One of the fundamental rules of biblical interpretation is that the Bible should be read in context. A corollary to this is that taking the Bible out of context is a great error. Bible readers should strive to do the former and avoid the latter. Context changes everything, you see.
The problem is that our cultural context is not the cultural context of the Bible’s original writers, hearers, and readers. For example, the story of Abraham (Genesis 12:1ff.) took place 4,000 years ago. Abraham’s world was characterized by polytheism, concubinage, slavery, sacrifice (of both animals and children), and a pastoral economy.
Similarly, the story of the apostle Paul (Acts 9:1ff.) took place 2,000 years ago. It was a world characterized by Greek culture and language, Roman law and politics, Gentile polytheism versus Jewish monotheism, slavery, and very different assumptions than ours about the worth of women and children, among other things.
The differences between our cultural backgrounds and the Bible’s cultural backgrounds illustrate the truth of L. P. Hartley’s famous statement, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” To understand the Bible’s meaning here, we must understanding its meaning there.
Unfortunately, the Bible’s cultural backgrounds are often opaque to us. Its original hearers and readers would’ve picked up on the meaning of a given Bible passage immediately because they understood its culture from the inside. Contemporary readers have to work harder to understand a text in its original context.
There are numerous print resources help readers do this: anthologies of ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman literature, Bible commentaries, dictionaries and encyclopedias, histories of the biblical eras, archaeological reports, and scholarly monographs on a variety of topics. The libraries of Bible scholars and pastors usually contain books like these.
The average Bible reader often doesn’t have the time to read or resources to accumulate such a library, however. What they want is a reliable, affordable volume that explains the basics of the Bible’s cultural backgrounds. That’s why I’m so excited about the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, edited by John H. Walton and Craig S. Keener, and published by Zondervan.
Walton and Keener are respected Bible scholars, teaching Old Testament at Wheaton College and New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, respectively. Both are devout Christians with a high view of Scripture’s inspiration and authority. Keener is a fellow Pentecostal.
Both have devoted a significant portion of their scholarly careers to understanding the Bible’s cultural backgrounds. Walton served as general editor of The Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, Old Testament. Keener authored the IVP Bible Background Commentary, New Testament. Walton and Keener drew on these resources to write the Old and New Testament sections of the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, respectively.
Here are some of the key features of this Bible:
- Introductions to each book of the Bible
- 10,000 notes explaining specific verses
- 320 essays and 375 maps, charts, and diagrams that “summarize and explain important background information from Scripture” (p. iv)
- The NIV Cross-center Cross Reference system and the NIV Concordance, both of which are common to all NIV study Bibles
The focus of this study Bible is the cultural backgrounds of the Old and New Testaments. Walton and Keener identify “three goals” in their introduction to the text:
- We study the history of the Biblical world as a means of recovering knowledge of the events that shaped the lives of people in the ancient world.
- We study archaeology as a means of recovering the lifestyle reflected in the material culture of the ancient world.
- We study the literature of the ancient world as a means of penetrating the heart and soul of the people who inhabited that world (p. x).
This focus on history, archaeology, and literature means that the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible does not address questions about the application of biblical teaching to today’s questions, as do many other study Bibles. Instead, its goal is to illuminate the meaning of the Bible in its original cultural contexts.
One of the paradoxical themes that emerges from such a focus is similarity and difference. Put simply, biblical religion displays both similarities to ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman culture, the cultural backgrounds of the Old and New Testaments, as well as differences from those cultures. Both are necessary to fully understand the Bible in context.
Let me illustrate this with two articles from the study Bible:
The first comes from the Old Testament. The religions of both Israel and other ancient near eastern societies involved animal sacrifices and food offerings. See the opening chapters of Leviticus for a biblical example of this. This illustrates similarity.
But differences emerge on close inspection—deep differences, in fact. An article titled “Great Symbiosis” (p. 186) explains:
In the ancient Near Eastern world, people believed that the gods were initially quite content to live without human beings… As time went on, however, they grew tired of feeding themselves, making clothes for themselves and building houses for themselves. Digging ditches for irrigation to grow crops was heavy labor.
They therefore decided to create humans as a slave labor force. The responsibility of humans was to care for the gods in every way. Rituals provided food and drink the gods. Temples provided housing. The gods then became dependent on people to provide the luxury to which they were accustomed and which they deserved. In turn, the gods would provide for the people (so the people could provide for them) and protect the people who were caring for them. This defined the codependent relationship between the gods and humans in the ancient world.
Besides the rituals and the temple building, the gods were interested in maintaining justice among the people, but not because the gods were inherently just or because of any sense of ethical right and wrong. Rather, the gods understood that if society was plagued by lawlessness, violence and disorder, the people would not be at liberty to carry out their ritual obligations. Thus there was a symbiotic relationship between gods and people…which was maintained for a smoothly operating ritual system, designed to keep the gods happy.
The “Great Symbiosis” describes the relationship between gods and humans in the ancient Near Eastern cultures surrounding Israel. It was fundamentally materialistic, concerned with divine and human needs for food and shelter, and it prioritized ritual over righteousness.
Israel’s theology, on the other hand, was primarily moral and prioritized righteousness—a divine attribute—over ritual. The article goes on to say:
The difference in Israel was that even though they offered sacrifices to Yahweh, Yahweh did not need these sacrifices as food. In his covenant with Israel he promised to provide for his people and to take care of them, much like other gods did. However, what he required of them was not care and feeding, but covenant fidelity. We could therefore say that the Great Symbiosis was replaced in Israel by the Covenant Symbiosis.
Here’s another example, this time from the New Testament. Between 1946 and 1956, scholars discovered 981 texts (or fragments of texts) in caves near the northern end of the Dead Sea called Qumran. The Dead Sea Scrolls include numerous copies of texts of the Old Testament, as well as texts describing the theology and practice of a sectarian Jewish group living in Qumran, probably the Essenes.
The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls revolutionized our understanding of Second Temple Judaism, the period between the second century B.C. and the second century A.D., the period during which Jesus lived and the early church began. Scholars noted “significant examples of how the Qumran community parallels the New Testament church.” And yet, despite these similarities, the early church was also very different from the Qumran community. The article titled “Qumran and the New Testament” goes on to summarize the differences:
In sum, the Dead Sea Scrolls give us information on the kinds of issues of concern to Jews during the New Testament era: the identity of God’s true people, questions of ritual and purity, and the search for a fresh word of revelation in troubled times. But the community that emerged from Jesus’ teaching was radically different from that of Qumran. In many ways, Qumran depicts for us “the road not taken” by the early Christians (p. 1757).
Once we see the cultural backgrounds of the Bible, we realize that surface similarities often masked deep differences. Israel’s sacrificial system was similar to other ancient Near Eastern societies, but its theology was different. The early church’s worldview shared concerns with other Jewish groups, but how it addressed those concerns was different.
Although the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible does not focus on questions of application, it seems to me that understanding the similarities and differences of Israel and the Church to their surrounding cultures has enormous practical value. Christians today Christians cannot live in contemporary society without looking and sounding like our neighbors, to a great degree. And yet, there are deep differences. The goal is to be “in” the world without being “of” the world (John 17:13–19). Understanding how first Israel and then the Church struggled to be in-but-not-of helps us with our own struggle to do the same today.
Obviously, in a work of this size—weighing 4.3 lbs., this study Bible has 2,400 pages—a reader won’t agree with all the authors’ notes or essays. Walton and Keener take care to differentiate conclusions that reflect scholarly consensus from topics where there is a scholarly difference of opinion. Even so, I found my understanding of biblical passages enriched by encountering them in light of the history, archaeology, and literature of their cultural backgrounds.
The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible is available in print and digital formats. It is available in Kindle format for $14.99, in hardcover for $49.99, and in three leather-bound options for $79.99. The Kindle price is attractive, but I would recommend buying the hardcover or leather-bound copy. Yes, it’s a bit more expensive, but I think it’s much easier to use.
If you’d like to test-drive the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible before you buy it, I’d encourage you to visit the website contextchangeseverything.com, which includes a sampler of the print version of Genesis and Matthew. To see the layout of the Kindle version, click “Look Inside” on its Amazon.com page.
P.S. This review was cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com.
P.P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.