NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible – Red Letter Edition. Edited by John H. Walton and Craig S. Keener. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016. Hb. US $49.99. ISBN: 9780310431589.
At the end of 2016, Zondervan released a brand new NIV study Bible. I am happy to be reviewing that for you here. The reader would not be slated for thinking that there is, at this point, no need for another study Bible on the market. After all, how many choices do we need? I am counted among those who think that we passed the point of having too many study Bibles nearly a decade ago. But in this case, there is something genuinely distinctive about the editors’ approach. I will begin by describing that approach. I will then turn to the actual content of the study notes before speaking of the quality of this Bible and offering a final evaluation.
Most study Bibles focus on doctrine or application. Editors learned a long time ago that if they focus on application, they would be able to both be more specific with their target audience and publish more books. Thus, we have study Bibles that focus on doctrine from any and all denominational standpoints as well as application focused study Bibles for men, women, children, students, teens, etc., etc., etc.
So how can there possibly be a need for another study Bible? The editors of the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, however, have adopted a new and exciting focus – the cultural backgrounds of the Bible. This approach, as the editors point out, flips the standard approach to producing a study Bible on its head. Readers of the Bible intuitively understand their own cultural contexts, and they will almost intuitively know how to apply the principles of the Bible to their own contexts. The challenge, however, is to understand the context of the Bible, as John Walton points out, “the Bible was written for us, it wasn’t written to us” (pg. iii). The approach adopted for this study Bible aims to help bridge the cultural gap between then and now.
And yet, the effort to understand the Bible in its context is increasingly under threat. The adoption of reader response hermeneutics has contributed to the overall de-emphasis on the authority and sufficiency of God’s word. The approach adopted in this study Bible, therefore, is a welcome contribution to the important task of understanding the Bible in its original context. How was it read and understood by its original audience? This is an important question that needs to be asked.
One other issue regarding this approach needs to be addressed. That issues is the historical perspective of the comments themselves. This relates to the fact that in most historically focussed commentaries, the author places the texts within the context in which they presume the texts were written. For example, many scholars argue that the book of Deuteronomy was written during the reign of King Josiah and was intended to argue for devotion to Yahweh alone at the Temple of Jerusalem alone. Therefore, they interpret Deuteronomy within this context. Many evangelicals, on the other hand, would interpret Deuteronomy within the context of Moses’ last speech to Israel before the nation entered the Promised Land. Both of these approaches, though very different, are focused on the author’s intention — they simply disagree fundamentally about who and when that author was. In order to avoid these disputes, the editors of the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible adopt a text centered focus. They simply deal, on a descriptive level, with the text as it stands. We will now turn to the content of the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible.
The notes in this Bible are copious and thorough. There are thousands of relevant notes that cover a full range of topics. There are also chronological charts when relevant. There is a list of key theological terms for the New Testament and even a list of key Hebrew terms that are difficult to translate into English. Throughout the Bible there are extended excursuses including, for example, ones on “Ancient Law Codes and Leviticus,” “Balaam,” “Combat by Champions,” “Psalm Titles,” and “The Crucifixion.” There is also an extended section on the intertestamental period. These notes are not simply relevant and interesting, but they are engaging. They draw the reader in and are situated within the text in a way that makes there importance apparent to the reader.
The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible is also full of maps both at the end, as expected, but also throughout the Bible. All of the maps are easy to read and in full color. Another great feature of the maps is that there is an index of geographical names with a map number and coordinates for finding that cite on the map. This index is both helpful and easy to use.
This Bible also has dozens of charts that cover topics such as “Old Testament Festivals and Other Sacred Days,” “David’s Family Tree,” “Timeline of Paul’s Life,” and even the “Qualifications of Elders/Overseers and Deacons.” These charts are all in full color as well, and they are easy to read. They seem to appear and assist the reader’s understanding just as the reader is losing clarity.
Finally the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible is full of incredible images. In most cases, these images are of relevant archaeological findings. These include both archaeological dig sites as well as contemporary literature. In most cases, these images are included in an explanatory excursus. For example, 1 Sam 16:16, 18 speaks of David playing the lyre. At this point, there is an excurses explaining what the lyre is as well as a photograph of a jug on which is drawn a man playing a stringed instrument. All of these photos are relevant and work not only to point to the ancient nature of the biblical text, but also to increase my own interest in the Bible itself.
The overall print quality of this hardback Bible is poor. The paper is thin and bends easily. It also suffers from a great deal of bleed through (called ghosting) from the other side of the page. Zondervan used a couple of techniques to try to minimize the ghosting such as using colored paper and matching each line of text with the one on the reverse side of the page. These efforts helped some, but in many cases (such as when there is a color picture on the reverse) the ghosting is quite distracting.
Another consequence of thin paper is that you can almost never take your own notes. On this paper, which feels like a thin magazine or the ads in your Sunday newspaper, writing with a ball point pen would leave indentions, and writing with a fountain or gel pen would bleed through profusely. In fact, even my high quality pigment ink pen blead through the thicker paper of the signature page. But ink bleeding through may not be an issue for most readers, as the margins are so small that there is no room to make notes.
The text block is of adequate quality. The Bible lies flat no matter what page to which you turn, a very important feature for Bibles.
In my final evaluation I am happy to own this Bible, will be happy to read this Bible for years to come, and I am happy to recommend this Bible. Although I was in my past, I am no longer a fan of the NIV translation, especially in its 2011 edition. However, it is a readable version of the Bible, and as I once heard from a wise pastor, “The best translation of the Bible is the one you will read.” I intend to give this Bible to my son and I know that he will love the photos within and will also learn a great deal that will help him to understand the biblical text with more clarity.