Book Review: The Biblical World: An Illustrated Atlas

The Biblical World:  An Illustrated Atlas, by Jean-Pierre Isbouts

I’m going to have a lot of negative things to say about this book, so I’d like to begin by saying that I did not think that this book was a terrible book.  It’s well illustrated, and in general it takes biblical history seriously, and isn’t a total waste of time to read.  Now that I’ve said the good things about this book, I would like to spend the rest of the time talking about this book’s rather serious problems.  At least a few of the problems can be explained by the fact that this volume was published by National Geographic [1], which has a reputation for making pretty bad visualization, which is definitely the case here.  Ironically, despite being an illustrated atlas by the National Geographic Society, the best parts of the book have little to do with geography, either being thoughtful pictures or occasionally worthwhile text.  That is not to say that either of these were stellar or amazing, it’s just that they were better than the geographical part of this book, which was a bit subpar, unfortunately.  When you are the National Geographic and your maps are this subpar, you need to re-think your reason for being, I suppose.

At around 350 pages, this book is definitely bloated with text, and it is divided into ten chapters and an epilogue.  The book begins with a look at the biblical world before Abraham (1).  After that there is a discussion of the journey of Abraham, where the author spends too much time trying to give credit to the views of minimalists and Muslims (2).  Then there is a look at Joseph in Egypt (3) as well as the Exodus (4) and the settlement/conquest of the promised land (5).  The author takes a look at the Kingdom of David and Solomon (6), taking an overly doubting view of the Davidic kingdom.  There is then a discussion of the divided kingdom period (7), the exile and restoration of Judah after Babylonian captivity (8).  There is then a move to the look at the world of Jesus (9) as well as early Christianity and rabbinic Judaism (10).  The book then ends with a discussion about three faiths in the holy land, which gives the author a chance to talk about Islam again, to the edification of no one who wants to know about biblical geography, but allows for some politically correct pandering.

Let us take a bit of time to examine how this book fails.  For one, the book fails on its face as an atlas because the book has about as many maps as the usual supplement at the end of the most contemporary Bibles.  Where the book succeeds is in its photography and less so in its text, and in this case the advantage is that there are plenty of opportunities to travel to biblical scenes to photograph them.  When it comes to looking at maps as ways to provide insight into the course of history, or when it comes to presenting a worthwhile perspective of biblical history, this book tends to fall short.  One wonders the purpose for this book existing, and the more questions one asks, the less one likes.  The author’s minimizing of David’s monarchy fails in the grounds of the Tel Dan inscription and more recent digs that have looked at the Millo of Jerusalem.  The author’s pandering to bogus Muslim interpretations as if they wished to be considered alongside biblical interpretations comes off as failed political correctness.  Finally, the author picks some really bad experts like Cline and Ehrman to promote as sources of biblical history, which demonstrates why the author fails to provide a good look at the biblical world.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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