Skip to main content

431583I just received the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible (to be released August 23, available in hardcover, leather, and e-version) and spent a day reading through significant portions of it.

When an evangelical Bible commentary or study Bible is published, I get an initial feel for it by seeing how perennial evangelical hot-button issues are handled, like:

  • creation, Adam, and the Flood (i.e., myth)
  • historicity of the Exodus
  • historicity and ethics of the conquest (especially archaeology of Jericho)
  • historicity of David and Solomon
  • Chronicles as a midrash of the Deuteornomistic history
  • authorship issues especially Pentateuch, Isaiah, Daniel, Pastoral Epistles
  • theological diversity and contradiction in the Gospels
  • Paul and the New Perspective on Judaism

Let me be clear. I do not mean to say that I look to see whether the authors agree with me or mainstream biblical scholarship (which has its own variety), but whether non-evangelical readings are dismissed, marginalized, or misrepresented.

In other words, I am looking to see whether the book leads evangelicals to an awareness of broader academic discussions or whether it is oriented toward evangelical apologetics. My initial impression is that NIVCBSB is much more the former with relatively little the latter.

I’d be lying if I said that I stood up and cheered on each page. To be sure, this is an evangelical study Bible—theological borders delimit the range of options the authors can take, and so qualifications abound. This is to be expected, but all in all, I feel safe recommending this study Bible as a learned and valuable resource from an evangelical perspective without being overly concerned that the reader will be strongarmed by evangelical apologetics.

First, here are a few examples from the OT to give you a bit of a feel for the study Bible, followed by some brief observations about the NT portion.

Adam is presumed throughout to be a historical figure. There is a good essay on “Adam and Jewish Tradition” (p. 1957), but, disappointingly nothing on Adam in the ancient Mesopotamian context. The silence is deafening, though I suppose in the current climate of tensions over Adam an essay on the mythic setting of the Adam story is too much to ask.

But the other essays covering the opening chapters of Genesis will be instructive for readers. For example, the essay on the serpent of Genesis 3 (p. 12) makes very clear that the serpent is only equated with Satan under the influence of the NT and Christian theology, which would not have been on the OT author’s mind. I find it refreshing (if also a bit striking) that in an evangelical publication the NT reading is not given the final word on what Genesis means.

Concerning the Flood, source-criticism is simply ignored (which is better than misrepresenting it as passé among biblical scholars, a common verdict among evangelicals). The stated purpose of the story, however, is worth underscoring: its value is in helping us “see how the Israelites would have understood the whole event differently than their neighbors” (p. 21, my emphasis).

In other words—lets not miss what’s happening here—we are told that the Flood story gives us Israel’s perspective on an event (local Mesopotamian deluge), which is very different indeed from saying it gives an essentially accurate account of history. I’m relieved that an apologetic note was not struck in a study Bible that is supposed to be fixed on backgrounds material.

On p. 32 we read of the value of ancient Near Eastern mythological literature for understanding Genesis: it helps us see Genesis with ancient eyes rather than imposing upon it modern expectations.

That point is hardly news within evangelicalism (especially given the fact that John Walton is the OT editor), but thankfully missing here is the confused and too-common rapid qualification that, though mythic, the Bible nevertheless records history. Even if the author/editor of this portion of the study Bible believes that, the note doesn’t reflect it.

Too often evangelicals give “myth” a respectful nod of recognition (it can’t be tabled forever, after all), but they tend not to grab the mythic tiger by the tail and just say it: “Yes, myth is the correct genre category for this text, not history.” But still, seeing “myth” treated without first completely de-clawing it is worth noting.

Of course, things can get quite heated when the topic turns to the doctrinal implications of recognizing the mythic nature of parts of the Bible. Maybe one day Zondervan can publish a “Doctrinal Implications Study Bible” (text me, Katya).

The treatment of the historicity of the exodus is also worth noting. The relevant essays (pp. 104; 116-17; 118-19) freely admit the event cannot be “determined with certainty” and we are lacking a “precise and convincing historical framework” (p. 104). The best we can do is argue for what is “possible, plausible, or even probable” (p. 116).

To be sure, the exodus is still presumed to be an event that took place sometime during the New Kingdom in Egypt (1550-1069 BC), and unfortunately there is no discernable probing into what way the biblical story is historical. But readers will certainly be alerted that the evidence for the exodus is essentially nonexistent and the best we can do is comment on its plausibility.

I have to say I was taken off guard by the essay on the Passover. Albeit briefly, the essay acknowledges that,

certain elements in the Passover suggest that at its roots may be a nomadic herdmen’s ritual in which they sought both protection from demonic attack as they moved to summer pasture and fertility for their herds in the new breeding season (p. 129).

Such a comment, though commonplace outside of evangelicalism, requires more discussion here, as it raises the question—largely unaddressed in this volume—of the impact cultural backgrounds has had on evangelical theology.

Seeing these sorts of observations through to the end is precisely what has led generations of evangelicals to feel the need to rethink the nature of Scripture, particularly Scripture as an inerrant account of historical events. This comment on the Passover is not innocent. It cries out for explanation and can’t simply be dropped.

Israelite origins is a vexing scholarly issue, and the study Bible unsurprisingly steers clear of anything that might contravene the biblical narrative. Having said that, though assumed to be an historical event, the historical problems with the biblical account of the fall of Jericho are not ignored (pp. 368-69). Rather than a major population area, Jericho was a “small settlement” and likely primarily a “military compound, a small fort” containing perhaps “an inn or hostel” and with “100 soldiers or fewer guarding it.”

This interpretation is not universal among scholars, and it seems geared toward latching the biblical story to a verifiable historical moment (there was a Jericho at the time of the conquest and something did happen there). Nevertheless, this reconstruction is at odds with the biblical story. So how to explain it? The essay gently concedes, without using the term, that the biblical story is an exaggeration that served to bolster Joshua’s reputation (which some might call “propaganda”).

We are not told when such an exaggeration to bolster Joshua’s reputation would have been written (within a generation? half a millennium later?), nor (once again) is it suggested what impact this conclusion might have on typical evangelical expectations about biblical inspiration, but at least we are moving in the right direction.

One concern I have, though, with the handling of Jericho and other violent episodes (e.g., Flood, exodus, and the Midianite war in Numbers 30) is that the morality of these actions is not addressed or questioned, at least not that I could see. I was very surprised to see no essay on “Divine violence” or “warfare in the Ancient Near East.” Cultural backgrounds could easily have been used to explain that biblical writers portray God in ways reflected in well-documented texts from Israel’s Iron Age tribalistic neighbors.

Cultural backgrounds could easily have been used to explain that the biblical writers portrayed God in ways that reflected well-documented texts from Israel’s Iron Age tribalistic neighbors. I suspect that the topic was avoided because it raises serious questions about the historical factuality of the conquest accounts.

I was hopeful that authorship issues might be addressed with some meaningful flexibility, but that was largely not the case. Ancient parallels to Deuteronomy are 2nd millennium rather than 1st. The apparent introduction of the divine name Yahweh in Exodus 6:2-3, a key text for source critics, receives an innocuous comment (p. 15).

On the still controversial question of the authorship of Isaiah, we read, “The compositional history of Isaiah is debated, with numerous competing views as to the number of authors and time of composition” (p. 1103). While true, this is also misleading.

There are certainly debates about the composition of Isaiah, but every biblical scholar in the solar system, outside of some (by no means all) evangelical circles, agrees that the 8th-century prophet is not responsible for all 66 chapters, and that the final form of the book dates to the exilic and postexilic periods.

If authorship issues are to be addressed at all, something as fundamentally accepted as multiple Isaianic authorship deserves clearer mention. Rather, the comment suggests that the matter is up for grabs and the scholarly world is in a state of confusion. It isn’t.

One final note on authorship concerns Daniel. Affirming a 6th-century date has been a veritable one-question orthodoxy exam in evangelicalism, whereas a 2nd-century date is considered to be one of the surest conclusions of modern scholarship (and accepted among some evangelicals).

With that in mind, on p. 1414 we read the following. Though expressed in evangelical speak (“try to say it without actually saying it and make sure you say something about the Bible’s reliability”), I for one appreciate the effort:

Though the book occasionally has Daniel speaking in the first person, the narratives are largely third person. Daniel is not named as the author. While there is no reason to question the authenticity of the accounts of the book, the fact that many narrative traditions were preserved orally, perhaps even for centuries before being committed to writing, results in uncertainty concerning when and by whom the book was compiled.

Translation: 6th-century authorship is not a slam dunk and the story might not have been written down until many centuries later. Though we read here hardly a ringing endorsement of the mainstream view, and with the typical qualification about Daniel’s unquestioned “authenticity” (though was does that mean?), this comment will likely give readers something to think about: Daniel is in some sense “late.”

But, again, if the authorship if Daniel is going to be addressed at all, some mention should be made of the essentially ubiquitous view, which is based on a “cultural background” issue, namely the havoc wreaked by the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes (reigned from 175-164 BC).

Moving more quickly to the New Testament portion of the study Bible, here too we see many valuable and learned essays that will inform readers. I did feel, however, that the tone was more apologetic throughout, and often times seemed to me digress from the purpose of a cultural backgrounds study Bible.

Inordinate space, for example, is given to establishing the historical veracity of the Gospels and their sources, including the plausibility of the authorship ascriptions and miracles. However interesting these issues may be, they are not backgrounds issues for understanding the text.

What I was hoping to find was more focus on the cultural settings of the various Gospel writers that yielded their unique interpretations on Jesus (though see “The ‘Jews’ and ‘Jewish Leaders’ in John’s Gospel,” p. 1810). Likewise, essays on Jesus’ trial (p. 1672) and the location of Jesus’ tomb (p. 1678) are interesting, but I would rather have seen essays on “legal systems” or “burial practices in Greco-Roman Palestine” or something of that nature.

For the life of me, I have no idea why an essay discussing the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin (p. 1728) is included in a cultural backgrounds study Bible.

I was surprised that missing was an essay on the well known Priene Calendar Inscription (an account of Caesar Augustus’s divine birth and proclamation as “savior,”  which is “Good News” for all). This inscription is a stunningly important cultural background for Mark or the Lukan birth narrative. Instead we see numerous synchronic charts: resurrection appearances (p. 1799), miracles of Jesus (p. 1808), harmonies of the Gospels (pp. 1858-64) and the events of Passion Week (pp. 1722-23). (The same holds for the Epistles [qualifications for elders, p. 2112; the “greater than” sayings in Hebrews, p. 2142.)

I cannot say synchronic charts should by no means appear in a backgrounds study Bible, but I would rather have seen that space devoted to more essays like the one on the triclinium (dining room in a Roman house, p. 1840) or “Houses in the Holy Land” (1640-41). Perhaps robust essays on the structure of the family in Greco-Roman society (though “marriage roles in antiquity” touches on it, pp. 2064-65), or the background for the language of “citizenship” or the “church” (ekklesia) that Paul reframes (though the latter is [too briefly] defined in “Key New Testament Terms,” p. 1585).

Again, there are many helpful essays and notes in the New Testament section. Let me mention in particular the non-alarmist and contextually sensitive essay on homosexuality in antiquity (p. 1950), and about as balanced a nod as one might expect to the New Perspective on Paul (“Paul’s Jewish Opponents,” p. 2047). But I felt I had to wade through less interesting and less relevant material along the way, almost at points losing track that this was a cultural backgrounds Bible.

To sum up, the visuals are striking and inviting, and this volume will be a wonderful aid for many, particularly for those readers who might otherwise be jarred by the depth and breadth to which our Bible owes its existence, culturally speaking, to the settings in which its various parts were written. It is well worth the investment of $49.99 ($36.98 on Amazon).

My Spidey sense is tuned in to where authors tip-toe around or package issues in ways that are more palatable for evangelicals, some of which I note above. But, as they say in the publishing world, “Know your audience.” Readers just need to be aware that these essays, though wonderfully informative, quite often offer a perspective that many (or most) scholars in the field would either qualify or even disagree with.

Let me end this brief post by revisiting a point I alluded to once or twice. On the first page of the study Bible, we read:

This study Bible has been purpose-built to do one thing: in increase your understanding of the cultural nuances behind the text of God’s Word so that your study experience, and your knowledge of the realities behind the ideas in the text, is enriched and expanded (p. v, my emphasis).

Indeed, the reader’s understanding will be increased, enriched, and expanded from studying Scripture aided by this volume. And on one level this is a fine and innocuous statement to make.

The irony, however, is that it is precisely such culturally informed study of the contexts of the Bible over the last 150 years that has led to significant challenges for evangelical theology.

The cultural context of Scripture cannot be presented as a safe haven of rest for the person in the pew, just a bit of background information that one can safely tack onto evangelical theology. Though not always the case, exposure to “Bible in context” has brought evangelical theology under careful scrutiny more often than not.

The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible does a good job of presenting some challenging material in a sober and unthreatening manner for its intended audience, and so it is not free of evangelical pre-packaging. At the end of the day, however, the challenges of the study of Scripture in historical context will not be adequately addressed that way.

Having said all this, I plan to consult it regularly for backgrounds issues for any course I teach, in conjunction with other sources as needed. And I will warmly recommend it and refer others to it, though with some possible qualifications of my own, depending on the person’s degree of familiarity with the topic.

***I talk more about the nature of the Bible in its historical contexts in The Bible Tells Me So (HarperOne, 2014), Inspiration and Incarnation (Baker 2005/2015), and The Evolution of Adam (Baker, 2012).***

[A reminder to all of you out there who simply demand to be heard immediately: it can take me several hours or even a day to moderate comments. No need to repost more than once. I promise I’ll get to it. “Patience, Iago.”]



Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.