The NIV Study Bible

Evangelicalism Annotates an English Bible

NOTE: If you are not interested in the Background, skip to Contents of the Study Bible.

Outline of the Review

   The NIV Translation
     A Bible of Their Own
     The Published Translation
   The NIV Study Bible: Editions and Editors
     The Editions
     The Backgrounds of the Editors
       Kenneth L. Barker
       Donald W. Burdick
       John H. Stek
       Walter W. Wessel
       Ronald Youngblood
   Contents of the Study Bible
   Distinctive Evangelical Themes
   Examples of Interpretation
     The Pentateuch
     Creation
     God’s Warfare
     The Psalms
     The Gospels
   Evaluative Comments

The NIV Translation
A Bible of Their Own.

In 1952 the Revised Standard Version of the Christian Bible was published under the auspices of the National Council of Churches, the ecumenical body of mainline Protestant denominations in the USA. In the following generation this version of the Holy Bible finally replaced the worthy old King James Version of 1611 for the majority of Christians in those mainline churches.

However, there were many groups of conservative Protestants (Evangelicals) who would not accept the RSV for their personal or congregational scripture reading. They clung to the tried and true, if somewhat old fashioned, KJV. Some RSV opponents went so far as to call it “the work of Satan and his agents” (Martin Marty, Modern American Religion, Vol. 3, pp. 368-69.) At the same time, many Evangelical scholars and missionaries (who worked constantly with translations into colloquial languages) knew they really needed an up-to-date English version. If not the RSV, then they needed one of their own.

Without reference to the RSV, the “Preface” to the New International Version explains the origin of the translation as follows:

The New International Version is a completely new translation of the Holy Bible [thus not a revision of the KJV] made by over a hundred scholars working directly from the best available Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts. It had its beginning in 1965 when, after several years of exploratory study by committees from the Christian Reformed Church and the National Association of Evangelicals, a group of scholars met at Palos Heights, Illinois, and concurred in the need for a new translation of the Bible in contemporary English. This group, though not made up of official church representatives, was transdenominational. Its conclusion was endorsed by a large number of leaders from many denominations who met in Chicago [at Moody Bible Institute] in 1966.

Responsibility for the new version was delegated by the Palos Heights group to a self-governing body of fifteen, the Committee on Bible Translation, composed for the most part of biblical scholars from colleges, universities and seminaries. In 1967 the New York Bible Society (now the International Bible Society) generously undertook the financial sponsorship of the project—a sponsorship that made it possible to enlist the help of many distinguished scholars. (“Preface,” first two paragraphs.)

The Preface goes on to explain that the translation is International because the project included scholars from Great Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, as well as the majority from the United States. The translation was also safeguarded “from sectarian bias” by the involvement of scholars from at least thirteen different denominations, which are listed.

It may be important to notice that the scholars who initiated the project made certain the translation remained in the control of an independent entity—at least as independent as the financial support of the New York Bible Society could make it. The NIV was not owned by an ecumenical power, as the National Council of Churches owned the RSV. Evangelicalism was too diverse (and, an observer might say, “contentious”) to trust the destiny of a major Bible translation to the vicissitudes of warfare among denominations and true believers.

The chief candidate at the time for such an ownership of a new Bible translation was the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), which thought of itself as the main alternative to the National Council. This coalition of conservative Protestant denominations and churches was created in 1942 and has had varied success in uniting and giving a common voice to Evangelicalism. In its long in-house history, the NAE describes two periods of successes, 1943-1960, and the Reagan era. Its role throughout, according to historian Roger Olson, has been “aiding the emergence of Evangelicalism out of its fundamentalist past while maintaining a strong commitment to the authority of Scripture and to historic Christian orthodoxy.” (Roger E. Olson, The SCM Press A-Z of Evangelical Theology [= Westminster Handbook to Evangelical Theology], 2005, p. 87.)

Clearly the NAE had been interested in a new Bible translation.

Another NAE initiative in the 1950s with long-range consequences was the formation of a committee in 1957 to explore the possibility of a new translation of the Bible. The National Council had five years earlier released the Revised Standard Version, but the new translation did not prove popular among many evangelicals. The NAE committee began meeting with a similar committee commissioned by the Christian Reformed Church in 1961. By 1965, the two committees formed an independent Committee on Bible Translation… In 1978, the first copies of the New International Version of the Bible came off the presses. The presses would not stop. Ten years after initial publication more than 50 million copies had been distributed throughout the English-speaking world.

[On-line history, last paragraph of “Growth and Accomplishments in the 1950s.”]

The Christian Reformed Church was a Dutch-immigrant denomination formed in the 19th century that didn’t use English in its services until the 20th century. Thus, it was hardly over-burdened by a KJV heritage. However, assimilating to American culture carried with it use of English, and after a hundred years English versions of the scriptures would have been a major concern to this very conservative Calvinistic tradition. In the 1960s, their major college and seminary were growing rapidly (Calvin College, Calvin Seminary, Grand Rapids, MI).

The push within the Christian Reformed Church for a new but conservative translation of the Bible has been told by John Stek, who became the long-term participant of the CRC and Calvin Seminary in the creation of the NIV. (John Stek, “The New International Version: How It Came to Be,” cited more fully below.) The movement had begun as early as 1956, but it leaped forward around 1961, just at the time that Stek was appointed to Calvin Seminary and to the committee discussing translation with the NAE.

Another not-so-incidental link of the CRC with the NIV beginnings was a new CRC college established in 1959, Trinity Christian College—in Palos Heights, Illinois, meeting place for the birth of the NIV.

Credo. To meet the expectations of their constituencies, the translators made clear their belief in Scripture:

[T]he translators were united in their commitment to the authority and infallibility of the Bible as God’s Word in written form. They believe that it contains the divine answer to the deepest needs of humanity, that it sheds unique light on our path in a dark world, and that it sets forth the way to our eternal well-being. (“Preface to the NIV,” sixth paragraph.)

Compared to other statements of faith by translators and annotators, this is pretty moderate. It does not include the “inerrancy” of the scriptures, which later became a shibboleth for fundamentalists and other dedicated literalists. (The Introduction to the 1967 revised Scofield Bible vowed belief in all the fundamentals: inerrency, trinity, virgin birth, atonement, bodily resurrection, Christ’s imminent premillennial return, and eternal blessing for the saved and damnation for the lost. New Scofield Reference Bible, Oxford, 1967, p. v.)

The Published Translation.

The translation work was done between 1967 and 1978. The process called for a committee of three to translate each Biblical book, for an intermediate committee to review and revise that translation, and finally for the Committee on Bible Translation to make final revisions—final except for more review and revision by English stylists. (All this is described in Stek’s article.)

A critical stage in production was reached when it was decided that there had to be a single coordinator of the process. Edwin H. Palmer was appointed full-time Executive Secretary in April 1968 and from then on, everything passed through his office and his hands. When, ten years later, the whole translation was finished, Palmer was immediately appointed General Editor of the projected NIV Study Bible. (See further on Palmer below.)

The New Testament was published in 1973 but mildly revised when the whole Bible came out in 1978, and the whole thing mildly revised again for a 1983 printing. The Committee on Bible Translation (CBT) announced a gender-inclusive version in 1997, but rapid opposition among the churches and denominations caused the publishers to withhold it (in the US). A new “gender-accurate” version of the translation, Today’s New International Version (TNIV), was later published in spite of opposition, the New Testament in 2002, the whole Bible in 2005. (On these developments, see, for example, David Dewey, A User’s Guide to Bible Translation, Intervarsity Press, 2004, pp. 183-187.)

To finish up on the translation, as these words are being written the owner of the copyright on the NIV (Biblica, Inc., formerly the International Bible Society) is releasing a revision of the translation, NIV 2011. According to the on-line announcement, the revision of 1984 (THE NIV until now) will be discontinued and Bible study helps, like concordances, gradually adapted to the new revision. The full text of the 2011 revision is available on line. (See www.biblegateway.com/versions/New-International-Version-NIV-Bible/ .) Presumably, a new generation is entering into the heritage of the NIV.

Two volumes of essays by the NIV translators, published in later years, give backgrounds, research studies, and defenses of the “Contemporary translation.”

[The Palmer volume] The NIV: The Making of a Contemporary Translation, ed. Kenneth L. Barker, International Bible Society, 1991, originally published in 1986 by Zondervan Publishing House. This was created as a memorial volume to Edwin H. Palmer, executive secretary throughout the translation project, and first general editor of the NIV Study Bible. This volume includes Palmer’s (posthumous) spirited article comparing the NIV to the KJV, greatly to the advantage of the NIV. It also includes articles by three Study Bible editors: Kenneth Barker on the name Yahweh; John Stek on the modern study of Old Testament poetry; and Ronald Youngblood on OT quotations in the NT.

[The Youngblood volume] The Challenge of Bible Translation, ed. Glen G. Scorgie, Mark L. Strauss, and Steven M. Voth, Zondervan, 2003. Published as “Essays in Honor of Ronald F. Youngblood,” near his retirement and seventieth birthday, this volume also contains articles by Study Bible editors: Kenneth Barker on current translation philosophies and the NIV; Mark Strauss [new editor for the 2008 edition of the Study Bible] on the gender-language debate; Walter Wessel on a recently published history of the KJV; and John Stek on the Christian Reformed Church’s role in the making of the NIV translation.

The NIV Study Bible: Editions and Editors

The editors of the NIV Study Bible have no reservations about the quality of the new translation. “The New International Version of the Bible (NIV) is unsurpassed in accuracy, clarity and literary grace” (“Introduction,” p. xiv, 2008 edition). Hardly a surprise, since the editors and contributors of the Study Bible had shared in the production of the translation.

The Editions. There have been four editions of the NIV Study Bible:

1985 Edition. The first edition, work done between 1978 and 1985. Relatively speaking, there has been little change from the first edition. The mold was shaped then; only tinkering followed.

1995 Edition. 10th Anniversary Edition, very minor changes, but added the three symbols for special interest notes: a stem of leaves, marking notes for “personal application”; a spade marking notes of archeological or research interest; and a silhouette of a human head signifying a character sketch.

2002 Edition. “Fully Revised edition.” The General Editor says he added many notes and updated some of the introductions (giving “greater attention to rhetorical, structural and other literary features”).

2008 Edition. The editors added some new notes and charts. Not heavily revised.
In doing this review I am using only the 1995 and the 2008 editions. Quotations are from the 2008 edition, unless otherwise noted.

The key figure in the transition from Translation to Study Bible was Edwin H. Palmer, who, as Executive Secretary of the Committee on Bible Translation, had played a critical role in coordinating the translation work on the NIV. On completion of the translation, he was immediately appointed General Editor of the Study Bible to-be, but had only a little over a year before he died in 1980. Before his death, “he had laid most of the plans for the NIV Study Bible, had recruited the majority of the contributors, and had done some editorial work on the first manuscripts submitted.” (“Tribute to Edwin H. Palmer,” NIV Study Bible, following the title page in all editions.)

Palmer was born in 1922 and grew up in Quincy, Massachusetts. He graduated from Harvard in 1944 and served in the Marine Corps from 1943 to 1946. (The 1944/1943 overlap was possible under those wartime conditions.) He went to Westminster Theological Seminary (a right-wing break off from conservative Princeton Theological Seminary) where he received a Th.M. in 1949 and a Th.D. in 1953. He served Christian Reformed Churches in Michigan from 1953, ending at Grand Rapids from 1964-1968, when he became full-time executive secretary of the NIV project. A prominent publication was The Five Points of Calvinism. He fought for separate religious education as national chair of the board of Citizens for Educational Freedom while at the Grand Rapids church, and later served as the chairman of the New Jersey Right-to-Life Committee (1969-1972). (Biographical data from “In Memoriam: Dr. Edwin H. Palmer, 1922-1980,” in the “Palmer Volume” listed above.)

The Backgrounds of the (Other) Editors.

Forty-six men appeared in the Contributors list of the first two editions. (There were no women contributors, though appreciations were extended to several women on the Zondervan production staff.) The five editors, however, are said to have done the major work.

The individuals named below contributed [original material]… However, since the General Editor and the Associate Editors extensively edited the notes on most books, they alone are responsible for their form and content. [Heading of Contributors page, all editions.]

After Palmer’s death, the General Editor who saw the work through, not only the original work from 1978 through 1985, but ever since, is Kenneth L. Barker. He was assisted by four Associate Editors, Donald W. Burdick, John H. Stek, Walter W. Wessel, and Ronald F. Youngblood. Burdick (New Testament) died in 1996, right after the tenth anniversary revision came out. Wessel (also New Testament) died as the 2002 revision was winding up (Tributes page of 2008 edition). A new Associate Editor had been appointed for the 2008 edition with responsibility for New Testament work, Mark L. Strauss.

The professional careers of these editors give us a little panorama of the Evangelical Biblical world from the 1960s to the 1980s.

Kenneth L. Barker (General Editor).

When Palmer died, Kenneth Barker replaced him as General Editor. That meant he was the key person in pushing the contributors to complete their work and in scheduling and overseeing the numerous meetings to review and revise the work, assisted, of course, by four heavily involved Associate Editors. He had been young enough when enlisted to last throughout the seven years of composition (1978-1985) and the subsequent twenty-five years of periodic revisions.

Barker grew up in Iowa and attended a small Reformed Church school in Orange City, now named Northwestern College. He went to Dallas Theological Seminary where he received an M.Th. in 1960. Dallas Theological Seminary was in Cyrus I. Scofield’s old stomping grounds, and was founded in the 1920s as a fervent training ground for Dispensationalist Christians. Barker got his Old Testament specialized training at Dropsie College for Hebrew and Cognate Learning in Philadelphia, receiving his Ph.D. in 1969. (This was a Jewish endowed school, but as the title indicates, it was pretty exclusively devoted to Semitic language studies. It ceased to be a degree-granting institution in the 1980s.)

Barker was appointed to the faculty at Dallas Theological Seminary in 1968 and continued there until 1981. He was invited to join the Committee on Bible Translation of the NIV in 1974, as the Old Testament translation was getting well underway. He is listed as primary contributor for only Zechariah in 1995, but also for Micah in 2008. He is listed as the secondary reviser for Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Nahum in both editions.

Barker was not only an Old Testament scholar, he also clearly had skills as an administrator and organizer of group projects. He later served as secretary as well as executive director of the International Bible Society’s NIV Translation Center until his retirement in 1996. Even then he continued as General Editor of the NIV Study Bible through the 2008 edition.

Donald W. Burdick (Associate Editor, New Testament).

Burdick was born in 1917 and grew up in western New York state. By 1940 he had graduated from the pastor’s course at Moody Bible Institute and was married. He attended Wheaton College during World War II, graduating summa cum laude in 1945. He went on to Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Chicago, taking a B.D. degree in 1946, a Th.M. in 1952, and a Th.D. in 1954. In those years he was pastoring the Kostner Avenue Baptist Church and was also teaching Greek and Bible at the Seminary.

Around 1950, the Conservative Baptist Association separated from the Northern Baptist Convention, apparently over scripture issues among others. The Conservative group went west and founded the Conservative Baptist Theological Seminary in Denver. Donald Burdick was obviously congenial to this group since they made him Professor of New Testament at the new seminary, serving from 1954 until his retirement in the 1980s. Being a talented hand in a fledging institution, Burdick was not only NT professor, he was librarian for ten years and editor of the house journal Conservative Seminarian for twenty-eight years. Under President Vernon Grounds, 1956-1979, the Seminary grew from a small denominational school to a “major evangelical seminary,” named simply Denver Seminary since 1998.

In his scholarly work Burdick did commentaries on the letter of James and on the letters of John. In the NIV Study Bible, he had primary responsibility for all the catholic letters, Peter, James, John, Jude, and he was the second reviser on Hebrews. He suffered ill health in his later years and died in 1996.

John H. Stek (Associate Editor, Old Testament).

Stek, like Kenneth Barker, was born and grew up in Iowa. Unlike Barker, he stayed in the Christian Reformed world his entire life. After army service in the Pacific—battle of Okinawa and occupation of Korea—he attended Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI, and then graduated from Calvin Seminary in 1952. These schools were the home institutions of the Christian Reformed Church, founded in strongly conservative Dutch Reformed traditions. He did graduate work in Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary, a stronghold of old Presbyterian orthodoxy that separated from “modernist” Princeton Theological Seminary in 1929. He took a Th.M. from Westminster in 1955, one student generation after Edwin Palmer.

Exciting times had been brewing in Grand Rapids during the 1950s as the Christian Reformed Church expanded enormously. A new campus was dedicated for Calvin Seminary in 1961 and the Synod (denominational governing body) issued a new statement on inspiration and infallibility of the Scripture. It was at just this time that John Stek was appointed to teach Old Testament at Calvin Seminary, where he remained the rest of his career, interrupted only by one-year leaves at the University of Chicago (1965-66) and the Free University of Amsterdam (1973-74). Like Donald Burdick at Denver Seminary, Stek grew with his home seminary through expansive and prosperous times, representing his conservative tradition faithfully in the translation of the scriptures for the NIV, and staying to play a major part in editing the NIV Study Bible.

John Stek was said to be a soft-spoken, somewhat introverted scholar, and apparently did not publish much. A search of on-line books produces many copies of the NIV Study Bibles, but only one other collaborative work, Portraits of Creation: Biblical and Scientific Perspectives on the World’s Formation, by Howard J. Van Till, John H. Stek, and Robert Snow, Eerdmans, 1990. Stek was appointed to the Committee on Bible Translation at the very beginning, 1965 (probably while he was on leave at the University of Chicago), and contributed much editorial work through at least the 2002 edition. Later he wrote an article about the creation of the NIV translation, particularly documenting the part played by the Christian Reformed Church: “The New International Version: How it Came to Be,” in Challenge of Bible Translation (see Youngblood Volume above), pp. 235-263. (Though published in 2003, this article shows no trace of events or references later than the early 1990s. It had probably been around for some time.)

In the Study Bible, Stek did the primary contributions on Psalms and Song of Songs (with no second revisers listed). He did the secondary revisions of nine other OT books, including such large items as Judges, Isaiah, and Ezekiel. He clearly left his hand-prints widely in the Old Testament introductions and notes. Stek died in 2009, just after the 2008 edition of the Study Bible had come out.

Walter W. Wessel (Associate Editor, New Testament).

Information on Walter Wessel is hard to come by. Publishers mention only that he received his Ph.D. from Edinburgh and that he was a Professor of New Testament and Greek at Bethel Seminary (St. Paul, MN).

Bethel Seminary was originally created in Chicago in 1871 by the Baptist Union to prepare pastors for ministries with Swedish immigrants. In 1914, the Baptist Convention moved the college and seminary to St. Paul, Minnesota, and merged it with a Baptist high school. After World War II Bethel College became a four-year school and the Seminary grew and expanded until it also had a West Coast campus in San Diego, and, in recent times, non-campus teaching centers in Auburn Massachusetts and in the DC area.

Wessel must have been on the faculty from the 1960s to the 1990s. Up until 1978, he would have had as an Old Testament colleague on the St. Paul campus Ronald Youngblood, a fellow translator of the NIV, though the periods of their work did not necessarily overlap, NT finished in 1973, OT in 1978. Youngblood was no longer at Bethel in St. Paul during the years the Study Bible was produced, though the two must have remained well acquainted during the Study Bible work. Wessel contributed the commentary on the Gospel According to Mark in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, a 12-volume commentary based on the NIV translation, Zondervan, 1984, “Mark” contained in Vol. 8.

In the NIV Study Bible completed in 1985, Walter Wessel had primary responsibility for the Gospels of Matthew and Mark and the heavy-weight Pauline letter to the Romans, as well as the Pastorals, I and II Timothy. As mentioned earlier, Wessel died as the 2002 edition was coming out.

Ronald F. Youngblood (Associate Editor, Old Testament).

Youngblood is probably the most widely known of the NIV Study Bible contributors and editors. He was born in Chicago in 1931, took a B.A. from Valparaiso University in 1952, a B.D. from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, in 1955 (when that path-breaking Evangelical school was only a decade old), and a Ph.D. from the Dropsie College for Hebrew and Cognate Learning in 1961. He would have been at Dropsie a full student generation earlier than Kenneth Barker (see above).

Youngblood taught Old Testament at Bethel Seminary in St. Paul from 1961 to 1978. He was invited to contribute to the NIV translation in 1970, eight years before the Old Testament was finished, and was appointed to the governing Committee on Bible Translation in 1976. His work with the CBT continued into new projects and translations in the twentieth-first century. During the years the Study Bible was written, Youngblood taught for three years at Wheaton Graduate School and one year at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Deerfield, IL), both prestige seminaries in Evangelicalism. He then returned to Bethel Seminary at its West Coast campus in San Diego where he taught from 1982 to 2001. He would have been at Bethel San Diego during the last three years of completing the NIV Study Bible.

Among substantial publications were The Genesis Debate: Persistent Questions about Creation and the Flood, 1986; the books of Samuel in the Expositor’s Bible Commentary (based on the NIV translation), 1992; and co-editor of Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary, 1995. In recent years, Ronald Youngblood has worked hard to provide common-reader and gender-neutral editions of the NIV translation. He was executive editor of the New International Reader’s Version (1995 and 1998), and he played a significant role in the TNIV of 2005.

In the original work on the Study Bible, Youngblood took primary responsibility for the introductions and notes of Genesis, Exodus, Jeremiah, and Lamentations, and served as second reviser of Leviticus, Ezra, Nehemiah, Job, and Daniel. In the 2008 edition, Youngblood is listed as secondary instead of primary contributor for Ezra, Nehemiah (primary contributor being Edwin Yamauchi) and Job (primary contributor Elmer B. Smick). John Stek also did some revisions in 2008 of Youngblood’s original work on Lamentations.

Contents of the Study Bible

These scholars put together an impressive volume of aids to Bible study. While the NIV translation is the heart of it, the “Quick Start Guide” (just like a new computer) on page vi highlights the following:

  • Book introductions to the 66 books.
  • Center-column Cross References, for “deeper study of themes or concepts.”
  • Study Notes, over 20,000 of them, for “background and context to the Scripture.” *
  • In-text Maps, Charts, Diagrams, and Illustrations to “explain important information and ideas from Scripture.”
  • The Topical Index with over 700 entries to allow readers to create their own study paths.
  • Color maps at the back, 14 of them.
  • The NIV Concordance, 35,000 references, “the largest ever bound with an English Bible.”

*The space given to Notes in the NIV Study Bible is generous. My estimate is that the average page is at least one-third notes, two-thirds translation.

Distinctive Evangelical Themes.

The hallmark of Evangelicals as distinct from “mainline” Protestants and some other Christians is their insistence that the Bible must be read literally, that all its statements must be taken as true in some sense. The most frequently cited Biblical foundation for this view is II Timothy 3:16 (the other great 3:16 text). “All Scripture [capitalized in NIV] is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness…” Even though the scriptures referred to here were the Old Testament, Evangelicals take it to apply to the sixty-six Biblical books of the Protestant Bible. The Study Bible note on the phrase “God-breathed” is, “Paul affirms God’s active involvement in the writing of Scripture, an involvement so powerful and pervasive that what is written is the infallible and authoritative word of God (see 2Pe 1:20-21 and notes).”

Also, the Bible has a unique status. It is not ordinary ancient literature, it is revelation of God and God’s plan for human salvation. This is true of the Bible as a canon, as a closed collection of inspired writings. (For one academically careful presentation of the Evangelical meanings of Biblical “inspiration,” “inerrancy,” and “authority,” see chapters 10-12 of Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed, BakerAcademic, 1998.) The corollary of this canonical view is that the Bible must be interpreted in its own terms; one thing in the Bible is explained by other things in the Bible. The study tools in the NIV Study Bible are especially aimed at Bible study in which topics are followed within the full range of the Bible itself. “This interrelationship of the Scriptures [e.g., explaining Jesus by quoting Isaiah 53, Acts 8:30]—so essential to understanding the complete Biblical message—is a major theme of the notes in the NIV Study Bible” (p. xiv).

Bible study in the Evangelical tradition is not primarily a matter of gaining information, of academic mastery of subject matters. Bible study is a key part of the Christians’ devotional life. One’s personal seeking the Lord involves tracing meanings of Biblical terms and concepts. This is not education; this is part of submitting oneself to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The tools that facilitate such devotion are the Center-column references, the Topical Index, and the Concordance. The Notes may also give cross-references that lead to a personal comprehension and feeling for weighty Biblical concepts and symbols.

Examples of Interpretation.

Given this Evangelical background, it must be said that the editors have proceeded very modestly. They explain the translation; they do not address all kinds of questions that curious readers might raise. There are introductions and notes, but large sweeping articles are conspicuous by their absence.

The Pentateuch.

Not only is there no general article on the Old Testament as such, there is no article on the Pentateuch. One will quickly learn (from the Introduction to Genesis) that Moses wrote the whole Pentateuch, though using older traditions to record primeval and patriarchal times. Also, it may be conceded that “a certain amount of later editorial updating” has gone on (as in Genesis 14:14; 36:31; 47:11), but the bulk of the Pentateuch was written by Moses by the end of 1406 B.C. in the territory east of the Jordan River (pages 2-3).

This approach gives scant attention to so-called “critical” issues in the Bible. Some succinct statements are made of what “many scholars” [1995; changed to “many interpreters” in 2008] believe, but reasons and specific refutations are not included. For example,

During the last three centuries many interpreters have claimed to find in the Pentateuch four underlying sources. The presumed documents, allegedly dating from the tenth to the fifth centuries B.C., are called J…E…D…P… Each of these documents is claimed to have its own characteristics and its own theology, which often contradicts that of the other documents. The Pentateuch is thus depicted as a patchwork of stories, poems and laws. However, this view is not supported by conclusive evidence, and intensive archeological and literary research has tended to undercut many of the arguments used to challenge Mosaic authorship. (Page 3.)

The purpose is to let people know that there are other opinions out there about the literature, but not to consider them seriously.

Creation.

Ronald Youngblood’s notes on Genesis 1 recognize that the background is the Mesopotamian world of creation and conflict myths. Over against that world, the Genesis author taught a radically new doctrine of creation.

The one and only true God did not have to overcome a mighty cosmic champion of chaos but simply by a series of his royal creation decrees called into being the ordered world, the visible kingdom… The author narrates those acts [of creation] from the perspective of one in God’s royal council chamber, where he issues his creative decrees. For a similar narrative perspective see Job 1:6-12; 2:1-6.” [A different narrative perspective is seen in Genesis 2-3.] (P. 7)

Creationism issues are left open: “Some say that the creation days were 24-hour days, others that they were indefinite periods” (on Gen 1:5). The creation narrative of Genesis 1 is qualitatively distinct from the narrative of Genesis 2-3. “Human history” only begins in Gen 2-3, where the curses begin to affect human life. The curse on the serpent in Genesis 3:15 opens the drama of all salvation history: “The antagonism between people and snakes is used to symbolize the outcome of the titanic struggle between God and the evil one [no caps here], a struggle played out in the hearts and history of humankind” (p. 14).

The topic of Creation can illustrate the Topical Index as a study tool. (The 1995 edition has only an Index of Subjects with long strings of Biblical references and page numbers. The Index of Topics in 2008 provides a much longer and more detailed analytical structure of topics—a major improvement.)

The topic has six subheadings:

A) Related theme

Beginnings, Gen 1:1

B) The work of creation

  • Accounts of creation [Gen 1:1-2:3; 2:4-24; Job 38:4-38; Ps 104:1-26]
  • Done out of nothing [Heb 11:3]
  • Done in six days [Gen 1:3-31; Ex 20:11; Ex 31: 17]

C) Creation as the work of God

  • God as the creator [Gen 1:1; Isa 44:24; Acts 4:24]
  • Accomplished through Christ [Jn 1:3,10; Col 1:16; Heb 1:2]
  • The Holy Spirit involved in creation [Job 33:4; Ps 104:30]

D) Creation reveals God

  • His glory [Ps 19:1]
  • His power [Isa 40:26, 28]
  • His divine nature [Rom 1:20]
  • His wisdom [Ps 104:24]
  • His love [Ps 33:5-6]

E) Creation after Adam and Eve sinned

  • Was cursed by God [Gen 3:14, 17-19]
  • Was subjected to frustration [Rom 8:20]
  • Praises God [Ps 145:10; 148:1-5; Isa 55:12]
  • Eagerly awaits redemption [Rom 8:19]
  • Will someday be liberated [Rom 8:21]
  • Will someday be recreated [Isa 65:17; 2 Pet 3:10-13; Rev 21:1]

F) Humans commanded to rule creation [Gen 1:26, 28; Ps 8:6-8; Ps 115:16]

God’s Warfare.

While it is true that there are no imposing general articles in the NIV Study Bible, there are seven small “Essays” that are not just introductions to books. Five of these are brief introductions to parts of the Bible (Wisdom literature, the Twelve Prophets, the Synoptic Gospels, the Pastoral letters, and the General letters [why not also the Pentateuch and Historical books?]). Another essay is on the Period between the Testaments – long enough to mention major topics, not long enough to really explain anything; it also does not extend to the actual time of Jesus but stops with Herod the Great.

One Essay is of a different character: “The Conquest and the Ethical Question of War,” placed between Deuteronomy and Joshua, that is, just before the story of the Conquest. This is one of the major issues dividing Progressive Protestants from Evangelical Protestants who adhere to a literal reading of the Bible. The Conquest story states unambiguously that God commanded the Israelites to massacre and exterminate the former inhabitants of Jericho and other Canaanite cities and peoples. “I have delivered into your hands the king of Ai, his people, his city and his land. You shall do to Ai and its king as you did to Jericho and its king…,” which was to destroy “with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys” (Joshua 8:1-2, Jericho quote in 6:21).

Understand, the problem is not simply that the conquests of Jericho and Ai never happened (neither mound was fortified after about 1560 BCE) or that Israelites were simply following the customs of holy warfare in their age; the problem is not what the Israelites did but that GOD COMMANDS THIS SLAUGHTER. If what the Bible says is always true, then this has to do with the character of God—real God, the One whom we know and pray to. That is the fundamental religious problem Progressive Christians have with a literal belief in the Biblical text.

What can be said in the Bible’s defense?

Many readers of Joshua…are deeply troubled by the role that warfare plays in this account of God’s dealings with his people. Not a few relieve their ethical scruples by ascribing the author’s perspective to a pre-Christian (and sub-Christian) stage of moral development that the Christian…must repudiate and transcend. (Page 387.)

The paragraphs that follow restate is several ways that this warfare to conquer Canaan was a necessary part of God’s plan of redemption. It was necessary first in order to fulfill the promise to Abraham and the other ancestors. But even more, it was necessary in order to carry to its conclusion the whole drama of eschatological salvation.

Joshua is the story of the kingdom of God breaking into the world of nations at a time when national and political entities were viewed as the creation of the gods and living proofs of their power…. At once an act of redemption and judgment, [the Conquest of Canaan] gave notice of the outcome of history and anticipated the final destiny of humankind and the creation.

[About the land:] God gave his people under Joshua no commission or license to conquer the world with the sword but a particular, limited mission. The conquered land itself would not become Israel’s national possession by right of conquest, but it belonged to the Lord. So the land had to be cleansed of all remnants of paganism….

The God of the second Joshua (Jesus) is the God of the first Joshua also. Although now for a time he reaches out to the whole world with the gospel (and commissions his people urgently to carry his offer of peace to all nations), the sword of his judgment waits in the wings—and his second Joshua will wield it (Rev 19:11-16; see notes there). (Page 388.)

One has to suppose that many of the Evangelical sisters and brothers are heavy-hearted about such conclusions.

The Psalms.

The Book of Psalms is a gem in the NIV Study Bible. John Stek was apparently the only contributor to the Psalms through all editions, and one may suppose that he played a major part in the original translation. (He published “When the Spirit was Poetic” in the Palmer memorial volume, see above.) Space for Notes in the Psalms is increased to about half of every page on average.

The Introduction to the Psalms is well-written, gives a sound historical treatment of the earlier collections of psalms, of the literary types of the psalms, and a cogent description of the “theology” of the psalms. The 2008 edition (not in the 1995 edition) contains a 4-page chart of “Significant Arrangement of the Psalter” showing how groups of psalms are related in chiastic (“envelope”) structures and other patterns. The chart is not always convincing that these patterns were deliberate, but suggestive and stimulating for further reading. Stek’s discussion of the “messianic” psalms 2, 22, 72, and 110 are faithful to Israelite historical and liturgical contexts as well as to how these psalms came to be read in later centuries.

To see an example of the Center-column references we can follow the word “shepherd” in Psalm 23:1, “The Lord is my shepherd.” The word shepherd has a superscript w on it. (These superscript letters stay the same across editions.) In the center column, w gives three references: S Gen 48:15; S Ps 28:9; and S Jn 10:11.

Each reference preceded by “S[ee]” contains a chain of references related to “shepherd.” Thus, the ancestor Jacob says in Genesis 48:15, “May the God before whom my fathers / Abraham and Isaac walked, / the God who has been my shepherd / all my life to this day…” and the word shepherd here gives a further set of references: Gen 49:24; II Sam 5:2; Ps 23:1; 80:1; Isa 40:11; Jer 23:4. Studying these passages will reveal what they have in common within the larger concept of “shepherd.”

The second reference at Psalm 23:1 is to Psalm 28:9, addressed to God: “Save your people and bless your inheritance; / be their shepherd and carry them forever.” The word shepherd here is keyed to another list: I Chr 11:2; then S[ee] Ps 23:1; 78:52, 71; 80:1; Isa 40:11; Jer 31:10; Ezek 34:12-16, 23, 31; Mic 7:14. Study of these passages will present another take on the shepherd theme.

And the third reference at Psalm 23:1 is to John 10:11. “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” The first occurrence of shepherd here gives the following chain: verse 14 [of this same chapter]; Ps 23:1; Isa 40:11; Ezek 34:11-16, 23; Mt 2:6; Lk 12:32; Heb 13:20; I Pet 2:25; 5:4; Rev 7:17. This chain has some overlap with the other Old Testament passages on “shepherd,” but it obviously leads strongly into the New Testament, and each passage here listed for the New Testament will lead to yet more passages on “shepherd.”

This is the way the chain references can enrich the Bible student’s fund of meanings and associations for a particular term or idea in Scripture.

The Gospels.

The little essay, “The Synoptic Gospels” (pages 1963-64) is very unsatisfactory. Listed here are nine supposed proposals to solve “the Synoptic Problem”—how Matthew, Mark, and Luke can be so alike and at the same time so different. (In 1995 only seven proposals were listed. “Complete independence” of the Gospels from each other is added in 2002/2008, with some hints that it is the best.) One-sentence summaries of complex hypotheses, as given here, only confuse and distract, not to mention grossly distort by false simplicity. This is especially true of hypotheses long-since abandoned (for example, the fragment theory). It would have been so much better if the writers had spent the same space explaining in their own terms how to understand the similarities and differences among the first three Gospels. They in fact give the reader no help at all.

In addition, it appears that a diagram has either dropped out or been mislabeled. Hypothesis 5 ends, “(see diagram below [Two-Source Theory]),” but there is no diagram labeled “Two-Source Theory.” There is one labeled “Dating the Synoptic Gospels,” but there is nothing in it to show what “two-source” would mean. (The diagrams are the same in 1995 and 2008.) It is clear no one’s heart was in this effort to explain how the first three Gospels got that-a-way.

An important Evangelical tool of Biblical study is presented at the end of the Gospel According to John, “A Harmony of the Gospels,” pages 2244-49. This consists of a very long, small-print outline of the life of Jesus, with thirteen major headings, thirty-three subheadings, and 270 items spread over six pages. A “harmony” is very important to Evangelicals because it shows how apparent contradictions among the Gospels can be reconciled, preserving the truthfulness of all that is written in Scripture. (It should be said that there is a three-page regular time-line layout of “The Life of Jesus” on pages 2028-30, in the middle of Matthew 25. It includes the events of all four Gospels, but focuses on the flow of time rather than a list of events.)

For example, in John’s Gospel Jesus clears the money-changers out of the temple at the beginning of his ministry, while in Matthew, Mark, and Luke he clears them out either the day of the triumphal entry, Palm Sunday (Matthew and Luke), or the day after the triumphal entry (Mark). (John does not have a second temple-clearing at the time of the triumphal entry.) The Harmony shows a “First clearing of the temple at the Passover” at the beginning of Jesus’ activity, then it has a “Second clearing of the temple” following the triumphal entry and the cursing of the fig tree (Mark’s sequence in 11:1-18). Two stories at very different times; therefore two different events.

The Note on Matthew 21:12-17 (p. 2017, contributed by Ralph Earle and/or Associate Editor Walter Wessel) gives a more complicated account.

In the Synoptics the clearing of the temple occurs during the last week of Jesus’ ministry; in John it takes place during the first few months (Jn 2:12-16). Two explanations are possible: (1) There were two clearings, one at the beginning and the other at the end of Jesus’ public ministry. (2) There was only one clearing, which took place during Passion Week but which John placed at the beginning of his account for theological reasons… However, different details are present in the two accounts… [which argues for two events]. From Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts we might assume that the [second] clearing of the temple took place on Sunday, following the so-called Triumphal Entry (21:1-11). But Mark (11:15-19) clearly indicates that it was on Monday. Matthew often compressed narratives.

So, Mark trumps Matthew and Luke because he is more exact about the day involved, and the details of John’s narrative require the conclusion that two clearings of the temple took place, a couple of years apart (John’s chronology).

By working with the Harmony one can adjust all the many events of Jesus’ life on a very complex, not to say highly improbable, time-line. (Historical-critical scholars usually refer to a tabular comparison of the Gospel texts as a “Synopsis” rather than a “Harmony.” The latter term announces in advance what the scholar is going to try to do. A “synopsis” is simply an array “seen-together” [the literal meaning of synoptic] for critical study. The critical scholar is interested in historical probability rather than in explaining away inconsistencies in God’s Word.)

This is a good place to mention the spectacular Maps and Charts provided throughout the NIV Study Bible. Its in-text maps were one of the most striking and attractive features of this book when I first encountered it in 1996. Fifty-one maps are listed in the Contents at the front (p. ix). They’re not all equally impressive, but most of them are real winners as in-text aids go.

One of the best is the two-page map of Passion Week on pages 2086-87, at the beginning of Mark’s Passion narrative. All of the maps are pseudo-three-dimensional drawings, showing terrain drop-offs, slopes, and walls with shading. They give a better feel for terrain than any usual flat maps. The map of Passion Week shows the city of Jerusalem in Pilate’s time with little houses crammed together inside the walls, the expanse of the temple in enough detail to see all the courts, and particularly the valley between the city and the Mount of Olives with the road pictured on which Jesus and the disciples would have traveled from Bethany to the east gates of the city. Spread around the available spaces on the pages is a series of numbered events each with a written description: #1 for the Arrival in Bethany on Friday, all the way to #10 for Resurrection on Sunday ten days later. This is a great spread over which to meditate and ponder the Jesus Remembered in the Gospels. No other study Bible can match the simplicity and delight of these maps.

Almost as good as the in-text maps are the charts. There are forty-five of these listed on page x, and they vary greatly from such things as a listing of “Ancient Texts Relating to the Old Testament” (a listing of 39 major gifts from the archeologists’ labors), to “Major Covenants of the Old Testament,” to “Rulers of the Divided Kingdom of Israel and Judah” (using dates from E.R. Thiele’s solutions to the numbers mysteries), to “the Life of Christ,” “Parables of Jesus,” “Miracles of Jesus,” to “Qualifications for Elders/Overseers and Deacons” in I Timothy. These are quite uniformly helpful in visualizing complex matters spread out over several pages in textual form. Dedicated work has been done, especially by the ancillary staff recruited by the editors or by Zondervan publishing house.

Evaluative Comments.

My evaluations have largely emerged already, but here are a few overview statements.

The NIV Study Bible is an extension of the NIV translation. More than anything else, it should be understood as the translators telling you what they had in the back of their minds when they translated it the way they did. What they had in mind was combining modern textual studies with the main Biblical principles on which “postfundamentalist Evangelicalism” (Roger Olson’s term) agree, namely, “the authority and infallibility of the Bible as God’s Word in written form” (“Preface to the NIV,” sixth paragraph).

The Contributors and Editors who produced the Study Bible are definitely Evangelicals, but they are a cautious group. They do not seek battles with unbelieving (from their viewpoint) critics; they make minimal claims on matters of history and literary composition. “In finding solutions to problems mentioned in the book introductions, [the editors] went only as far as evidence (Biblical and non-Biblical) could carry them” (page xiv).

As a corollary to the last point, they do not do theology for the theologians—or tie themselves to particular theological orientations within the broad Evangelical tent camp. They make a point of not deciding between amillennialism, premillenhnialism, or postmillennialism (Note on Revelation 20:2).

The NIV Study Bible is for Bible Study—as understood by Evangelicals. It is aimed at personal and group Bible study as a part of the religious life, a life nurtured by searching the scriptures under whatever impulse or need. The process of Bible study is religious action, not primarily educational or academic work. Never stated, that is nevertheless an underlying premise of this well-crafted work.

While the NIV Study Bible makes as good a case as it can for a literal reading of God in the Bible, it cannot avoid some grossly unacceptable outcomes (very few of which were raised in this review). The discussion of God’s Warfare is a clear case. The defense here is chauvinistic, militant, and primitive. Humankind under a more gracious God has outgrown this inhumane crassness. This Biblical embarrassment is not often mentioned by Christians, but the literalists teeter constantly on falling back on a tribal god served by exclusionary holy warriors.

Everyone who loves Bible study should rejoice in the Psalms in the NIV Study Bible, as well as in the delightful in-text maps and charts. The latter make a great collection for the study and teaching of the Bible—this Bible that the Evangelicals have made.

Nothing has been said so far about Zondervan, the publishing house greatly enriched by the success of the NIV and the NIV Study Bible. The NIV is by far the best-selling Bible in the English-speaking world, and apparently the NIV Study Bible—now 25 years old—is the best-selling study bible. However great their rewards, they have consistently turned out a quality product and served their public very well.

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