cultural-background-study-bibleEvery year I purchase Bibles for high school and college graduates, and each year I am excited to explore the new study Bibles that are available.  In the past, I have purchased and recommended CEB and NRSV Wesley Study Bible (CEB is a great, accessible translation, and NRSV is my go-to study translation), as well as a handful of various NIV study Bibles.  But last week, I received a Bible in the mail from Zondervan that is already at the top of my list of recommendations for anyone looking for a study Bible:  The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible.

The first thing that stood out about this Bible – other than the appeal of context-focused study notes – was the editors.  The Old Testament editor is Dr. John Walton, who is perhaps best known for his books, “The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate” and “The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate.”  Both of these books opened my eyes to a completely new way of thinking – not only about the cosmos, but about ancient Near-Eastern ways of thought.

The New Testament editor is Dr. Craig S. Keener, another well-recognized and highly acclaimed biblical scholar.  Keener has written a number of commentaries, including the IVP Bible Background Commentary on the New Testament and a four volume exegetical commentary on Acts.

From the very beginning, Walton’s influence is apparent, as the notes on Genesis 1 focus on the functional (as opposed to material) origins of our first creation narrative.  In addition to that trademark language, there are several instances in which the mythologies of the ancient Near East are drawn upon, compared, and contrasted with the language and account of Genesis 1.  This is also one of the few study Bibles that I have encountered that discusses similarities and differences between the Genesis 1 account of creation and the Babylonian creation myth, the Enuma Elish (the others that have made mention of the Enuma Elish are the NRSV New Interpreter’s Study Bible and The JPS TANAKH “The Jewish Study Bible: Second Edition” – though I admit that I have not done an exhaustive search).

Ahead of each book is an introduction, which details authorship, genre (so important!) and cultural, historical and narrative background information.  It provides an approximate timeline when appropriate, and identifies some of the themes of the book.  It contains many maps, vivid color photographs and illustrations, and often has more notes than biblical text on a page.

To its credit, the study Bible gives a very satisfactory explanation of Apocalyptic Literature, and identifies Zechariah,  Daniel and Revelation as such (though I do wish it had been more clear about Daniel’s divided structure).

There are some shortcomings.  To give an example, the opening pages of the Gospel of John (as well as the epistles of John) make no mention of the Johannine community as a people among whom the stories of John might have found authorship, taken shape, or at the very least for whom it may have been written.  Though certainly an unsettled hypothesis, I would have liked to have seen mention of it.  Instead, and perhaps more immediately notable, the authorship is assumed to be John the disciple – which is at least as contested as the Johannine community hypothesis.  It’s more than possible that I’m being overly critical, but with its strengths in mind, I was surprised (and a bit disappointed) to find this weakness.  It is unfair to speculate, but I always fear that marketability is given higher consideration than scholarship at times.

Overall, however, I have to admit that I have been extremely excited by what I’ve seen in this Bible.  I expect to use it as my personal study Bible for the forseeable future, and it will definitely find its way into the hands of graduating seniors this fall.

I received this Bible as an ARC.



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