Learn about the Cultural Background to the Bible (with pictures and everything)

In 2009, Zondervan released the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. The Old Testament portion of this set is a massive 5-volume, 3000+ page, hard cover boxed set that cost about as much as my first car. (The New Testament set is a mere 4 volumes.)

The dilemma is that this heavy and expensive set (about $35/volume) is also immensely helpful for giving interested readers a sense of the cultural background to the Bible. Zondervan has begun responding to this problem by breaking up these volumes and selling them as individual volumes on single books of the Bible (between $13 and $15 on Amazon).

The three volumes just released are Genesis by John H. Walton (who is also the general editor of the entire set), Isaiah by David W. Baker, and Psalms by John W. Hilber (for which there is no Amazon link, for some reason).

I am very glad to see these volumes released in an affordable manner to make them more accessible. The great strength of this entire set is the broad sweep of cultural background information given–which includes copious photographs, maps, and charts. Readers are not shortchanged in their exposure to the Old Testament’s cultural setting. Students who need to track down issues on a deeper level will have more than enough to do by working through the learned and insightful footnotes (over 700 in Genesis and Psalms, and nearly 1800 in Isaiah). These books give you a ton of information right at your fingertips.

The limitation of these volumes is that they tend to give “standard” evangelical answers to perennial issues that do not sit easily within evangelical boundaries, and at times punt when controversy is afoot. Without wanting to diminishing my strong endorsement of these volumes, I see a tendency for some if its authors to lapse into a common evangelical “dance” with critical biblical scholarship that I find at best distracting and unhelpful.

For instance, Walton begins his Genesis volume by asserting, “Inferences drawn from the whole of the biblical text suggest that Moses was considered responsible for the shape and content of Genesis from the earliest times” (p. 5). Walton certainly knows that this assertion is hardly self-evident, and is in fact at odds with the vast majority of biblical scholarship for several hundred years. One senses some hesitation on his part in the non-commital language “was considered responsible.” Two sentences later Walton acknowledges with similar non-commital language that the authorship discussion is actually “not without significance” but then deems it of little importance for the dealing with cultural backgrounds.

On one level I understand this uncomfortable dance with critical scholarship. It is common in evangelical deliberations and perhaps even necessary for some. But I don’t see what would be lost by beginning this volume, not with a safe yet dubious declaration of mosaic authorship that is then somewhat neutralized, but with (1) a simple acknowledgment of the scholarly consensus that the composition of Genesis has a long developmental history that does not come to an end until the postexilic period, (2) Walton explaining his disagreement with that consensus, and (3) explaining why he thinks the entire authorship question is not all that central to addressing cultural backgrounds.

Perhaps it was felt that readers needed to be assured before launching into other controversial matters that for Walton are hills worth dying on. Walton’s last introductory section is on the question of mythology (pp. 9-10), where Walton suggests to his readers (though not in so many words) that Genesis is an alternate ancient Near Eastern mythology rather than a book that participates in a scientific worldview. Perhaps his statements on authorship several pages earlier are intended to create a safe space for his discussion of mythology.

Perhaps. But some might read Walton’s assertion as a “state of the discipline” observation and depart with a false sense of security, which in the end could cause more harm than good.

Similarly, Baker in the Isaiah volume comments, “The compositional history of Isaiah is debated, with numerous views as to the number of authors and the time of composition” (p. 4). Baker is a good and careful scholar, and this is certainly a true statement on one level. On the other hand, there is an important sense in which Isaianic authorship is not seriously debated, namely–like Genesis–a compositional history spanning several generations, if not centuries, with the exilic and postexilic periods playing a fundamental role in the book’s final form.

I can fully appreciate the need to say something about an issue that can’t be avoided, and to say as little as possible so as to avoid distractions for the intended reader of the volume. But readers looking for apologetic support for a fully 8th century Isaiah might find here an unwitting accomplice, as if Baker were saying, “The issue of authorship of Isaiah is completely up in the air,” which is not what Baker is saying.

I don’t mean to dwell on the negative, but these sorts of statements seem designed to deflect conservative reaction and criticism, and false impressions are created.

In closing, though, let me say that these volumes are truly rich resources that can be used with great profit by lay readers and researchers alike. I’ve taught courses on Genesis, and I always consult what Walton has to say about cultural context and my students benefit from it. When I am reading along in the Bible, and something strikes me as curious and in need of fleshing out, I reach over to the 5-volume set I own and and see what ZIBBC has to say.

  • Bev Mitchell

    In the current struggle to define evangelicalism, it often seems that some version of this sentence of yours should be added to the typical characteristics list.

    “…… (we) tend to give “standard” evangelical answers to perennial issues that do not sit easily within evangelical boundaries, and at times punt when controversy is afoot.”

    Looks like this is a great resource with the same nagging (unhelpful) lack of clarity seen in Walton’s “The Lost World of Genesis One”. While reading it, I had the feeling the author was walking on a tight rope.

  • Jeff Martin

    Walton also believes there was a historical Adam and Eve. He believes they were junior high age, and no I am not kidding.

  • David Clark

    Baby steps I guess.

    I almost died of shock when in the section titled “Historicity of the Exodus” (p. 182 of the full set) the author says, “While some dispute this, there is actually little historical evidence that substantially corroborates an escape of slaves from Egypt on the order of the large-scale exodus described in the Bible.”

    The final paragraph of that section ends (on p. 183 in the full set) with “The biblical Exodus account was never intended to function or to be understood as history in the present day sense of the word.” Again, I was rather pleasantly surprised by this.

    This was quite a brave section for books directed at an Evangelical audience. While Genesis/Adam/The Fall is probably the biggest theological problem for Evangelical to deal with, my opinion is that the Exodus/Conquest narratives are the biggest historical problem for Evangelicals to deal with. While the author could have been more pointed in his analysis, I commend him for going as far as he did.

  • David Walker

    Thanks Peter – I really appreciate solid book reviews such as this. I’m always looking for serious material to add to my reading list, but often it’s tough to figure out what’s what. To that end, posts like this are a great help. Please keep them coming.

  • Paul

    I’m a huge fan of the IVP background commentaries and Zondervan’s illustrated editions. It doesn’t have the space to go too deep, but they often get you started in the right direction for valuable historical background info. I’ve required students I teach Hermeneutics to buy one or the other and use them as step one of historical analysis for any passage.

    However, it is disappointing when books full of scholarship slip into an apologetic for a preferred evangelical position, but our publishing and Christian university politics push even the best scholars into throwing bones to the fans. I’ve had more than one professor colleagues tow the party line instead of following the facts to keep posts at Christian institutions or fit in with a publisher.

    I still remember the feedback I got from John Walton after presenting my research on how the Tower of Babel episode in Genesis 11 was a distant oral memory of the demise and dispersion of the last great Sumerian dynasty (www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/50/50-4/JETS_50-4_693-714_Penley.pdf). Walton gave a non-committal, “you’re on to something there,” that left me unsure which parts he agreed with and which parts he scrapped, if any. Not sure what personal or political pressures he is under to both see the party line failing to work comprehensively but to look away from better explanations.

  • James

    Do you think evangelical scholars in general are sufficiently up to speed on the contribution of the Dead Sea Scrolls to Biblical studies, particularly questions of composition and authorship? I’ve read (The Dead Sea Scrolls Today by James VanderKam) there is good reason to think the canon of Psalms, for example, was not ‘closed’ until the First Century AD. And some new theories on differing versions of Jeremiah have been put forward. This may indicate more development of text over time than we thought.

  • Guest

    As an ex-fundamentalist Christian, who has journeyed into a more progressive Xian mindset, I still am very earnest in diving into understanding the Bible as it was intended to be read. Cultural knowledge/insight seems to me the very basic starting entry point into understanding these ancient texts in their own cultural milieu. After all, these texts weren’t written for us moderns, but their own “ancient” audiences. It does seem this conservative OT cultural background series may be the best way to find some of the relevant info without taking a year off to read the ANE texts and secondary literature. However, I really really wish there was a series like this that presented both evangelical-leaning ANE scholarship with less-invested critical scholarship. Please just give the relevant cultural parallels and let us readers take it where we will. Though most surely, we only have a sketchy understanding of the ANE world in this modern age (even you scholars), if we value the Biblical texts, those who can shed the most light on the original cultural vocabulary of the biblical world are scholars we need full input from. Please just give it to us straight.


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