Bible Review—NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible


The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible
Zondervan | CBD | Amazon

I would like to thank the kind folks at Zondervan for this review copy!

Yes, another study bible has been published. One could easily (and perhaps in some cases should) bemoan the many editions of the bible that appear to be nothing more than a marketing grab. However, when it comes to study bibles, plentiful though they are, each one boasts its own strengths and unique features, thereby making each useful in its own way. Enter the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible (hereafter CBSB).

Personally, I own several study bibles and I have used them with great benefit, so I certainly don’t mind adding an additional volume to the mix. What is appealing about this study bible is its focus on biblical backgrounds—one of the most interesting and important areas to study when it concerns understanding the world of the biblical writers. Plus, most of my own doctoral research involves Greek and Roman culture, so I was anxious to see the various elements of these cultures that were discussed.

First, as with other bibles I’ve reviewed, I’ll begin with the aesthetics and physical properties. This bible, like other study bibles, is certainly big—2,358 pages—but is slightly less so than Zondervan’s recent NIV study bible. This edition is the hardcover, so there isn’t much to say about that except hopefully it will hold together over time as I intend to refer to it regularly. Visually, the layout and overall design of the bible is quite nice. Unlike the NIV Zondervan Study Bible (read my review here), the pages are slightly tinted with a sepia-like hue, a design choice I rather enjoy as I find it’s often a little easier on my eyes than the starker black-type-on-white-paper format that is more typical.

As I’ve come to expect with most products from Zondervan, the CBSB includes numerous full-color photos throughout. Though the paper used is obviously not the heavier stock capable of displaying the detail of hi-res images, the photos appear very sharp and crisp on the page—a nice addition that adds to the overall usefulness and visual appeal of this volume. At the risk of sounding somewhat juvenile, pictures can have a great impact when studying the scriptures, so I appreciate the attention to this detail. I flipped through my HCSB study bible and found there were virtually no photos included in that volume, so this is a plus for the CBSB. In addition to the numerous photos, the CBSB contains a copious amount of various information-laden inserts—full-color maps, graphs, timelines, essays (320+), introductory articles, glossaries, cross references, and footnotes, all of which serve the obvious purpose of illuminating the backgrounds relevant to the particular biblical book you might be reading.

For this review, I was asked to pore over and comment on a particular book of the NT, so I chose 2 Corinthians. The introductory article tackles the most frequently discussed issue concerning 2 Corinthians—its literary integrity (or lack thereof, depending on your view). The issues of authorship and date are only provided as data in a side bar while the article/essay is essentially an argument for the literary integrity of 2 Corinthians. Just to point out the aim of this bible, if that hasn’t been clear, the first page of text (1:1–12a) is undergirded with the same amount of page space dedicated to footnotes, most of which concerns information about letter writing and speeches in the ancient world. Most of the notes key in on a particular phrase from the text and provide a brief glimpse into the culture to help explain that particular concept, thought, etc. Since one could go on for quite a while talking about specific instances, since I was asked to focus on 2 Corinthians, I thought I’d look at a couple of passages in which cultural backgrounds could really illuminate the text and help the reader understand it, so I chose 2 Cor 5:1–10 and 12:2–4.

2 Cor 5:1–10 is a notoriously difficult passage to deal with because of several issues, one of which concerns the imagery Paul uses, e.g., the “earthly tent”, the “building from God”, being clothed with our “heavenly dwelling”, etc. Most see Paul here harkening back to the imagery of the wilderness wanderings, but the author of this section (of the CBSB, not 2 Corinthians!) makes mention of what Diaspora Jews and Greeks thought about the body, not necessarily if Paul is alluding to the OT imagery of the tabernacle. In the notes on vv. 2–4, the writer comments on what Jews, Greeks, and Romans thought about the unclothed body and how that factors in to the point Paul was trying to make. There are also notes about kingdom restoration (v. 5), different views of the resurrection (v. 8), and judgment (v. 10). In general, the notes here are helpful, so long as the reader remembers these are simply notes that will (hopefully!) spur them on to research particular issues more deeply outside of this bible.

The second passage, 2 Cor 12:2–4, concerns the account of the man caught up to the third heaven. Most of the notes for this section concern then-contemporary views of boasting, since it’s mentioned several times throughout this chapter (this issue also receives an article insert on the previous page). But here, unlike the previous passage, the editors have included an insert on the opposing page that gives a bit more background on the experience of the third heaven. Basically the article interprets the passage as Paul describing his own experience in the third person, a practice they state was employed by apocalyptic writers (does this assume, then, the writer of this insert sees Paul as an apocalyptic writer?) and offers a few thoughts on Jewish and Greek views of the heavens and how one experienced them according to ancient texts. So, much like the previous passage, the notes here are somewhat brief (as they must be), but remain helpful.

In sum, I think many will find this bible immensely helpful, so long as they don’t use it as a final authority on particular matters. The worlds of the biblical writers were as intricate and complicated as our own it seems and we can’t distill entire cultures and their practices down to a few footnotes, regardless of how many there are. Also, reading through the list of editors involved in this bible, many are from more conservative points of view, so this will obviously skew some things a certain way (I mention this not as a criticism, but merely an observation). You can read Pete Enns’ recent post about the CBSB where he points out some of these tendencies. However, let me reiterate that this is a wonderfully helpful study bible and will be of great benefit to all who use it. From the excellent overall design to its most important features—the information behind the accounts in the text—this bible is a grand achievement and will serve well those who wish to enhance their knowledge of the culture the biblical writers reflect.

For more information on this bible and some helpful info-graphics, head over to

Αυτω η δοξα