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)
If you use e-sword (like I do), you can download many of these references so they are at your fingertips as you study. Alternately, StudyLight.org has many of my favorites available for free online.
Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature
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.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
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.
Kitto’s Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature
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.
The Nuttall Encyclopedia
The Nuttall Encyclopedia, named for Dr. Peter Austin Nuttall (d. 1869), consists of entries that are generally very short. The encyclopedia has a strong editorial voice. The work concerns itself mostly with people and places.
1901 Jewish Encyclopedia.com
The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia, prepared by more than four hundred scholars and specalists, was a descriptive record of the history, religion, literature and customs of the Jewish people from the earliest times to the present day.
1911 Encyclopedia Britannica
When published in 1911, this encyclopedia contained over 40 million words in nearly 40,000 articles written by 1,500 authors respected in their fields. It represented the sum of human knowledge at the beginning of the 20th century.
Manners and Customs of Bible Lands
Bible Dictionary Search (Blue Letter Bible)
American Tract Society Bible Dictionary
Although written in 1859 by William Rand, this dictionary of the Bible from the American Tract Society is still relevant today.
Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology
Collected from many noted, contemporary theologians, this resources is a useful addition to any library. 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.
Easton’s Bible Dictionary
Easton’s Bible Dictionary was written by Matthew George Easton (1823-1894). This Scottish Presbyterian’s other significant literary achievements were his English translations of two of Franz Delitzsch’s commentaries.
Fausset’s Bible Dictionary
From the co-author of the classic Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Commentary, Fausset’s Bible Dictionary stands as one of the best single-volume Bible encyclopedias ever written for general use. The author’s writing style is always clear and concise, and he tackles issues important to the average student of the Bible, not just the Biblical scholars.
Hastings’ Dictionary of the Bible
Complete and trustworthy, Hastings’ Dictionary of the Bible is a thorough reference (5,915 entries) for all readers of the Bible. For nearly a century, lay people and scholars alike have valued the authoritative contents and the convenient format of this one-volume work.
Hastings’ Dictionary of the New Testament
Originally written as two different dictionaries, this complete dictionary/encyclopedia of the New Testament, written by James Hastings, is a thorough look at Christ and the Apostolic Church.
Holman Bible Dictionary
The product of over 6 years of work by hundreds of people, the Holman Bible Dictionary manages to be readable and easy to use, yet take advantage of the finest modern Bible scholarship without heavy technical language. The over 6,600 entries includes extensive cross-referencing of related articles, and quotes from 6 different Bible translations.
Hitchcock’s Bible Names
This dictionary is from “Hitchcock New and Complete Analysis of the Holy Bible,” written by Roswell D. Hitchcock in 1869. It contains more than 2,500 Bible and Bible-related proper names and their meanings.
Morrish Bible Dictionary
Originally published with the title A New and Concise Bible Dictionary by George Morrish (London), the Morrish Bible Dictionary is more than a dictionary of Bible words.
Smith’s Bible Dictionary
More than 4,500 subjects and proper names are defined and analyzed with corresponding Scripture references. Bible students have used “Smith’s Bible Dictionary” since its introduction in the 1880s, making it a trustworthy classic.
Whyte’s Dictionary of Bible Characters
Alexander Whyte’s Dictionary of Bible Characters delves into the lives and history of both prominent and little-known characters of the Old and New Testaments. Drawing directly from both the Bible and referencing works of other notable scholars, Whyte’s skillful paints an informative and illuminating picture of these men and women.
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