Archaeological Study Bible: An Illustrated Walk Through the Biblical History and Culture

By Walter C. Kaiser and Duane A. Garrett, with Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary
Grand Rapids : Zondervan (2005). xxvii + 2306 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Dennis Swanson
19.1 (Spring 2008) : 129-132

One of the more anticipated new works to appear recently was the Archaeological Study Bible by Zondervan. There was a significant amount of prepublication publicity (more than any new book in several years by this reviewer’s observation) and clearly a significant budget had been allocated for both the production and presentation of this new study Bible.

Much excitement accompanied the release of this work. The layout of the book is excellent. This study Bible is perhaps one of the finest productions to d ate from a publishing point of view. The publisher has printed high quality color pictures on thin “Bible” type paper. The attention to “eye appeal” in the detail is excellent. The only negative in the layout is the use of the “red letter” format in the Gospels (and elsewhere) for the words of Jesus. This now quaint formatting does not read well on the parchment effect and color of the pages (and it continues to neglect that many, like this reviewer, are color blind to one degree or another which makes the “red” lettering often more difficult to decipher). To keep the size of the B ible from expanding even more than it did, the publisher also opted for a very small font size in the biblical text, which also affects the readability.

The work has a very useful subject index to the call-out articles and (perhaps less useful) an abbreviated concordance, a glossary of archaeological and historical terms. The book comes with an interactive CD which is functional, but perhaps limited by the publisher’s use of their in-house software systems rather than an industry standard like Libronix for Windows or Accordance for Macintosh.

The illustrations are well conceived and useful. The photography of artifacts and small scenes is one of the highlights of the work. As noted in the front matter of the book, TMS graduate Todd Bolen, who teaches at The Master’s College IBEX extension campus in Israel and operates his own ministry ( is one of the contributors of photographs.

Notations to the text are the main purpose of the study Bible. In general, the “call outs” (specialized articles on particular themes or subjects) are useful and flow with the overall purposes of the work. The call outs are categorized under a few different headings, such as “Ancient Peoples, Lands, and Rulers”; “The Reliability of the Bible”; “Cultural and Historical Notes,” Many of the call outs very helpfully add notes to see other call outs on related subjects. Smaller call outs called “Ancient Voices” in which quotations from other Ancient Near Eastern texts are included in the OT (e.g., 2 Chron 26, 651). The NT has fewer of the “Ancient Voice” call outs (e.g., Aristotle on Logos, for John 1, 1720). Most of the time those texts are useful as either illustration or comparason; occasionally, though, they appear to be simply filler material.

The strong point of the “call outs” is also unfortunately one of significant weaknesses of the book. The placement and verse attachment of some of the call outs is, to put it bluntly, extremely odd. A few examples will suffice. The call out for the city of “Sepphoris” is, for reasons that are entirely mysterious, placed under Mark 6. The text for the call out then begins by stating, “The city of Sepphoris (modern Zippori) is mentioned nowhere in the Bible” (1638). How this call out will assist the reader in understanding Mark 6 more precisely is not stated. At Psalm 107 a call out on “Ancient Texts and Artifacts” has an excellent picture and description of the Gezer Calendar (discovered in 1908). However, while attached to Psalm 107, the article gives no indication of how this discovery might help in the understanding or interpretation of this Psalm.

At Luke 8 under the rubric of “The Reliability of the Bible,” the call out is entitled “The Synoptic Problem and ‘Q.’” This placement is entirely random and, even more oddly, is illustrated with a picture of an Armenian text of one of the Gospels (ca. 1435), with no explanation as to what the graphic has to do with the article. Though the call out is generally useful information and does not take a definitive stand, even on the existence of “Q,” it seems simply to have been “dropped in” a place where nothing else archaeologically or culturally was worthy of discussion.

This is a general issue with this book. The call out articles begin with a Scripture text where the article has been placed, which often has little or nothing to do with the article itself or is not the most significant text in regards to that subject. Or, the call out is appropriate for the biblical book it is found in but terribly misplaced, such as the call out “Who Wrote Revelation” (2060), which is attached to Revelation 10.

The greatest problem with the “study Bible” approach to this material is long stretches of Scripture where little or nothing, archaeologically-speaking, is said. On many pages rather non-descript notations about one or two verses occur that have nothing to do with archaeology or geography (whether physical or cultural), but are notes one might rather find in any useful study Bible. Sometimes the editors clear desire to stay “prophecy neutral” in their opinions hurts the overall work. For example, in Ezekiel 40–42 the description of the Temple receives no illustrative help, help which could have included at least a diagram or, better, some comparative information on the size and dimensions of Solomon’s Temple or the Second Temple and even Herod’s enlargement of that Temple. What the reader receives is a minimal set of rather self-evident notations.

Though this work is clearly a publishing achievement (as illustrated by its recent Gold Medallion Award from the Evangelical Publishing Association), one wonders how many people will want to buy a 2,300 page, four plus pound study Bible? It is a study Bible that centers itself on a discipline that witnesses a regular change in both the amount of material and the interpretation of that material. Since the book was released (a little less than three years ago), several significant archaeological discoveries and issues have rendered material in the book either obsolete or entirely erroneous (e.g., The Tomb of Herod at the Herodium was recently discovered and is being excavated; vis a vis the call out on Herod, 1627). The James Ossuary and the discovery of the correct location for the Pool of Siloam (contra, 1739) are other examples of a fluid discipline. One of the sayings in archaeological work is that “in archaeology absolute truth is good for about five years.” Without a plan for reprinting and updating the text, this work is already half way through that time frame and will become less valuable as time progresses.

In short, this work is a spectacular achievement in terms of the mechanics of publishing. The written notes are by and large helpful in terms of information, but not always helpful in assisting to interpret a passage. The volume suffers from an attempt to do too much in terms of content by taking a specialized subject that does not lend itself well to a “study Bible” format. Some might find it useful; but other specialized works on biblical archaeology will serve student and layman with greater satisfaction.