The Africa Study Bible: An Interview with Dr. Matthew Elliott
On August 25, 2016, I interviewed Dr. Matthew Elliott of Oasis International (via skype). The focus of the interview was the Africa Study Bible (ASB) that was released in the United States and Africa in February 2016. In this article, I will give a brief history of the Africa Study Bible and its vision before launching into the interview questions. At the end I will give an evaluation of the project followed by some features of the Africa Study Bible.
As you read, you will notice that sometimes I add brief comments to Dr. Elliott’s answers to give you a sense of how our conversation progressed. Our hope is that after reading this, you will have a greater appreciation for the work of Oasis International Ltd, see the need they are meeting in the African context, and pray that God will use this work to strengthen his church in Africa and beyond.
2. What is Africa Study Bible: A Brief History
Dr. Elliott explains the history of the Africa Study Bible as follows:
“In 2010 I spent 2 months in Africa and asked questions, some at Lausanne conference [in Cape Town, South Africa]. Is it [creating the Africa Study Bible] worth the time? The money? etc. If so, what would it look like? These conversations all led to requests [from African leaders representing different countries] to be involved. People thought it was important. We, Oasis, took this as a confirmation that God might want us to pursue it. In 2012 there was a conference in Ghana. The people that came [African leaders from different countries] helped address 30 pages of questions on how to create a study Bible. They formed its vision, audience it is aimed for, features, etc. Then Oasis became stewards of the vision decided by the committee. Those who gathered spoke with one voice and had one vision, even though they had never met before for the most part. They had a pastor’s heart and desire for a Bible to deepen faith and build disciples, not just present facts. If you focus on understand meaning of a text it will be very similar to any study bible in the world. If you focus on discipleship it is pastoral to Africa.”
The history of the Africa Study Bible [hereafter ASB] is further explained in the study Bible itself (see http://oasisint.net/genesis-preview/).
The concept of the ASB was birthed from discussions among African leaders, Oasis International, and Tyndale House Publishers. The ASB resulted from a survey and statistical analysis of Christians in Jos, Nigeria in order to “evaluate the potential impact of having the Bible in clear, modern language using African vocabulary and expressions” (p91). The survey revealed that meanings of words from the United States or the United Kingdom were not always clear for English-speaking Africans.
Following the survey were conversations between African leaders from different countries, Tyndale and the Oasis International Board. These conversations determined that if the ASB was to be birthed, it will focus primarily on providing the tools necessary for discipleship and life transformation so that Africans can grow in their faith. Upon further analysis of the need for the ASB, African leaders were asked to give more specific input. This came from seminary presidents, leaders of denominations, and scholars. They agreed that there is a need for a study Bible that reflects the knowledge, culture, and wisdom of Africans with a view to help African Christians grow as well as provide insight to global Christianity.
Oasis International took the lead in this project and brought together other partners who brought their own unique skills to the project [Tyndale House Publishers and Tyndale House Foundation, provided expertise and seed funding. Livingstone, who created Life Application Study Bible, became a consultant and editorial manager.]. Following this was the formation of the committee for the formation of the ASB. The committee consisted of leaders from every region of Africa and representing English, French, Portuguese, and Arabic speaking regions and eleven African countries. The committee formed the final mandate for the project, making all major editorial decisions [thus very African].
A unique aspect of the ASB committee is that it was formed in a spirit of unity [something hard to come by at times]. They were rooted in their belief in the power of God’s Word and the role of a pastor for nurturing the African church. As such, “The Africa Study Bible will forever reflect the work of the Spirit in the Accra meeting.”
3. What is the Vision of the ASB
The Africa Study Bible committee established the vision as follows:
The Africa Study Bible is a Bible with study tools written by African pastors and scholars. Our goal is to increase the understanding of the Bible using African insights and experiences to meet the needs of the church in Africa and around the world.
This vision is further explained in the following statements:
- The Africa Study Bible is to feed God’s people as we all need constant feeding from the source of life – God and his holy Word.
- The Africa Study Bible is to concentrate on knowledge and application, teaching people how to apply truth to their specific situation. It should empower Jesus’ mandate to make disciples.
- The Africa Study Bible will help people make a link between biblical truth and life transformation.
4. Interview Questions and Answers
I took the opportunity to ask Dr. Elliott the following questions. His answers give a glimpse into the work of the ASB and helps the reader understand the need better. I have supplemented some of his answers with information from their website. Where that is the case, I indicate so.
Dr. Elliott, you are clearly an American in your education and culture. Yet, you seem to be playing a significant role in the production of the African Study Bible. Can you describe your role in this project thus far?
I [Dr. Elliott] have been the only one working on the ASB for the last seven years. We [Oasis International Ltd.] came up with the idea and took it to an editorial board of the African Bible Commentary. We asked if we could take the African Bible Commentary and turn it into a study bible. They didn’t want to pursue this so we considered doing it independently [coming up with our own study bible]. My role has been bringing diverse elements [of this project] together, from editorial, to funding, to vision casting, to bringing in experts on creating a study bible. Producing a study bible is much more complicated than one realizes. It is very easy to get many notes on the Gospels and none on Ezekiel [said in jest].
As an African, I look at you and say, “you are young and may lack the experience of Africa needed for this project. Besides, you have no gray hair to command authority.” In that light, how have the Africans received you in your role as the main person for the African Study Bible?
I have been traveling for 20 years in Africa, so it hasn’t been a problem. In some sense as an American citizen there was no baggage like this tribe or ethnicity versus that tribe/ethnicity. Sometimes Kenyans dominate academic projects, due to their advanced educational systems or there are so many Nigerians and their churches are so large that some people object to their dominance. Even differing accents can lead to problems, etc. An African leader in my role may have made it more difficult because of these dynamics. It somehow worked and we are thankful to God.
How is the Africa Study Bible different from other study bibles and the Africa Bible Commentary out there and what is the need you are seeking to meet?
The main difference is the audience we want to reach. We are targeting the pastor that maybe has not gone through a full theological education and the person in the pew. Different audience. In a commentary you comment on the text. In this study bible, we are doing less interpretation and more application of the text. Our authors started with basic meaning and ask, “how do we apply this to life?” We have learned from the African Bible Commentary, and stood on its shoulders. We are glad it existed but we are going to reach a different audience.
Follow-up question: I am glad you said that the Africa Study Bible is “doing less interpretation and more application of the text.” When I read through Genesis sample, I could tell you want to make the text come alive for the people of Africa. But as a scholar, I wonder why call it “Study Bible” and not “contextual” or “application” Bible?
In 2011 the committee felt the name most appropriate for the project was Africa Study Bible. It is a Study Bible in the sense that we are “studying;” we are studying God’s Word to make application from it. It’s not “study” in the sense of exegesis merely, but studying how to live better in light of the [meaning of the] text.
The Africa Study Bible has 300 contributors from different countries. How did you get to know and select these contributors?
If we were to do it all over again we might do it differently but a lot of our choosing of contributors was done through networking. It was not an easy process. We had to contact four to get one. One said no. One unreachable. One said yes but never wrote. One said yes and turned something in. To get 300 writers we had to be in contact with approximately 1200 people. We did that through networking [Wycliffe, Scripture Union, SIM, Crew, Navigators, etc.]. We used every network at our disposal. [This illustrates the challenge for Africa, availability and willingness to engage in scholarship.]
How culturally diverse are your contributors? Are they well balanced to represent Africa?
We never say “African culture.” We prefer “African cultures.” It is more diverse in Africa than the difference between North and South in the USA, but like the USA there is some common cultural core. We need to understand that. We need to say this is the experience of this particular African culture, and suggest potential for parallels in one’s own culture rather than saying it is all the same [mono-African culture].
[Comment: The diverse make-up of the writers of the Africa Study Bible was set by language groups, geographic location, denomination, age, and gender. As to what it means to be an African author, the ASB states;
“African” writers are defined as those who are African in knowledge, heart, and voice. “Pastors and scholars” will include ministry and lay-leaders who function as pastors and church leaders.”]
You have chosen different African symbols to use in the Africa Study Bible. For example, the Coptic cross [representing Northern Africa], the “Mate Masie” [an Adinkra symbol representing West Africa], the Maasai shield and spear [representing East Africa]. These are from particular tribes or people groups in each region. Each African culture is captured in symbols. If you give me another person’s cultural symbols, it makes me submit my culture to theirs. So, how have other Africans received these African symbols that are not their own?
The symbols grew out of the formation of the type-setting and the visuals for the Africa Study Bible. We chose one with east, north, south, and west of Africa and those were coordinated with the different parts of the study Bible. It is a visual aid and thinking aid more than anything else. We hope that other cultures will be able to find corresponding symbols in their own context.
There are many English versions out there, why did you choose to use the New Living Translation [NLT]? One might argue that a study Bible should work more with a text closer to the original language. How would you respond to this objection?
There have been lots of revisions of the New Living Translation text. If you read it now compared to the first edition it is a lot more standardized [a Pauline word will be translated consistently throughout]. There are a couple elements at play in our decision to use the NLT. Tyndale has been a partner and supporter of the Africa Study Bible project. So we honor them in coming out with NLT version first. They are open to introduce other translations, however, depending on how this one is received.
Also, with application, there is a major emphasis on KJV in some denominations. We wanted it [ASB] to serve a purpose of notes, but also a new way to read the Bible. Make it relate to people in everyday language. When they read it, hopefully it’s not just new thoughts, but new translation that helps people relate and understand the Bible in a more powerful way. Maybe someday, if it does well, you will see a new translation/edition.
[Still on the question of “Why NLT?” The Africa Study Bible committee decided that the notes would, as much as possible, use modern, easily understood translations. They considered the NLT to fit this criterion for the English edition. (from the preview copy, p. 92)].
How would you compare the Africa Study Bible with Crossway’s Global Study Bible which also aims at reaching Africa?
Crossway’s Global Study Bible is a revision of their ESV study bible. Some contributors that wrote a few articles are global. It is a very different effort than what ours is. They have 12 articles and 20 different countries represented. We have 2600 features from international perspective from 350 authors/editors. They are a revision with international added. Ours is international to the core.
On your website it says “God’s Word through African Eyes,” and “By us for the world.” What can non-Africans learn from the Africa Study Bible? In other words, what is the contribution of this project to the global church?
From the beginning the leaders of the Africa Study Bible wanted to speak to the world. They were building from the feeling that African churches have something powerful to say to the global church. You know there are a number of issues, where African culture(s) are closer to biblical culture than western ones. So there are ways they understand texts in different and powerful and helpful ways. For example, the story of Esther – the politics of marriage. We want to think it is more about sexual desire, but it is more about political alliances and things like that, or whatever it may be. You can go through lots of illustrations to see how Africans understand the culture of the Bible more intrinsically than others do. Another thing – African diaspora – we think of people that have moved from Africa in the last 20 years. There are Africans in various parts of the world [Brazil, Haiti, Caribbean, etc.] so hopefully there will be crossover there. Whole populations like in Haiti feel African, so we hope the notes in the Africa Study Bible will speak authentically to those communities as well since they have a strong connection with Africa.
Africa is a complex continent in terms of languages spoken. The mother tongue is the focus of groups like Wycliffe because they want Africans to better understand the Word of God. Since there are so many languages spoken throughout Africa and the need to hear the Word in the Mother tongue, how useful will an English study Bible be? Is there a plan to translate the content into other African languages?
A third of the material in the ASB was written in French. In 2011 the committee set goals for English, French, Portuguese, and Arabic. Our goal is to get to the major languages. The effort to translate it into individual dialects will have to be led by agencies other than Oasis International. We will be excited about people approaching us for translation. But we are a publishing company that is focused on major reading languages. I hope others will see this and translate into other dialects.
Follow-up question: You mean that the Africa Study Bible will be published in four different languages?
Not sure about Arabic, but definitely Portuguese, English, and French. The intention from day 1 was for these four languages, but even in North Africa French is spoken in Algeria. 30,000,000 Egyptians speak English. So many in North Africa speak French and English if it never goes into Arabic. Eventually the ASB will be published in at least English, French, and Portuguese.
Most villagers in remote areas think the Bible is the book for pastor only. How do you move past that mental block, to get regular people reading the Africa Study Bible?
You asked about NLT earlier. Not sure if you know the history of the Living Bible. Before the original Living Bible, the reading Bible of America was KJV. The Living Bible, the original, was a paraphrase of one person rather than full translation like NLT, but it came out and was a publishing phenomenon unparalleled in the world. I don’t think it was a coincidence that printing press was invented at time of Luther’s translation and the reformation. Bible literacy has been a great method of the Spirit of God in history. We are trying to get the word out about the ASB and how they can use it but my real answer is we hope that like the Living Bible, the Africa Study Bible will primarily be a work of the Spirit of God. He can take it and use the instrument and create desire in people’s hearts to read it. This will change lives and help people relate to the Bible in a new and more authentic and African way than before. That’s our prayer.
Your contributors are from different denominations and represent various theological persuasions and interpretation of Scripture. How do you bring it all together making sure that the theological and exegetical integrity of Scripture is preserved in the Africa Study Bible?
Massive editorial effort. You need the content to speak from the same voice, same educational level and style, etc. So we actually had a theological review team of 10 people who all were from different parts of Africa and the world. Any piece would be put online for them to read, edit, review, etc. We had copy editors at 2-3 stages to read, make comments, etc. A few read it again and made some changes to make it all consistent. We worked hard. If an author wasn’t on target, we had someone enter into dialogue with him or her. So it might go back to them 2-3 times for reworking. It was a massive editorial effort.
Oasis International, as a publisher, wants to make theological resources available in Africa for under 5 dollars. Is that true of the Africa Study Bible as well?
We have published books for English speaking Africa for 5 dollars or under – 200-400 page books. We are hoping the study Bible, 2,200 pages, will retail for about 30-40 dollars in United States. In other countries, depending on duties, taxes or fees, it will sell for 15-20 dollars. Very affordable.
More is known about most African books and authors in the West than Africa, and western books more known in Africa than African books. How do you intend to change this so that the Africa Study Bible is well known in the continent?
I have traveled extensively in Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, and South Africa the last twelve months as we formed committees to launch the study Bible. Hopefully from there it will spread out from these launch committees. As we asked questions and listened, the Nigerians and Ghanaians for example had different ideas, so we gave lots of leadership to them to manage distribution and networking in their own countries. We will be at conferences, training events, church festivals, etc. to promote. We will be there. We are planning to make use of social media also. This will be the largest Christian book launch ever attempted in these four leading countries to get the word out to the people all over Anglophone Africa.
Our readers can find more information on the Africa Study Bible at http://oasisint.net/africa-study-bible/. Here is my evaluation of this project to help guide the reader in deciding its relevance for them.
On the positive side, first, the Africa Study Bible understands the need in the continent and strives to meet it. The intended audience are those who are often overlooked by many publications intended for Africa. It is refreshing to see a project that takes its audience and their diverse cultures seriously before attempting to make the Bible alive for them. While many African theology books risk subjecting Scripture to the African culture, this the ASB affirms the absolute authority of the Bible and subjects culture to it.
Second, though spearheaded by Oasis International, it is evident that this is a work of Africans from beginning to end. This project demonstrates what a true partnership looks like. The Africans make the contributions. Oasis and others provide funding which the Africans do not have for a project at this level. This is an example to follow.
Third, the Bible is a good resource for those outside of Africa who are looking to equip themselves for service in Africa. It will also benefit those seeking to minister to the large African diaspora in Europe and the Americas.
Fourth, making ASB affordable means that many more African pastors and lay-people will have access to a Bible that is easy to read and understand. The symbols, proverbs, and contextual stories provided will make this understanding easier.
Fifth, the projected cost of $15-20 is unheard of for a study bible. It is affordable and African leaders cannot claim that cost is a reason for not owning and providing copies for their people. All believers in Africa will no longer give cost as a reason for not owning a Bible that speaks to their day to day lives.
Other strengths of ASB are listed below in the sections on “Key Features” and “Bringing the Bible Closer.”
Though this project is important and meets a felt need, it opens the door for some criticisms on a few points. We note the following:
First, the word “study” in the title creates a problem for the scholarly minded. It is important for the readers to have a realistic view of the Africa Study Bible. Anyone expecting a “study Bible” that will help them read and understand the Bible (exegesis), he or she will be a little bit disappointed. This is because the Bible is primarily an application Bible which helps the reader apply the Bible in a variety of African cultural contexts.
Second, even though the Bible is affordable ($15-20), it is still a high cost for most villagers who do not get that much in a month. In the end, though the intended audience include all those in the villages, only those with jobs and steady income will be able to purchase it. A co-worker shared a story with me that illustrates this point;
So I am in N. Ghana. Several trips in and I haven’t been able to get a local language Bible. Finally, one trip our national partner agrees to get one for me. “But it is really expensive” he warns me multiple times, wanting to make sure I really want to spend my money on a Bible I can’t read. I assure him I am willing to pay whatever the cost is. It turns out the Bible cost the equivalent of (if I remember correctly) 7 USD.
Cost may prohibit the majority of Africans from obtaining a copy.
6. Other Features of the Africa Study Bible
6.1 Key Features and Goals
- To treat the Bible text as the final authority
- To give practical and wise teaching in a non-confrontational approach
- To focus on prescriptive advice, application, and life-transformation
- To attempt to answer questions that are likely to be in the reader’s mind
- To create a valuable resource for pastors and teachers as they apply the Word of God for their listeners
- To create a study Bible that is culturally relevant and readable for the average reader
- To bring African insights and experiences to the text in a way that makes the Bible come alive for all readers
- To avoid rehashing specifically Western theological issues and application
6.2 Bringing God’s Word Closer
The Africa Study Bible brings God’s word closer to Africans in that it;
- Applies the Word of God to our daily lives.
- Reclaims the African roots of Christianity.
- Explains Scripture in our own context, making it easy to understand.
- Teaches an all-in-one course in Biblical content, theology, history, and culture. It contains:
a. Over 2,600 features, written by 325 scholars and pastors from every corner of the African continent, make the scripture come alive.
b. 1,260 Application Notes that inspire readers to apply truth to real-life issues.
c. More than 560 African Stories and Proverbs from the African rich cultures illuminate the meaning of every book.
d. 82 Learn Notes that help explain the great doctrines of the Christian faith.
e. 300 Touch Points that show where the culture of the Bible meets African culture and how Africans shaped Christian belief and doctrine.
f. 58 Articles that give practical advice on how to live out our faith in 50 critical areas.
g. Book Introductions that explain the history of each book and connect themes to issues close to the African heart.