Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. 4 vols.

By Clinton E. Arnold, ed.
Grand Rapids : Zondervan (2002). 2,924 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. James Rosscup
14.1 (Spring 2003) : 105-106

 This work (ZIBBC) attempts verse by verse comments on each NT book, but skips some verses. The volumes, beautifully produced, have many multi-colored pictures on customs, maps, and special panels on such topics as the background or meaning of key issues. Entries on the Roman calendars, the date of Jesus’s birth, Pharisees and Sadducees, and the meaning of the millennium (which never prefers a meaning but is content merely to mention three views) illustrate the kinds of key issues dealt with.

Several noted scholars such as Michael Wilkins (Matthew), David Garland (Mark), Mark Strauss (Luke), Andreas Kostenberger (John), Douglas Moo (Romans, James, 2 Peter, Jude), Ralph Martin (Galatians), Peter Davids (1 Peter), Robert Yarbrough (1, 2, 3 John), and Arnold himself (Colossians) deal with individual books. A major contribution explains customs behind passages, as the custom of the Roman triumph in 2 Cor 2:14. Writers display a rich awareness of ancient literature with details that shed light from the ancient world on the NT. Endnotes for each biblical book reflect an awareness of current scholarly literature.

Here and there, users will find comments especially good for understanding NT statements. Yet the thin and cursory nature of much discussion raises a question about the need for such an elaborate production in light of a plethora of available good commentaries that say much more. The work will help at certain points, adding insights covered by other works, but probably will not be practical for individuals (ca. $160.00 for the 4 volumes) who have less expensive access to fuller detail regarding the same issues. Vagueness, lack of definition, or scholarly timidity to commit to one view will be disappointing for many. One wonders about the absence of a single meaning for the “kingdom” in Matt 13:11, of a specific identification of the “restrainer” (2 Thess 2:6, 8) where a list of eight views leaves the choice up in the air, of reasons to defend verses in Matthew 24–25 as referring to the church rapture, and of the choice of and reasons for a particular view of the “thousand years” in Revelation 20. ZIBBC views Hebrews 5:11–6:11 as referring to the genuinely saved though immature (ZIBBC 4:34), but later comments cause ambiguity, calling people as in 6:4-8 “apostates” whose “inevitable outcome . . . is devastation” (38-39), “an inevitable curse” (39). Comments on a similar problem text in 10:2 6ff. clearly view those sinning as the wicked in contrast to the genuinely saved (66-67). It is also puzzling to call those in 10:32-34 “Christians” who formerly made a good response to God, then later to say that vv. 38-39 contrast the unsaved who do not persevere with the saved who do (67). Do some who were once saved later lose salvation? No explanation of this inconsistency is given.

On the other hand, the work can also offer help though brief. James 2:14 refers to “that” faith which a person falsely professes. James 5:14 presents a definitive view of physical illness. Christ’s preaching in 1 Pet 3:19 is during His time in the tomb, directed to evil angels who fell in Gen 6:2-4. The “dead” in 1 Pet 4:6 are Christians who died when persecutors “judged” them. In 2 Peter 2 false teachers who were never really saved are in view. The “sin unto death” (1 John 5:16-17) is committed by pretenders and deceivers as in 2:19 and 4:1; such persist in sin and wind up in eternal judgment, whereas by contrast those who genuinely know God (5:20) show signs of the life He gives.

In other cases, a mixture of both the good and the confusing appears. Allegorically, John 15:2a, 6 picture a professing but unsaved person; “husband of one wife” (1 Tim 3:2) means an elder who has his one wife should not have one or more concubines also; “stars” in Rev 1:20 symbolize celestial angels. The 144,000 (Rev 7:4-8) related to Israelite tribes are Jewish believers, but it is difficult to explain how in 7:9 the 144,000 Jews are “transformed into an inclusive multitude encompassing every race, ethnic group, and nation on earth” (ZIBBC 4:296). Another puzzle is to explain how the temple (Rev 11:1) can be “primarily a figure for the church,” but secondarily the temple still standing in Jerusalem (4:311). Why both? The two witnesses in Revelation 11 are not two individuals but “representative of NT spiritual realities,” but no explanation clears up what that means (4:313).

On Colossians, Arnold’s brief comment takes “firstborn” (1:15) to focus on Christ’s sovereignty, not on His being a prior creation. What Paul’s filling up afflictions of Christ in 1:24 means is unclear. Imagery of a Roman triumph is clear in 2:15, but the triumph is not related to details elsewhere (2 Cor 2:14f.; Eph 4:8). Like other contributors, Arnold is vivid in his descriptions of background analogies that illustrate truths: the triumph (2:15), chains on a Roman prisoner (4:3), and intense athletic competition (4:12).

The volumes condense a lot of material, and either labor to state a view or to avoid stating a preference. Their main and hopefully extensive use will be as a library reference source, while individuals invest in more detailed helps that expound all the verses.