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The Oxford Dictionary of the Bible

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 13, 2010 | In Reviews

If you want a quick and easy reference to the Bible, you could do worse than the second edition of W. R. F. Browning’s Dictionary of the Bible, which has just appeared. However, if you’re not a Biblical scholar (and if you were, you probably wouldn’t need this reference), you’ll want to first gain a sense of the “intellectual context” of the work.

The author, an Anglican priest, scholar, and lecturer in New Testament Studies with several books to his credit over the past 50 years, describes that context concisely in his introduction: “The author’s standpoint is that of a grateful indebtedness to the achievements of biblical scholarship since the Enlightenment, together with an awareness of modern criticisms of it.” Within that framework, the Dictionary is well executed, but it is also necessary to know what this framework will not (and cannot) provide:

  • Full Weight of Tradition: The entries certainly take early Christian tradition into account; the reader won’t be left ignorant on this score. But tradition is sometimes weighted less heavily in comparison with more recent scholarly “conclusions” than it would be if the work were written by a Catholic who more fully appreciates the interplay between tradition and Tradition, including the absolute reliability of the latter.
  • A Clear Perspective of Faith: The introduction explains that “the use of the neutral CE (‘in the common era’) in place of AD, and of BCE (‘before the common era’) rather than BC is increasingly preferred in biblical scholarship, to which so many important contributions have been made by Jewish scholars.” Nothing could more clearly indicate the deliberate departure from any particular standard of Faith in arbitrating competing academic points of view. (Such a standard is admittedly problematic for Protestants, who claim to derive their faith exclusively from the text under consideration, but not for Catholics who rely on Tradition and the Magisterium as important sources of further Revelatory information.)
  • A Sense of the Church’s Book: The Bible is the Church’s book, and the Church alone can make any definitive determinations concerning either its provenance (such as which books are canonical), the genre and historicity of its various parts, or its ultimate meaning. Scholarship is an important aid to the Church in this regard, but not a substitute for it. This understanding is (as you would expect) foreign to a dictionary assembled largely from the perspective of indebtedness to the biblical scholarship of the past 250 years.

If you’re a deeply committed Catholic (as I presume most of my readers to be), you may therefore conclude that this book is not for you—but that would very much depend on how you intend to use it. If you want to be able to quickly remind yourself of the identity of a Biblical figure or the meaning of a Biblical term; or you need a refresher in Biblical measures, weights and values; or you’d like either a chronological or geographical overview of the Biblical era; or you need biographical information about a Biblical scholar; or, on more weighty issues, you’re interested in reviewing the current state of the academic question regarding the origin of the books of the Bible or the development of various Biblical themes—then the Oxford Dictionary of the Bible will serve admirably.

In addition, Browning is happily aware of the more recent scholarship that has corrected such ghastly distortions as the sweeping assertions of Form Criticism and the Modernist penchant for dating the New Testament books very late. This second edition therefore comes at a time when the best scholarship actually corroborates or at least allows critical scope to many traditional views. Frequently, even the dispassionate academic tone can be illuminating. For example, should you chance to look up the “Jesus Seminar”, you won’t find a rollicking good guffaw (as you would in an essay by any of our writers), but you’ll find a nice bit of understatement which, if you’re discerning, can be just as useful:

Jesus Seminar: A group of American NT scholars who from 1985, attempted to assess the authenticity of Jesus’ reported sayings in the four gospels and the Gospel of Thomas by means of voting with beads of different colours indicating weightings. A consensus was that the sayings represent the early Church’s witness to its life with God. Controversially, the group voted that the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas contains a greater number of authentic sayings of Jesus than the four canonical gospels.

The Jesus Seminar may now be dismissed quite easily as the “colored bead” school of Scriptural analysis, which isn’t bad at all, as the Seminar’s conclusions are based on imaginative prejudice, not scholarship.

Somewhat more seriously, if we jump into the entry on the four Gospels, we have this closing paragraph:

The gospels are not biographies in the modern sense, and the Form Critics maintained that they were not biographies in any sense. But such a negative view cannot be sustained in view of some similarities to contemporary biographies; yet the gospels are differentiated by their religious message (John 20:31) and their claim that the promises of the OT are fulfilled in the main subject (Jesus) and in the evangelists’ hope to influence their readers’ lives.

That’s only a small part of the entry, but it gives some idea of the way in which competing scholarly claims and common sense are balanced throughout the dictionary. There’s also a particularly useful center section which provides extended entries on all the books of the Bible in alphabetical order.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should state that I am not a Scripture scholar. Also, Browning's dictionary is not a team effort as some larger (and more expensive) reference works are, so it inevitably betrays the prejudices of its single author here and there. For example, Browning is awfully quick on the trigger in dismissing some accounts in the Bible as unhistorical either because they contradict his own notions of what would have been reasonable under the circumstances or because they conflict in some way with our very limited knowledge from other sources. Nonetheless the entire work seems to me surprisingly manageable for home reference, very concisely comprehensive, so to speak; it is also attractively typeset, sturdily bound, and available (in hardback) at a fair price. All things considered, this new edition of the Oxford Dictionary of the Bible can make a useful addition to your reference shelf.

[W. R. F. Browning, Oxford Dictionary of the Bible, 2nd edition (Oxford University Press, 2009) 464 pp. with over 2,000 entries, $65.00. Note: Do not confuse this with the first edition, published in 1996 and reissued (in paperback) with a new cover in 2004. The 2009 Second Edition is substantially revised and updated, and is available at this writing in hardback only. The paperback versions available on Amazon are from the 2004 printing and are the first edition with a new cover, even when the contrary is erroneously stated. Hence the link here is direct to Oxford University Press.]

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Jan. 14, 2010 10:15 AM ET USA

    I've requested a review copy of Scott Hahn's Catholic Bible Dictionary which, if I hadn't missed its release, would have gotten top priority here. Looks very promising.

  • Posted by: wojo425627 - Jan. 13, 2010 6:53 PM ET USA

    How about a review of Scott Hahn's new Bible Dictionary? I have seen it in bookstores but haven't looked through it yet.