Why Africa Needs a Study Bible

Photo by Luca Zanon on Unsplash

Even in a nation long saturated with Christian resources, Americans love their study Bibles. By juxtaposing the inspired text with informed commentary, readers quickly grow in their knowledge and depth of insight into God’s Word. So imagine the good that could come from a study Bible produced by Africans for Africa, where 200 million Christians don’t have a Bible at all.

Oasis International, which aims to establish a Christian book industry across Africa, has assembled an 11-person editorial team leading hundreds of contributors across the continent to produce the Africa Study Bible. To learn more about this exciting project I corresponded with Oasis president and Africa Study Bible project manager Matthew Elliott, who has been working for more than 15 years to supply books and Bibles to Africa’s poor majority. Elliott earned his PhD in New Testament from the University of Aberdeen and has written two books, Feel: The Power of Listening to Your Heart and Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament. He explained how the study Bible idea originated, how they selected the contributors, and how we can help.

How did this idea come together?

As early as 2002, we were talking about ways to make the Bible come alive for African readers. In Jos, Nigeria, one of our partners did a study for English-speaking Christians on how they understood the language of the Bible. Many millions across the continent go to school in English. We found that many words familiar to us in the United States are not so clear to the average African. We began thinking and dreaming of ways to increase understanding of the Bible. Then in 2010 I spent about two months traveling Africa asking questions of pastors, denominational presidents and bishops, and seminary residents. Is this a good idea? If so, what does this look like? What are the features and topics that will grow Christians deep in Africa? Every single conversation ended something like this: “Africa needs this Bible, what can I do to help?” We had a green light to stop dreaming and start working on the project.

Help us understand the need for an Africa study Bible and how it would contrast with the many study Bibles produced in the West.

We just received an article on “God’s People in Transition.” It starts like this:

The sun was rising when the first gunshot and bombardment were heard in the town of Dolisie. Everyone tried to find shelter or get to safety amid the cries of children, wailing, shouts, and heavy bombardments. War had come to our town, and we did not know what to do. After two days of trying to hide in our house we were driven out by lack of food and an encounter with angry and greedy soldiers.

It goes on to talk about the biblical basis for taking care of refugees. Our author has lived it. AIDS orphans, female circumcision, slavery—-these are just some of the most obvious examples of the African context that would never appear in an application targeted to readers in America. This study Bible will equip Africans to live out the gospel in their context, to be disciples of Jesus.

The ASB will also capture the wonders and blessings of the African church and culture, their spirit of celebration, community, and faith. In many ways, African culture is closer to that of the Bible than ours. Africans understand things we cannot see. The ASB will bring African insights about the Scripture to the world as well.

Every feature has one simple purpose—-growing disciples deep in the African context.

How did you select the various contributors?

Our editorial committee came to Accra, Ghana, from every major region and language group—-English, French, Arabic, Portuguese (the Bible will be published in multiple languages). They set the direction for the project and made every major editorial decision. It was probably the most amazing week of my working life, to see these men and women come together from all these different denominations and cultures and have such unity of purpose and vision. All were highly educated, having a doctorate in one field or another; a number were seminary presidents or denominations presidents. One man was the president of an association representing probably 50 million African Christians. Most had never met each other. Can you imagine a greater possibility for conflict and disagreement? Yet all were strong believers in the authority and power of the Bible. From the first moment, we were on task and working as true brothers and sisters in Christ.

They had a pastor’s heart to grow the church in every discussion. Our editors, directed by John Jusu from African International University (formerly NEGST), are now working with hundreds of writers across the continent to see their vision accomplished.

Previous African theological projects have been criticized for essentially offering the same Western perspective, since so many African leaders were educated in the West. Are you concerned with that critique on the Africa Study Bible?

Great question. That was a topic in about every conversation in my travels in 2010, and many, many conversations since. I wish you could see the notes coming in to see the results. We have designed whole feature criteria to set an authentic African tone for the project. In the stories and proverbs, writers are comparing their sayings and stories with the truth of Scripture. What wise sayings fit the truth of the Bible, and which ones contradict biblical truth and need to be changed or modified? In another feature, authors are working to draw parallels between passages of Scripture and practices in a part of African culture. I think the ASB may set a new precedent for this kind of project. That is our hope, anyway. All this is being run through a very strong filter of historical, biblical, orthodox Christianity. We have defined a very rigorous, African-led review process that will ensure this outcome. So the final result should be strong in both sound theology and cultural context.

How can readers participate in and support this project?

They can go online to www.africastudybible.com, give, and post a dedication or encouragement for our writers. That is a start. However, it is a $500,000 project just for the editorial process, and additional funds are needed for translation and to start printing Bibles. Our hope is that the ASB will affect many millions in the years to come. Many of these African Christians—-even pastors—-do not have a single book to equip their spiritual growth. The Africa Study Bible will be one volume that has the words of Scripture, defines the basic truths of Christianity, and teaches them to apply it in their lives. If they can own one single book to grow their faith, this should be it.

We need churches and other groups to come alongside the project as well. We have defined the cost of every book of the Bible. A congregation can give by underwriting the Gospel of Mark, or maybe a smaller group wold like to raise the funds for Jude—-we all can do something. The editorial cost and printing the first 200,000 copies will cost about $50 per verse.

Last, pray for us! Africa is a place of intense spiritual warfare. The church is growing so quickly, but can you imagine a continent where more than 200 million Christians do not have a Bible, where many if not most pastors have two, three, or more churches to oversee? How do you learn what it means to be a Christian? What does the church become in this context? What kind of false teachings can arise when people do not have a way to learn what the Bible is really saying? Pray with us that God supplies the resources to complete the Africa Study Bible so it can be a tool to grow believers deep!