I have to admit at times I’m a bit envious of today’s seminary students--until I remember cramming for exams and the like. I’m actually referring to the ever-growing Accordance Library with titles such as Everett Ferguson’s Backgrounds of Early Christianity (3rd edition) released today. This was a textbook I used in a backgrounds class I took a few years ago. Back then, I had to buy the “dead-tree” version of the book, but I would have loved to have had it in Accordance at the time.
Of course, Backgrounds of Early Christianity is a valuable work for all those who study or teach the Bible, whether professionally or simply for personal understanding. As nothing is written in a vacuum, the cultural and socio-political context for any document is essential for understanding not only circumstances surrounding the events it contains, but even its message. This is true even for biblical literature.
If you’re not already familiar with Ferguson’s work, this is definitely a title you will want to add to your personal Accordance Library. Here is the publisher’s description:
Having long served as a standard introduction to the world of the early church, Everett Ferguson’s Backgrounds of Early Christianity has been expanded and updated in this third edition. The book explores and unpacks the Roman, Greek, and Jewish political, social, religious, and philosophical backgrounds necessary for a good historical understanding of the New Testament and the early church. New to this edition are revisions of Ferguson’s original material, updated bibliographies, and fresh discussions of first-century social life, of Gnosticism, and of the Dead Sea Scrolls and other Jewish literature.
Backgrounds of Early Christianity is divided into six main sections: Political History, Society and Culture, Hellenistic-Roman Religions, Hellenistic-Roman Philosophies, Judaism, and Christianity in the Ancient World. Both subject and Scripture indexes from the print version are included, but having this title in Accordance allows every word to become part a potential search, far beyond what the editors deemed important for a standard subject index.
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Ferguson's Backgrounds of Early Christianity
The Accordance edition of Backgrounds also includes the black and white photographs included in the print edition. However, I quickly noticed that the photos in the Accordance version are of much better quality than the photos on paper. If you’re using any of these photos in a teaching setting in presentation software like PowerPoint or Keynote, you’ll be pleased to have such high quality images with which to illustrate your slides.
When using Backgrounds in academic settings, don’t forget Accordance’s citation feature. When you copy text from the Accordance edition and paste it into a word processor such as Microsoft Word, Redler’s Mellel, and Nota Bene, a footnote is automatically placed in the document with appropriate citation content, including page number(s).
Anyone who studies the New Testament and further developments of Early Christianity will benefit from Everett Ferguson’s Backgrounds of Early Christianity. Now, if I could only figure out an easy way to transfer my marginal notes from the print version to the Accordance edition!
For a limited time, Accordance users can add the title to their personal Accordance Library for 25% off the regular list price.
Backgrounds of Early Christianity (Ferguson)
Regular Price $39.90; Sale Price $29.90
Introductory Sale price listed above is good through February 22, 2016 (11:59 pm EST) and cannot be combined with any other discounts.
In order to make sure the Bible Lands PhotoGuide had adequate coverage of each biblical location, we supplemented our own photos with the work of some professional photographers. Not surprisingly, these photos are some of the most beautiful in the PhotoGuide. Yet as we went through their catalogues looking for photos, we found that not every photo was suitable for the PhotoGuide. This is because the PhotoGuide is focused on teaching you about the biblical and historical significance of a site rather than just offering you an attractive image.
While it is certainly possible for an attractive image to be useful for teaching, we were surprised how often the artistic shot was not necessarily the most illustrative shot. You see, an artist may look at a site and choose an angle which offers the most dramatic composition, while a different angle might offer a better view of the site's most significant features. For example, a photographer might be drawn to a site's beautiful Byzantine-era ruins while ignoring the much less impressive remains which can tell you something about the site during the biblical period. Thus, the best postcard image is not necessarily the best image for a dictionary of biblical locations.
We were therefore very selective when it came to licensing photos from other photographers. If the photo didn't help us explain something important about the site, we typically chose not to use it, even if it happened to be stunning from a purely aesthetic standpoint.
One of the articles which offers a particularly good mix of photos which are both aesthetically striking and instructionally helpful is the one on "Heptapegon" or "Tabgha." Heptapegon is the ancient name of the site, meaning "seven springs," while Tabgha is the modern name. It's a site at the northwest corner of the Sea of Galilee where tradition locates Jesus' feeding of the five thousand, sermon on the mount, and reinstatement of Peter. Three separate churches commemorate the three events, and the relatively undeveloped setting makes it easy to envision them happening there.
In addition to our own photographs, we licensed some beautiful shots from an Israeli photographer named Hanan Isachar, including this aerial shot showing the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes (center) and the Church of the Primacy of Peter (right). The PhotoGuide article then moves from this orienting photo to detail photos of each church.
This same photographer also captured this shot of a crowd seated on the Mount of Beatitudes. Their modern dress aside, this shot really gives you a feel for what it would have been like to hear Jesus deliver a sermon here.
Many dictionaries which teach you about a site settle for one or two token photos which do not necessarily add much to your understanding of that site. The PhotoGuide seeks to use informative articles, illustrative photos, and detailed captions to give you a vivid understanding of a site's biblical and historical significance. If a photo didn't further that goal, it simply didn't make the cut.
The Accordance Bible Lands PhotoGuide contains more than 1,600 high-quality photographs of biblical sites and regions. Yet it is far more than just a photographic archive. The PhotoGuide is a carefully-researched dictionary of biblical places which is packed with useful information. Take the time to explore it, and you'll learn a great deal about the world of the Bible. Over the next several posts, I'll highlight a few of the gems you'll find in the PhotoGuide.
One of my favorite articles in the PhotoGuide is the one entitled, "Inscriptions and Ancient Texts." This article has photos and in depth descriptions of various hieroglyphic, cuneiform, Hebrew, Semitic, Greek, and Latin inscriptions. These include the Rosetta Stone, the Law-Code of Hammurabi, the Babylonian Flood Story, the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III, the Gezer Calendar, the Siloam Inscription, the Lachish Letters, inscriptions from Herod's temple, some of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Moabite Stone, and more.
Here are a few of my favorites:
The Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III, pictured here, celebrates that Assyrian king's many conquests. The figure bowing down before Shalmaneser is identified as "Jehu son of Omri," the king of Israel at that time. (By the way, this identification of Jehu shows some confusion on the part of the Assyrians. Can anyone tell me why?)
This paleo-Hebrew inscription was found at the entrance to the tomb of a royal steward located outside Jerusalem. The inscription is damaged at the place where his name is given, but scholars believe this may have been the tomb of Shebna, whom Isaiah condemned in Isaiah 22:14-19. (How does this inscription corroborate the sin Isaiah was condemning?)
We've all heard that Gentiles were not allowed beyond the Court of the Gentiles in Herod's temple, but the sign pictured here actually warned them in Greek that they would have no one but themselves to blame for their own death should they be found inside. The PhotoGuide actually gives you a transcription of the Greek as well as an English translation! (Who in the New Testament was accused of violating this prohibition?)
These are just a few of the fascinating inscriptions shown and explained in the PhotoGuide. The Inscriptions article alone can dramatically increase your knowledge of the Bible. If you own the PhotoGuide, take some time to read it. If you don't own it, what are you waiting for?
As I mentioned last week, I've recently started a blog about a new book I'm writing called Feet to Follow, Eyes to See. At that blog, I've been discussing the value of traveling to Israel as a way to help "connect the dots" in our understanding of the Bible.
As I was writing that blog post, I remembered a similar discussion in the Introduction to our Bible Lands PhotoGuide. The PhotoGuide is an illustrated dictionary of biblical locations, and anyone who owns it quickly learns to link it to the Atlas so that it comes up whenever you double-click a place name. Doing so enables you to see photos of that location and learn about its biblical significance. Yet like most dictionaries, it's easy to dive right into using the PhotoGuide without ever reading its Introduction. If that's what you did, I'd recommend you go read the Introduction right now. Don't worry, it's pretty short.
The value of the PhotoGuide's Introduction is in its explanation of why the biblical narratives are so often short on detailed description and background information. I won't spoil it for you, but it has a great deal to do with the degree of shared context between the biblical authors and their original audiences. Grab hold of that idea, and it will change the way you approach the biblical texts, the resources you turn to for help, and the conclusions you draw.
So if you haven't read the Instroduction to the PhotoGuide, be sure to check it out. And if you haven't purchased the PhotoGuide yet, what in the world are you waiting for?