“Even though the Bible was written for us, it wasn’t written to us. When we take our Western, modern culture and impose it on the text, we’re putting in meaning that wasn’t there, and we’re missing the meaning that the text has.” -John Walton
This quotation opens the introduction to the new NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. John Walton, a BioLogos advisor, author, and member of the BioLogos Voices, is a major contributor to this fantastic new resource. Walton is an expert on the ancient near-Eastern context of the Bible, and is the author of numerous sidebar notes throughout the Old Testament portion of this study Bible (co-contributor Craig S. Keener covers the New Testament). Zondervan was kind enough to send an advance copy to senior editor Jim Stump and myself.
Walton’s sidebar commentary for the first chapter of Genesis covers the “firmament” (Gen. 1:6) in light of ancient cosmology, as well as historical notes about what the “image of God” meant in ancient times, some thoughts on “divine rest” in ancient context, and much more. In most study Bibles, these sorts of short articles and comments aid the reader in making sense of the text. But Walton’s notes are likely to transform the reader’s encounter with the Old Testament. As Walton says in the quote above, the modern reader is often guilty of imposing their worldview on the biblical text. And this usually happens without the modern reader even being aware of it. The modern origins controversy is driven in no small part by the misreading of Scripture by well-meaning Christians who are reading modern ideas into an ancient text.
Upon reading some of Walton’s notes on the Genesis text, I immediately wished that I could have had this study Bible much earlier in my life. When I was younger, I had absolutely no idea that my “plain reading” of Genesis was fatally tinted by modern, Western presuppositions. Scholars like Walton have since disabused me of this hubris, but earlier encounter with their wisdom would have diverted me from unhelpful paths.
Christians are sometimes threatened or confused by the need to understand the ancient context of the Bible, thinking that this discourages ordinary Christians from encountering Scripture without the aid of a PhD. But the ancient setting of the Bible should be viewed as an invitation, not a barrier. It’s an opportunity to see the world through different eyes, and encounter God through the encounters of those who lived in much different times. The end result of studying the ancient context of the Bible is a greater love and appreciation for God’s choice to communicate through ordinary people throughout history, and a greater humility as we approach his Word. And with a resource like the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, Christians can benefit from the lifelong scholarly work of Walton and Keener. I strongly recommend getting a copy for yourself or a friend or family member. It is likely to revolutionize the way you read the Bible.