Book Review: Dictionary of Biblical Criticism and Interpretation

Stanley Porter, ed. Dictionary of Biblical Criticism and Interpretation. New York, NY. Routledge, 2009. (406 pages)

I’d like to thank Routledge for sending me a handful of books to review.  Over the next few weeks, I plan to post those reviews.

Of all of the books that Routledge was kind enough to send me to review, I looked forward to examining this title the most.  Sadly, this text did not live up to my own expectations, which may or may not be fair to the authors or its editors.  However, I have put my own disappointment aside in order to judge this book on its own terms.  It is important to review the book the authors actually wrote, not the one we wished they wrote.

The Dictionary of Biblical Criticism and Interpretation (henceforth, DBCI) contains articles by several leading scholars in their fields.  This dictionary discusses biblical scholars/theologians (and their work), various methodologies, types of criticisms, and literary genres.  The book is ambitious in its selection of topics, which may have been to its own detriment (this will be discussed in further detail below).

Editorial Aims:

Stanley Porter articulates the purpose and aim of this book in the introduction with the following statement,

“The articles contained herein are not meant to be definitive in any absolute or encompassing sense, but to provide means of access.  This volume was designed also to overcome the kind of contemporary critical introspection that result in failure to contextualize the contemporary within the broader sweep of history . . . This volume is designed to provide a historical methodological introductions to such areas.  The inclusions of a number of individual interpreters – several of whom are still alive and writing – is designed to bring such critical method to life in terms of the work of individuals who have made significant and what appear to be lasting contributions to the discipline.” (Pages 2-3, emphasis mine)


In my view, several important topics do not seem to garner enough authorial attention.  The articles could have been longer while still meeting the editorial expectation of “easy access.”  I personally found the length of articles to be disappointing, and not nearly helpful enough.  The entries for Thomas Aquinas, James Barr, Ray Brown, Karl Barth, John Calvin, and Origen are each roughly a page long.  Walter Brueggemann’s, Hans-Georg Gadamer’s, and Jerome’s entries are roughly a half a page long (including bibliography).  Most Wikipedia entries are longer than the articles found in this book.[1] Also, other reference works cover many of the topics in this dictionary with greater depth than DBCI (while still serving as an easy access point into the topic for the average reader).

Another disappointment comes at the end of most article entries.  Each article ends with a small bibliographical section that one can consult for further reading.[2] However, the lean bibliographies hurt the book’s value as an enduring reference work.  While an article can be purposely terse, reference works should contain more robust bibliographies, especially if the articles are meant to be an entry point into a topic.  In my view, the reader should be pointed to the most important and comprehensive treatments of a topic.

An example of a tragically incomplete bibliographic entry is found in the article on the Dead Sea Scrolls.  In this article there is no reference to the definitive multi-volume treatment of the DSS, Discoveries in the Judean Desert!  Such an oversight is shocking.[3] Other examples exist, but this is the most egregious example of bibliographic opportunities lost.

Despite the above mentioned criticisms of this volume, I believe that this book has value.  The articles are well written.  The contributors are well qualified to discuss their subjects.  Yet, DBCI’s greatest value may be in filling the need for scholarly literature written for a popular audience, not the academy.

Audiences that would most benefit from this text:

This text book could be used as a supplementary reference work for a high school religion class or an undergraduate class about to be baptized into the waters of critical biblical scholarship.  An interested lay person might also benefit from the treatments in this dictionary.  If I were to use this book in a classroom setting, I would feel the need to heavily supplement the text with more bibliographic information.

The above mentioned audience should  treat this book as launching pad for more in-depth research – a sort of papered Wikipedia that has been more carefully vetted for accuracy.  I would not recommend this text for a graduate student, because there are other reference works that will meet the needs of that audience better than DBCI.   However, for the others mentioned above, I believe this small volume could fill a very particular and limited niche.  In the end, I am not overly impressed with DBCI, and I think other dictionaries may be a better value.

Tomorrow On Monday, I will post my review on another Routledge title, The Biblical World edited by John Barton. Spoiler Alert: I really liked that text!

(Obligatory Disclaimer: This review copy was given to me by Routledge free of charge.  I am in no way affiliated with Routledge, and I am not obligated to give this book a favorable review.)

[1] While some might interpret a comparison between a vetted scholarly publication and Wikipedia as a pejorative statement, that is not my intent.  Stanley Porter’s first mentioned aim of creating an approachable entry point into a topic is similar to how many students and some scholars use WikipediaWikipedia often functions as an orienting source that points readers to other resources.  In my view, the vetting process of this book is more thorough and trustworthy than the standards found on Wikipedia.

[2] There are some exceptions to this observation.  Many of the biblical genre articles, such as the ones authored by Richard Hess and Kent Sparks, have beefier bibliographies than some of the other categories of articles in this volume.

[3] I know George Brooke, the author of this article, is quite familiar with DJD.  In fact, in the soon to be reviewed Biblical World, Brooke adds DJD to his bibliography on the Dead Sea Scrolls.  I can’t explain the reason for its omission in this article, other than it was just an oversight.

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