Bible Atlas Review: The IVP Atlas of Bible History

Paul Lawrence.   The IVP Atlas of Bible History.  Downer’s Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2006.  187 pages, $45.00.

The IVP Atlas of Bible History was the first of the “new” atlases to hit the market back in 2006.  I got a copy from IVP right away and adopted it as a textbook for both by Old and New Testament survey classes.  I used the book for two years and carried it with me to Israel as a resource for leading student tours in 2007 and 2009.  Of all of the atlases reviewed in this series, this is the one I have used the most and recommend to the laymen who wants some basic maps and background material.

The atlas has an excellent layout and is well illustrated.  Like most atlases, the IVP Atlas uses “paired  pages” linking a map with text describing the content.  The oversized format (11.9×9.2 inches) allows for larger maps, but also a variety of other content.  There are numerous photographs which illustrate content as well as side-bars which focus on a more specialized sub-topic.  The inside margin of the paired pages has a small box which collects all of the scripture references for the pages.  The editors use a light blue background for some pages which are more “geography” related (Geography of Canaan, Climate of Canaan, Agriculture of Canaan) or background essays (Language of the Bible, Rome).

One highlight of the IVP Atlas are the illustrations.  For example, the artist’s reconstruction of the Tabernacle (p. 40-1), Solomon’s Temple (p. 74-5), Babylon (p. 108-9), Herod’s Temple (p. 132-3) are well drawn and generally helpful.  I would have like to see these illustrations juxtaposed to photographs of the archaeology which inspired the art, but these pages will the reader a mental image of these key locations.

Ultimately, an atlas is judged by its maps.  There are about 90 maps in the book, although only a few are full page maps.  As is typical in a narrow topic atlas, a generic map of Canaan is used and re-marked with different data.  Frequently a smaller area is placed near a description of a story.  For example, an excellent map of the Moabite Campaign appears on page 82 to illustrate 2 Kings 3.  The largest map of Canaan (p.10-1) spans two pages and is almost too busy with data to be useful. Sites are identified as appearing in either Old or New Testament.  Unfortunately the interior margin mars the center of the map, the most interesting region (Jerusalem and environs)!

A bonus is sixteen pages of Second Temple Period.  This section intends to “bridge the gap” between the Old and New Testaments and does a fine job covering this broad period for laymen.  There are a number of maps (Alexander’s Empire, the Maccabean revolt, Jews in Egypt).  The pages on Herod’s building projects are particularly good.  Along with the pages on Rome and the Fall of Jerusalem (p. 166-9), the IVP Atlas provides a Jewish history beyond the Bible.

The book includes a few page sets which strike me as odd for an atlas.  For example, pages 14-5 are on Creation writing.  The text contrasts the biblical narrative with Ancient Near Eastern mythology and considers briefly the age of the earth.  The inclusion of this material makes the book useful for a Bible survey course, but is not exactly geographic material.  There are sections of writing(p. 68-9) and libraries in the ancient World (p. 70-1).  While these are well written and fascinating, once again I wonder about their inclusion given other omissions.  The essay “Amulets and Scrolls” (p, 134-5) is really about the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Remarkably, the IVP Atlas is weakest in the New Testament.  There are six page-sets for Jesus’ life, and with the exception of a small picture of the synagogue in Capernaum, there are no photographs of Galilee. There is only an artists reconstruction of Capernaum (p. 140-1), The first 12 chapters of Acts are covered in one page set and two small maps.  Paul’s travel in Acts 13-28 is covered in five page sets, with the expected “missionary journey” maps.  The city of Ephesus is an artist’s reconstruction with no actual photographs other than a first century Artemis.  The recipients of the letters of the New Testament are located on a map (p. 164-5) with fairly conservative traditional dates.  (Galatians is the first Pauline letter, dated to A.D. 48-9).  Two page sets are dedicated to the seven churches of Revelation.

Overall, The IVP Atlas of Bible History is an excellent resource for pastors and laymen, although the scholar might find the content less than adequate for their needs.