Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Chronological Study Bible [Review]

Title: The Chronological Study Bible [Official Marketing Site]
Copyright: 2008, Thomas Nelson, Nashville, Tennessee; ISBN 9780718020682
Length: 1,670 pages (includes 220 pages of study aids, index, concordance, etc.)
Genre: Religious Belief
Summary: The theory behind this particular presentation of the Bible is to offer readers the experience of following the Biblical narrative according to the chronological order of those events as described in the canonical texts (as opposed to offering the complete text of the books of the Bible in the traditional canonical order or the historical dating of the manuscripts themselves). The publisher, Thomas Nelson, believes that this approach satisfies a need felt by modern readers. To use their words, "To understand the Bible, the reader must understand something of the history to which the Bible refers. At the same time, though, that historical background is not readily apparent from the order of the books in the Bible itself." The introduction goes on to explain how the contributors to the Chronological Study Bible went about their re-arrangement of Biblical materials in the interests of helping the modern reader put this material into the proper context as well as the challenges such an attempt faced.
In practical terms, this means that this edition of the Bible is creatively laid out, with the Book of Esther appearing between the ninth chapter of I Chronicles (history) and the fourth chapter of Ezra (one of the minor prophets). Such a presentation permits the reader to understand that the attitudes expressed in the two books Ezra and Esther represented the attitudes of two different populations -- one body of Jews that were still in exile, under the control of foreign kings, and a different body of Jews who had in fact been returned. There is not a single two-page spread in this beautiful four-color volume that doesn't offer some kind of background tool to the reader. Some are descriptive tidbits pertaining to arts and culture, some are historical time capsules or timelines, some are images (including maps, photos, and recognized masterpieces of art.). On that basis alone, this book seems worth the price.
It's important to realize that this is not a formal work intended for Biblical scholars but one intended for the lay person who wants a better sense of the historical background of the histories, prophetic writings and literature which represent the Scriptures. This order of this presentation is not intended as a ultimately authoritative rendition, but rather more of a "best guess" useful to those who want to improve their understanding of Biblical times without undertaking college courses on Biblical archaeology, ancient social structures, or Greek translation.
Extract: This Bible is the NKJV (New King James Version). This means that the familiar lines of Verse 4 of the 23rd Psalm are rendered as follows: Yea, though I walk through the Valley of Death, I will fear no evil; for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. The main change in that verse is the replacement of Thou and Thy with the more familiar usage of You and Your.

Also Relevant: This is a useful reference tool. Despite publisher forethought in supplying a 28-page Reading Plan for the book, I doubt to some extent the likelihood of anyone sitting down and using this for the purposes of reading the Bible straight through. The size and weight of the tome would make it just too overwhelming. That said, I do think it would be an excellent reference to have on hand when trying to read a particular book of the Bible (say, Jeremiah or Lamentations) set in an historical period that even relatively educated lay readers might find to be obscure. Pulling it from the shelf and seeing that a set of advisors have put the five great poems that comprise Lamentations in the middle of Jeremiah and just before a bit of history from 2 Kings provides the reader with some semblance of orientation in the real world.
If I have any grumbles, they are minor ones. It's hard to navigate the very useful set of indexes and concordances in the back of the book; notched pages might have helped with that even if it meant that the price of the book went up. To offset this lack, I will note that the publisher offered visual clues by shading pages in color across the ten different divisions. It works but only to a limited extent. At the very least, a few ribbon bookmarks would have been useful for navigational support but I gather that those are only supplied with the more expensive leather-bound edition.
There is another quibble. The ten divisions that I referenced above correspond to nine bible epochs that Nelson has offered as a governing structure to their chronology (the tenth division contains the indexes, etc.). I wouldn't mind, but I can't quite fathom how who came up with those "bible epochs". They don't seem to correspond to any other historical divisions that I could find through an admittedly short-and-shallow search. Not being a biblical scholar, I can't speak to the validity of the divisions; only that the prefatory material doesn't explain how the contributors to this version of the Bible developed those divisions.

Bibles represent an interesting challenge in the publishing environment. Every October, Publishers Weekly offers up an article or two about the current status of this specific niche - see for example, this one or this one. There's also a fairly insightful overview in this 2006 article in The New Yorker Magazine. And it must be said that The Chronological Study Bible has had its fair share of critical attacks (although I gather such criticism is largely grounded in the more conservative attitudes; see this as one example)
Still, in all, I think this is a remarkable product. I will keep this on my reference shelf with the expectation that family members will find it useful.