A `Mega' Bible Dictionary

Companion to Anchor Bible commentary has impressive scope

IN today's fast-changing field of Biblical research, there has been a growing need for a major new multi-volume publication to keep up with these changes. The Anchor Bible Dictionary may be just what is needed. Possibly the most expensive Bible dictionary ever undertaken, it is certainly impressive in scope and scholarship. Renowned Bible scholar David Noel Freedman collaborated with the publisher in working out the master plan for the monumental project and served as its editor in chief.

Six years in the making, this six-volume reference work is a companion publication to Doubleday's highly acclaimed "Anchor Bible," a multi-volume, book-by-book Bible commentary series begun several years ago and still in progress. Together, the sets constitute an exhaustive and illuminating source of Biblical knowledge.

This new publication has a list of nearly a thousand contributors. Not all of the best-loved and most highly regarded giants in the field of Biblical research during the last quarter century are on the list. What is refreshing is that the list does include a number of the new generation of Bible scholars who are not so well known, especially to those outside the academic world. And, in fact, not all are exclusively engaged in Bible research or in academia.

For example, Dr. Jon D. Levenson of Harvard University is included. He is one of the fastest-rising young stars in the field. By far most contributors are men because men are still the majority of those active in Bible research. But that has been changing in the last few decades, and it is gratifying to note on the list the names of women who have earned recognition, including Dr. Elaine R. Follis of Principia College in Elsah, Ill., and Dr. Diane Treacey-Cole of the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh.

One aim in choosing contributors was to broaden the range and widen the representation: "They come with diverse professional and confessional backgrounds, reflecting the growing pluralism and interdisciplinary interests of the field," states the introduction. The result is an extraordinary interfaith collaboration.

The format is designed to be user-friendly, with several innovative features. Page numbers include the volume number, and place names include map references keyed to the maps printed on the inside of the front and back covers.

As for the text, there is a wealth of information in every entry, all carefully documented and with full bibliographies for even short entries. For complex subjects, many entries include a summary of scholarly opinion past and present. One example is the long article on the Gospel of Matthew. At times the ordinary Bible student may find such lengthy documentation more tedious than helpful. But advanced students need to have this kind of background information to be able to make informed judgments.

And tedious or not, one thing such exhaustive summaries do show is how Biblical scholarship continues to change and evolve as researchers strive to come to grips with difficult problems. For example, summaries try to establish with some degree of certainty the authorship of the books of the Bible, explore cultural and regional backgrounds in the ancient world to evaluate Biblical social customs and legal restraints, and attempt to resolve seemingly incompatible differences between extra-Biblical records and the Biblical record. And such summaries also point up the fact that, even where a scholarly consensus seemed possible, any such supposed unanimity of opinion turns out to be ephemeral at best.

On this very point, the introduction notes that it has been 30 years since the last major Bible dictionary (the excellent, five-volume "Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible") was published in the United States. "The emphasis in Biblical studies has changed considerably since then. The mainstream American consensus that held in the 1950s and early '60s unraveled during the 1970s.... One will be hard pressed to find in these pages [of the new "Anchor Bible Dictionary"] any sort of ... scholarly consensus.

Scholarly consensus simply does not exist here at the end of the twentieth century."

Of necessity a work of this magnitude must not only meet the basic needs of the layman, but also the fullest in-depth requirements of scholars and university or divinity students. So the beginning student who seeks a deeper understanding of the Biblical message should not be put off by the preponderance of detail he must plow through at times when what he really seeks is a concise definition or brief description. For if he persists in his search, he may suddenly come upon wonderfully satisfying and enlig htening nuggets of wisdom, sometimes tucked into most surprising and unexpected places.

A case in point is an entry under the heading of Arabia, which unexpectedly yielded a most helpful insight into a passage from Mark that, on the surface, would seem to have little relation to it. Noting that the Biblical writers often cherished the idea of the wilderness as a place to which the people would repair for spiritual sustenance, the temptations Jesus experienced were cited as a proof-text: "When on the verge of his public ministry, Jesus goes into the wilderness, where he contemplates, and rej ects, the temptations of materialism and urban culture."

The new "Anchor Bible Dictionary" may not be for everyone. For most lay readers, a good one-volume Bible dictionary may be more practical and desirable. But for experienced Bible researchers, it will prove to be an invaluable resource. Certainly at the current retail price of $60 apiece for each of the six volumes, a total of $360 for the set, this dictionary may be financially out of reach for many.

For that reason, and for many others, it should find a place on the bookshelves of every university or college library offering courses in Biblical studies and religion. And for those individuals who can afford it and for whom Bible study is a very important part of their lives, it is highly recommended.

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