The Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentaries (hereafter ZIBBC) are beautiful books. Let us make no mistake about that. Zondervan has produced some real eye candy with these two sets. These volumes are of the highest production value: heavy semi-gloss pages, full-color throughout, with two or more illustrations in every facing-page spread, with combination (both sewn and glued) sturdy hardcover library bindings (the NT volumes bear identical dustjackets to the library binding covers). Each volume is over 500 pages in length, and the text is in a clear and easily legible font, neither too small nor too large. The page layout is truly skilled, something that Zondervan seems always to have excelled at in its illustrated volumes. They have some really excellent book designers on hand, obviously. The aesthetic is modern without being flashy, and is consistent throughout all the volumes, New Testament and Old Testament. The photographs are generally large but are nearly always of sufficient detail that they are illustrative, and the wealth of them is quite impressive. Maps and other illustrations are also full-color. I will deal more with the illustrations below.
The ZIBBC New Testament volumes were published in 2002. They’re available in a slipcased complete set of the four volumes, and are also available individually: volume 1: Matthew, Mark, and Luke; volume 2: John, Acts; volume 3: Romans to Philemon; volume 4: Hebrews to Revelation. The General Editor of these volumes is Clinton E. Arnold, Professor of New Testament at Biola University in Los Angeles. The authors of the commentary on the various NT books are all (we shall take the dust-jacket flap’s word for it!) “leading evangelical contributors.” For some, that will be sufficient warrant of its quality. For others, I will say that such a description or affiliation does not detract from the quality of the commentary to any great degree. As these are “Bible Backgrounds” commentaries, the emphasis is on the historical and/or literary context of the NT, well-illustrated with numerous snappy pictures. Theology is little to be found in these volumes, except in the most general sense, and then it is generically orthodox, as one would expect from a Zondervan project of this scope. It is in this sense a “non-denominational” reference work. I can easily recommend it to Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Orthodox Christians without hesitation. The historical information presented as background to the texts avoids the more hypothetical (and one must say generally skeptical) approach found in more secular academic works, and instead hews closely to a more conservative approach to the NT in evaluating its documents as themselves historically accurate. Overall, this is a very nice set that will help a reader to gain a foundational understanding the historical environment of the first century AD Mediterranean lands, the context in which the New Testament was inspired, written, and disseminated throughout the early Church. This would be an especially useful set for someone who is reading the New Testament for the first time. It would of course make an excellent addition to a church library.
The ZIBBC Old Testament volumes were released just this month (November 2009). They are, like the New Testament commentaries, available in either a complete slipcased set or individually: volume 1: Genesis through Deuteronomy; volume 2: Joshua through 2 Samuel; volume 3: 1 Kings through Esther; volume 4: Isaiah through Daniel; volume 5: The Minor Prophets, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs. The general editor of the OT volumes is John Walton, Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College. (I favorably reviewed Walton’s book, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, here.) While the ZIBBC New Testament volumes were explicitly and unselfconsciously touted as “evangelical” in outlook, the Old Testament volumes are more circumspect, indeed silent, in that regard. Checking the lists of contributors at the front of the volumes, one finds a bit more variety in the academic affiliations of the contributors, as well. While religious schools are still the majority, they comprise a more diverse cross-section of American religious institutions than simply “evangelical” schools. Aside from this, though, the quality of the Old Testament volumes is, in all honesty, quite superior to that of the NT volumes. I do not mean to disparage the NT volumes at this point. It is simply a fact that the OT volumes are superior. The bibliographies are fuller and more varied, the endnotes more numerous and meaningful, and the illustrations generally more appropriately illustrative to the text. Much of this is due to the great wealth of imagery available through Creative Commons licensing and other sources, as Walton notes in the Acknowledgments―the interwebs are simply a treasure trove of imagery, and Walton took advantage of this. Every image is credited. But here we find one of my necessary points of critique: image credits should have been relegated to a separate apparatus (as in the NT volumes!) rather than following the caption of each image and cluttering the otherwise crisp design of the page spreads in this volume. Each of the OT volumes begins with its front matter, Walton’s Acknowledgments, his very good “Methodology: An Introductory Essay” (including an excellent “Bibliography on Comparative Studies Methodology” which rightly includes William W. Hallo’s programmatic article on comparative studies, “Compare and Contrast: The Contextual Approach to Biblical Literature” from Scripture in Context, volume three), a General Bibliography (with sections on Reference, Translations of Texts, and Books on Bible Backgrounds), and Abbreviations (nine pages of them, always a good sign). Walton’s commentary on Genesis is especially insightful, beginning with a really quite good summary of the earliest history of the ancient Near East. Then, following in the steps of his above-mentioned book, he assigns to the Creation cycle in Genesis 1 a concern for function of the various elements created, a viewpoint which various readers have found difficult, but which is presented convincingly here, even if in summary. Throughout the commentary, Walton is at ease and thoroughy in command of the material available, bringing easy parallels and explanations forward for things that a well-informed reader might not think necessary to bring forward. And this is one of the strengths of these volumes! They are designed precisely to provide readers with that information on the backgrounds of the texts. Simple references to things like baking bricks (Gen 11.3), becasue stone was rare in the Mesopotamian basin, some of us will take for granted, but here these are brought forth. This demonstrates an appropriate concern for education and not simply the demonstration of erudition or innovation, something all too common in other commentaries. The point of these commentaries is to provide readers with simple background information, along with pointers to more detail if they choose to follow up on those points of interest which attract their attention. These volumes excel at this. The illustrations are simply icing on the cake. At Genesis 11, for instance, the Tower of Babel story, the illustrations are: a map of Sumer, a photograph of the partially reconstructed ziggurat at Ur as it stands today, a cylinder seal impression depicting the building of a ziggurat, a photoraph and drawing of a stele depicting Nebuchadnezzar (?) and the image of a ziggurat and plan of the rooms at its summit, a drawing of the ziggurat at Ur during the Ur III period (though the caption says merely “Ziggurat”―not as useful or meaningful as the proper identification would have been, particularly as a photo of this very ziggurat as it has survived is on the immediately preceding page), an illustration of the city of Babylon in the Neo-Babylonian period with its prominent ziggurat, and then, in a sidebar, an illustration of a tablet containing part of the tale of Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta. Very nice! The commentary on the books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther are appropriately illustrated with numerous images of Achaemenid architectural remains, jewelry, drinking vessels, and other things such as images of some of the Aramaic documents found in Elephantine and images of those ruins themselves. The commentaries of the books of Kings, Chronicles, and the Major Prophets all take advantage of the wealth of Assyrian glyptic art for illustration, and pictures of various important cylinders and tablets. Overall, the appropriateness of the illustration in the OT volumes far surpasses that of the NT volumes, though the illustration of the NT volumes are by no means paltry. Perhaps it was an issue of the simple spread of digital photography and an easing of access restrictions on the use of such photography during the last decade since the production of the NT volumes which has led to a greater number of more usefully appropriate photographs. But then, too, the OT covers a greater time period than the NT (several millennia rather than several decades) and a greater geographic area with more numerous cultures (Egyptians, Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Persians, Ugaritians, Canaanites and Phoenicians) who left behind extraordinary works of art, varying according to culture―Graeco-Roman culture on the other hand has not left us much from the first century in terms of glyptic art relelvant to the New Testament. Images of places, incscriptions and ruins, and some few of emperors mentioned in the NT are about all that is directly relevant.
I do think, however that the illustrations in both volumes could have been enhanced. For one thing, more artistic endeavor needs to be directed toward reconstructive drawing. Pictures of the striking remains of Persepolis are one thing, but throughly accurate full-color illustrations of the buildings, with paint and banners and furniture, and elaborately dressed courtiers and royals is certainly possible (I’ve seen such, though I’d be hard put to recall the reference!). This type of reconstruction really needs to be taken advantage of, particularly these days when all “sword and sandal” Bible-related epic motion pictures have instilled an image of all ancient Near Easterners wearing bathrobes of varying shades of brown with matching towels tied on their heads, living in mud huts generally. I think incidental mention of various agricultural and other implements and artifacts in the text should be more consistently illustrated, as well. We do know the terminology of various pottery vessels and implements used by the ancient Israelites, and these would be useful to have illustrated. I noticed too, some occasional oddities in the captions for the images. It seems that these were not given the same proofreading attention that the text was given. For instance, the first image of the first volume (volume 1, pages 2-3) is a closeup of one of the Arslan Tash ivories, of two cherubim facing one another either side of a “sacred tree”, with the caption reading, “Composite creature between sacred tree Syro-Phoenician ivory carving, seventh century B.C. from Hadatu (Arslan Tash), Syria. Giraudon/Art Resource, NY, courtesy of the National Museum”. What? The same image, not a closeup but including more of the ivory, is found on page 40 of volume 3, and is captioned “Composite creatures between sacred trees. Syro-Phoenician ivory. 7th C. B.C.E., from Arslan Tash. Giraudon/Art Resource, NY, courtesy of the National Museum, Aleppo.” A much better caption than both of these would be “Cherubim with sacred tree. Phoenician ivory from Arslan Tash. 7th cent. B.C.” The credit, preferably in a separate index (as in the NT volumes), would be better “Giraudon/Art Resource, New York. Courtesy of the National Museum, Aleppo, Syria.”
One thing related to the illustrations that I think is a complete failure in the OT volumes is the Picture Index. While the NT volumes did this correctly, providing the page numbers, the OT volumes instead provide “the approximate location of each picture by Bible book and chapter.” This index is a complete failure. For instance, that first illustration that I mentioned for volume 1, the closeup of the Arslan Tash ivory, is not listed because it precedes the introduction to Genesis, several pages before Genesis 1:1. “Composite creature” does appear in the index, but nothing for this instance. Nothing appears for Arslan Tash or Hadatu (the ancient name of Arslan Tash). Under “Ivory” there is a listing for “Cherubim 1 Kings 7”, which corresponds to the second appearance of an image of this ivory. But the first goes unmentioned. In either case, in neither caption is “Cherubim” used, but rather “Composite creatures.” Also, there is one identical (awful) Picture Index provided in each of the five volumes. Surely a properly-done index with page numbers for each volume could have been completed, each of which would have taken fewer than the twenty-one pages of this one, which is unusable and incomplete. I would strongly suggest that this be replaced with a proper index in later printings.
I would also have liked to have, rather than so many illustrations of tablets of texts relevant to the commentary, some extensive quotations of translations of those texts in sidebars, perhaps. Referring the readers to, say, Pritchard’s ANET, Hallo’s Context of Scripture volumes, or SBL’s Writings from the Ancient World volumes is certainly good, but a few quotations would be more useful and immediately more so than an image of an incomprehensible (to the average reader) cuneiform tablet, and the merest summary of its contents.
Overall, however, the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, Old Testament and New Testament, is a very, very nice set. One could simply flip through and find pleasure in the beautiful photography and layout of these volumes, if nothing else. But there is plenty else in these volumes, especially in the Old Testament volumes: an elegant, succinct, and accurate depiction of the context in which the writings of the Bible emerged, coming from a commonsensical, practical viewpoint that doesn’t overly complicate matters. In these days of overly fussy nuance in Bible-related writings, the terse and functional approach of these commentaries is very much appreciated. As I noted above, I think all of these volumes, the Old Testament and the New Testament ones, would be very useful for a new student of the Bible, and would find a good home in any church library. They are well worth the price (particularly if one shops around―the Zondervan site lists the volumes at full price while other sites give varying discounts!).