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. Edited by Walter A. Elwell Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of Baker Book House Company, PO Box 6287, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49516-6287.
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.
A five-volume Biblical encyclopaedia published 1898–1904. James Hastings (1852-1922) was a Scottish Presbyterian minister and founding editor of the Expository Times journal. Hastings worked with over 75 authors to produce this dictionary. Though the title is “Dictionary”, it is more properly an encyclopedia. These files are public domain.
The Cyclopaedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature is a reference work of ten volumes and two supplements published in the 19th century, co-authored by John McClintock, academic and minister, and Dr. James Strong, professor of exegetical theology. John McClintock and 200 other writers spent 20 years compiling, editing, and writing the Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. Even modern Bible encyclopedia’s lack the depth of the Cyclopedia’s nearly 50,000 entries and 17 million words! These files are public domain.
This encyclopedia, written in 1915, was published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Hailed for its authoritative explanation of every significant word, person and place, it is the standard by which all other biblical encyclopedias are measured. These files are public domain and were generously provided by the folks at WordSearch Software.
Dr. John Kitto’s encyclopedia was the first Bible Dictionary or Encyclopedia to have experts in each subject share their knowledge. Many subsequent Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias reference Kitto’s work. This encyclopedia does focus on names, places, and events, as one would expect. However, this work remains also explains manners, customs, culture, and background behind most of the words of Scripture. John Kitto lived just 50 years, from 1804 to 1854. These files are public domain.