Major Book Reviews -- the Anchor Bible Dictionary (6 Vols) Edited by David Noel Freedman

By Towner, W. Sibley | Interpretation, October 1994 | Go to article overview
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Major Book Reviews -- the Anchor Bible Dictionary (6 Vols) Edited by David Noel Freedman


Towner, W. Sibley, Interpretation


ONE ASSUMES that every reviewer of a work of such encyclopedic proportions (a total of 7035 pp. of text, plus prefaces) feels daunted by the task. I certainly did. I took my time, not so that I could read the judgments of other reviewers before I gave mine (Heaven forbid!), but so that I could experience using the dictionary in the daily course of my own work. Seasoned reflections follow.

Comparisons with the last major Bible dictionary project, the Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible (4 vols., 1962, plus Supplementary vol., 1976) are inevitable. As associate editor Gary Herion points out in the introduction to the ABD, "Only 253 contributors were needed to write more than 7,500 entries for the [original 4 vol.] IDB, while thirty years later almost four times as many were needed to write 6,200 entries for the ABD" (p. xxxix). To Herion, this statistic evidences the increasing specialization and fragmentation of the field of biblical studies during the past several decades. "Specialization and fragmentation" are not very friendly words, but the phenomena have made available to the writers of the ABD vast new literatures in such areas as archaeology, comparative philology, sociology of ancient cultures, and literary critical methods. Freedman and his team selected their canon within that larger canon and are able to set it forth in only six [fat]...volumes.

Now, editors are guided by certain principles of selection in picking what to include in an encyclopedic work such as this one. Take the choice of the writers of entries. Ideology no doubt played a role here, and for the most part it was a laudable one. Praiseworthy, for example, is the evident decision to give younger scholars a significant role in the project, and they are represented in large numbers. It is by laudable choice, not by accident, that the panel of writers is fully an interfaith one, with a healthy admixture of secularists thrown in. Many distinguished international figures of the biblical field have also made their mark here, including scholars from Latin America, Europe, Israel, and east Asia. The various "schools" or circles of biblical scholarship here and abroad are all represented, as far as I can see. However, with its roots deep in the long-term Anchor Bible commentary project of which W. F. Albright was a guiding spirit and his student Freedman has been the long-time general editor, it is not surprising that the scholarly descendents of the so-called "Albright School" from Harvard, Michigan, and elsewhere are most strongly represented.

As far as the choice of topics to be discussed in the ABD, I sense a tendency toward those most amenable to technical treatment, with full rein given to philological, archaeological, and historical approaches. This makes, by the way, for some wonderful reading about very concrete worldly matters. For sheer good, bawdy reading, Marvin Pope's piece on "Euphemism and Dysphemism in the Bible" (I, pp. 720-25) is notable. Edwin Firmage's 57+-page discussion of "Zoology" (VI, pp. 1109-167) is not bawdy, but it is remarkably rich. Perhaps it is too rich, even. Consider the plight of a user of the ABD who wants to decide whether the neser bird mentioned in Isaiah 40:31 is really an eagle and not just a vulture. That user is referred to Firmage, who discusses every biblical creature from onagers to earthworms (I'm not making this up!), drawing upon comparative Semitic languages, archaeological and literary evidence, modern zoological surveys and taxonomy, even chemical analysis of animal feces. Food prohibitions and rules for slaughtering throughout the ancient Near East are included as well. The downside for the ordinary expositor who simply wanted to get an answer to the question about Isaiah 40:31 is that this is a lot of material to wade through to find the brief discussion of the neser. That person will also find, in the end, that Deutero-Isaiah could have meant that his hearers mount up with wings either as eagles or as buzzards.

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