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The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and the Arts


Until fairly recently, historical research on the influence of biblical literature tended to operate according to a very narrow definition of biblical interpretation, which prescribed an almost exclusive focus on interpretations of biblical texts in ecclesiastical and academic theological discourses. In fact, historical theologians and church historians, not biblical scholars, carried out most of the research in this area. Within those parameters, reference works such as The Anchor Bible Dictionary (Doubleday, 1992) and The Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation (Abingdon, 1999) were sufficient for the needs of most scholars and students of biblical studies.

In the course of the last two decades, however, the landscape of academic biblical studies has changed dramatically. With the rise of reception-historical and cultural-historical approaches, there is a growing awareness of the need to attend to the roles and meanings of Jewish and Christian scriptures throughout cultural history, and thus the need to embrace the broadest possible definition of “interpretation,” including not only academic and theological readings but also biblical circulations in visual art, literature, music, performance, and other cultural productions. As a result, there are increasing numbers of scholars and advanced students throughout the academic humanities who require in-depth academic references to initiate research in these areas. The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and the Arts aims to address this growing need, offering in-depth introductions to the cultural history of biblical texts, themes, characters, images, and ideas of scripture and the Bible as they have circulated in the arts.

Distinguishing Features.

We believe that this encyclopedia distinguishes itself from other reference works on the Bible and the arts in at least three significant ways. First, it provides substantially longer, in-depth articles of consistently high academic quality, including information not only on each subject but also on important scholarly research concerning that subject. It does not simply offer one-stop, basic introductions to its subjects; rather, it aims to be the starting point for scholars and advanced students who are initiating research on a subject and seek to understand its academic “lay of the land,” that is, its major issues, debates, questions, and horizons for new scholarship.

Second, this encyclopedia is organized topically from a cultural-historical perspective, that is, according to entries on artists, art forms, movements, and periods, taking care to contextualize different uses of biblical texts, characters, and images (as well as cultural ideas of the Bible and “the biblical”) within their particular cultural contexts, rather than superficially tracing biblical topics like “Adam” or “Genesis” through the centuries. The primary focus throughout is the Bible of, in, and as particular works of art—how biblical texts, images, themes, and ideas of the Bible were conceived and formed within particular cultural contexts. Given this approach, it is not surprising that a majority of the contributors to this encyclopedia are not biblical scholars or church historians but specialists in the particular cultural-historical periods, art forms, and artists being addressed: art historians, musicologists, and literary historians, for example, whose research helps reveal particular manifestations of the biblical in particular works and contexts.

Third and finally, this encyclopedia is distinguished as part of a larger suite of encyclopedias on different dimensions of biblical studies, including archeology, ethics, gender studies, biblical interpretation, law, and theology. All of these encyclopedias, moreover, are integrated into a much larger online suite of biblical reference works from Oxford University Press, Indeed, we believe that the greatest potential for this encyclopedia will be realized in this digitally networked and interlinked platform, which introduces many new and revolutionary possibilities for biblical research and reference.

Our New Media Horizon.

This last distinction raises an issue that pertains not only to this and any other encyclopedia project underway today but also to our changing cultural understanding of the Bible itself: we are in the middle of a media revolution, namely, the rise of digital network culture and the twilight of print book culture. It is indeed difficult to conceive of either the Bible or the encyclopedia apart from print. They are in many respects inventions of printing press media technologies, the twin flagships of print book culture. Yet here we are, not only reconceiving them but perhaps reinventing them, even as we ourselves are being reinvented, vis-à-vis digital network media.

With regard to the idea of the encyclopedia, for example, this new media environment encourages us to recognize the futility of the goal that the word itself claims to achieve: encyclopedic knowledge, that is, total, comprehensive coverage of every aspect of every topic relevant to its subject, printed and bound together once and for all. On our new media horizon, by contrast, we are aware more than ever that encyclopedic knowledge is ultimately impossible to achieve and that our efforts in pursuit of it are always partial, imperfect, and in process.

By the same token, standing in the twilight of print book culture, scholars and students of the Bible are increasingly conscious of the fact that it is impossible to separate message from medium. The subject of our research is not simply the Bible in media but the Bible as media. The Bible is not a historical given, an original classic that gets incarnated or “received” in different manuscripts, books, rituals, performances, and works of art through the centuries. It is, rather, a transmedial hyperobject, traveling, traversing, and drifting via various cultural places and times that cannot be separated from it. Different biblical media do not simply receive and interpret the Bible as though it were a transcendent Word to be incarnated in particular cultural-historical moments; they are the Bible. In that light, this encyclopedia does not simply represent the history of the Bible’s reception in art; it is a cultural history, however partial and incomplete, of the Bible itself.


Regrettably, we were not able to include several planned entries, either because the contributor was unable to meet the deadline or because we were unable to find a qualified contributor (e.g, Comic Bibles, Islamic Literature, Martin Luther King Jr., Korean Art, Middle Eastern Art, Mystical Writings, Orthodox Art and Iconography, Praise Music, Psalters and Books of Hours, and Elie Wiesel). In some cases, aspects of these missing subjects are addressed in other entries.

This project has called for an incredible amount of healthy collaboration among many people without whose knowledge, expertise, patience, collegiality, generosity, and sense of humor it could never have come to successful completion. Many thanks to Michael Coogan, who first invited me to conceive, plan, and oversee this encyclopedia, and to development editors Mary Funchion and Jennifer Carlson, who have patiently walked me through every step of the process, providing invaluable administrative and editorial support while graciously mediating between the authors and the press.

Thanks also to Eric Pellish, who served as my editorial assistant for the first year of the project before graduating to bigger and better things, to my department administrator, Lauren Gallitto, who never hesitated to offer help when I needed it, to my chair, Peter Haas, and to my dean, Cyrus Taylor, for financial support as well as genuine enthusiasm about the project.

Thanks to my wife, Clover Reuter Beal, for commiserating with me even while helping me to not take myself too seriously.

Above all, thanks to the members of my Editorial Board: Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, Professor of Religious Art and Cultural History at Georgetown University; David M. Gunn, A.A. Bradford Professor Emeritus at Texas Christian University; S. Brent Plate, Visiting Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Hamilton College; David J. Rothenberg, Associate Professor of Music at Case Western Reserve University; and Yvonne Sherwood, Professor of Biblical Cultures and Politics at the University of Kent. In addition to their preeminent scholarly credentials, each of these people is kind, thoughtful, generous, and downright fun to work with— qualities that I believe are as precious as they can be rare in academia.

Finally, thanks to the authors, whose careful research, depth of knowledge, critical insight, and love for their subjects shine through their contributions.

Timothy Beal

Florence Harkness Professor of Religion

Case Western Reserve University