NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible
Reviewed by Anthony Lipscomb
According to a 2013 CNN story entitled, “You stole what? 7 bizarre items thieves love,” the Bible is “the most commonly stolen book,” at least in the US. The Bible makes the unranked list alongside pregnancy tests, Nutella, hair extensions, high-end vacuum cleaners, energy drinks, and Tide laundry detergent. Whether or not the Bible is as “hot” a commodity as the story reports, this claim stands alongside the Bible’s distinctions as the best-selling and most read book in the world. For generations across the globe, the Bible has been revered and vilified. It has inspired the best in humanity, but it has also been exploited to exploit others. Since the Enlightenment, the Bible has become the object of intense intellectual scrutiny, yet it has never failed to serve as God’s self-revelation for communities of faith. Indeed, the Bible’s distinctions cited above point to the Bible’s unique status within the history of world literature. Simply put, there is no book on this planet quite like the Bible.
Why another study Bible?
For nearly two millennia, the Bible has influenced Western culture, which in turn has made an enduring cultural impression around the world. Yet, because Western civilization has been the world’s primary mediator of the biblical text and the religious and ethical values therein, the Bible’s ancient cultural backgrounds has, for many, been lost in linguistic and cultural translation. A common consequence manifests in readings of the Bible, well-intended or not, that miss the mark of what the biblical writers are communicating. Without an informed understanding of how people thought, spoke, and behaved in the ancient world of the Bible, not to mention the geography, history, and natural environment of the Near East and Mediterranean, many readers today naturally and only view the text through the lens of a modern worldview.
Over the past few centuries, however, the Bible’s ancient cultural backgrounds have been and continue to be recovered through the efforts of archaeologists, linguists, Assyriologists, Egyptologists, biblical scholars, Classicists, and many other contributing specialists. Yet, the fruit of these labors often fail to reach the Bible’s general readership. This situation now changes significantly as the new NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible (CBSB) has the potential to bridge the cultural gap between the Bible’s ancient contexts and the contexts of modern readers.
The CBSB is produced under the editorship of Dr. John H. Walton (Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College) and Dr. Craig S. Keener (F.M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Seminary). According to the Acknowledgements page in the CBSB’s front matter, the study notes are derived (and perhaps condensed) from the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, Old Testament, the IVP Bible Background Commentary, and the NIV Archaeological Study Bible. There is no clear indication, however, as to the extent to which these resources are used since neither footnotes nor any other means of source citation are employed.
The CBSB can be divided according to subject matter into five major sections: (1) front matter, (2) the Old Testament (OT) and Notes, (3) Notes on the Intertestamental Period, (4) the New Testament (NT) and Notes, and (5) back matter.
Front matter includes a Quick Start Guide, an extensive Table of Contexts/Charts/Maps, an Author Introduction, an Acknowledgements of contributors, an About the Authors page, a list of Abbreviations, and the NIV’s preface to its translation. The Author Introduction does not introduce readers to the authors/editors, but rather it is an FAQ of sorts that informs readers about the CBSB’s unique contribution in the marketplace of study bibles. For this reason, it is a wonder why the Author Introduction is not subsumed under the Quick Start Guide, which works towards the same goal.
OT and Notes
The OT section includes three prefatory resources:
- Hebrew to English Translation Chart (xix–xxvii) of Hebrew words that do not have an exact English equivalent, e.g. ḥesed (“unfailing love, kindness, mercy”), hebel (“meaninglessness” or traditionally “vanity”), and ʿalmāh (“virgin”). Each entry includes a transliteration with its Goodrick/Kohlenberger number (the NIV equivalent to Strong’s numbers), its written form in Hebrew, its NIV translation, select key verses where the word is found, and a brief description that explains its essential idea. This is a potentially helpful resource, but its usefulness is limited because there is no concerted effort in the study notes proper to alert readers when a given word in the NIV translation has an entry in this chart.
- A three-page chart of Ancient Texts Relating to the Old Testament (xxviii–xxx), arranged alphabetically, with a brief description of each text, their approximate dating, and their language of origin. Example: Sennacherib’s Prism, Akkadian (Early seventh century BC), “Sennacherib vividly describes his siege of Jerusalem in 701 BC, making Hezekiah a prisoner in his own royal city (but cf. 2Ki 19:35–37)” (xxx).
- A timeline of Old Testament Chronology (xxxi–xxxv) that runs parallel with the basic timelines of the surrounding cultures.
The OT canon is divided into four sections according to traditional divisions and genre: The Torah (Genesis–Deuteronomy), Narrative Literature (Joshua–Esther), Wisdom and Hymnic Literature (Job–Song of Songs), and Oracles of the Prophets (Isaiah–Malachi). Each division of the OT canon is introduced by a formal cover page and introductory article, and the individual books are prefaced by an introduction that places the text within its historical and literary contexts. A set of “key concepts” accompany each book introduction. Articles, charts, maps, and photographs appear within the pages of the biblical text, providing readily accessible complements to the study notes that populate the space beneath the biblical text.
Notes on the Intertestamental Period
This brief section provides a helpful snapshot of The Time Between the Testaments (1577–1582). The section includes a brief history of the time period, a brief review of the relevant literature from the period (Septuagint, Apocrypha, and Dead Sea Scrolls), and a cursory discussion of social developments within the Jewish community (Diaspora, Sadducees, Synagogue, Pharisees, Essenes) that serve as the backdrop for the NT. This overview of the intertestamental period is followed by a timeline From Malachi to Christ (1583).
NT and Notes
The NT section begins with two prefatory resources:
- An alphabetical list of Key New Testament Terms (1584–1591). Unlike the Hebrew to English Translation Chart (xix–xxvii), this deceptively titled resource does not explain Greek words that underlie the NIV translation. Instead, the list is primarily a glossary of technical and theological terms used in the study notes and articles, e.g. “Anaphora,” “4 Ezra,” “Midrash,” and “Stoicism.”
- A New Testament Chronology (1593–1594) from approximately 37 BC to AD 100.
The editors divide the NT canon into The Gospels & Acts (i.e. narrative) and then The Letters & Revelation. The NT section follows the same format used for the OT. One difference pertains to the introduction for NT books. Where OT book introductions include a set of “key concepts,” NT book introductions include a “quick glance” at the text’s author, audience, date, and theme.
The back matter features five resources:
- A Table of Weights and Measures (2272) details the various units of measurement (weight, length, dry, and liquid) that a reader will encounter in both the OT and NT, and provides both American and Metric equivalents. Example: talent (60 minas) = 75 pounds (American) = 34 kilograms (Metric); cubit = 18 inches = 45 centimeters; ephah (10 omers) = 3/5 bushel = 22 liters; hin (1/6 bath) = 1 gallon = 3.8 liters.
- An Index of Articles helpfully lists the articles that appear interspersed throughout the study bible, first in canonical order (2273–2278) and then again in alphabetical order (2279–2284).
- A Concordance (2285–2339).
- An Index to Maps, which lists place names with their map number and grid location (2340–2342).
- Fourteen Maps (2343–2358) covering the Middle East and Mediterranean.
The CBSB comes in different bound forms, including leather (black), imitation leather (tan, patterned green), and hard cover (leather-patterned brown). In addition to red lettering for Jesus’s words in the NT, color-coded fonts are used throughout, perhaps for style, but also for distinguishing content. So, for example, chapter numbers in the OT are color-coded according to the editors’ genre divisions: dark olive green/Torah, light olive green/Narrative Literature, red/Wisdom and Hymnic Literature, and brown/Prophetic Literature.
Over the course of three months, my wife and I used the CBSB as our primary Bible within the context of our local church, and it quickly became our go-to resource at home as well. Its wealth of cultural, historical, geographical, and linguistic insights made it an excellent first point of reference for questions about the meaning of a given passage. Even when the notes and informational resources did not resolve a question, the information at least alerted us to further possible interpretations or avenues of study. The following evaluation also includes input from my friend, Tom, who taught a fifteen-week adult Bible class on Romans 6–8 and used the relevant pages in the CBSB for his preparation. I am grateful to my wife and Tom for their valuable contributions to this review.
In what follows, I will first discuss two NT examples of the CBSB notes and offer one critique of the NT section. Then, in greater detail, I will discuss the Book of Isaiah as an example of the typical resources a reader might encounter for a given book. One critique for the OT section will follow.
Examples from the NT
A good example of the CBSB’s presentation of material pertains to the thorny discussion of a woman’s role in ministry in light of Paul’s instructions to Timothy, who ministered in the predominantly Greek culture of Ephesus. 1 Timothy 2:11–12 states: “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet” (NIV). The notes point out that Greek culture “valued women’s meekness and quietness” and that students in general were expected to learn humbly (2107–2108). An accompanying article, “Women’s Education in Antiquity,” relays the disproportionate emphasis placed on male education compared to women in both Greco-Roman and Jewish culture, especially in the areas of philosophy, rhetoric, and for Jews, Torah recitation. Though some women proved to be rare exceptions to the rule, their lack of formal training made them especially susceptible to false teachers (2109). Within this context, it is noteworthy that Paul encourages women to learn in the first place. The notes go on to say, “Paul’s warning makes good sense in such a context. If part of the problem is that the women are uninformed, Paul may offer a long-range solution to this deficiency in v. 11 (cf. Ro 16:1–4,7; Php 4:2–3). The matter is, however, debated” (italics mine, 2108). Here, the editors carefully couch their language in tentative terms (“If,” “may,” “The matter is, however, debated”) so as to avoid a dogmatic statement, and at the same time they bring to light the perspective of Paul’s ancient context that is most relevant to Paul’s instructions, leaving readers to decide on their own how the contextual data will inform their understanding of the text.
Often the cultural context of passages like 1 Timothy 2:11–12 is missing from the general reader’s knowledge base. The study notes, embedded articles, and introductions all work toward remedying this void. In preparing his study on Romans 6–8, my friend Tom (mentioned above), commented on his first experience with the CBSB:
My first experience with the CBSB was reading about, “Ancient Letters.” This set up my study with a much greater appreciation for the financial burden writing a letter would have been, and more importantly, based on the length of the letter written, how much care was taken and the burdensome cost of writing the letter to the Romans would have been. So, before I even started the study, I knew that what I was looking at should be revered as significant. I am not overlooking the significance of the Word of God, but considering what it would have taken to write the Epistle and the logistics of having the letter delivered to Italy immediately changed my perspective on the significance of Romans.
The article, “Ancient Letters,” mentioned by Tom, introduces the Letters & Revelation division of the NT canon. Tom also singles out articles specifically keyed to Romans that he found especially informative for his preparation:
I then encountered the “Setting” and “Themes” in the introduction to Romans (pp. 1945-1946). At this point in my study I had already gained an understanding of some of the debate behind the intent of the Epistle and thoroughly enjoyed the background scuttle as to why Paul wrote Romans. In the CBSB, I felt like I was reading a summary I wish I had read prior to the hours of background research completed. I thought this would be great if all the students in my class had this context and was encouraged that this much background was presented in such a succinct and complete manner.
Finally, I also referenced the article, “Flesh and Spirit” (p. 1961). Here, I had already referenced other materials that had done well to develop several of the arguments Paul makes by way of contrasting God’s Law and grace, as well as the life of the flesh and the life of the Spirit. I found this section an effective summary and a reinforcement of the points I believed Paul was making.
One resource that is regrettably missing is a table and description of texts related to the NT, comparable to what is provided for the OT. The editors come close to this in the Literature section of their intertestamental material. For instance, the editors include a discussion of the Dead Sea Scrolls and their importance as a textual witness to the OT, and the editors embed within the context of Luke 6 an article entitled, “Qumran and the New Testament,” which gives an overview of the scholarly discussion on the relationship between the Dead Sea Scroll community and the early Christians (1756–1757). However, a discussion of other important textual sources and traditions are omitted. In particular, a discussion of early rabbinic literature would have been a welcome addition for filling out the Jewish background and conceptual world of Jesus and the disciples. The work of scholars, such as Dr. Brad H. Young (Professor of Biblical Literature, Oral Roberts University) and his book Meet the Rabbis: Rabbinic Thought and the Teachings of Jesus, would have been prime resources for introducing readers to this often-overlooked background to the NT.
Examples from the OT
The Book of Isaiah begins the CBSB’s canonical division, Oracles of the Prophets. After an introduction to the canonical division, an introduction to Isaiah follows with an overview of the book’s historical setting and compositional history (which is debated by scholars). Three “key concepts” accompany the introduction (1103):
- “Kings who trusted alliances brought on disaster, while kings who trusted in God experienced deliverance.”
- “Prophecy is not simply prediction of the future; it is God’s revelation of himself, his requirements and his plan.”
- “It is important to have confidence in God’s plan and trust him to carry it out.”
Sixteen articles are distributed throughout the book, fourteen in Isaiah 1–38:
Historical Background of Isaiah, The (Isaiah 1)
Prophets and Prophecy (Isaiah 1)
Allegory (Isaiah 5)
Wordplay (Isaiah 5:7)
Dating Methods (Isaiah 6:1)
Syro-Ephraimite War (Isaiah 7:1)
Israel and Aram Destroyed (Isaiah 7:16)
Names in the Old Testament Period (Isaiah 9:6)
Nations Targeted in Isaiah’s Prophecies (Isaiah 13:1–14:27)
Prophecies Against Foreign Nations (Isaiah 13–24)
Siege Warfare (Isaiah 23:13)
Old Testament Concept of Resurrection, The (Isaiah 26:19)
Egyptian Relationships Under Hezekiah (Isaiah 30)
Psalm of Thanks for Healing (Isaiah 38:10–20)
Prophecies of Consolation and Hope (Isaiah 40–66)
Substitutionary Rites (Isaiah 53)
Additional infographics include photographs of ancient artifacts and historical sites, historical and informational charts, maps, and an artistic rendition of the vision of Isaiah 6.
Taking Isaiah 6 as a specific example of the CBSB’s notes, the chapter is thirteen verses long, nine of which (vv. 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12) have an accompanying note. Any given note to a verse may be comprised of multiple subnotes, divided according to keywords or phrases. For example, Isaiah 6:1 says, “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple.” The note for this verse is comprised of five subnotes, keyed to the terms Uzziah, Lord, high and exalted, train of his robe, and temple. Each subnote is indicated by its keyword in italics. This formatting makes it difficult to spot-check a lengthy note when one is searching for remarks on a specific term or phrase.
The length of a note varies depending on subject matter, the complexity of an issue, and whether or not a topic has been treated elsewhere. The contents of the notes are, for the most part, economical yet highly informative. Some notes simply refer the reader to a different note that addresses the same topic in greater detail. The note to the keyword Uzziah in Isaiah 6:1, for example, relates the significance of Uzziah’s death within that period of Judah’s history (1120):
Grief in Judah must have been great since Uzziah was the only king whom many, including Isaiah, knew since his reign was so long (792–740 BC). The anguish could well have been exacerbated by fear, since just prior to Uzziah’s death in 742 BC, the great Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III had ascended his throne (745 BC), reviving the waning Neo-Assyrian Empire. He turned his attention to the west, starting with military campaigns in 743 BC. In one such campaign he encountered “[Azr]iau (Azariah) of Judah,” leading some to suggest that Uzziah/Azariah was the opponent mentioned by Tiglath-Pileser. Fear at this juncture in Israel’s history provided opportunity for a prophet to be heard, as it did in the reign of Ahaz in Isa. 7.
Here, the note provides pertinent information that places Isaiah’s vision and call narrative within its historical context. In short, Isaiah’s vision of God on his heavenly throne occurs at just the time when the tiny nation of Judah would feel most vulnerable. It is both an encouraging and dreadful event. On the one hand, God reveals his cosmic sovereignty to his prophet in the wake of the emerging Neo-Assyrian Empire. On the other hand, the prophet’s vision comes with an oracle of judgment against Judah.
A careful reader of the CBSB will always keep in mind that the cultural data provided therein can at times be interpreted in as many ways as the biblical text itself. Most of the time the editors will indicate as much, but other times interpretations of the data are presented as fact. A prime example comes in the first word of the Hebrew to English Translation Chart. The word is bārāʾ, which the NIV translates as “create.” This word appears in the Bible’s opening statement: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Traditionally, Hebrew bārāʾ has been understood in this context as creation ex nihilo (“out of nothing”).
Recently, biblical scholars have argued over this conception of Hebrew bārāʾ, either in favor of the traditional understanding or in favor of the meaning “to separate,” which implies pre-existing matter. The description of Hebrew bārāʾ in the CBSB takes yet another position on the term’s meaning. The description states that the action of bārāʾ “often entails giving something a role, purpose or function in an ordered system. Its emphasis is therefore on God acting with purpose and giving things a purpose rather than on simple materiality” (xix). Thus, the CBSB’s position implies pre-existing matter. No further discussion of Hebrew bārāʾ is provided in the study notes to Genesis 1:1.
Anyone familiar with this description of Hebrew bārāʾ will readily recognize the influence of the CBSB OT editor, Dr. John H. Walton, who is the main proprietor of this interpretation. Walton is a well-respected Evangelical scholar, and he may be right about Hebrew bārāʾ, but the matter is far from settled. It is therefore unfortunate that the data is not presented in a more judicious manner, alerting readers to the larger discussion that remains open.
The CBSB is a must have for anyone who wants to understand the Bible within its ancient contexts. Overall, I find the layout and graphic design visually appealing and productive for navigating the notes and text. The study notes cannot be exhaustive, but given the necessary space limitations they do an excellent job delivering helpful background information that is accessible to all readers. These notes should prove especially enlightening for especially difficult texts, such as the ever-cryptic apocalyptic passages in Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation. Technical jargon is kept to a minimum, but when used it is defined in a clear manner. The information provided stays true to the intended purpose of the CBSB, bringing to light the Bible’s ancient cultural backgrounds without straying into other areas of discourse, such as apologetics, homiletics, or theology. The editors are also to be commended for presenting information objectively and without dogmatism favoring one interpretation of a text over another. Finally, on a more personal note, as a father, I can think of no better resource for introducing my children to the joys of studying the Bible within its ancient contexts than the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible.
Anthony Lipscomb is a PhD student in Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near East at Brandeis University.
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NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible: Bringing to Life the Ancient World of Scripture