Bibles, Books, Reviews

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

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Bibles, Books, Reviews

Bible Review: NIV Zondervan Study Bible

Review---NIV-Z-Study-BibleNIV Zondervan Study Bible

Zondervan | Amazon | CBD

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

One of the things that struck me about this bible is the name—the NIV Zondervan Study Bible hereafter NIVZSB. The insertion of the publisher into the actual title is a bit strange to me. My guess is they did this to distinguish it from Zondervan’s previous study bible, the NIV Study Bible. While I’ve never used an older NIV study bible, I feel certain this current volume will supersede those quite easily.

Like other study bibles, this iteration from Zondervan is hefty—a whopping 2,912 pages—and in those pages readers will find a wealth of information, all of which is obviously designed to help them understand the text and the world it reflects. The overall design of the NIVZSB is very appealing and draws the eye in. The abundance of full-color graphics is a very nice touch and the text itself is very readable. The sections of biblical text are a serif font, whereas the study notes below are a sans serif font, which makes for a needed contrast. The study notes are also set against a light green background, thus enhancing its readability.

A number of elements I appreciate in this bible. The first is found in the front matter; in fact, it’s the first of many illustrations. This one concerns OT chronology, which is a notoriously difficult matter to sort out. This chronological timeline spans five pages and includes the Israelite peoples, as well as southern and northern Mesopotamia, Egypt, Syria-Palestine, Anatolia, Crete, Persia, Greece, and Italy. Of course not all of these civilizations have bearing through all of Israel’s history, but at various times each one plays some role in the formation and development of the people of Israel. This more detailed outline begins with 2500 bce and the timeline for Israel begins with the patriarchs, roughly 2250 bce. What I like about this timeline, as I mentioned, is how they handle the primeval history of Genesis 1–11. What time frame do they assign to the creation accounts, the fall, flood, and Babel? They don’t—they indicate this with a “?”. I like this for a number of reasons: we can’t be sure when these events happened, it’s the position I happen to hold, and it doesn’t embroil itself in the ever-contentious debates between science and faith. Whatever your belief about the first humans and Genesis and the ancillary matters that naturally spawn from that discussion, I appreciate that this was left as an unknown.

Another appreciable element (found in any good study bible) is the introductory articles. The NIVZSB not only introduces each book, but each section, so the reader can be briefly oriented to the OT and NT as a whole, as well as each section’s subsections. For example, after reading the “Introduction to the Old Testament”, the reader then may reader intros to the Pentateuch, the historical books, wisdom and “lyrical” books, and prophets. The book intros discuss much of what you should expect—dates of composition, provenance, themes, etc.—and give the reader a bird’s-eye view of the book. At the conclusion of the OT portion, there is a nice article on the intertestamental period that informs the reader of the importance of what happened historically between the testaments. Venturing into the NT portion of the NIVZSB, there is a two-page chronological timeline beginning with Herod the Great and concluding with the close of the first century. The NT section is handled slightly differently in that rather than having separate articles that discuss the various types of writings in the NT, these are subsumed in the intro to the NT article itself, presumably because the editors felt that three types of literature could be more easily handled this way (gospels, letters, apocalypse). After the NT, the reader is treated to a number of customary elements—tables of weights and measures, index, concordance, and maps. However, in addition to these there are additional articles that cover various topics that figure centrally throughout the bible, e.g., creation, sin, covenant, exile, temple, holiness, justice, grace, etc.

This bible is chock full of helps for the reader—there is no shortage of information available in this volume! Besides the elements already mentioned, the NIVZSB has numerous cross references (in the Gospels this includes parallel accounts found in the other Gospel accounts), an abundance of illustrations (nearly every other page it seems is beset with some sort of graphic illustration, chart, or other visual aid), and copious notes beneath the text that provide definitions for important terms and/or phrases, relevant background information, and brief discussions of difficult passages, e.g., Rom 9–11, 1 Tim 2:8–15, Heb 6:4–6, James 2:18–26, and others.

One of the most unique features of this study bible is that it essentially follows a biblical-theological scheme and seeks to tell the whole story of Scripture, which obviously assumes a unified text with a common trajectory or end. This, of course, will also affect how certain texts are translated. D. A. Carson notes this in the Editor’s Preface: “Finally, this study Bible emphasizes biblical theology” and “we have tried to highlight the way various themes develop within the Bible across time” (xxiii). I find this a helpful approach and I think this feature will distinguish the NIVZSB from others.

If I may quibble, there is one (very) minor annoyance with this Bible—the inconsistent use of dashes. I know, I know—that’s rather petty, especially considering how magnificent this volume is otherwise. However, years of slavish adherence to Turabian and SBL styles of formatting have hardened me and I can’t help but notice these things. The issue is found primarily in the outlines for each book. When indicating a range of verses, some sections are demarked by an em dash instead of an en dash, so that ranges look like “1:2—18” instead of “1:2­–18”. Again, I acknowledge this is comparatively minor, but sometimes it’s the little things that annoy and this is no exception.

In sum, the NIVZSB is superbly designed and imminently helpful study bible—this could be the new standard for such works. If you’re looking for a study bible, look no further—the NIV Zondervan Study Bible has everything you need to better understand the Bible.

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Read a sample here or take a look online.

Bible, Books

Book Review: How to Read the Bible through the Jesus Lens

How to Read the Bible through the Jesus Lens by Michael Williams

Zondervan ǀ WTS ǀ CBD ǀ

Thanks to the folks at Zondervan for this review copy!

This is my contribution to the book tour for which I received this copy of Michael Williams’ book. For my part, I chose Genesis and Romans for review (I’ve not read every page of this book as it was not required for the review).

The title of the book says it all—Williams writes to show how one can read the bible in such a way as to find Jesus in every book in the canon. This sort of Christocentric hermeneutic is certainly nothing new or novel, but Williams feels that “the fact that all of scripture testifies about Jesus” has been somewhat obscured by other details that tend to be the object of the bible reader’s study. His aim, then, is to provide a snapshot view of each biblical book, wherein he offers enough thematic ties to formulate a theme for that book and ultimately how each canonical book points to Jesus.

Each canonical book/chapter is comprised of several parts. First, he offers a quick introduction of the book in question. Bear in mind it’s not an introduction that you would find in a commentary or other more specialized work, but something much more generalized, at least in the chapter on Genesis. Other chapters throughout the book briefly summarize the story up to that point either chronologically or thematically and segue to the contents of the book itself. These brief glimpses at the landscape of the biblical story are helpful in that they are concise and show the reader how various books relate to others (the book of the twelve is a good example).

Each chapter has a graphic inserted just after the introductory paragraph that indicates what Williams’ believes to be the theme of the book. For Genesis, the theme is said to be “God separates out one through whom he would bless all nations” (13). This aspect of Williams’ book will likely serve as the spawning ground for most of readers’ disagreements. I will agree with Williams’ that the idea of separation is an important theme early on in Genesis, but I am not convinced that it is the theme. Williams’ notes the acts of separation in the first creation account (vv1:1-28) and the subsequent separation of people, i.e. Seth from Adam and Eve’s other children (5:3-32), the line of Abraham from all other people (12:1-3), etc, but does not discuss how the remainder of the story plays out except in a brief summary (clearly the nature of the book prevents such extended discussions). Each chapter also includes memory passages/verses that reinforce the proposed theme.

The subsequent sections are “The Jesus Lens”, “Contemporary Implications”, and “Hook Questions”. The “Jesus Lens” sections obviously tells how the canonical book in question points to Jesus, which in Genesis (acc. to Williams) is accomplished by showing “Jesus is the one to whom all God’s separating was always meant to lead, and Jesus is separate from all others in his ability to bring the promised divine blessing to the nations” (15). I must say that I was surprised that the so-called “proto-evangelium” of Gen 3:15 was not mentioned, given that many see in that verse the beginnings of what Christ would ultimately accomplish. The “Contemporary Implications” section is exactly what it sounds like—a brief attempt to show the contemporary relevance of these ancient texts and their pointing to Jesus. Williams maintains the theme of the canonical book here and ties it together by showing how God’s work of separation continues in the life of modern believers. The final part of each chapter is “Hook Questions,” questions provided for readers to engage personally and/or in a group setting, presumably for those who wish to pursue matters beyond the initial discussion of the chapter. These questions will be helpful to varying degrees depending on a number of factors, some being more helpful than others.

On the New Testament side, I chose to read and comment on Williams’ treatment of Romans. The theme proposed is “Through Christ, God brings his chosen ones from death to life”. While this is certainly a concept Paul discusses in Romans, I’m not convinced that it would serve as the theme of the book. This is due mostly to my own view of Romans, which is to say I see it as Paul’s explication of what the gospel is and how it is effected in the life of sinners and how they, upon regeneration, are to live the gospel. This is certainly not at odds with Williams’ proposed theme—much of what the gospel is in Romans concerns what God does to reconcile sinners to himself, i.e. bringing them from death to life, but one is hard pressed to condense the whole of Romans to this one idea.

And therein lies the main concern I have with this book and others like it—the attempt to condense canonical books to a singular theme is often difficult, if not sometimes impossible. Many books of the bible are quite complex and defiantly resist simplified categorization, thematic or otherwise. To do so concerns me because too often people (especially many modern bible readers) are more concerned with simplifying the scriptures so that they can make more expedient use of it. It’s a common approach in many churches today to hurry up and get to the application—what does this mean for me today? While I believe the scripture is certainly relevant for readers of all eras, we must not bypass the difficulties and complexities of scripture just to get to why it’s important today. Cart before the horse, anyone? This approach can easily lead to bad interpretations which inevitably leads to bad theology.

However, let me be clear in what I do not wish to suggest—that Williams’ book will lead to this end. Yes, it could for some, those who fit the mold I mentioned above, but for those whose desire is to read the scripture from a bird’s-eye perspective, to get a snapshot of the bible’s story, Williams’ book will help you in that. I agree with Williams and others who believe the whole of scripture finds its ultimate fulfillment in Christ and that we should read the it accordingly, but I also believe the fullest and most faithful way to read the scripture Christocentrically (or through the Jesus lens) is to understand each book and each section of scripture as it was understood by its original hearers and readers, to whatever extent we are able. I am confident that Williams would agree with this and he does an admirable job of telling the greater story that all scripture, as a whole, is meant to tell. He has written a very readable book (at times even humorous) and it will serve well those who wish to see how the scripture tells of Jesus, whether by a whisper or a shout.

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