Thursday, July 4, 2013

Choosing a Bible Atlas

In preparation for a trip I am leading to Israel, Palestine, and Jordan in January 2014, I decided to offer a "Survey of the Lands of the Bible" course to help prepare students. To give you a sense of what I envisioned the course to include, here is the rationale I wrote in order to get course approval.
A better understanding of the Bible is enhanced by a better understanding of the larger scope of the history, geography, and other practical realities of the lands in which it was written and its events occurred. This course will provide a survey of the lands of the Bible and consider topics such as biblical geography, topology, culture, climate, flora and fauna, travel routes, archaeology and the like. It will benefit both readers of the text and visitors to the biblical lands. It will increase understanding both of the biblical world and of the realities in those lands today.
I plan to make use of a variety of resources available in Bible software programs, web sites like BiblePlaces and BibleWalks, and a tool like Google Earth. Still, I'd like to have a common core textbook, and the scope I want to cover would generally be shared by any good Bible Atlas. I don't have particular expertise in biblical geography, but how hard could it be to select a good Bible Atlas for my class? As it turns out, it's been a very hard task.

First, I discovered that there are MANY Bible Atlases available. I thinned the list somewhat by simply looking for ones that have been published or revised within the last 10 years or so and are still in print. That still left me with over 15 ones to check over.

So, I composed some parameters for evaluating atlases. It's long enough that I will point you to a separate web page HERE. To summarize all that, I looked at the following:
  • Approach: Is it intended as a reference book (like a Bible dictionary) or as a full-blown introduction and overview of biblical geography and related history?
  • General Matters: Quality, contents, and cost! I'm looking for books that have value for the students beyond the class I'm teaching. (One significant consideration is whether it is a book they will take with them--as a book or as a digital version--as they travel.)
  • Scope: Is it strictly focused on the Bible (and thus ends in the 1st century CE) or on the lands of the Bible (and may extend its interest to the modern day)?
  • Perspective: This turns out to be a critical factor. The extremes are represented by a) those who start with the Bible texts and use it to interpret all other archaeological and historical data and b) those who start with the data and largely disregard the Bible as mythical or theologically motivated history. I, with many others, am somewhere in the middle. I do not need archaeology to prove anything in the Bible. I do not understand the Bible to be focused on relating history and science, but I think it is a historical resource that should be considered and included with all the other information available when it comes to creating an 'objective' history. I list a number of examples I used to determine perspective.
In the next post, I will provide a summary of contents and a brief assessment of all the atlases I considered. In the meantime, you can check the comparative reviews of Bible atlases by Bolen (Carta, Moody, Zondervan, Satellite, and many other resources), Notley (Biblical World, Biblica, Aerial Atlas, IVP Atlas), and Long (Moody, Zondervan, ESV, IVP).
Part 2 now posted HERE.

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