Craig S. Keener and John H. Walton, ed. NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible: Bringing to Life the Ancient World of Scripture. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2016. 2400 pp. $49.99.
Prolific OT scholar Dr. John Walton and NT scholar Dr. Craig Keener have teamed up to bring us a new study Bible that illuminates the cultural, historical, and literary context of the Scriptures. Not only are Walton and Keener experts in OT and NT studies, respectively, but they are especially known for their research in backgrounds (as can be seen, for example, in the two-volume IVP Bible Background Commentary they edited). With the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, the kind of information that could previously only be found in massive dictionaries/encyclopedias or specialized monographs has been made accessible to the person in the pew in a stunning study Bible that uses the most popular and trusted modern translation.
While this study Bible contains many of the elements shared by most study Bibles (e.g. book introductions, maps, charts, photographs, study notes, etc.), here everything is distinctly focused on context and background (social, political, cultural, historical, literary). For example, at the beginning there is a chart that provides explanation and select key verses of key Hebrew words that have no exact equivalent in English and an article explicating major background issues from the ancient Near East. Before the New Testament text there’s a section on “Key New Testament Terms” that clarifies cultural concepts behind key terms. In this section not only terms in the NT itself are defined (e.g. Christ, law, Satan, etc.) but also terms from the Jewish (e.g. Dead Sea Scrolls, Qumran community, Maccabees, etc.) and Greco-Roman backgrounds of the NT (e.g. client, Cynic, etc.).
For the purpose of this review I read all the notes in the Gospel of Luke and will highlight the features and a few notable insights. First of all, a brief two-page introduction briefly addresses genre, authorship, provenance, and date. There are charts that detail Mary’s allusions to Hannah’s Song, compare Caesar and Christ, present the parables of Jesus across the Synoptic Gospels, and display the resurrection appearances across the four Gospels, Acts, and 1 Corinthians. There’s also an image and description of the Capernaum Synagogue, a brief description of disease and medicine in the ancient world, and a two-page spread on “Qumran and the New Testament.”
Some interesting background insights include the note for 6:29c-d (“If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them”), where we are told that the coat is “[t]he one possession that a creditor could not legally seize from a debtor” (1755), and the note for 9:60 (where Jesus responded to a man who asked to bury his father before following Jesus, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God”) tells us that “burying one’s father was one of society’s greatest obligations” (1766). Both of these background notes give us deeper insight into what Jesus is saying about discipleship. The note at 18:25 debunks the commonly preached erroneous insight that there was a gate in first century Jerusalem called “Needle’s Eye” (saying this drastically lessens the force of the point Jesus was making). Regarding the tearing of the temple in 23:45, in addition to the commonly preached insight about the tearing of the curtain perhaps signifying new access to the Holy Place we are told that it “probably implies the departure of God’s presence from the temple, prefiguring its destruction” (1797-98).
The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible will help the serious Bible student who does not have advanced knowledge of the worlds of the biblical text enter those worlds. Key background and contextual insights will open up new riches of spiritual and theological understanding that will also have practical implications for the Christian life. This study Bible is a great one-stop-shop on cultural, historical, and literary backgrounds to the Bible. Find out more about the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible here!
Thanks to Zondervan Academic and AcademicPS for the review copy!