The Bible is not a book of abstract religious teaching. If it were, understanding
its historical context would be of relatively minor importance, although even then
questions about the circumstances of its composition could not be ignored. Furthermore,
the Bible did not arise out of a single cultural and historical environment; it
certainly is not the product of revelations given to a single man, as the Koran claims
to be. If it were, understanding its historical background would be far simpler.
As it is, the writing of the Bible took place over a period of more
than 1,000 years. Although most if not all the writers of Scripture were Israelite or
Jewish, these authors lived in a wide variety of circumstances. The cultural backdrop
to the Biblical stories includes Egypt of the pharaohs, Mesopotamia, Canaanite culture,
Israel across the Late Bronze and Iron Ages, the royal court of Persia, the expansive
Hellenistic civilization and the Roman Empire. The languages of the Bible were Hebrew,
Greek and Aramaic, but there are traces as well of the influence of Egyptian, Ugaritic,
Akkadian, Sumerian, Persian and Latin. Portions of the Bible were composed in Israel,
Egypt, Babylon, Asia Minor (Turkey), Greece, and Rome. The writers of Scripture were
sages, kings, farmers, exiles, governors, fishermen, and traveling preachers.
The literature of the Bible is itself of a wide variety, and a given
genre is likely to have much in common with the literature of its day. Narratives that
tell the story of God’s people in simple yet absorbing tales run through the Bible in
books as diverse as Genesis, Judges, Ruth, Esther, and Acts. Legislative texts that have
parallels in the law codes of Mesopotamia emerge in books such as Numbers and Deuteronomy.
Hymns and devotional songs appear in the Psalms, and when set in comparison to the hymns
and religious poems of Egypt, Ugarit and Mesopotamia, they display both striking
similarities and telling dissimilarities to their counterparts. The Bible even contains
love poetry (Song of Songs), and this, too, is both like and unlike contemporary Egyptian
love poetry. Like the Egyptians and Mesopotamians, the people of Israel composed many
Of course, differences can be as significant as similarities, and not
every type of literature in the Bible has strong parallels outside its pages. The
proclamations of the Hebrew prophets have limited parallels in ancient Mesopotamia, and
it is difficult to find anything else that compares with the four Gospels of the New
Testament. On the other hand, the apocalyptic visions of Revelation can be compared to
the apocalyptic texts of “Second Temple” Judaism, just as the letters of Paul may be
evaluated over against other epistolary literature of the Greco-Roman period. In short,
the Bible is an amazingly diverse collection of texts, more of which originated in a
The NIV Archeological Study Bible focuses on the historical,
literary and cultural context of the Bible. This context includes the history of peoples
and places populating its pages, daily life in various periods and under widely diverse
circumstances during Biblical times, and ancient texts that illuminate the Bible and the
archaeology of the Biblical world. In addition, the articles in this Bible devote
particular attention to challenges archaeologists and Biblical scholars face on the
critical issue of the trustworthiness of Scripture. But why is there a need for a tool
that focuses on historical context? Several answers apply:
1. Context is crucial for interpretation. Imagine reading the
words of a political or religious debate without the benefit of any knowledge of the
circumstances, customs or beliefs of those involved in the discussion / dispute. The
reader would either be bewildered or would run the risk of grossly misinterpreting the
issues and positions people were taking. It is foolish, even arrogant, to think that we
can rightly understand the Biblical writers without knowing anything of their environment.
2. As described above, the Biblical world is complex and spans a
great deal of history. The ancient world is simply too extensive and too diverse for
us to expect a few passing comments on "background" to give us a meaningful awareness of
the cultures that the Biblical writers inhabited.
3. A study of the context of the Bible is an encouragement
to faith. Many modern Christians shun the study of the ancient world for fear that
scholars will make them aware of troubling facts that will serve only to undermine their
faith in the Bible. In reality, a careful study of the world of the Bible enhances our
confidence in its historical accuracy and in the distinctiveness as the Word of God. Set
against the astonishing variety of cultures that made up the Biblical world, the unity of
the message of the Bible is remarkable. The writers of Scripture spoke in diverse times
and places, but they were inspired by one changeless Spirit. And, of course, the only way
to answer those who claim that historical facts undermine Biblical credibility is to take
a firsthand look at those very facts.
4. Awareness of the context of the Bible is an antidote to
the dangerous dismissal of history that we see too often in both the church and the
academy. In our day the postmodern outlook all but reject history and context. Under
the influence of this movement readers simply refuse to hear the writers of Scripture on
their own terms and instead assert that it is up to each reader to make whatever he or
she will of the ancient texts. Many reject outright the suggestion that we are obligated
to attempt to understand the objective of a passage’s original writer. The author’s
intended meaning is thus rendered irrelevant to the modern reader, who feels free to
interpret a text in any manner whatsoever. Such an approach makes a mockery of Biblical
authority. Further, many well-intentioned Christian readers, although not fully committed
to a postmodern way of thinking, tend to interpret the Bible strictly in terms of their
own experiences and standards, without ever considering what a prophet or apostle was
saying to the people in his own day. An awareness of the beliefs, conflicts, history and
habits of the people of Biblical times forces us to confront questions like, "What did
Paul actually mean when he wrote these words to the Corinthian church?"
5. Awareness of the world of the Bible instills within us a
deeper appreciation for the writers of Scripture and a deeper love for the Bible itself.
It is difficult for us to genuinely love someone we do not really know, and we cannot
enter into the experiences and perspectives of Biblical people without first relating to
their world. By looking at the tools with which they worked, the struggles they faced,
the literature they knew and the customs under which they lived, we acquire a profound
admiration for their faith and wisdom.
The NIV Archaeological Study Bible includes the following features:
- Over 500 insightful and accessible articles, many including full-color photographs,
covering the following five general categories: Archaeological Sites; Cultural and
Historical Notes; Ancient Peoples, Lands and Rulers; The Reliability of the Bible; and
Ancient Texts and Artifacts.
- Bottom-of-the-page study notes geared to archaeological, cultural and historical
themes and frequently cross-referenced to relevant articles and other notes.
- Detailed book introductions, including helpful, at-a-glance timelines and outlines.
- Charts and graphs on pertinent topics.
- Periodic citations (quotations) from the ancients, each tied to a particular article.
- Side-column cross references.
- Full-color interior throughout.
- Sixteen pages of full-color maps, along with an index for ease in location of the
many place-names referenced in the articles and notes.
- Indexes to articles and photographs.
- Subject guide.
- A glossary, cross-referenced to pertinent, bolded words within the articles.