Holman Bible Atlas

By Thomas V. Brisco
Nashville : Broadman & Holman (1998). xiii + 298 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Keith Essex
13.1 (Spring 2002) : 110-112

 Thomas V. Brisco was professor of Biblical Backgrounds at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary during the ten years the Holman Bible Atlas was in development. He presently teaches archaeology at Baylor University. Brisco produced this Atlas “for the interested lay person and beginning level student of the Bible in colleges and seminaries” (xiii). His goal is “to provide the geographical and historical data necessary to comprehend the Bible’s unfolding story” (xiii). The Atlas claims to be “a complete guide to the expansive geography of biblical history” (iii). The results in this volume are more modest than this claim.

The Atlas is divided into three parts. The first three chapters describe the geographical and social setting of the Bible. Brisco surveys the geography of the Ancient Near East in his first chapter (3-11). The writer concentrates on Mesopatamia, Egypt, and the Levant, neglecting Anatolia, Greece, and Italy, which also play an important role in biblical history. The second chapter presents the geographical regions of Palestine (12-24). The author’s presentation is enhanced by four three-dimensional maps which enable the reader to visualize the geographical data. A short introduction to life in ancient Palestine is given in the third chapter (25-31). An overview of the climate, settlements, and agriculture of biblical Israel prefaces a short introduction to archaeological method. Brisco charts the archaeological periods of the Near East back to the Old Stone Age; he is certainly not an advocate of a young earth. The second part of the Atlas is devoted to the OT period through the Hasmonean dynasty and covers eleven chapters (33-188). The third part concentrates on the OT era, concluding in A.D. 300, and consists of seven chapters (190-276).

The volume is enhanced with four very valuable appendices. A two-page glossary defines sixty-nine key terms used throughout the Atlas (277-78). This is followed by an extensive bibliography that lists resources available in English for further study in archaeology, geography, history, and related fields (279-84). The bibliography is current to 1997. Two indexes conclude the volume. The first lists all the people and places referred to in the written text (285-90); the second contains all the geographical names appearing in the maps (290-98).

The Atlas has a number of commendable features. First, the visual presentation is excellent. The 132 maps are colorful, easy to read, and well explained. Fourteen of the maps are three-dimensional, including eight from the Conquest and Settlement period that greatly enhance both the written text and the traditional two-dimensional maps that are also presented. Second, the historical charts are worth the price of the book. Brisco has done an excellent job of incorporating essential historical data for a beginning student in chart form. Particularly valuable are the charts on Ancient Near Eastern History (37, 41, 53, 56) and the major empires from the Neo-Assyrian to Roman (133, 154, 166, 179, 192, 195, 197). Third, 140 color pictures visualize the maps and written text. The brilliant photography allows the reader to watch, as it were, a “slide show” of biblical geography. Fourth, the author succinctly presents a wealth of background material in non-technical terminology. For example, his one-page summary of Canaanite religion is an excellent introduction for the beginning reader (91).

However, the Atlas does have some shortcomings. First, in a work that is so well presented visually, it is hard to read some of the sidebars (33, 36, 60, 62, 73, 127, 157, 172). This results from the publisher’s decision to print this material against a brown background. This reviewer found that he has to hold the book at a proper angle to the light to be able to read the material. A lighter background would be helpful. Second, and more important because the Atlas is aimed at the beginning student, the text is written from a moderately evangelical perspective. Although Brisco presents the data for both an early and late date for the Exodus (63-64), his text presupposes the late date. For example, he places Abraham’s migration to Canaan 2000-1900 B.C. (41, 45), he dates Joseph in the Hyksos period (41, 51), and refers to the destruction of Bethel in the context of the Conquest in the thirteenth century B.C. (78). Also, the author does not include Joel, Obadiah, or Jonah in his discussion of the early Israelite prophets (140-41). Finally, his presentation of Revelation 13 presupposes a preterist interpretation of the book (265). These are a few of the subtle points that could sway a beginning reader.

The Holman Bible Atlasis closest in design and presentation to Carl G. Rasmussen’s The NIV Atlas of the Bible (Zondervan, 1989). Although Holman is graphically superior, the text of the NIV is more reliable. Overall, the best atlas for the beginning student continues to be Barry J. Beitzel’s The Moody Atlas of Bible Lands (Moody, 1985). Moody combines a more in-depth treatment of the physical geography of Israel with a reliable text on the historical geography of the biblical period. Nevertheless, when read with discernment, Holman Bible Atlas is a welcome addition to the field of Bible Atlases.