Book Review: The Biblical World edited by John Barton

John Barton, ed. The Biblical World. 2 vols. New York, NY.: Routledge, 2002. (1064 pages)

The Biblical World (henceforth BW) is a two volume reference work that is filled with diverse articles related to the Bible and its academic study.  This work is divided into eight categories (The Bible[1], Genres, Documents[2], History, Institutions, Biblical Figures, Religious Ideas, The Bible Today).  Not all categories receive equal amounts of ink, but that is to be expected in a work like this.

Reviewing a work like BW is an interesting task.  Inevitably there will be articles that don’t line up with a reviewer’s specializations, but that is a testament to the diversity of topics covered in a collection.  There are discussions of genre, art, epigraphy, interpretation and more within this reference work.  In my view, there is not a weak article to be found in this set.  However, it would be too exhaustive of a task to review each article found within these volumes individually.  In the future, I hope to highlight a couple of the more unique contributions.

Criteria

This review examines three different aspects of BW in order to determine its value.  The first aspect relates to the articles’ quality.  Ultimately a reference work is of little value unless the entries are well written and carefully researched.   The second aspect explores the uniqueness of a book’s content.  There are many reference works in the market, and each text is jockeying for a greater piece of market share and shelf space.  The third aspect takes a look at the text’s layout.  Form and function are interconnected, and it is an important element to consider.

Quality Articles

I am extremely pleased by the articles in BW.  The participating scholars in this project are well qualified to write their assigned articles.  Most of the contributors are internationally respected and thoroughly accomplished.  The following list is a short sampling of the topics and expertise on display in this two volume reference set.

  • Death and Afterlife by John J. Collins
  • Wisdom by Katharine Dell
  • Texts and Versions: the Old Testament by Carmel McCarthy
  • The Dead Sea Scrolls by George J. Brooke
  • The Cairo Genizah by Stefan C. Reif
  • The Age of the Exile by Joseph Blenkinsopp
  • Israel under Persia and Greece by Lester L. Grabbe
  • Hebrew and Aramaic Languages by John Huehnergard and Jo Ann Hackett
  • Purity by Gordon Wenham

If you are remotely familiar with the secondary literature of biblical studies you will surely recognize the names in that sampled list.  Each contributor wrote much larger treatments directly or indirectly on the topics covered.

Examples of past scholarly engagement:

Katharine Dell has spent the better part of her career mining Israel’s sapiential literature as evidenced by her books: Get Wisdom, Get Insight: An Introduction to Israel’s the Wisdom Literature.; Seeking a Life that Matters: Wisdom for Today from the Book of Proverbs.; The Book of Job As Skeptical Literature.; The Book of Proverbs in Social and Theological Context. As expected, Dell’s entry on Wisdom is fantastic!

Gordon Wenham covered the topic of purity when he authored his commentary on Leviticus in the NICOT series, and again in his work on Old Testament ethics, Story as Torah.  Wenham’s essay is wonderful and an extension of what he has already authored.

Dell and Wenham are just two examples, but they illustrate the competence of those selected to contribute in this two volume set.

Uniqueness

While attempting to determine a reference work’s uniqueness, I compared BW with other reference books of a relatively similar size and similar target audience on the market.  Specifically I looked at the Oxford History of the Biblical World (edited by Michael Coogan), the Cambridge Companion to Biblical Interpretation also edited by Barton, and The Dictionary of Biblical Criticism and Interpretation (edited by Stanley E. Porter).  The previously mentioned books contained similar types of articles that are also in BW.  However, BW had more variety to offer the reader.

The Oxford History of the Biblical World and Routledge’s BW both have several articles dedicated to various time periods in ancient Israel’s history.  However, BW explores more than time periods related to biblical contexts.  BW also has great discussions on language, writing, and inscriptions.  Both BW and the Cambridge Companion to Biblical Interpretation discuss genre and interpretation, but BW also discusses key biblical figures such as Jesus, David, and Moses or various religious concepts/ ideological concerns.

Also, a dictionary should sprinkle in articles that are not typically found in other dictionaries if it is to find a niche in the ever growing bible reference market.  I especially found the Religious Ideas sections in this work to be quite unique among its peers.

It was nice to find articles focusing on Salvation in Jewish Thought (by Dan Cohn-Sherbok) and Salvation in Christian Thought (by Andrew Chester).  Most dictionaries don’t have two articles dealing with the same concept from different theological perspectives.  I also appreciate the articles on Jewish Bible Translation (by Leonard J. Greenspoon) and Christian Bible Translation (by Henry Wansbrough).  Many works do not have articles that make a reader contemplate the role of translation history as it is related theological bias.  The juxtaposition of these two articles is informative for a reader.

While not every entry is totally unique, BW does have a few unusual entries, as mentioned above.  However, there is some overlap in article types between BW and other similar reference works.  Yet, one would be hard pressed to find all of the articles in BW assembled under one set without spending quite a bit more (and using more shelf space).

Text Layout

Annotation Style

The choice of annotation style is the only real problem I have with this book.  I know of several dictionaries/encyclopedias that use endnotes.  Endnotes are not preferable to footnotes.  Most of the articles in BW are relatively lengthy, and flipping to the end of the entry just to look up a note is annoying.  I abhor endnotes!  However, this is not a deal breaker.

Bibliography

I would have liked to see is a bibliography for further research.  However, I suppose a reader can surmise the most important texts by reading who the author interacts with the most in the endnotes; however, I do feel that this was an important oversight.

Visual Appeal

This is a handsome book.  The text is in a singular block, and it is interspersed with several charts, black & white photos, and drawings.  I found that the images selected for each article worked well with the content of the text, and were tastefully inserted.

Overall Conclusion

I am very pleased with this set.  John Barton and Routledge should be commended for creating a usable text that explores as many topics as they have covered in a relatively small amount of space. I am pleased with the dearth of information covered in a relatively small work.  I enthusiastically recommend this reference set to any college student or seminarian looking to gain a better understanding of the biblical world and the academic pursuit of biblical studies.

(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] The Christian/Jewish Canon is broken into three sections: The Hebrew Bible, The Apocrypha, and The New Testament.

[2] This section deals with various manuscripts and textual traditions.

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