Monday, November 09, 2009

Review of ZIBBCOT

I recently received a set of Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary on the Old Testament from Zondervan via Emily Varner (thanks Emily!). First off, let me say that I can't begin to do this set justice in a short (or long!) post. When they say illustrated, they mean illustrated. I don't think I have found a two page spread that doesn't have at least one photo, map, or drawing on it—and they are relevant to the text's discussion, not just filler. (OK, I just did: the endnotes don't have any pictures.) On some pages, the photos take up over half the spread; it's a feast for the eyes. And, they even have a picture index, topical at that! Oh my, the picture index also includes an index of texts, sorted by region of origin. Did you know that they even include the Tel Zayit abecedary? This is definitely up-to-date.

The first thing I do when I get something like this is check the abbreviations section. That alone tells you a whole lot about what you will find in the text. The abbreviation section is 9 pages long, and covers just about every major journal and reference work in the field, not just English ones, either. Next, I checked the bibliography, or rather, bibliographies. There is a general bibliography, and each biblical book has an annotated bibliography at the end, before the endnotes for that section.

Having been thoroughly encouraged by what I found so far, I began looking over the individual sections. There is a main text, but also sidebars and charts. The sidebars highlight items in the main text that may need a bit more explanation or are translations of ANE texts that relate; they have their own set of endnotes. The main text follows a traditional commentary approach in that there are section headings with verse numbers. The difference is that, unlike a traditional commentary, the notes relate to cultural background—this is a Bible backgrounds commentary, after all :)

I have looked through Genesis quite closely, and some sections of Jeremiah. I have to say that this commentary is high quality. The contributors are first-rate scholars, and the sections they were assigned play to their strengths. For example, Leviticus is done by Roy Gane; if you can't get Milgrom (and he's Jewish, so you can't!), then the next best person is Gane. In fact, I think Gane is right in his correction of Milgrom's atonement theology.

While the commentary is unabashedly conservative Evangelical, it presents multiple sides to issues in a fair and balanced manner. The authors make their preferences known, but do so in a way that doesn't demean the other opinions—a definite plus, in my book.

So, what don't I like about the set? Basically, one thing. Endnotes. With modern typesetting/prepress software, there is no reason that endnotes should exist. I understand that in a work like this, which is aimed at multiple markets, the scholar and the interested lay person, that footnotes could be distracting. But, don't you think that people could ignore them if they don't want to read them? I hate having to keep a marker at the end of a book to flip back and forth all the time. Usually, what I do in a case like this is pre-read the endnotes; it isn't great, but at least I know when I hit a note what it is about. (Yes, I pre-read endnotes; I read dictionaries of the fun of it. I even read grammars of dead languages as a recreational activity! There's no hope for me...)

This is definitely a set worth owning if you are interested in the ancient Near East and how it intersects the biblical world. John Walton and all the contributors should be proud of the results. Now, excuse me, I'm going to go read some more in it...

Update, November 10: After an exchange of e-mails with John Walton, I have to agree with Zondervan's decision to go with endnotes. John's argument was that if they had used footnotes, on some pages over half would be notes. This would result in people being intimidated by it; they would think it was written strictly for a scholarly audience when it isn't. Consequently, they would put the book back on the shelf and walk away.

It's too bad this is true, but it is. As a marketer, I understand. As a (wanna be) scholar, it bothers me. But, the book is eminently readable and deserves to be read and used. I would have made the same decision, although reluctantly.

1 comment:

Tim Bulkeley said...

How about two editions "Scholars" with footnotes and "Regular" with very small print endnotes ;)