Review: NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible – Hebrews


#contextchangeseverything – yes, it does. But how?

With the vast array of Bible study materials that are available in the English language comes a problem. How does one choose what materials are worth my time, shelf space (or HD space!), or money? If you search my blog for posts about study Bibles, you’ll find that I have a love-hate relationship with them, and it tends to be mostly hate. Nonetheless, I own—and use—a variety of study Bibles, and you’ll even see some positive reviews.

The reason for the hate side of the equation is that far too many people purchase a study Bible that’s recommended by someone they trust, or even written by someone they trust, not to mention randomly selected from a bookstore shelf and then accept what the notes say because they are written by biblical scholars after all. I recall being accosted by a church member some years ago who asked me about the notes on a particular text. I can’t even recall which text it was. Her problem was that she couldn’t figure out how the meaning presented in the note could be extracted from the text itself. I strongly recommend asking just such a question! I asked her if she’d considered the possibility that the note could be wrong. That was a revelation for her.

What I recommend is that a reader make sure to get study Bibles that are written from different perspectives and use them as an aid, not as a source of the answers. To some extent one should study the Bible text first, and then the notes, but sometimes one can read background material first. A study Bible that provides notes that tell you directly what the passage means can be quite convenient, but also quite misleading.

But one of the key problems for Bible students in the 21st century western world is the extent to which our culture is different from that of the world of the Bible. Very frequently what seems quite plain to us is not at all what the Bible writer is trying to say because we simply don’t share enough of those norms. I have come to believe that I have benefitted more by coming to understand human culture and language over the last 30 or so years than I have by learning the biblical languages. I do not mean to underestimate the value of learning Greek and Hebrew, but if my language learning had not been enhanced by the study of linguistics, history, sociology, and anthropology, it would have been of little value.

Pastors frequently proclaim that “the Greek word ____ means” or “the Hebrew word ____ means” and then build their exegesis on what is essentially simply another gloss. This makes people believe they have been enlightened by the ancient languages, when they have actually simply transferred their 21st century attitudes and presuppositions to a set of sounds they are told is Greek or Hebrew. Understanding a language means to some extent understanding a culture. Similarly understanding a text means understanding something about the person or persons who wrote it and the audience for which it was intended.

This is the key element that I believe a study Bible can provide. Certainly cross-references and historical connections are important, but letting the reader know how people in that time and place lived and thought is much more important.

NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible

Olive Tree with NIV Cultural Bible

NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible on my Android Tablet

(Note: I am basing my notes on the Olive Tree Bible software edition provided to me free of charge as I did not receive my print edition. I will not make comments on the layout or usability of the print edition.)

Thus I come to the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. They use the provocative (and obviously true) URL I should note here that there are many types of context. There is a literary context, historical context, linguistic context, and (among others) cultural context. We usually think of context in a fairly narrow linguistic sense. A word study might be done by finding a variety of sentences that use a particular word. We know that when Jesus says, “Go and do likewise” we need to look at the context of what has been commanded. We can’t grab some other activity and make that the command of Jesus instead.

Study Bibles generally examine a range of these ideas as well as proposing interpretations for difficult passages, often without providing enough information so that the reader can follow the logic. The final reader is left with the simple logic that the skilled scholar who wrote the study notes concluded X, so X must be correct, an assumption that will be severely shaken in many cases if one compares other Bibles written by skilled scholars.

The Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible aims to help you understand the Bible writers, their audience, and their times. In the notes you will find direct connections between ancient culture(s) and the text itself. Rather than just being told that a certain phrase means a certain thing, you will be given the reason why one might come to that conclusion. This is no guarantee that every interpretation is correct; that would be expecting the impossible. (Which perfect one of us would make the determination in any case?) What it does mean is that for most explanations in the notes in this Bible you can follow the logic path. If you want to, you can do deeper research, and the notes are specific enough that you’ll be able to do your search, Bible dictionary reference, or deeper study in a commentary or at a good library.

Since I’m not reviewing the Bible overall, but rather looking in particular at one book, I won’t spend more time on an overview. Let me simply say that I’m delighted with the intent, and quite impressed with the implementation. There are obviously limitations. This is a study Bible, not a multi-volume commentary or an encyclopedia. It would be easy to complain about what’s not there. In my review of the book of Hebrews, I believe that the editorial choices made were quite good. I would doubtless have chosen differently in some cases, as would just about anyone, but that’s only to be expected.

On to Hebrews

To study Hebrews most effectively using this Bible, start first with the introduction to the Old Testament. Why? Because Hebrews displays an interesting interplay between the text of Hebrew Scripture, seen generally through the LXX translation, and then interpreted in a particularly New Testament light. The details of how these elements interact require some discussion, and that’s why you study and compare, but you need to understand the sources. The introduction discusses 12 issues in which we will see the world differently, and I think all of these issues will impact your reading of Hebrews.

While reading the text of Hebrews you can use the links (if you’re using Bible software) or follow the references to Old Testament passages. You cannot impose your own exegesis of passages of Hebrew Scripture on Hebrews, but it is important to know not just the text that is quoted, but also its literary context that might be brought to the audience’s mind by the reference, and also by ways in which that text might have been understood. It is not sufficient to treat the Old Testament quotations in Hebrews as words used in the context of Hebrews. Of course, the context of their use in Hebrews is the most definitive when we determine how the author of Hebrews intended them, but we need to do everything possible to get into his (or her) world in order to understand that context.

This is the value of a volume like this. I’m currently reading a commentary on Hebrews that is more than 600 pages. I have another on the shelf in front of me that is of similar length. It’s hard to back off and get an overview of the forest using those commentaries, though both are extremely valuable. What I enjoyed with the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, even as someone who has read the book of Hebrews many times, and studied the works of many commentators on it, was this broader view. Having dealt busily with the trees, putting each leaf under a microscope, it was nice to get so much material easily available. (This is a general advantage with study Bibles over detailed commentaries, at least the better ones, but the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible excels).

Content Comparison

study bible stackI’m going to compare the content of several study Bibles I have on my shelf. Where I give word counts, they are loose estimates based on line counts and my eyeball count of average words per line. The Bibles I’m using to compare are: The New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV), The Orthodox Study Bible, The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, The NLT Study Bible, and of course the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible.

First, let’s compare sheer quantity of text. First, the introduction. (I’ll add a note on approach.)

NOAB: About 450 words, no outline, though an outline can be extracted easily from the notes. The approach of the notes is often technical. Users complain that they don’t get enough theological help.

OSB: About 220 words, short outline provided, stronger suggestion of possible Pauline authorship than others. Theology is consistent with that of the Eastern Orthodox tradition.

NISB: A bit more than 1000 words and a mid-length outline. The NISB is kind of the pastor’s answer to the NOAB for mainline teachers/preachers. It provides more theological reflection, a fact I receive with definitely mixed emotions, though the material is generally helpful in its place. Theology is mainline with a bit of a liberal lean.

NLT Study Bible: About 1500 words and a brief outline. Theology is strongly evangelical

NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible: About 800 words, no outline, features “Quick Glance” section. Theology is evangelical.

Now let’s consider a specific passage, in this case Hebrews 4:12-13, and look at the quantity of notes, along with a count of insets or excurses in the whole text of Hebrews:

NOAB: 21 words. No excurses.

OSB: 54 words. One excursus.

NISB:  75 words. No excurses.

NLT Study Bible: 74 words. 9 excurses.

NIV Cultural Background Study Bible: 136 words. Two excurses.

The critical value of these notes is that they are aimed at the background and at helping you draw a line from the background to the meaning. I would say that the NOAB is great at pointing to technical details, but not so much at theology, while the NISB spends less time on technical details while using much of its space to reflect on theology. The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible uses its space in drawing a picture and pointing that to possible theological conclusions without trying to be a theology text.


Over the next few days I will post something on a couple of my favorite passages and the specific comments provided by this study Bible. I would consider this an excellent Bible to have at hand for a study of any biblical book. In my To the Hebrews: A Participatory Study Guide (currently under revision), I recommend that a study group have more than one study Bible available. I think it would be good for a group studying Hebrews to have this one at hand. One of the reasons my own guide is being revised is that it is largely a collection of thought questions. I’m going to provide more of a basis for those questions in the second edition. But the book will still be intended for use by a study group that has available multiple resources to compare. This will be one of the few that I recommend.

Note: All of these introductions to the book of Hebrews tend to dismiss Pauline authorship, with the Orthodox Study Bible being the most favorable. My own position is that it is not possible to determine the author. I used to exclude Paul as a possibility, but have been persuaded by the writing of David Alan Black that Paul should be kept as a possibility. I publish his little book The Authorship of Hebrews: The Case for Paul.

Courtesy Is not just for the Other Person

Probably as the result of the political correctness debate—well, perhaps not debate; more brouhaha—I hear or read frequent complaints about an expectation of courteous speech as though it’s an imposition. In order to cater to someone’s excessively fragile sensibilities, the argument goes, one is expected to deny the truth in favor of “political correctness.” In this case, political correctness is in quotes, because it tends to refer to even the mere suggestion that one might change one’s approach to presenting a viewpoint.

I do believe there is such a thing as political correctness. You identify it by taking note of the term political. It’s an officially imposed form of courtesy, carried out by policies such as speech codes. I’m vigorously opposed to speech codes in any sort of public institution. I think they are generally problematic in private institutions, though privately owned organizations should be able to make their own policies. As a publisher, I certainly maintain standards for what I will publish.

But the term “political correctness” has come to be applied to any expectation of courtesy, not just a code enforced by law or authority. Having hundreds or thousands of people disapprove of your speech does not censor you or deny you free speech. It merely means that those hundreds or thousands of people will disapprove of what you say. Which is their right.

Here’s an illustration of how to distinguish these ideas. Reasonably shortly after I turned 21 I realized that my driver’s license, by proving my birthday and thus my age, gave me the power to go see an X-rated movie. So, lacking good taste at the time, and apparently having money to waste, I found an “adult” cinema, showed my license, bought my ticket, and headed it to enjoy this privilege of age. Within five minutes I left again, never to return. I’m not totally prudish. I’ve watched some pretty hard “R” movies. I just insist on a story. One that the writers received more than pocket change to produce.

In that way I exercised an appropriate form of censorship on pornographic movies. I never again provided them with my hard-earned cash.

The alternative would be to go on a crusade to ban their product. I know many people who would do precisely that. I don’t plan to debate that issue in this post. What I want you to see is the difference.

An expectation of courtesy is not the same thing as a requirement that you be courteous. When a public university says that you must use certain terms in discussion, then that becomes a legal requirement. I call that political correctness. Why do I specify public? Because the university is taxpayer supported. I generally oppose speech codes in private schools as well, but in that case it is a matter of my support for genuine dialog, which requires genuine expression of a participant’s uncensored views, rather than an opposition to a public policy.

So what does this have to do with courtesy being for the other person?

Well, remember those hundreds, thousands, and I might add millions of people who may demand courtesy of you? The question for you is whether you prefer to just annoy them, or if you would like to get a hearing for your ideas. If you wish simply to annoy them, go ahead. Be my guest. You probably won’t be welcome as theirs. But if you have ideas that are important to you, ones you want to express truthfully and with vigor, you will need to consider your goal. If you want to get a hearing, you’ll need to combine “vigor” with “courtesy” or they will exercise their freedom and ignore you. Or, as often happens, abandon courtesy and treat you with the same contempt you show for them.

This applies to any discussion, including both religion and politics. Frequently I hear things that are claimed to be arguments for Christianity against atheism or some other viewpoint that are actually simply ways to make Christians feel better about themselves. Taunting atheists with “The fool has said in his heart, ‘there is no God'” (Psalm 14:1) is a good, simple example. To you it is “truth” and you are just exercising your human freedom and “telling it like it is.” You can then slap the back of laughing fellow-Christians or fist-bump, or whatever you want, congratulating yourself on the point you’ve made by telling the truth.

But you have likely simply made it harder for the next Christian who would like to engage that atheist in actual dialog about matters of faith.

“But I’m just quoting the Bible,” you say.

“Out of context,” I reply. Nowhere does the Bible tell you to taunt unbelievers by calling them fools.  In fact, it says something quite different (Matthew 5:22).

We taunt fellow-Christians in similar ways. I remember a class I led some years back. Some of the participants had been spoken of in a negative way by other members of their church. They went around the group talking about the unfairness and how inappropriate it was to treat them this way. I couldn’t resist asking this: “Have you treated any non-believers as you have been treated by fellow church members?” Many admitted that they had.

I hardly need to provide examples of how we taunt people who disagree with us politically. Then quite frequently we taunt them again if they don’t want to stay around and listen to us taunt them.

If you want to isolate your ideas and grow your contituency only by raising new members from infants (and beware of them leaving!), then by all means, treat courtesy as an imposition. Regard it as something that keeps you from letting people know how things really are.

But if you’d like your ideas to spread, learn how to express the truth in a courteous manner.

Oh, and a note to all. Disagreeing with you or thinking you’re wrong isn’t discourteous. It’s a matter of the way things are expressed.

A UMC House Church

nt church booksOne of the points I have tried to make in my series regarding the books Seven Marks of a New Testament Church, Thrive: Spiritual Habits of Transforming Congregations, and Transforming Acts: Acts of the Apostles as a 21st Century Gospel is that one can follow these “Jesus principles” of church leadership under many different formal structures. Some structures may make it harder than others, but I suspect it is more that each structure has different strengths and weaknesses, mostly the result of the fact that all of them involve humans.

Here’s a video about a house church under the UMC banner. You won’t see anything “non-Wesleyan” here, or violations of the Book of Discipline, but you will see a creative and dynamic living out of the Christian faith. This is certainly a thriving congregation, carrying out transforming acts, and showing marks of a New Testament church!

The Problem with Bible Outlines

Revelation 1 with titlesOutlining is a valuable practice in Bible study. It can

  • Help you understand the relationship between sections of a passage
  • Direct you to the key point
  • Clarify ambiguities
  • Give you a feel for the structure of an author’s argument

Clearly some of these overlap.

One of the common practices in teaching the Bible, however, is to provide an outline. Providing such an outline can be very helpful, but we need to remember that the outline is also an interpreter’s opinion about the passage and needs to be considered critically.

An illustration of the problem here can be found in the way laws are often named. “An act to prevent crime in the county” may be optimistic or even outright misleading. Frequently it will at least be controversial. Let’s suppose that “An act to prevent gun crime” provides restrictions on gun sales and ownership. Someone’s view of how likely such a law is to be successful will impact whether they believe the title is accurate or not.

Section headings in Bibles fall into the same category. We often absorb them without thinking, and quite commonly there’s nothing wrong with them. But precisely because we don’t pay attention to them, they can subtly alter our understanding of a passage.

I recently reminded a Sunday School class of this when we concluded in our study that a passage was talking about something other than the section heading. That heading is part of the editorial activity in producing that Bible edition and not part of the original text, as are verse numbers and paragraphing.

Outlining is good, but before you settle on a particular structure, look at the material for yourself.

Church (From My Twitter Fee

Thinking, Praying, and/or Acting

Frequently when there is a crisis or any form of trouble, Christians call for prayer. These calls can take many forms. In addition, a common comment from Christians is that we will pray about a situation.

Now it’s quite possible that someone who says they will pray will limit their activities to just praying. It’s even possible that they won’t even bother with that. We are all human, and we often make insincere statements.

I think, however, that the majority both pray and also do other, concrete things. For those who have prayer as an important part of their spiritual life, it can be a critical part of action.

I discussed this with Dr. David Moffett-Moore, author of Pathways to Prayer, Life as Pilgrimage, and some other books, and I think he made these points extremely well.

It’s unfortunate that the common perception of prayer, a perception that is far too common in the church, is that prayer is primarily about getting God to do things our way, so that the test of the success of prayer is whether we get something or whether God’s (perceived) action changes. One of the primary ways in which prayer “functions” (a questionable word, but one that will have to do), is by changing us and driving our decisions and actions.

Here’s the video:


One can only hope …

One of my favorite TV episodes of all time is the West Wing episode In Excelsis Deo. In it, Toby Ziegler arranges a funeral for a homeless veteran of the Korean War who died of exposure. Toward the end, President Bartlet is asking Toby about his use of the president’s name to arrange it.

” … you don’t think every homeless veteran will come out of the woodwork?” he asks.

“I can only hope,” says Toby.

Just so.

This also illustrates for me the potential power of fiction. There is no President Bartlet, nor any Toby Ziegler as White House Communications Director. They are characters in a drama. Nor is there really any Walter Huffnagel with a brother named George who is “slow.”

Yet there are thousands of Huffnagels, and many of them will not find a Toby Ziegler, no “powerful person” as Toby calls himself, to arrange something for them. There are also thousands of potential Toby Zieglers, potential moments such as the this fictional moment.

Will those people come out of the woodwork?

One can only hope …

You can watch the final portion of the show on YouTube (playback elsewhere has been disabled by the owner).




Detecting Plagiarism in a Fantasy Universe

In the good old days when I had time to do fantasy role-playing games, stodgy traditionalists would object that it wasn’t real. Why spend your time on something that isn’t real? This was often said by people who would spend hours watching and discussing football games with approximately the same effect on reality. But I see one great advantage to those fantasy games (and to fantasy literature, for that matter). They don’t pretend to be real.

And thus I turn to the fantasy world of modern politics, in which speeches are written by teams of people who test out turns of phrase and issues on samples of target groups, then place the text on teleprompters to be read by otherwise often incoherent people. The issues emphasized in the politicians’ campaigns are not those the politician things are important. Rather, they are what researchers have determined seem important to the public. The solutions proposed are not those that the politician believes will really work. Instead, they are those that will sound good to a particular constituency.

The controversy about Melania Trump’s speech, with its plagiarized section, bundled the problems of our modern political discourse into one small package. A speaker uses plagiarized lines put there (accidentally) by a speechwriter, and never even recognized by the person presenting the speech. I’m not an apologist for Donald Trump or his campaign, but I can easily understand how this happens. The speech writers doubtless studied speeches by first ladies and potential first ladies for material. You get scraps of this stuff all over the computer, and eventually you drop the wrong one into place. Friends forgive you. Enemies won’t, but they wouldn’t in any case, so it doesn’t matter that much. The media spends huge amounts of time discussing it. Then bloggers like me discuss the whole thing all over again.

I don’t have any idea how close this was because I didn’t listen to or read the speech. I’m not an apologist for Donald Trump; in fact, I can think of huge numbers of things that I dislike about him. This doesn’t make the list.

Why? Because it’s part of that fantasy land that political marketing has created for us, the media propagates for us, and we go ahead and consume, no matter how much we may say we don’t believe the media. Yes, it’s our problem. Even those who most claim that the media is biased frequently let themselves be influenced by it. What they really mean when they say they don’t believe the media, is that they don’t believe it when it contradicts their prejudices. When it supports those prejudices it’s just fine. The people who put in the dollars know how it works. There’s a whole industry (at least one) built on hating the mainstream media.

When I speak, I do so either without notes or with the minimum of notes. I have occasionally used a prepared text, but I didn’t follow it, even though I did write it. Sometimes I have notes to tell me what topics to avoid due to limited time. If a politician wants me to listen to a speech, he or she will have to work in just that way. If your text is prepared, let it be your words. In all cases, let it be your ideas expressed your way. Then I’ll listen. I’m sorry, but in my preferred fantasy universe, speech writers would be out of a job.

I know that no politician can know everything necessary to handling the issues that the president must address. Fine! Let the candidate produce the team members who would talk about those issues, and have them talk about them. “Look,” says the candidate, “I’m not an expert on the middle east, but here’s the person whose judgment I trust most.” It could be sort of like the British shadow ministers, except that it lasts just for the campaign.

In the meantime, folks, politics is a great deal like a marketing campaign for widgets, except that there is no FTC to take the politicians to court for false advertising. In that atmosphere, a couple of plagiarized paragraphs might manage to be as important as one H2O molecule in the ocean.

From Inspiration to Understanding eBook Editions

from inspiration when peopleOne of the joys of being a publisher, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned a couple (hundred) times before, is the authors I get to work with. I have long considered our understanding of biblical inspiration and authority to be critical to discussions of Christian theology, polity, and ultimately our day to day life. Often we can at least get our bearings in serious debates by at least identifying the differences in how we are using the sources.

Because of my interest in this I wrote the book When People Speak for God, which is generally at a popular level. After I wrote that book, I encountered Dr. Vick through one of my other authors and received his manuscript for From Inspiration to Understanding. If his book had been written before, rather than after mine, it would have contained numerous footnotes referencing Dr. Vick’s work.

When we laid out From Inspiration to Understanding at Energion, we were using Scribus, which is actually an excellent page layout product, but is not quite the thing for an extended, thoroughly referenced book. The footnotes had to be laid out by hand, and were done as chapter end notes. This doesn’t convert well to electronic format, so there has been a considerable delay in getting the ebook editions out. But now they are complete.

You can get more complete information on the News blog. This is a book I strongly recommend, and the pricing of ebook editions makes it much more accessible.

My Mom Traveling at 98 years old!