One of the hardest parts of studying the Bible is identifying important cultural background issues. Fortunately, Accordance offers a wide variety of resources dedicated to this subject—and an array of techniques to access them quickly and easily. Join Dr. J as he explains how to research cultural background information in Accordance.
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One of the better study Bibles to come along recently is the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. A number of Accordance users have requested these study Bible notes; and no doubt, they will be pleased to hear that we are making it available today for the Accordance Library.
What’s the big deal about cultural backgrounds when it comes to studying the Bible? In the “Quick Start Guide” to the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, there is a quote from one of the editors, Dr. John H. Walton, that reads “Even though the Bible was written for us, it wasn’t written to us. When we take our Western, modern culture and impose it on the text, we’re putting in meaning that wasn’t there, and we’re missing the meaning that the text has.” Thus, we often make assumptions about the Bible because we read it through the lens of our culture and experience. It's better to try to understand the message as closely as we can through the eyes of the original audiences.
Now, you might also ask, with all these great backgrounds commentaries available for the Accordance Library, why would I want to use the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible? I’ve said before that background commentaries are my favorite kind of commentaries. Excellent background commentaries such as the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentaries and the IVP Background Commentaries are at the top of my Commentaries folder in Accordance, so that I can easily access them in the Accordance Info Pane. I certainly look at cultural backgrounds before I look at any kind of interpretive or theological approach. However, study Bibles often make an excellent “first stop” in researching a biblical passage because you can get a more distilled amount of information very quickly. The content found in a study Bible may be all the information you need, and it’s a fast way to access it. But that information can also lead you on to the kind of content that is more in depth—such as the other commentaries we offer.
Now, any study Bible is expected to have abbreviated commentary notes that accompany the biblical text. When it comes to the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, here’s the best part: much of the content in this study Bible comes from the Zondervan and IVP backgrounds commentaries I mentioned above! Of course, there’s much more than this. As described in the already-mentioned “Quick Start Guide,” the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible includes the following features:
- Book Introductions answer questions about who wrote the books of the Bible, to whom, and when, as well as informing readers about the larger cultural and political context in which a book was written. In the Old Testament, dates of writing and specific authorship for each book are less clear than in the New Testament, where such information is marginally less controversial, although still debated. That’s why the Old Testament introductions include “Key Concepts” and the New Testament Introductions include “Quick Glance” information to help readers orient themselves.
- The Old Testament includes a helpful chart that explains the nuances of meaning contained in Hebrew words that don’t have exact equivalents in English. That chart is called “Hebrew to English Translation Chart.”
- Also included before the Old Testament is a helpful article entitled, “Major Background Issues from the Ancient Near East” that is a must-read before you begin your OT study.
- The New Testament includes a reference feature entitled “Key New Testament Terms” that is designed to help clarify and further define the cultural contexts behind these terms. It’s included as a background feature to define and explain terms that often repeat in the New Testament notes.
- The NIV Center-column Cross Reference system aids in deeper study of the Bible’s themes, language and concepts by leading readers to related passages on the same or similar themes.
- Over 10,000 study notes have been placed close to the text that they amplify and explain. These have been designed to provide the reader with a deep and rich understanding of the nuances that the original readers and hearers of the Bible would have intuitively understood. They focus on the land, the literature, and the political and cultural contexts that the Bible’s authors lived in, and emphasize how the people of Israel were both influenced by, as well as how they were called to be different from, their surrounding culture.
- Full-color in-text maps, charts and diagrams, along with some 320 essays, summarize and explain important background information and ideas from Scripture.
- Front and end matter features include author information, an author’s introduction with helpful questions and answers about this Bible, more information on the NIV translation itself (in the NIV Preface), and many other helpful study tools.
- The NIV Concordance is a tool designed to help readers who remember a key word or phrase in a passage to locate the verses they are looking for. Words and names are listed alphabetically, along with their more significant verse references.
- Color maps at the end of this study Bible complement the color maps in the interior of the Bible to help readers to visualize the geographic context of what they are studying.
Just as a reminder, in most cases when we release study Bibles for Accordance, the Bible translation itself is not included and sold separately. However, there’s great advantage to having a study Bible in Accordance because unlike a print copy where you’re stuck with the translation it came with, Accordance allows you to put any set of Bible study notes with any Bible you want—original language or translation.
For a limited time, you can get introductory discounted pricing on the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible when you add it to your Accordance Library.
NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes
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
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?