The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Archaeology 2 vols.

The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Archaeology 2 vols.

Editor in Chief, Daniel M. Master
(New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2013), 1188 pp., $395 (hardcover)

Reviewed by Aaron A. Burke

This two-volume set, The Oxford Encyclopedia of Bible and Archaeology, consists of 135 articles taken from the “more than a dozen volumes” comprising The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and identified by the series editor, Michael D. Coogan, and the volumes’ editor-in-chief, Daniel M. Master, as being of greatest relevance to “Biblical archaeology,” which includes both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. While room exists for a revised and extensive Bible encyclopedia to replace works like the Anchor Bible Dictionary, a review of these volumes reveals that they will not fill that void and, unfortunately, do little to advance the discrete contribution of archaeology to Biblical studies.

This work, as might be expected, consists of two types of entries: sites and subjects/themes. Insofar as the sites are concerned, the usual suspects appear with no substantive contribution to entries in existing reference works. The limited scope of the volume and the length of the articles mean that readers will not find sufficiently extensive treatments of these sites, for which The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land (especially vol. 5; Israel Exploration Society and Biblical Archaeology Society, 2008) should be consulted instead, along with its better illustrations.

As but one example, while all five Philistine pentapolis sites are included, many other non-Israelite sites are omitted such as Tyre, Amman, Busayra, Wadi Feinan and Jaffa. And although some more recent excavations such as at Khirbet Qeiyafa, Ramat Rahel, and Rehov are featured, the volumes stretch their mandate by including entries on Pompeii and Herculaneum.

The subject treatments better reflect recent advances in the field, but idiosyncrasies mean that the volumes still fall short of replacing existing reference works. A number of important topics are treated such as “Cooking,” “Dress,” “Feasting,” “Gender” and “Textile Production,” all of which have correlates in material culture. But treatments of “Aging,” “Family Structure,” “Marriage,” “Temples, Sanctuary, and Cult,” and “Writing Materials and Practice” are strangely limited to the Hellenistic and Roman periods, relevant first and foremost to New Testament studies, with treatments for the Iron and Bronze Ages entirely omitted. In other cases, the opposite is true and there is no coverage for the Hellenistic and Roman periods (e.g., “Puberty, Marriage, Sex, Reproduction, and Divorce”).

For other entries, one may ask whether they meet both the Bible and archaeology criteria making them relevant for these volumes, as many have no archaeological component, largely because of the state of research (e.g., “Aram-Damascus”). One would expect almost every article to include Biblical references highlighting the intersection of the Biblical text with archaeology. However, many articles include no references either to Hebrew Bible, Apocrypha or New Testament that would clarify the basis for their inclusion in this reference work.

Other oddities of this encyclopedia include the lumping of subjects under overarching themes; the result is the cumbersome need to consult the index after being surprised to find an entry missing. Discussion of synagogues, for example, is subsumed under “Religion, Judaism,” while discussion of Cappadocia, Galatia, and individual cities in Phrygia are lumped under “Central Anatolia,” something that will baffle most users. In this regard it seems that this was editorially expeditious but did not consider the reader’s perspective. An attempt to find a single article addressing seals and sealing practices leads to the appendix with cross references to myriad passing discussions but no comprehensive treatment. (This is unfortunate since The Anchor Bible Dictionary also provides almost no separate treatment of Israelite and Judean seals.) Similarly problematic, Christianity in Syria is dealt with under the “Religion, Syria” entry, which addresses only Christianity and contemporaneous cultic traditions of the early Common Era.

These are but a few of the more obvious challenges users will encounter in consulting these volumes.

A few other features also make the work less than ideal. The quality of photographic images is extremely poor. And in many cases there are far too few images to make the work truly useful, especially since these volumes are concerned with material culture. The epigraphy of the Siloam tunnel inscription, for example, is impossibly difficult to make out (p. 12). There are also glaring typos both in bibliographies, the index and the text.

To their credit, the volumes do provide a summary of the chronology of the southern Levant, which has been lacking since no up-to-date texts for the archaeology of ancient Israel are available. This contribution reflects changes to Iron II chronology by accounting for the lengthier Iron IIA. However, absent from the current synthesis is the recognition of a much earlier start date for the Early Bronze Age, possibly c. 3800 B.C.E. as well as an earlier start for the Early Bronze IV (c. 2500 B.C.E.), both of which are based on an abundance of radiocarbon dates published in the past few years.

In sum, these volumes are an expensive addition to any library, adding too little to existing resources to justify the expense. The scope of the project has simply been too limited to permit the work to replace prior works, as Oxford University Press would wish us to believe. These volumes are therefore most useful within the framework of the project, but with the attendant challenges referenced here as well as the added expense of acquiring the remainder of the volumes in the series. For a new encyclopedia, the entries are neither sufficiently creative nor sufficiently broad in scope to justify acquisitions by libraries, personal or public, bloated as these libraries are with general reference works and faced with ever diminishing budgets. Between its recent proliferation of handbooks and encyclopedias, it seems that Oxford University Press has made one last great effort to fleece library budgets before publishing goes entirely electronic.



Aaron A. Burke is associate professor in archaeology of Ancient Israel and the Levant in the Near Eastern Languages and Cultures department at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is co-director (UCLA) of The Jaffa Cultural Heritage Project at the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology.

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  • David says

    A good review until the last sentence. That sort of attribution of motive is hardly necessary, and a bit mean.

  • Giles says

    Excellent review! 10/10 (for the review!)

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