The Oxford Encyclopedias of the Bible
The importance of the Bible cannot be overstated. For Jews and Christians, it is the supremely authoritative text, which has guided and inspired them for some two thousand years. It has also profoundly affected Western culture, influencing not just religious belief and practice but also the arts, literature, law, politics, and many other fields. In the last century especially it has also had an impact on cultures worldwide, and scholars, writers, and artists from those cultures have in turn influenced the interpretation of the Bible everywhere.
Several years ago, when editors at Oxford University Press and I discussed producing a new biblical encyclopedia, we first thought along traditional lines: a comprehensive, up-to-date multivolume reference work that would provide a wide audience with comprehensive information about everything in the Bible and about the Bible. We wanted to do this in part because our online reference tool, Oxford Biblical Studies Online, needed constant feeding, and in part because it had been almost twenty years since such a work had been produced. As we began to work on the early stages of the project, however, we began to think more creatively. This was prompted in part by the appearance of just such a comprehensive dictionary and also by our experience in producing some entries for the website. We realized that the amount of effort necessary to duplicate what was already available—about, say, every minor Levite in the book of Chronicles—would not be proportionate to the result, and in many such cases there was little or nothing new to be said.
Biblical studies, however, is not static: new discoveries, new approaches, new insights make the discipline of biblical interpretation dynamic, and it is difficult to communicate these developments in the format of a comprehensive encyclopedia of the Bible. So, we changed the template: instead of a collection of relatively brief articles even on important topics, we decided to produce The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible in two-volume sets, each of which is devoted to a particular subject or approach. Within each set, entries several thousand words long explore specific topics in depth.
The cumulative result is a monumental reference work consisting of more than a dozen volumes containing hundreds of comprehensive essays by scholars from many countries and with a wide variety of perspectives. The simultaneous publication of the articles in these sets in Oxford Biblical Studies Online enhances their use and reach. It makes them accessible to scholars and students in a wide variety of places, and it enables us to revise entries on a regular basis. As a whole then, the series is a worthy addition to the innumerable distinguished reference works produced by Oxford University Press, both as printed books and, more and more, in digital format.
Michael D. Coogan