The Oxford encyclopedia of the books of the Bible

The Oxford encyclopedia of the books of the Bible

Michael D. Coogan, editor in chief
Oxford University Press, 2012, Hardback (2 volumes), Vol. 1, 600 p., Vol. 2 , 578 p., £265.00, ISBN 978-0195377378

This is a major work which is described as “a single source for authoritative reference overviews of scholarship on some of the most important topics of study in the field of biblical studies”. Almost one hundred and fifty articles, ranging in length from five hundred to ten thousand words, are contributed by a hundred biblical scholars from academic institutions around the world.

The current work is intended as the first in a series of specialised reference works, each addressing a particular subject of interest within biblical studies. As well as being available in printed form, it is available online from the Oxford Digital Reference Shelf at It is intended that articles commissioned for this and other titles in the series will be included in Oxford Biblical Studies Online as they are produced.

The editors have interpreted the word “Bible” in broad terms and have included articles about apocryphal books as well as lost writings which are mentioned in ancient sources but have not survived into modern times. There are also contributions on biblical themes, specific genres found within the Bible, and aspects of the ancient world which throw light on the books of the Bible.

Many of the articles are devoted to individual books of the Bible, and include information on authorship and dating, structure, historical background, main themes, and the way in which books have been received and interpreted. Articles which are not directly based on books of the Bible cover such topics as Lost Gospels, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Didache, the Nag Hammadi Library, Prayer and Hymns in the Hebrew Bible, Rabbinic Literature, and the Septuagint and other ancient Greek translations.

There are articles on the development of the biblical canon and the history of the Bible in English translation. There are many maps and diagrams, covering such topics as the journeys of St. Paul and what Moses would have seen from Mount Nebo.

Inevitably, in a collection of essays by different scholars, from a variety of academic and religious backgrounds, the authors do not always agree. In general, though, the writers seem to represent the mainstream of contemporary biblical scholarship, avoiding the extremes of fundamentalism and the more sensational approaches to religious subjects found in the popular media. While the writer of the article on the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas acknowledges that some scholars are prepared to attribute an early date to this supposed collection of the sayings of Jesus, most are inclined to give the book a later date, written long after the New Testament gospels. Little encouragement is given to the more far-fetched theories of Dan Brown and his readers!

I would like to have seen a greater acknowledgement of the contribution of scholars from the more conservative and evangelical end of the spectrum. I was surprised to find no references in the index to the pioneering work of Richard Burridge and N.T. Wright. The late F.F. Bruce, however, is mentioned as an example of a scholar who was prepared to defend the traditional Pauline authorship of the second epistle to the Thessalonians, an identification questioned by many scholars.

The arguments for and against traditional authorship are set out in a number of articles. The assumed multiple authorship of the book of Isaiah is, we are told, “one of the most widely accepted conclusions of critical biblical scholarship”. Most scholars accept a dating for the book of Daniel much later than the Jewish exile in Babylon when the events are reported to have taken place. The writer of the book of Revelation is assumed to be a Palestinian Jew who fled to Asia Minor after the Jewish Revolt of 66-73 A.D, rather than the apostle John or the author of the fourth gospel. The writer on the epistle of James, however, is prepared to accept an early dating for the letter, in the period 46-62 A.D., and its authorship by James, the brother of Jesus.

Scholarly writings of this kind do raise legitimate questions for those of us who take a high view of the authority and reliability of the Scriptures. The writer on Exodus points out the logistical problems involved in believing that two or three million people spent forty years in the desert after their escape from Egypt. However, the article acknowledges that the tradition of an escape from Egypt is deeply rooted in the Bible, and suggests that a departure of Hebrew slaves from that country is not impossible, although perhaps on a smaller scale than a literal reading of Exodus might suggest.

Although this is described as a specialist source for biblical scholars (the index alone runs to ninety-three pages), I think that anyone with an interest in the Bible would enjoy browsing through it and picking up odd snippets of information. For example: did you know that the first recorded use of the word “gospel” appears in Homer where it means “a reward for bearing good tidings”? The notion that Jesus might have had a twin brother was first put forward in a Syrian text of the third or fourth century, not in a recent novel by Philip Pullman.

I am not a professional biblical scholar, but I have enjoyed my perusal of this Oxford Encyclopedia and would recommend it for large reference collections, university libraries, and specialist theological collections.

Contributed by: Graham Hedges, Hon. FCLIP, MCLIP, CLIS Honorary Secretary who worked until retirement for the public library service in the London Borough of Wandsworth. This review was originally published in Refer, the journal of CILIP’s Information Services Group, Vol. 28, No. 1, Part 2, Spring 2012, and is reproduced by kind permission of the Editor.