Zondervan Archaeological Study Bible

Well, I got one. Now that Chris Heard is famous, no doubt he’ll roll his eyes behind his oversized sunglasses, and over his soy iced mochaccino no whip with a splash of crème de menthe. Yet, I jest, with such serious work ahead of us.

Chris was entirely spot on, of course, in his review of the preview materials for this new Bible. And that’s good for Chris, and for those of us who share his opinion, but it’s bad for readers of this Zondervan NIV Archaeological Study Bible. Here’s why.

First let me say the good I can say about this Bible. The presentation is beautiful. It has definitely benefitted from modern advances in printing technology. Every page has some color on it, a kind of faint sepia background and header at the very least. The paper (thin but opaque) and printing are of such excellent quality that the full-color photos are crisp on the pages and do not bleed through. The maps are the only glossy pages, with all the rest of the paper being non-glossy, which is what makes the quality of the printing so striking. It very likely heralds a new direction in Bible presentation. They’ve also chosen the single-column presentation of the NIV text, which is quite nice, despite the choice of a slightly cramped font. There are numerous short and some longer excerpts from other ancient literatures scattered throughout, which is quite nice, though the potential for such was insufficiently explored. There are numerous high-quality photographs of artifacts and so on scattered in roughly 500 inserts throughout the entire Bible (which they call “articles”).

Now to the basket of prunes . . . .

There’s a whole lot of potential implied in something called an “Archaeological Study Bible.” To me, that description conjures up the image of a really useful study Bible focused on archaeological issues, something that would be useful to a wide variety of audiences, full of relevant illustrations, plans and photographs. In such a creature, one would expect numerous photographic illustrations and artistic reconstructions of animals, people, artifacts, homes, clothing, towns, landscapes, cities, temples, and so on. One would certainly expect at the very least artistic depictions of the Tabernacle, Solomon’s Temple, and Herod’s Temple, which are mainstays in nearly every study Bible I’ve ever seen. Not in this Bible. Reconstructive illustration is an area that would’ve been particularly suited to this full-color format, yet it is entirely absent, which is entirely baffling.

The “articles” are too short generally, roughly 200 words, and the illustrations chosen are not bad, per se, but one wonders why they were chosen in numerous cases, and certainly why there are so many of these too-short articles (around 500!), rather than perhaps quite a number fewer, but of more length and therefore more informative. For instance, in the midst of the plagues on Egypt in Exodus 9, we’re treated to an “Ancient Texts and Artifacts” article “The Rosetta Stone and the Deciphering of Hieroglyphs,” accompanied by an upside-down (!) photo of the Rosetta Stone, which sketches the history of decipherment by Champollion. Okaaaay. Why here? Indeed, why at all? Why not something on animal diseases in ancient Egypt or something appropriately Exodusy? (And before I forget, what’s up with this weird double titling? It reminds me of something for a child’s textbook.) At the point where one would expect at the very least a plan of Solomon’s Temple, in 1 Kings 6, an “Ancient Peoples, Lands and Rulers” three-quarter-page blurboid, excuse me, “article,” titled “Solomon and the Israelite Empire” [sigh] mentions the Ain Dara temple, but there’s no picture, not of the nifty feet on the threshold nor of the terrifically photogenic cherubim. Why not? Chapter 7 would certainly be an excellent place to illustrate the mobile basin stands with a photo of the miniature of such a stand found on Cyprus, which is a perfect case of archaeology providing precise illustrations of artifacts mentioned in the Biblical text. Not included. Did the editors even know about it? Instead we find yet another “Ancient Peoples, Lands and Rulers” instafactoid, oh, sorry, “article” titled “The Pharaoh Whose Daughter Solomon Married” with a bizarre take on the issue.

The Introduction is what should be a preface, by Walter Kaiser, President and Professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, with which I’m not familiar. He invites us to join them “in a personal encounter with this epic-making [sic!] Bible.” Huh? A personal encounter with a [lengthy-poetry-producing] book? The “About this Bible” section includes this: “The NIV Archaeological Study Bible focuses on the historical, literary, and cultural context of the Bible.” Whoa, Nelly! Then shouldn’t this be called the NIV Historical, Literary, and Cultural Context Study Bible? They should at least mention, rather than pussyfooting about, that their articles and notes in this Bible (scantily fitted in at the bottoms of pages, beneath the NIV footnotes) are written from what I would generously call a “traditionalist” standpoint, rather than “fundamentalist.” But that’s because my parents raised a nice boy. Let us continue, lest I despair.

The only Jerusalem map is of Jerusalem “in the time of Jesus” with a faint outline of the Jebusite city area, and another faint outline of the current Old City walls. The entire development of the city prior to Jesus is apparently uninteresting. The rest of the maps are also quite poor, favoring garish coloring and insufficient detail to be useful. There have been so many advances in map-making that these are simply inexcusable.

A CD is included. From it, one can install a program which organizes JPEGs of the pictures (some of them are quite nice) included in the Bible, and a Zondervan Bible program with the complete text of the NIV. There’s a video to view, sort of a commercial for this Bible, the only/most interesting part of which is what Paul Caminiti, Zondervan’s VP and Publisher for Bibles, has to say:

At Zondervan, we do testing and focus groups for almost everything that we launch. This is especially true of an important Bible, like the Archaeological Study Bible. The results were really unparalleled to anything that we’ve tested in a very long time. Our sense is that people living today are hungry for history. It’s one of the reasons the History Channel has been so successful. And kind of getting underneath what was happening with the people and with the culture is something that people want today. And when they get it, it actually helps them better understand the implications of the Bible for today.

Nobly said! But not nobly executed, unfortunately. That History Channel reference perhaps explains why the “articles” in this Bible have these bizarre double titles, and the appearance of those going-to-commercial snippets on the History Channel, rather like taking some Bible trivia cards, some Bible-related pictures (some only vaguely so, like the snapshot of a street corner in modern Bethlehem), and some snippets from other ancient writings, and then pasting them into a Bible. This type of trivialization of information, Biblical and other, is something I am strongly, deeply against. People can understand just about anything if it’s properly presented. There’s no need to dumb everything down, package it nicely, and market it as extraordinary when it’s not.

Overall, having been poking through this Bible and its CD for the last few hours, I’ve been bothered by not quite being able to pin down what it is exactly that so bothers me about this Bible. The presentation is too slick, too commercialistic, too simplistic, too insufficient. Aside from obvious errors of omission and commission regarding illustrations, as mentioned above, there is a singular lack of actual archaeology itself in this Bible. There is connection with numerous texts that archaeology has recovered in the form of short excerpts, but little of the dirt under the fingernails, draw every single stone in that wall, and sort these six thousand sherds before dinner stuff going on. There’s no decent discussion of the actual mechanics, the processes involved in archaeological discoveries and their interpretation and how those are/can/should/shouldn’t be related to the Bible. I think my reaction is that I’ve finally read, in this Bible’s notes, one of those egregiously fundamentalist oversimplified “Archaeology Proves the Bible! (Yeah!!!)” books that I’ve heard about (but not read up until now, God having been gracious) and my brain just can’t deal with it. I think that’s it. Or maybe it’s the fumes wafting off this Bible, which’re atrocious, headachingly right up there with the new paint fumes from the chez biblicalia kitchen-in-process-of-remodelling-oh-God-when-will-it-ever-be-done.

I really wanted to like this Bible. Maybe it’ll grow on me. I was looking forward to its release for a couple of years, actually, ever since I’d heard it was under preparation (and for that amount of time, the results are all the more astounding — I [and/or my army of typewriting flying monkeys] could’ve done better working on it over that period). What I had hoped would be the case, after having read Chris’ review, was that the preview materials he reviewed were not entirely representative of the thing as a whole. Unfortunately they were. While my own expectations have certainly been disappointed, I think there’ll also be a number of other people who will be similarly disappointed with this Bible, having expected what I did. It really could’ve been something much more extraordinary and very useful. As it is, it’s a beautiful presentation that’s missed the mark in content, in my estimation, like so many religious publications these days.

I’d be interested in hearing from anyone else who’s gotten a copy. What do you think?


  1. I attend Gordon-Conwell and have actually had my copy for a couple weeks now. I think my overall impression is right in line with yours although I haven’t had the chance to put my review up online yet. I was pretty disappointed after taking a class at Harvard from Lawrence Stager last semester and learning all about his temple reconstruction and then opening up the new ZASB and seeing nothing! I’ll be at the archaeology conference next week when they celebrate the release of the Bible. Maybe I’ll just raise a few of your points during the Q&A…

  2. Thanks, guys. Eric, I’d like to read your review, too, so let me know when it’s up. Also, do bring it up at AIA with anyone involved and let us all know what they say. I just can’t understand the editorial mentality that would produce something so lackluster when there is so much potential in such a project and such a demand for it. I’d like to think this is just a version 1.0h-oh and expect better later. Perhaps that’ll be the case.

  3. Is not Zondervan part of the Macmillan-Collier-Harper boys conglomerate complex? This would explain the bland vanilla presentation of their Bible. Too many people in this business structure possibly needed to be pleased. I really wonder if we are just having another McLuhan job thrown at us. Thanks for your forthrite musings. Bill

  4. Well–I like the Zondervan Archeological Study Bible (ZASB).

    I have several shelves of study Bibles and the ZASB will probably be used alongside some of my other favorite study Bibles: Jerusalem Bible, Life Application Bible, Open Bible, and Spiritual Formation Bible.

    As far as study bibles go, I do not think the version matters that much. After all, we buy study bibles for the commentary, notes, and articles–more than the version.

    After using the ZASB for a week now, here are the features I like:

    1. Conservative scholarship.

    2. Introductions.

    3. Photos.

    4. Charts.

    5. Articles. No, I do not think the articles are too short. This is a study bible, not an encyclopedia.

    6. Ancient text quotations.

    7. Footnotes.

    8. Indexes.

    9. Maps.

    10. Dimensions (size).

    11. Paper and binding.

    Now here is what I find awkward in use of the ZASB.

    1. Size of font, particularly in the footnotes. I am grateful that I have one of those magnifying lamps that I can read through.

    2. Articles lack bibliography or suggested reading section.

    3. Comparison between Biblical archeology fact and popular fancy, such as King Solomon Mines.

    That’s it.

    Bob Patrick

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