Multi-volume encyclopedias used to be too expensive for home use and were confined to those with access to a large library system. However, they are becoming more widely available on computer software and online.
Multi-volume encyclopedias and dictionaries are good sources for historical background information, introductory material, word studies and biblical themes. While newer volumes are often preferable since they contain the latest in archeological evidence, older volumes can be superior in some respects. Older volumes tend to focus more on fact-gathering while newer volumes focus more on synthesis of material and answering questions like “how do we know what we know”.
Remember context affects background information the same way it affects word studies.
Background information does not impose a particular meaning on a verse. Even when the piece of background information is incredibly obvious or widely-known, it may not be relevant. Context still casts the deciding vote. For example, the apostle James says:
We count those blessed who endured. You have heard of the endurance of Job and have seen the outcome of the Lord’s dealings, that the Lord is full of compassion and is merciful. – James 5:11
James is not inviting us to cram everything we know about Job into verse 5:11. James is inviting us to consider the endurance of Job, not his charity, his choice of friends or the state of his marriage. It doesn’t matter that extra biblical sources discuss the charity of Job; nor does it matter that James has discussed the poor earlier in the letter. James gives us the context: We count those blessed who endured. You have heard of the endurance of Job. The context is endurance.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, ed. G.W. Bromiley & E.F. Harrison, R.K Harrison & W.S. LaSor (4 volumes), Eerdmans.
Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, ed. G.A. Buttrick & associates, 4 volumes. (Abingdon)
Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, ed. .Merrill C Tenney, 5 volumes. (Zondervan)
- Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology
- Holman Bible Dictionary
- Hastings’ Dictionary of the Bible
- Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature
- International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
- Kitto’s Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature