Does the Church need another commentary on Romans?
Time will tell. But Richard N. Longenecker’s Romans volume in the NIGTC series is about to be released.
Today Eerdmans announced a sneak peek PDF with Table of Contents and Preface, which you can find here.
I like Longenecker’s turn of phrase when he says Romans “has been, in very large measure, the heartland of Christian thought, life, and proclamation.”
He also notes:
Indeed, 2 Pet 3:16 bears eloquent testimony to the church’s mingled attitudes of (1) deep respect for Paul’s letters generally (and Romans in particular), yet also (2) real difficulties in trying to understand them, and (3) a realization of possibilities for serious misinterpretation, when it says of Paul’s letters that they “contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” In fact, despite all its appearances of being straightforward and clear, no other NT writing presents greater difficulties with respect to “style,” “stance,” and “audience” (to recall Erasmus’s three categories of difficulty) than does Romans.
I really dig Zondervan’s Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, as you can see by the multiple volumes I’ve reviewed here. The series continues production, with 10 volumes now available. Recent additions are Karen H. Jobes’s 1, 2, and 3 John and Mark L. Strauss’s Mark.
Here’s how the series is laid out:
The Greek text of the book of the Bible, verse by verse, or split up phrase by phrase
The author’s original English translation
First, showing up in the graphical layout preceding each passage
Second, verse by verse, together with the Greek
The book’s broader Literary Context for each passage
An outline of the passage in its immediate context
The Main Idea (perhaps they had preachers in mind?)
Structure and literary form
An Exegetical Outline of the passage under consideration
Explanation of the Text, which includes the Greek and English mentioned above–this is the bulk of the commentary
The concluding Theology in Application section (i.e., what does the passage mean for us, what are its themes, and so on)
As I’ve said before: This sounds like a lot, but the result is not a cluttered commentary. Rather, as one gets accustomed to the series format, it becomes easy to quickly find specific information about a passage. The section headings are in large, bold font.
Here’s Strauss on Jesus in Mark 3, who asks, “Who are my brothers and mother?”
At one point, [Jesus] refused to see his family, saying that his true mother and brothers were those who did God’s will (Mark 3:31–35, par.). Jesus is not repudiating his family but rather is affirming deeper spiritual bonds. It is not surprising that the early believers referred to each other as “brothers and sisters” (adelphoi). As Jewish followers of Jesus were increasingly expelled from the synagogues and Jewish families were divided, this emphasis on spiritual kinship became extremely important.
In the context of the Beelzebub controversy, the point is clear: kinship in the kingdom of God is based not on ethnic identity or family background but on a relationship with God through Jesus.
I’m following the lectionary through parts of early Mark right now, and though there are already a host of great commentaries on book (not the least of which is this gem), Strauss’s volume has been a welcome addition to my sermon preparation process!
Find the book here at Zondervan’s product page or here on Amazon.
When I preached through Jonah last Advent, I knew the JPS Commentary on Jonah would be helpful. What I wasn’t expecting was how often I would eagerly turn to Kevin J. Youngblood’s new Jonah volume in the recently begun Hearing the Message of Scripture commentary series. It might be the best commentary (in this reviewer’s humble opinion) written on Jonah.
Format of the Commentary
Each passage of Jonah includes the following sections:
Main Idea of the Passage–a short, couple-sentence overview, where Youngblood helps you get oriented to the text.
Literary Context–The author shows how the passage under consideration ties in with the rest of the book.
Translation and Outline–the author’s original translation and visual layout of the biblical text.
Structure and Literary Form–this looks at literary features and the rhetorical aims of Jonah. This section is especially strong.
Explanation of the Text–the primary section of each passage, comprising the verse-by-verse commentary proper.
Canonical and Practical Significance–though Youngblood is plenty practical throughout, this section is especially helpful for preachers, teachers, or any Bible reader wanting to know how to apply the message of the text.
For example, here is Youngblood on the main idea of Jonah 4:1-4:
He then situates the passage in its larger context:
From there he relates Jonah 4:1-4 to the patterns of the rest of the book (“Every encounter with Gentiles brings Jonah to a crisis point”), surmises why Jonah wants to die (“Jonah cannot see how YHWH could simultaneously maintain his covenant faithfulness to Israel and grant clemency to Nineveh”), explains the text in detail, and then relates it to Moses and the other prophets and their interactions with “the nations.”
Youngblood’s Insights Make the Text Come Even More Alive
Youngblood makes the literary features of the text come alive. Regarding Jonah’s short stint in the belly of a fish, Youngblood writes:
The fish, however, functions as a means of deliverance and transportation from the murky depths back to the orderly realm of dry land. In this respect, the fish is the antithesis of the ship, which carried Jonah from the orderly realm of dry land out to the chaotic deadly sea.
Correspondingly, Jonah’s disposition and activity in the fish is the antithesis of his disposition and activity on the ship. Whereas Jonah pays out of his own pocket for passage on the ship, the journey in the fish back to land and life is free, courtesy of YHWH.
He continues to unpack the “important contrast” between ship and fish to help the readers with “the peak episode of the book’s first main section.”
This sort of analysis and clear explanation is emblematic of what the reader will find in every section of the book.
Final Evaluation: Easily a Top 3 Jonah Commentary
And what’s not to love about the first paragraph of the Introduction mentioning a Bruce Springsteen song? Here it is, by the way:
To write a nearly 200-page commentary with a 20-page introduction on a 4-chapter book of the Bible is no small feat; and none of what’s here is fluff. Youngblood notes in his introduction: “An understanding of three overlapping contexts–canonical, historical, and literary–is critical to the book’s interpretation.” He helps the reader attain ample understanding of those contexts and more.
Youngblood says only that this volume “strives to advance the discussion regarding Jonah’s message.” I think it does far more. This is easily a top 3 Jonah commentary–maybe even the best one I’ve used.
As I’ve been working on the Book of Acts for my last few sermons, Acts has been working right back on me. I’m still thinking about my encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch. This last week, as the lectionary moved from Acts 8 and Acts 10 back to Acts 1 (for the Sunday after Ascension Day), I found myself thinking in terms of Acts 1:8 as a prequel for what had been happening so far.
Just before he ascends, Jesus tells the disciples to wait for the promised gift of the Holy Spirit.
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
They had wanted to know when the kingdom would be restored, but Jesus points them to a different when: the when of the Holy Spirit.
One implication of Jesus’ response, I think, is that we don’t have to know when or have life’s tensions resolved to be a witness right now to what we have seen in Jesus.
We don’t have to understand all the ins and outs of the kingdom of God–we may even think of its consummation as being a loooong ways away–to be able to make a contribution to it today, through the power of the Holy Spirit.
There’s an African proverb that says, “That which is good is never finished.”
The Book of Acts is like this. It’s not finished. If Acts 1 serves as a prequel for the whole narrative, Acts’s sequel is being written by men, women, boys, and girls who make up the church today.
Justo Gonzalez comes at this another way in his excellent new book,The Story Luke Tells: Luke’s Unique Witness to the Gospel (Eerdmans, 2015).
He points out that Luke’s story in Luke-Acts doesn’t really end: “Paul has suffered countless vicissitudes. He has been shipwrecked. He has finally made it to Rome. He is awaiting trial before Caesar. And then—nothing!”
(This helps explain why after a recent read-through of Acts, I was at a loss to remember what happened to Paul at the end!)
Gonzalez goes on:
In telling his story and leaving it unfinished, Luke is inviting his readers to be part of it, to join the throng. ….But since the story is unfinished, it is more appropriate to conclude it with “RSVP,” like an invitation that awaits a response. This is what Luke demand from us: not satisfied curiosity about the past, but a response here and now. RSVP!
Pretty amazing, isn’t it?
We are the sequel to the two-part combo of Luke and Acts–the threequel, if you like. The story of the church in the world now becomes the third part in Luke’s trilogy. Luke-Acts-Us.
Far and away, The Sacred Bridge is the best Bible atlas–and one of the most impressive books–I’ve ever used. Now Carta is beginning to publish bite-sized adaptations from that massive and beautiful work. In the Master’s Steps: The Gospels in the Land is Volume 1 of The Carta New Testament Atlas, to be released in four total volumes. In the Master’s Steps is “partially excerpted” from The Sacred Bridge (TSB). (EDIT/UPDATE: Volume 2 will not be an excerpt from TSB–it’s a new work.)
The hope of the book, author R. Steven Notley writes, “is that a better understanding of the physical setting and events that framed the life of Jesus can assist us to hear more clearly the message he proclaimed.” Or, as St. Jerome puts it (quoted in this book):
Five gospels record the life of Jesus. Four you will find in books and the one you will find in the land they call Holy. Read the fifth gospel and the world of the four will open to you.
Those of us who have not yet had occasion to travel to Israel will have to settle for books such as Notley’s. However, as one makes her or his way through Notley’s careful writing, the vivid images, and the flawlessly rendered maps–one realizes there is no settling with this book. It’s the next best thing until such a day as one can make it to the Holy Land.
This book does not differ very much from its corresponding TSB sections, though this one is intended for a wider, more popular audience. Owners of TSB do not need to buy this volume, which does, however, carry with it the advantage of being portable, affordable, and concisely addressing the life of Jesus. If you don’t have TSB and are interested in geography and the New Testament, definitely pick up this work.
A few highlights in review:
Like all Carta books I’ve put my hands on, this one is of high quality. It’s paperback, but the thick, semi-glossy paper helps the full-color images really pop, and is perfect for making marginal notes in pencil.
As with The Sacred Bridge there is an index of place names, but not an index of Scripture references. Notley includes plenty of references, especially at the multiple points where he seeks to explain what could be, in fact, a harmony of apparently divergent gospel accounts when it comes to certain geographical details. Or if no harmonization is possible, Notley at least offers side-by-side comparisons.
The content of In the Master’s Steps is culled from chapter 22 of The Sacred Bridge, which, as it turns out, is the chapter I chose to profile most in-depth in my TSB review. Rather than repeat myself here, I simply refer you to my section 4 (“Case Study: The Sacred Bridge on The Holy Gospels”) here. Most, if not all, of what I say about the content there would apply to this book under review.
Here are the chapters of In the Master’s Steps:
The Birth of Jesus and the Flight into Egypt
The Ministry of John and the Baptism of Jesus
The Travels of Jesus
The Sea of Galilee: Development of an Early Christian Toponym
The First-century Environs of the Sea of Galilee
The Last Days of Jesus
Jesus and the Myth of an Essene Quarter in Jerusalem
The Arrest and Death of Jesus
From the Empty Tomb to the Road to Emmaus
Okay, I will quote this one helpful paragraph that leads off chapter 5 of In The Master’s Steps:
Events recorded in the ministry of Jesus outside of Jerusalem are primarily located in the region around the Sea of Galilee, specifically in the north and northwest area of the lake. The Gospels are an important historical witness for Jewish settlement in this region. Scholarship seldom notes that for many of these settlements, their first mention in the literary witnesses is in the New Testament. After a confrontation in the synagogue in Nazareth, his boyhood home, Jesus relocated to Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee (Mt 4:13; Mk 1:21; Lk 4:31). This village would become the center of his ministry in the region. We now turn our attention to settlements around the Sea of Galilee that find mention in the New Testament.
Here is a sample of the graphics and maps to be enjoyed (click on each image to enlarge):
To book’s hope, to revisit it again, “is that a better understanding of the physical setting and events that framed the life of Jesus can assist us to hear more clearly the message he proclaimed.” Reading through In the Master’s Steps will certainly offer such an understanding for the teacher, student, reader, or person of faith who picks up the book. The connections between geography and theological applications are not often made explicit here, but the reader will have more than enough historical background and imagery to begin to make those associations for herself or himself.
Many thanks to the good folks at Carta for sending the book. They didn’t ask for a review, so I write this of my own volition! I think they are one of the finest publishers in the business today. Check out their site here, and go here to see their works via Hendrickson, their U.S. distributor.
An underrated but really good Bible dictionary is the New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (NIDB). Published by Abingdon, the five-volume set is edited by Katharine Doob Sakenfeld and includes contributions of nearly 1,000 scholars.
There are more than 7,000 articles in NIDB. The contributing scholars are diverse in terms of gender, ethnicity, and denominational background–a refreshing mix of voices. The dictionary balances reverence for the biblical text with rigorous scholarship–though the dictionary is rarely arcane.
The NIDB has been eminently useful to me in my weekly sermon preparation. Last fall, for example, when preaching through Genesis, I knew I’d have to make sense somehow of the “subdue” command that God gives the first humans regarding their relationship to the earth. The dictionary’s “Image of God” entry helpfully clarifies:
While the verb may involve coercive activities in interhuman relationships (see Num. 32:22, 29), no enemies are in view here–and this is the only context in which the verb applies to nonhuman creatures.
The same article puts nicely the implications of humanity’s creation in God’s image: the “image of God entails a democratization of human beings–all human hierarchies are set aside.”
This sort of blend between technical detail and pastoral application is present throughout the dictionary.
I’ve also found useful background for my Greek reading. This year, for example, I’m reading through the Psalms in Greek with a group of folks (see here). In the “Septuagint” entry in NIDB I find this:
The 4th-cent. CE “Codex Vaticanus” contains all of the books of the Hebrew Scripture or Protestant OT, and the following material that is today classified as deuterocanonical: 1 Esdras, 2 Esdras, Ps 151, the Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus or Ben Sirach, the additions to Esther (several of which were originally composed in a Semitic language; others of which are original Greek compositions), Judith, Tobit, Baruch, the Letter of Jeremiah, and the additions to Daniel (Azariah and the Three Jews, Susanna, and Bel and the Dragon).
The entry goes on to describe other Septuagint manuscripts, with hyperlinks in Olive Tree to related entries.
iOS Features in Olive Tree
Olive Tree is as cross-platform as a Bible study app gets: it runs on iOS (iPhone and iPad), Mac, Windows, and Android. The app itself is free, and you can get some good texts free, too, so you can preview the app before you buy any resources in it.
I’ve got the Olive Tree app on Mac, iPhone, and iPad Mini. It’s one of the best-executed iOS Bible study apps I’ve seen. It is visually appealing, highly customizable (especially with gestures and swipes), and easy to learn.
When reading the New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (or anything else), here are a few features that have impressed me:
You can navigate with “flick scrolling” (how iBooks is set up) or “page scrolling” (like Kindle). This will make just about any user feel at home in the app. Flick scrolling (how you’d navigate a Web page) feels more natural to me, so I use that.
Dictionary entries are easy to get to. You can simply tap on “Go To” and type in the entry you’re looking for. The auto-complete feature saves having to type very much on the iPhone’s small keyboard:
You can search the entire contents of NIDB by word. If I wanted to see not just the entry for “Septuagint,” but every time the NIDB mentions the Septuagint, I would simply type that word in to the search entry bar:
Then I can select a result and read the given entry.
The full-color photos are zoomable. The NIDB contains full-color photographs that help visualize various entries. You can select the photograph and pinch-zoom for more detail.
I’ve noted this before–there is a great deal of customizable “Gestures/Shortcuts” preferences in the “Advanced Settings” menu. Olive Tree is the most versatile Bible study app in this sense. For example:
Two-finger swipe left and right takes you through your history within the app. I can swipe between NIDB, and the last NIV Old Testament passage I was reading, and a commentary, and…. No need to go through menus.
Two-finger tap gets you from any screen to your library; right away you can get at your other resources.
Concluding Assessment and How to Buy
One of my favorite features of Olive Tree’s apps is that you can view two resources at once that aren’t tied together by Bible verse. It’s like having split windows on an iPad. So you can have the NIDB open in the top half of your screen, and a Bible text or other resource open in the bottom half–even to unrelated topics if you want.
The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible is about as good a Bible dictionary as you’ll find. If you can use it to complement the Anchor Bible Dictionary (also available in OT), you’d be very well set with Bible dictionaries.
Olive Tree has done a great job, especially with its iOS apps. As much as I loved my print copy of NIDB, I unloaded it not long ago since I can essentially carry it around with me now. And getting at its contents is even easier with the enhancements Olive Tree provides.
Thanks to Olive Tree for the NIDB for the purposes of this review, offered without any expectations as to the content of the review.You can find the product here, where it is currently on sale for $99.99.
One other last (and sure-to-be lasting) contribution to the world of Greek readers is his two-volume commentary on the Greek text of Mark, from Baylor University Press. It is part of the Baylor Handbook on the Greek Text, which I’ve reviewed (Luke) here.
The two-volume set came in the mail today, courtesy of Baylor. Decker’s Koine Greek Reader is the best resource of its kind. His scholarship was always careful and engaging. These Baylor books–about which I will post again in the future–look like about the first thing you’d want to have by your side when reading through Mark.
Is The Sacred Bridgethe best Bible atlas ever? To be fair, people consult atlases for different purposes. But for the one–academic or otherwise–who wants to dig deeply into the historical geography of the biblical world, what’s the best resource available?
I believe the reviewer should evaluate a work according to its merits in relation to the aims of the work. It would not be fair, for example, to criticize a popular commentary for not being technical enough, nor to criticize a work explicitly focusing on the Greek text of a biblical book for not including enough historical background.
The Sacred Bridge will be the Bible Atlas of Record and Standard Work for the coming decades. Exhaustive in scope and rich in detail, with its comprehensive documentation of the Near Eastern Background to Biblical History, this latest Bible Atlas from Carta is one more stepping stone on the way to the study and understanding of the Holy Scriptures.
TSB‘s reputation precedes it. Readers of this blog know that I’m a daily user of Accordance Bible Software. It was from the Accordance User Forums that I first learned about The Sacred Bridge. Almost every mention hailed it as the best, most comprehensive Bible atlas there is. So, naturally, I was eager to test that claim for myself.
In this post I review Carta’s impressive atlas. SPOILER ALERT: The answer to my “Is it the best?” question is… yes.
Such a monumental work deserves an attentive and thorough review, which I offer here as best I can. This will not be a short review, but my aim is for anyone reading it to be able to decide whether to add TSB to their own personal arsenal of resources for reading and study. The review will follow this outline:
Orientation to Orienteering with TSB: What are the ways one can (begin to) use the atlas? I suggest four.
TSB‘s Construction, Layout, and Text: How is the presentation and typesetting in the atlas?
Maps, Images, and Tables: Are the images of high quality? Are they easy to read?
Case Study: The Sacred Bridge on The Holy Gospels: I interact more closely with an individual chapter, Chapter 22: “Historical Geography of the Gospels.”
The Younger Sibling of TSB: Here I point out and briefly comment on Carta’sNew Century Handbook and Atlas of the Bible, which is essentially a condensation of (or, set of selections from) The Sacred Bridge.
A Few Points of Critique: Though this atlas would be difficult to make much better, I offer a few minor suggestions.
Excursus: My Seven-Year-Old Son Loved It: This is true–I have a picture to prove it.
1. Orientation to Orienteering with TSB
A. The Jump-Right-In Method
One way to begin using The Sacred Bridge is to do what I did when I first received it: open it up and start flipping through it.
This impressive, detailed timeline greets the reader inside the front and back covers (“Chronological Overview of the Ancient Near East”):
You probably won’t be able to see much detail in the image above, but it’s legible when you’ve got it in front of you.
The Table of Contents are worth perusing, available from Carta here (PDF) or from Eisenbrauns (the North American distributor of TSB) by clicking through from the product page. One immediately notices that the atlas covers from the fourth millennium BCE through the Bar Kochba Revolt (132-135 CE).
Given my interest in Septuagint studies and Maccabees, I opened right away to Chapter 18: “The Hasmonean Struggle for Independence (167-142 BCE).” It begins:
The response to Antiochus IV’s Hellenizing campaign was quick and forceful. The writings of Josephus and 1 Maccabees recount that Mattathias son of John, a priest and leader in the village of Modiin (el-Midya; Eus. Onom. 132:16; Notley and Safrai 2005:126 n. 703) near Lydda, was one of the first offered an opportunity to submit to the king’s edict (Ant. 12:265–271).
There is also this map, “The beginnings of the Hasmonean revolt, 167 BCE”:
And then, with the battle map in view, “The Early Battles” walks the reader through the battles mentioned in 1 Maccabees 3 and 4 (Gophna, Beth-horon, Emmaus, and Beth-zur), after which subsequent sections follow the Maccabean campaigns of 1 Macc. 5 and following. This particular chapter in TSB reads like a detailed and page-turning military history:
Jonathan’s political position was tenuous. His allies were dead, and the figure he had earlier opposed was now seated on the throne in Antioch. The high priest moved to take advantage of the political diversions in Syria and attacked the Citadel in Jerusalem. Perhaps, he assumed that Demetrius II would follow his father’s pledge to empty the bastion of the Seleucid garrison and turn it over to the high priest (1 Macc 10:32)—an offer his benefactor Alexander never matched. It seems that the son of Demetrius likewise thought it better to maintain a military presence in the Citadel and demanded the Hasmonean cease his hostilities.
B. The Read-the-Introductory-Material Method
Chapter 1, “Dimensions and Disciplines,” informs the reader what kind of book The Sacred Bridge is:
This is not meant to be a textbook in geography, not even biblical geography. It is an attempt to view the geographical setting through the eyes of the ancient inhabitants. It concentrates on the terms and places that have enjoyed their attention; it seeks to define them in terms of their ancient understanding.
In pursuit of this aim, the atlas draws on “every available documentary source, Egyptian, Akkadian, Moabite, Phoenician, Greek, Latin, Arabic, etc., that may provide geographical details and perspective.” Though the first chapter is dense and technical, it alerts the reader to the various kinds of sciences (ecology, hydrology, and so on) that constitute physical geography, as well as covers disciplines like historical philology and “grammatical analysis of ancient Semitic toponyms” (!).
Then, true to the goal of describing places “in terms of their ancient understanding,” the second chapter is short, readable, and informative, titled, “The Ancient World View.” It focuses especially on the economy and commerce of the ancient world.
Chapter 3, “The Land Bridge,” describes the Levant, demarcating just what land the “Sacred Bridge” refers to: “the eastern Mediterranean littoral (with somewhat more emphasis on the southern part).” The phrase “Sacred Bridge,” funnily enough, is only used in the title of this book.
C. The Is-This-Place-Name-from-This-Bible-Verse-Here? Method
Numbers 33:49 reads:
They camped by the Jordan from Beth-jeshimoth as far as Abel-shittim in the plains of Moab.
Where is Abel-shittim? I can look it up in the index to see the pages on which it occurs.
On page 124 I read, in part:
Abel-shittim is the same as Shittim (Num 25:1); its location was east of the Jordan and north of the Dead Sea.
Then follows a description of its two proposed sites. I find full-color maps with Abel-shittim clearly marked on pages 123, 125, and 137.
Elsewhere TSB notes Abel-shittim as one of a group of “names derived from some local plant or fruit.”
Remarkably, the index lists page numbers not just where a place name occurs in the text, but also where it occurs in a map. Mizpah and Memshath, for example, are both listed as occurring on page 239, but one cannot find them in the text. Rather, they are in the map. I was impressed to see the index keyed to both text and images.
D. The Get-It-in-Accordance Method
You can do a lot of helpful specific searches of TSB in Accordance. For example, when TSB cites Eusebius’s Onomasticon (a 4th century atlas), it has Onom. in parentheses as a citation. By selecting the search field of “Content” in Accordance and typing in “Onom”, I can find every time TSB cites the Onomasticon. Searching “Onomasticon” using the same field shows me all the times that it is mentioned by name in the body of the text. Then searching “Onom <OR> Onomasticon” (without the quotation marks) shows me results for both of the above searches. Very cool! Also praiseworthy is the fact that TSB cites Eusebius both in its original Greek and in English translation. TSB is, indeed, a rich atlas. Accordance makes searching it fast, useful, and–dare I say–fun.
There is perhaps one advantage to the print edition over the Accordance edition: the index mentioned above is not included as such in Accordance, and searches for place names in Accordance do not return results for where the place occurs within an image. However, this small loss is outweighed by the versatility and quickness (and multiple ways) with which one can navigate TSB in Accordance.
2. TSB‘s Construction, Layout, and Text
TSB emphasizes “the ancient written sources.” The authors write in their foreword:
In each case we attempted to interpret every ancient passage firsthand, from the native language. Anything less than this fails to meet the high standards of original research.
Though the authors’ frequent citation of and interaction with original languages are themselves impressive (Greek and Hebrew are only the beginning), just as impressive are the typographical requirements that such a standard implies. The original language fonts are color-coded for easy viewing, sized well, crisp, and highly readable. There is also, of course, the challenge of setting images, maps, and figures alongside copious text. If there were an Academy Award for typesetting, The Sacred Bridge would be a runaway Oscar winner. Any given page would make it in to the Typesetting Hall of Fame on the first ballot. Sound hyperbolic? Check this out (open in a new tab, then click to zoom in):
The layout and construction of the book (which has sewn binding, of course) are a work of impressive mastery.
TSB is not only the best Bible atlas there is, it’s also one of the most beautiful and impressive books I’ve opened. (Its dimensions are 9.25′ x 13′, or 24 x 33 cm. If future generations judge our generation by content and presentation of The Sacred Bridge, we will be deemed to have been an exceptional one.
If there’s anything to critique about the text and layout, it’s that there’s a lot of material on each three-columned page. But with such clean, readable fonts (that really only feel a bit small in each Excursus section), reading TSB for long periods of time is just fine.
As to this second edition’s having been “Emended & Enhanced,” some of the differences in the new edition are noted here at Todd Bolen’s fine blog.
3. Maps, Images, and Tables
The maps and images are of high quality and easy to read. They work well together with the text to help the reader understand, visualize, and situate ancient places in their historical and geographical contexts.
There is even Excursus 6.1 (“The Topographical List of Thutmose III”), a multi-page, 119-item table, including hieroglyphics. It looks great in print, and Accordance presents it nicely, too.
You can both read on and look above in this post to see some of the maps of TSB. Carta has deserved its reputation as a producer of excellent, detailed maps. Not only the place names but also the travel routes and event annotations kept me spending quite a few minutes at a time with any individual map, fully engaged and fascinated by its content.
This one is a current favorite:
4. Case Study: The Sacred Bridge on The Holy Gospels
The thoroughness of The Sacred Bridge is evident throughout the atlas. In chapter 22, “Historical Geography of the Gospels,” R. Steven Notley looks at “significant events that may benefit from a historical and geographical reading of the text.” He points out: “In many instances the location and nature of the recorded sites have been lost in time.” But “modern archaeology together with a careful reading of the ancient witnesses” (especially Josephus in this chapter) give him a basis from which to elucidate the assumed geographical setting of the Gospel writers.
Here are the sections of the chapter on the Gospels:
The Birth of Jesus and the Flight into Egypt
The Geographical Setting for the Ministry of John and the Baptism of Jesus
From Nazareth to Capernaum
The Sea of Galilee: Development of an Early Christian Toponym
The First-century Environs of the Sea of Galilee
Literary and Geographical Contours of “The Great Omission”
The Last Days of Jesus
From the Empty Tomb to the Road to Emmaus
Excursus 22.1: Jesus and the Myth of an Essene Quarter in Jerusalem
This single chapter is some 30,000 words.
The most immediately useful part of the chapter was the 3-D map of the Lake of Gennesaret, also known as the Sea of Galilee. The map is followed in the text by descriptions of Tiberias, Capernaum, and the now elusive-to-locate Bethsaida. Here is the map, which you can click or open in a new tab/window to enlarge:
And then there is the section, “The Sea of Galilee: Development of an Early Christian Toponym.” For as familiar as “the Sea of Galilee” is to the Christian lexicon, that place name only occurs, Notley rightly points out, in these verses: Matthew 4:18, 15:29; Mark 1:16, 3:7, 7:31; John 6:1. He convincingly notes:
The uncommon nature of this toponym is indicated in the Fourth Gospel by the Evangelist’s need to further define it with an additional genitive more familiar to his readers: “After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee [which is the Sea] of Tiberias” (Jn 6:1).
What then follows is an analysis of the references of Josephus, Pliny, and Maccabees to this lake. Notley’s command of Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and Aramaic help him to unpack for the reader, among other things, why this lake is called a “sea” (haven’t you always wondered?):
We are still left with the unusual application of the term θαλασσα by Matthew, Mark and John to the Lake of Gennesar, and the related question of the origins for the Christian toponym η θαλασσα της Γαλιλαιας (Mt 4:18, 15:29; Mk 1:16, 7:31; Jn 6:1). The name ים כנרת (Sea of Chinnereth) for the lake occurs three times in the Hebrew Scriptures (Num 34:11; Josh 12:3, 13:27) and is rendered by the Septuagint θαλασσα Χενερεθ (or Χεναρα).
But Notley is not convinced that Matthew, Mark, and John drew inspiration just from the Septuagint’s rendering of the Hebrew ים as θαλασσα.
Instead, the genesis for the Christian toponym may be indicated by Matthew’s scriptural citation immediately prior to his first use of the Sea of Galilee.
This uniquely “Christian toponym” of “the Sea of Galilee” has to do with how Matthew appropriated Isaiah 9:1:
Isaiah’s intentions notwithstanding, Matthew took advantage of the Septuagint’s rendering of the common noun גָּלִיל to read Galilee. Further, the Evangelist collapsed three widely divergent points of geographical reference to a single topos—the region around Capernaum that served as the locus for Jesus’ ministry.
Drawing upon the Septuagintal vocabulary of Isaiah 9:1 (Θαλασσα and Γαλιλαια), the early Church created a new toponym that provided an elliptical allusion to Isaiah’s prophecy and underscored the biblical significance of the locus of Jesus’ ministry. If our observation is correct, we can now understand how the term Θαλασσα —which in the Septuagint’s translation of Isaiah initially spoke of the Mediterranean Sea—was transferred to another body of water, namely the Lake of Gennesar.
I appreciated Notley’s tentativeness in his conclusion (“If our observation is correct”). If the reader does not agree, she or he will still find Notley’s reasoning and detailed exposition compelling, even if a re-reading or two of his argument might be warranted. (And this is just one section of one chapter of The Sacred Bridge! The book is truly a gold mine.)
That’s not even to mention “The Last Days of Jesus,” a section in this same chapter that compellingly describes Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem, culminating in his arrest and crucifixion. It is from this section that the graphic in my section 3 above comes.
CNCHBAB is less concerned than The Sacred Bridge is with “citing all available historical sources in their original languages.” The absence of such citations in “in their original script” is a main way in which the smaller Handbook differs from TSB.
Carta’s New Century Handbook and Atlas of the Bible is shorter, too. It omits almost all of the Excursuses of TSB, as well as omits a few whole chapters. The publisher describes it as “a select rather than a condensed version.” In “Historical Geography of the Gospels,” for example, TSB‘s detailed and technical (yet fascinating) section, “The Search for Bethsaida,” is left out altogether.
CNCHBAB is more accessible and cheaper (by about half) than The Sacred Bridge. There are entire sections in the Handbook and Atlas that appear verbatim as in The Sacred Bridge. This is good in terms of getting at the content of the latter, though not all potentially unfamiliar terminology has been explained or eliminated in the Handbook and Atlas:
The final phase of Herod’s palace in Jericho was the largest and most ornate. Concrete walls were faced with Roman-style plastering, opus reticulatum and opus quadratum, perhaps indicating the direct involvement of Roman builders and architects in the construction.
All the same, an advanced undergraduate course in religion or biblical studies could–with the guidance of the professor, as needed–make quite good use of Carta’s New Century Handbook and Atlas of the Bible for a textbook. For that matter, a seminary course could use it well, though any sort of doctoral studies–especially in archaeology or biblical geography–would call for use of the full Sacred Bridge.
6. A Few Points of Critique
My primary point of critique in using the print edition is that there is no Scripture reference index. It seems to me that one of the ways a person would come to the atlas is with a biblical verse or passage in mind, and want to find right away what TSB has on a passage under consideration. TSB in Accordance obviates the need for such an index, since one can use the Scripture search field to search the atlas by reference.
And this lack is not insurmountable in the print edition, as one can turn to the index to find any place names of interest in a particular passage. Besides, TSB covers so much primary literature, and deliberately seeks to address “every available documentary source,” such that to be true to its aim, a Scripture index would have to also be accompanied by other primary source indices. Given how many sources TSB cites, I understand the omission.
But, as noted in 1.C above, the index in TSB is well-produced, even without a Scripture index per se.
It would be unfair to fault an atlas with an academic audience for frequent use of technical terminology, so I point it out not as a critique, necessarily, but the reader should be advised of the need to know (or look up) words such as: steppe, opus reticulatum, legerdemain, sartorial, toparchy, etc. The occasional sentence, jargon aside, is lengthy and potentially difficult to follow on first read. But the overall style is readable and engaging.
7. EXCURSUS: My Seven-Year-Old Son Loved It
Bonus: TSB made for a good 20 minutes of bedtime reading with my seven-year-old son, shortly after I first received the atlas. (We’ve returned to it since then, too.) He knows the Hebrew alphabet and a little bit of Hebrew, and his Jewish friend at school had told him all about the Maccabees, so he loved looking and reading through the atlas with me! “Cool!” and “Wow!” were his most oft-used descriptors. Here he is:
Is TSB the Best Bible Atlas ever? Yes, without question. Is it worth the price? Yes, certainly.
When it comes to biblical cartography and historical geography, it doesn’t get any better, more thorough, or more interesting than The Sacred Bridge.
TSB‘s younger sibling, Carta’sNew Century Handbook and Atlas of the Bible, is here (Amazon), here (Carta), here (Eisenbrauns), or here (Accordance).
Many, many thanks to the fine folks at Carta and Eisenbrauns who set me up with a copy of TSB to review, both in print and Accordance. The publisher at Carta is one of the nicest and most interesting people with whom I’ve corresponded since starting Words on the Word more than two years ago.
The questions came from my wrestling through Matthew 5:38-48, which I find the be the most difficult passage in the Sermon on the Mount. I concluded, in part,
What seems a fairly straightforward statement, “Love your enemy,” is difficult. What does it mean to love enemies? In what spheres must that take place, and how should it happen, especially in the presence of an inordinately powerful evil? How categorical is Jesus in his forbidding of force? Was he speaking to disciples, or to disciples and states?
You can see how I landed (at least in a sense) at the end of this post.
Enter Scot McKnight
Scot McKnight’s Sermon on the Mount (The Story of God Bible Commentary, Zondervan, 2013) helped me wrestle through the difficult question of just what it means to “turn the other cheek.” While some interpreters (such as Luther) have sought to distinguish between private (interpersonal) and public (political) applications of this text, McKnight responds: “Utter nonsense.” Instead:
One of the main thrusts of the ethic of Jesus is the radicalization of an ethic so that we live consistently, from the so-called “private” to the “public” spheres. There is for Jesus no distinction between a secular life and spiritual life: we are always to follow him. His ethic is an Ethic from Beyond. But others, in words not so wrongheaded as Luther’s, have continued Luther’s personal vs. public or spiritual vs. secular distinction when it comes to ethics.
Jesus, McKnight persuasively argues, was not distinguishing between how the disciples should live in their private lives (whatever that would have meant) as opposed to in public. “The question every reader of the Sermon must ask,” McKnight goes on, is:
Does that world begin now, or does it begin now in private but not in public, or does it begin now for his followers in both private and to the degree possible in the public realm as well?
A New Commentary Series: SGBC
The Story of God Bible Commentary is a new series, with McKnight’s volume and Lynn Cohick’s Philippians volume being the first two published. As the name implies, the series is concerned to interpret and apply Scripture with an eye to how each passage relates to the larger biblical story:
We want to explain each passage of the Bible in light of the Bible’s grand Story. The Bible’s grand Story, of course, connects this series to the classic expression regula fidei, the “rule of faith,” which was the Bible’s story coming to fulfillment in Jesus as the Messiah, Lord, and Savior of all.
There are three primary sections in each passage:
1. Listen to the Story. With the assumption that “the most important posture of the Christian before the Bible is to listen,” the SGBC series begins with the full text of the passage under consideration (using the 2011 New International Version). The section also includes an introduction to the passage.
2. Explain the Story. From historical background to cultural context, from theological explanation to individual word studies, here is where SGBC unpacks “a sound and living reading of the text in light of the Story of God in the Bible.”
3. Live the Story. This is the “digging deeper” into “our world” section. The commentary series is not geared for an academic audience, which allows authors to spend more time imagining 21st century applications of a passage to life. This is especially helpful for preachers and anyone wanting to know how to live out a passage they are studying.
“Better People” or “Better Liars”?
McKnight wastes no time in convicting the reader, much as the Sermon on the Mount itself does. Just before the introduction he quotes Bonhoeffer, who says of the Sermon:
Its validity depends on its being obeyed.
And here’s Dean Smith, via McKnight:
The Sermon on the Mount has a strange way of making us better people or better liars.
(Ouch! But so true.)
McKnight agrees that the incongruence “between Jesus’ vision and our life bothers many of us.” Various interpretive attempts, he suggest, have made Jesus say what he did not really say. By contrast:
There is something vital—and this is a central theme in this commentary—in letting the demand of Jesus, expressed over and over in the Sermon as imperatives or commands, stand in its rhetorical ruggedness.
Jesus intended the Sermon on the Mount as “the claim of Jesus upon our whole being.”
So you can’t just read this commentary in a detached way or use it for dry or “objective” research (as if there were such a thing!). Throughout the commentary McKnight helps the reader hear Jesus’ demanding (yet life-giving) message in resounding terms.
McKnight on Jesus and Ethics
The commentary’s introduction has a substantive (and surprisingly helpful) section called, “The Sermon and Moral Theory,” where McKnight compares “Jesus’ moral vision” to other moral theories, whether Aristotle’s virtue ethics, Kant’s categorical imperative (deontology), or Bentham and Mill’s utilitarianism.
McKnight presents Jesus’ ethics through the conjoining lenses of:
“Ethics from Above”—Jesus speaks as God
“Ethics from Beyond”—”kingdom ethics” that seek to bring “God’s future to bear on the present”
“Ethics from Below”—based on human “inductive observation”
An ethical theory that is “messianic, ecclesial, pneumatic”—in Jesus’ “messianic vocation,” he believes that “an ethic can only be lived out in community (the kingdom manifestation in the church) and through the power of the Spirit now at work.”
The introduction offers no structural outline of the Sermon on the Mount. There is just a paragraph about its structure, saying that the matter is “incapable of any kind of firm resolution.” So the omission of an outline seems deliberate, but at least something preliminary would have helped–even a Table of Contents that shows the pericope divisions/commentary chapters at a glance, which this volume lacks.
The Commentary Proper
McKnight breaks the Sermon into 23 chapters in his commentary proper (chapter 1 treats both the very first and very last verses of the Sermon on the Mount together). Each chapter prints the full biblical text (it’s nice to have everything in one place), then proceeds with the sections noted above: Listen to the Story, Explain the Story, Live the Story. His experience in teaching and ministry is obvious throughout the book, which is a refreshing balance of deep exegesis, lucid prose, and convicting application.
To look briefly at just one passage, Matthew 7:12 says:
So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.
Of the many ways to describe or articulate the Torah, two are pertinent in our text: one can either multiply laws so as to cover all possible situations, or one can reduce the law to its essence.
The verse, which he sets in biblical and rabbinical context, “summarizes the essence of the Sermon” (emphasis in original). And it has much to say to how we ought to live now:
But the Golden Rule is of direct value in relationships in churches. It takes but a moment’s thought to think it through: How do I want to treat others? How would I want to be treated?
This is a fantastic commentary. It’s smart, well-researched, deep, engaging, challenging, and–perhaps best of all–like the Sermon it addresses, issues a clear call to righteous living according to God’s will.
Thanks to Zondervan Academic for the review copy, offered for the purposes of an unbiased review. Find it at Zondervan here or Amazon here.