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On a New ‘Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible’

Written by Charlie Trimm on . Posted in The Gospel Coalition Blog

Article by: Charlie Trimm , Nicholas G. Piotrowski

Developments in the field of hermeneutics are rare. Advances come slowly. As scholars press into new areas, their contributions travel even more gradually to the uninitiated. Yet where progress is fruitful, shouldn’t the Bible-reading public benefit as well? 

Of all the nuances of good biblical interpretation, perhaps the attention to historical context is the most difficult to the non-expert. One can read the larger context to discern flow of thought. One can develop a copiousness of biblical knowledge to appreciate where any given text fits into the whole. But insofar as there are historical questions to answer, where can the typical Bible reader look?

Well, they have to consult largely inaccessible historical works often written for the guild, not the public. For these reasons the new NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible is very welcome. For those who can’t buy (nor have the time to read) an extensive library of historiographical works, this new study Bible joins some of the most recent historical discoveries with the NIV text and plenty of compelling charts, maps, and pictures. We highly recommend this study Bible for such students of the Bible as pastors, teachers, Bible Study leaders, and anyone who wants to know more about the world of the Bible. Gathering together years of research by many scholars into one helpful and easy to use package, this book will reward the reader in all kinds of interesting and surprising ways.

It’s one thing to provide historical backgrounds; it’s another to explain how they bear on the meaning of passages. We commend the editors for providing the former without overstepping the latter. 

Old Testament Survey 

The Old Testament portion of this review will be primarily based on the notes attached to Judges, Lamentations, and Malachi for the sake of surveying the different kinds of notes attached to various genres.

Each book begins with the historical context of the events recorded in the book and of the writing of the book, as well as some early reception history and the meaning of names. Topics such as authorship and date of writing tend to be avoided. The beginning of the study Bible has several helpful charts, including a table of Hebrew words not easily translated into English (xix–xxvii), a list of important ancient Near Eastern texts related to the Old Testament (xxviii–xxx), a chronology of the Old Testament based on an early exodus (xxxi–xxxv), and a list of major background issues from the ancient Near East (xxxix–xli).  

Narrative books like Judges have extensive notes, many of which relate to cultural differences from the modern world—for example, cutting off thumbs and toes (1:6), upper rooms (3:20), and concubines (8:31). Many notes discuss how Judges relates to previous biblical history (such as the reference to the descendants of Moses’s father-in-law in 1:16) and geography (three maps are included in the book of Judges: the failure of Manasseh, the five cities of the Philistines, and the battles of Gideon). While these maps are helpful, more would be appreciated in a work of this focus (such as the travels of Ehud, Jephthah, and Samson). The historical context of various peoples (Philistines) and named individuals (Cushan-Rishathaim of Aram Naharaim) are often carefully explained. Several independent articles are included to explain in detail important topics; for Judges this includes “Judges 1 as Annalistic Military Reporting,” “Keys and Locks,” “Gideon’s Fleece,” “Fables in the Ancient World,” and “Women Serving in the Tabernacle.” The article on keys and locks is particularly helpful, especially with a clear visual illustration of how they worked.

In Lamentations, the notes focus on culture (winepress, unclean, footstool), historical events (the role of Egypt in the conflict between the Israelites and the Babylonians), and a few translation difficulties (ostriches in 4:3). Included are three beautiful pictures: Judean captives from Lachish from Sennacherib’s reliefs, an Egyptian model of a woman grinding grain (see Lam. 5:13), and another Assyrian relief of mourning captives. Likewise, in Malachi the notes focus on culture (tithes and offerings, refiner’s fire), geography (Edom and the hill country), historical context (Persian governors), and a few translational problems (hating in Mal. 2:16). The one picture is of the barren, hilly landscape of Edom.

Broad statements about life in the ancient Near East are sometimes too sweeping. For example, the claim that the temple of a defeated city had to be destroyed to symbolize the defeat of the enemy god is recorded in a few situations in the ancient Near East (1319), but much more commonly attackers sought the favor of that god and protected the temples.

The most puzzling issue about the Old Testament notes is the sloppy citation concerning their source. The introduction describes John Walton’s background, but even though the page is titled “authors” of the study Bible he’s listed as the Old Testament editor. An editor’s note records that Walton “has drawn on the works of various contributors, including his own work, in the Zondervan Bible Backgrounds Commentary (ZBBC).” On the acknowledgment page, the authors of the individual volumes in that series are thanked (oddly, they’re called “editors”). However, close comparison of the notes in the new study Bible with the relevant sections of the ZBBC shows the standard pattern seems to be taking the text of the ZBBC and simply condensing it. The authorial role (not simply as “editors”) of those scholars who wrote the sections of ZBBC should be more prominently highlighted in the study Bible since their work isn’t acknowledged properly. While Zondervan can make the argument that the material in the commentary series belongs to them and they can use it in other publications, such use without proper attribution seems problematic.

New Testament Survey

The New Testament begins with an overview of the tumultuous years between the close of the Hebrew canon and the birth of Christ. Understanding these events is crucial for navigating the different groups (and their complaints about each other) at the time of Christ and the apostles. It’s also essential for understanding the sort of challenges the first Christians had in the world, as well as the specific claims they made about themselves, about the Christ, and about that Hebrew canon. Key historical and theological terms are also defined. Then the section of Matthew–Acts has its own introduction, with attention to the nature of ancient biographies and the texts’ reliability.

The remainder of this review will comment on the specific notes in Mark, Romans, and Revelation. Most of the notes on Mark focus on the historical situation of the events (what happens in the narrative in Galilee and Jerusalem) and less on the situation of the writing (what was going on among those first Christians, likely in and around Rome). For example, in Mark 4:30–32 Jesus gives the Parable of the Mustard Seed, then calms the storm in 4:35–41, and finally cast out a “legion” of demons in 5:1–17. The notes have wonderful details on everything from seeds to the size of trees, to the lake, to first-century boats, to the location of the demoniac, to Old Testament references and echoes. These are all significant historical details at the level of the story. But there’s another historical level: that of the telling of the story to the small beleaguered Christian community in the shadow of big bad Rome. Wouldn’t this sequence in the gospel have first been read in light of oppositions to them and their Christ who promises kingdom growth (to be even bigger than Rome!) and that the forces of evil won’t ultimately drown them? Indeed, even the demon’s name is “Legion” (the name of the largest, strongest Roman military assemblage) that splashes helplessly into the very lake that couldn’t drown Jesus and his little mustard-seed-size band. That is, the key to the demon’s name isn’t his size or strength, but what he represents to Mark’s community who could easily have associated Rome with Satan. This isn’t a critique of the notes but a demonstration of where the notes do and do not focus attention. No volume can do everything and surely giving the primary focus to the historical context of Jesus’s day is the better part of wisdom for this sort of study Bible.

The notes on Romans are a different story. There the focus is on the believing community’s historical situation. This change is not unexpected, however. Romans is after all a transparent letter written into a specific context. So the logic of chapters 9–11, for example, is more clearly discerned when matters of Paul’s Jewishness, Old Testament expectations, and potential divisions in the Roman church are put on the table. All this helps navigate some of Paul’s shocking statements therein.

Finally, no book is more aided by understanding its historical location—in my (Nicholas’s) opinion—than Revelation. Here the notes not only explain a bit of the conditions in the cities of chapters 2–3, but also the kind of persecution Christians periodically endured that shaped the content and first interpretations of the book. For example, I found very helpful the comments on the Euphrates river (9:14), the two olive trees (11:4), the dragon and the beast (13:1–18), the prostitute (17:1–18), and Rome’s imports (18:12–13), to name just a few issues.

In all, the New Testament notes are full of helpful charts, maps, timelines, breakout articles, and beautiful pictures. Attention to them all helps readers feel more like they’re in the world of Jesus and the apostles. Helpful indices also aid readers in quickly finding specific articles.

Worthy Addition

Study Bibles can become double-edged swords. At one point earlier in my life, I (Charlie) deliberately stopped using my study Bible because I looked at the notes first, since they provided “the answer” for me more quickly than looking at the biblical text. This study Bible, however, doesn’t present this kind of danger given its narrow focus. Besides several “key concepts” at the beginning of each book, little direct guidance is given to the reader about the “meaning” of the biblical text. Since the focus is on such areas as culture, geography, and history, it prevents the reader from abusing the notes by replacing the biblical text with commentary.

The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible is a wonderful addition to the library of those who seek to understand Scripture better, serving either as the main Bible for reading and study, or a frequently consulted resource for those who don’t have the means to purchase or read through similar multi-volume works.

NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, ed. by Craig Keener and John H. Walton. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016. 2400 pp. $79.99. 

Charlie Trimmi is assistant professor of biblical and theological studies at Biola University, where he teaches Old Testament. 

Nicholas G. Piotrowski is professor of biblical and theological studies at Crossroads Bible College, and president pro tempore of Indianapolis Theological Seminary. He teaches hermeneutics and New Testament.

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