Back to issue

You don’t miss a good Bible atlas until you start to use it. Then, familiar and obscure place names from within Scripture begin to flow into clearer view, and you want to know more about the lie of the land within the pages of the Bible. After all, salvation history always happens somewhere, and God’s unfolding plan across the two Testaments is equally a matter of salvation geography. Two recent publications add considerable depth to the options open to the reader—and armchair traveller—of the biblical texts.

What does one want from an atlas? Clear maps are an obvious primary requirement, and in different ways both these atlases measure up well to the task. The Moody atlas opts for large, often page-dominating, brightly coloured maps; the ESV atlas has smaller, but more numerous maps, employing more subdued colours. There are strengths to each, and the differences will, to a large extent, rest in the eye of the beholder. There are occasional presentational frustrations. For instance, the western extent of the Assyrian Empire is needlessly cut off map 75 in the Moody atlas. Nevertheless, the maps in both volumes are very useable and clear.

Since both atlases offer digitalised versions of their maps, the ESV on a disk supplied with the atlas and the Moody via a coded website, there is excellent scope for using the maps in sermon outlines, PowerPoint presentations, and any other software-based use. Perhaps in this sense these volumes are part of a final generation of paper-based atlases, and their future lies in electronic form. Increasingly, too, cartography is finding new ways of presenting data via ‘infographics’. Neither atlas makes any major use of such approaches (the ESV’s representation of the agricultural year on p. 33 is one instance), and here, too, is another fruitful future direction for Bible atlases.

Accurate maps are another requirement for any atlas. Both of these atlases share the input of Barry Beitzel, in the case of the ESV as a geographical consultant for the historical maps, and both desire to inform the reader of Scripture. Perhaps one might expect identical mapping in each volume, but this is not always the case. Given the degree of interpretive reconstruction required in producing such an atlas—after all, we lack an ancient tradition of cartography and so geographical reconstruction is, by nature, interpretive—it is not surprising to find differences. For an example, compare the NW extent of the Decapolis as shown in each atlas.

What, then, constitutes ‘accurate’ mapping? For myself, in any atlas I am keen to understand the underlying presuppositions informing the selection, creation, and presentation of its maps. On this point, the Moody atlas is more useful, offering some thoughtful opening sections which orientate the reader prior to beginning its cartographic survey. This is very helpful for managing and maintaining a helpful sense of what geographers call ‘cartographic anxiety’, a realisation that what we see on any map is a representation of reality, rather than the reality itself.

For the modern western eye, perhaps more attuned to a ‘what-you-see-is-what-there-is’ view of maps, this understanding of the limits of maps is especially important. Ancients did not have our printed maps, and so did not share our ‘mental maps’, which are shaped so profoundly by modern cartography. (For a ‘mental map’ more proximate to that of first-century Mediterranean-based believers, see M. B. Thompson, ‘The Holy Internet: Communication between Churches in the First Christian Generation’, in The Gospels for all Christians: Rethinking Gospel Audiences [ed. R. Bauckham; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998], 61.) Ancient land boundaries were often approximate, and changing with localised power relations: a map of such ancient times can generate an over-precise sense of fixed edges between territories, and provides us with a ‘bird’s-eye’ view rarely afforded to an ancient viewer, apart from at certain elevated locations. Thus the use of 2D and 3D panoramas, used especially in the ESV atlas, need to be read and viewed carefully, and the ESV atlas would benefit from a more careful introduction for its readers. Both atlases make good use of accompanying photographs of the remains and locations of ancient sites: some of the photographs of archaeological artifacts in the ESV volume lack context and scale—e.g., the photograph of a ‘typical idol from ancient Palestine’ (p. 74) remains somewhat obscure.

The cartographic trump card in the ESV atlas is, to my mind, its final section of maps—large-scale regional maps which resemble most closely the relatively unadorned physical-relief maps not often found in Bible atlases but much more the staple of world atlases. Here, too, however, more reflection on the assumptions underpinning the map data would be helpful for the reader. See, for example, the criticisms of Bible atlases showing only one possible route for Paul’s journeys, made by M. Wilson, ‘The Route of Paul’s First Journey to Pisidian Antioch’, NTS 55 (2009): 471–483.

Both atlases are relatively ‘text heavy’. This is especially so within the ESV atlas, due in part to its smaller maps. What, then, might we want from a good text accompanying a map? Again, I would be keen for a text which expounds the maps. This might sound obvious, but I feel that the Moody atlas scores more highly on this count. Perhaps the text within the ESV atlas reflects its origins in the ESV Study Bible, but it reads more like a summary of the Bible account, and stands at more of a disconnect from the accompanying maps. Again, this is a subjective assessment, and some readers will welcome the ESV commentary for precisely what it is.

At some junctures, however, I found myself taking issue with the ESV’s accompanying text. For instance, is it true that the churches Paul established after Acts 16:9–10 ‘had a principally Gentile membership’ (p. 241)? And even if this is so, what caused this development, and how is it to be interpreted in relation to Paul’s missionary strategy and his understanding of people and place? Perhaps such questions are bigger than an atlas can answer, but judicious reference to literature elsewhere would allow further investigation. Also, p. 246 states, ‘a mob of 24,000 Ephesians’ faced Paul in Acts 19. Acts provides no number of the crowd. I can only assume the figure is extrapolated from the capacity of the theatre remaining in the present-day ruins of Ephesus, which the text assumes—without question—was the same size in Paul’s day. Perhaps I’ve picked up on details in the sections I know best, but it raises questions in my mind regarding details elsewhere in the text.

The Moody text is less detailed, and thus less assertive. Some wider literature and sources are footnoted. It does not deal with matters of the chronology of Pauline letters in relation to Acts, or the so-called ‘North or South Galatia’ question. The ESV text assumes one position on both these issues. Perhaps my ideal text would raise the questions and the possible alternatives, as and where they have a geographical bearing, and point to other literature, such as E. J. Schnabel’s Early Christian Mission (2 vols.; Downers Grove: IVP, 2004).

It is a strength of both volumes that they deal with the inter-testamental period and the events surrounding the Jewish revolts against the Romans. Both periods have an important bearing on our readings of the NT, and each is a realm where mapping can be very helpfully used to present the events in view. Likewise, for many users the commentary on these maps will be especially important for orientating lesser known events and dynamics. The inter-testamental period, for instance, helps us understand the circumstances behind the typically tripartite division of the land in Jesus’ time into Judea, Galilee, and Samaria. Without understanding what these areas mean and who was ruling over them (and where and when), it is hard to understand the Gospels and Acts.

Both volumes provide indices, without claiming to provide the geographical equivalent of a concordance. (For that, there are gazetteers, such as J. J. Bimson, ed. Illustrated Encyclopedia of Bible Places [Leicester: IVP, 1995], which perform a useful supplementary task for the reader of Bible geographies.) On the Windows platform, the ESV disc also provides an electronic search facility of place names within its historical maps, which are produced in greyscale and colour digital versions. Both the ESV disc and Moody website support Windows and Mac.

Finally, both volumes are beautifully produced. An aesthetic dimension is important and inescapable in an atlas. Similarly sized, they are both potential coffee-table books, especially the ESV which is physically the heavyweight option and especially luxuriously produced.

On balance, both have their strengths and weaknesses, and I advise readers to consult both. Perhaps buying both is out of the question for most readers. If it were possible, I would want the Moody text and large maps, combined with the ESV’s number of maps and its regional map section. If you want to view a sample of the Moody atlas, then visit For a comparison of this New Moody Atlas with its predecessor, see Andy Naselli’s book note in Themelios 34 (2009): 367. Through both publications, our search for the unfolding territories of salvation geography is well served.

Matthew Sleeman
Oak Hill Theological College
London, England, UK

comments powered by Disqus