Review of Craig S. Keener and John H. Walton, eds., NIV, Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan/Spokane, WA: Olive Tree Bible Software, 2016).
This review has been affected by circumstances. Firstly Zondervan did not manage to get a hard copy of the work to me, but gave me access to the Olive Tree Android app on my phone. This means I am only commenting on how the phone app works and how the content appears in that format. Second, various life circumstances got in the way and the review is rather later than planned.
The package is intended as a digital representation of a Study Bible and so includes the text of the NIV. However a phone’s small screen does not allow the notes and text to conveniently appear together on the same screen. Bible references in the body text are linked, and touching the linked reference provides the NIV text in a popup. However, the references at the head of each article are not linked in any way to the Bible text they comment. (I was focusing on Amos in preparing this review, so for example the 1:6-8 that precedes and heads the comment on that passage is not a link.) This seems a near significant flaw. However, the Notes and the Bible text are synchronised, so clicking the “library” icon and selecting the NIV opens the Bible in the right place and the reverse, opening the library and selecting the Study Bible opens the notes for that passage (but this needs four touches instead of two to make the back and forth journey).
As just mentioned, Bible references in the text are most usefully links to a popup window. Cross references to material elsewhere in the Study Bible Notes are also links, though in this case the main window jumps. This is probably the best way to handle this, though on one occasion it was most disconcerting when the back button on my phone seemed to have ceased operation. Which meant that my curiosity having got the better of me (causing me to follow such a cross reference) I had to use the Bible browser to re-enter the reference of the passage I was studying in order to return to it.
Pictures and diagrams appear in the text, and when clicked expand to near full screen (and if reading in portrait mode one can turn the phone to see a landscape mode image).
Material that would (I assume) appears as sidebars in the codex edition appears as a block in the body text when the reader reaches the insertion point. It would have offered a more consistent interface to make such blocks links.
So, for example, a lengthy article on “Economic Changes and Social Classes in Eighth-Century BC Israel” appears after the notes on Amos 2:6 while the notes on 2:7 appear only after scrolling through a number of screens of “sidebar” material.
The content of the notes is useful, explaining issues that many readers will find helpful. The focus is indeed on cultural questions, though occasionally other aspects are mentioned and “cultural” is happily interpreted broadly. This raises questions about such “specialised” Study Bibles, by not mentioning text and translation issues, questions of genre, history, geography, intertextuality… the resource gives an impression of providing a full background to the passage being read, yet in fact may miss vital information. Perhaps in my home group the other members should be armed with an array of otherly-specialised Study Bibles.
Having said this, happily the writers have understood “cultural” in the broadest way, and so when one is reading the string of rhetorical questions in Amos 3:3-8 the probable impact of the series is discussed. While studying Acts in home group I found the notes useful on several occasions – this is probably a better test of the content than my explorations in Amos or Ruth (the books I had planned to base the review on) as I am less familiar with the first-century background.
The scholar in me cried out for references to indicate the source of the information and ideas that were presented. They were probably omitted for much the same collection of reasons as I only provided a bare minimum in the Amos commentary.1
I now believe that decision was wrong, and while perhaps in a paper codex Study Bible copious footnotes could have been a distraction in this electronic version they could have been a popup indicated merely by a small icon in or beside the text.
In summary: The work is potentially really useful to most readers of the Bible as a quick easy source of one important sort of background whose lack often impedes full and accurate understanding of biblical texts. The app is a worthwhile addition to any Bible-reader’s phone. It is a pity though that publishers still seem to expend more effort on the design of print codex editions of such works than on the information architecture and interface design of the electronic editions.