of New Testament studies. He’s an evangelical that has a great reputation as a solid exegete. This is another commentary that is a mixture of technical and non-technical. The main body is less technical, while Morris discusses the Greek in more detail in the footnotes. This commentary is studded with profound and worshipful one-liners. It would be a great aid for devotional reading. Thus, this commentary is great for all readers, from scholars to laymen.
6. The Epistle to the Romans by Richard Longenecker (NIGTC)
Surprisingly, this commentary isn’t as technical as others in the NIGTC series. I would say that it’s certainly on the more technical end of the spectrum, but detailed exegesis of the Greek text is lacking in a lot of areas. In fact, the commentary itself is somewhat inconsistent. Some sections are particularly in-depth (1:1-7, 3:21-26, 4:1-25) while other sections are way too brief. Why is it on the list then? Because of how great the above sections are. Additionally, Longenecker is particularly strong on contextualizing the letter: dealing with the history and culture of Rome and the church in Rome, as well as frequently citing Second Temple Jewish texts to illuminate exegesis. Lastly, for anyone interested in textual criticism whether for academic papers or self-study, this would be an important resource. All in all, this is a great commentary. If the commentary as a whole was more consistently strong then it would be higher on the list.
7. Accept One Another by James Allman
Dr. James Allman has been a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary for nearly two decades and he has produced an excellent commentary on Romans. As the title expresses, he argues that Romans 15:7 summarizes the letter: Christians are to “accept one another” on the basis of God’s acceptance. There are three main strengths to this commentary. First, Dr. Allman is an Old Testament scholar that has also taught New Testament Bible exposition classes. If you know anything about Romans you know that this is the perfect mix because Paul quotes and alludes to the OT everywhere. Second, Allman is very strong in following the big picture of Paul’s argument. Helpful to this cause is that the commentary isn’t overly long or technical. Third, this commentary delves into some deep theological and exegetical issues in easy to understand language. Thus, both laymen, pastors, and scholars alike would benefit from this excellent commentary on Romans. It would be ideal for devotional reading, small group study, adult Bible classes, and sermon preparation.