Review of The Sacred Bridge: Carta’s Atlas of the Biblical World (Second Edition) edited by Rainey and Notley

February 15, 2018

Rainey, Anson F., and R. Steven Notley. The Sacred Bridge: Carta’s Atlas of the Biblical World (Second Emended and Enhanced Edition). Jerusalem: Carta, 2014, pp. 448, $120, hardback.


Anson F. Rainey was Emeritus Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Cultures and Semitic Linguistics at Tel Aviv University and Adjunct Professor of Historical Geography at Bar Llan University and American Institute for Holy Land Studies. Rainey was a student of Yohanan Aharoni and Michael Avi-Yonah, authors of The Macmillan Bible Atlas, and he co-authored the updated atlas, reissued as The Carta Bible Atlas. Rainey also worked extensively with the Amarna tablets, offering new readings and corrections to previous scholarship. R. Steven Notley is Professor of Biblical Studies, Distinguished Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins, and the Director of Graduate Programs in Ancient Judaism and Christian Origins at Nyack College, New York City. Notley has published extensively on the Jewish background to the New Testament and with Carta on various atlas projects, including In the Master’s Steps: The Gospels in the Land.

The Sacred Bridge is a self-described “historical geography of the Levant” emphasizing original research on the ancient written sources (p. 7). Though much of the volume pertains to biblical scholarship, the book utilizes more than the biblical texts, presenting relevant written materials from the earliest artifacts available (c. Fourth millennium BCE) through the Bar Kochba Revolt (135 CE). The Sacred Bridge aims to be a source of scholarly research and thus includes these written sources in the original language, the author’s translation into English, and references for additional information. Here, the book offers an innovative feature, using color coding to distinguish between these resources: light blue (original language), dark blue (English translation), and red (references). Each page contains three columns of dense text and numerous maps, illustrations, and photographs. Additionally, the 15-page index directs the reader not only to information in the text, but also to maps which show the location of specific place names.

Rainey wrote Chapters 1—16, first providing introductory information in Chapters 1—3, including a discussion of historical geography, physical geography, philology, and archaeology. These chapters provide background and methodology for the in-depth analysis of the periods discussed in the remainder of the book. Rainey covers each period of the Bronze Age in Chapters 4—8, and then he moves to a century-by-century analysis in Chapters 9—16, ending with the Persian domination of the Levant. Notley wrote Chapters 17—25, beginning with the early Hellenistic period and moves through each era until the end of the Bar Kochba Revolt in 135 CE.

Each chapter is written in a narrative style, with references and written sources interspersed according to the color scheme described above. The authors provide sufficient source material to accurately describe the events and geography of the period covered and also include frequent citations of other works which provide more detailed study of the subject. These chapters frequently contain excurses addressing important artifacts, events, or historical details, e.g. the excurses in Chapter 14 (on the rise of Assyrian influence and domination in the Levant) study the Via Maris (pp. 250-51), royal wine jars (pp. 251-53), and the Siloam Tunnel Inscription (p. 253).

The Sacred Bridge is a significant scholarly resource, both as a source of detailed information, especially through its interaction with primary resources, and as a reference for more detailed studies of specific topics. For example, Rainey points the reader to nearly fifty important scholarly resources in his discussion of the Early Bronze Age (pp. 43-46). Later, he includes a table of over one hundred topographical place names given by Thutmose III, including their original hieroglyph, transcription, and alternate forms (pp. 72-74). In his description of the story of Deborah and Barak, Rainey includes a map of the region and the battle sites derived from the biblical account in Judges 4-5 and some parts of Joshua (pp. 137-38). This description includes an excursus on Harosheth-ha-goiim in which he discusses archaeology, philology, and topology to provide a reasoned alternative to the traditional sites (pp. 150-51). Notley works with the same precision, which undoubtedly will provide NT scholars with a substantive resource from which to begin detailed study of NT texts.

The authors clearly work with the goal of trying to describe objectively the history of the Levant from extant texts. One gets the impression that Rainey finds the biblical witness generally reliable but wants to let the evidence speak for itself. An example of this is in his description of the emergence of new cultural elements in the Cisjordan and Transjordan regions in the late thirteenth and early twelfth centuries BCE, particularly the appearance of small campsite-like settlements (pp. 111-16). He argues based on archaeological and linguistic evidence for a Transjordanian pastoralist origin for these settlements, indicating that there is no reason to doubt the basic assumptions of the biblical traditions (p. 112). Only then does Rainey provide a detailed discussion of the biblical texts (pp. 112-15).

Practically speaking, The Sacred Bridge is a large book (over 13 inches by 9 inches) and is nearly 450 pages long. There is no wasted space; even the end covers contain a helpful chronological overview of the ancient Near East! The text is small and arranged densely over three columns on each page, which might make it difficult for some to read. It is thus a desk resource and more than one needs for simple reference of biblical geography. However, the information is arranged clearly, and with the Table of Contents and Index, readers should have no problem finding pertinent information. Additionally, though the text is small and densely arranged, the color-coding system works remarkably well, and future reference works could benefit from this feature. Readers will quickly adapt to the system, glancing only at the red text (references) when desiring to know more about the sources. As such, The Sacred Bridge manages to provide an efficient but substantial resource for historical geography.

The Sacred Bridge is expensive and contains a level of detail and description that likely precludes it from being a common required text for introductory biblical or historical courses. The Holman Bible Atlas, Zondervan Atlas of the Bible, or the Crossway ESV Bible Atlas fill that niche at a price point and level of detail appropriate to those kinds of courses. However, those atlases lack the significant interaction with primary sources and detailed discussion of pertinent matters which make The Sacred Bridge a legitimate scholarly resource for historical geography. As such, any serious Bible student or biblical scholar will want to turn to this atlas first. These two types of atlases are aimed at different audiences, but a wise instructor might consider how to incorporate The Sacred Bridge across multiple courses to make this resource accessible for any Bible student.

Ryan C. Hanley

Boyce College, Louisville, KY


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