In an age of competing “internet histories” and lists of “ten things you need to know about this”, where the first page of Google and a Wikipedia entry are often marshaled as appropriate evidence for engaging important issues, access to serious resources serves an important role in properly understanding and interpreting our world. This is especially true when it comes to faith, where what you hear in church and what you see on the History Channel are often worlds apart. And, while there are some great online resources for encountering our world, for many topics nothing quite replaces the encompassing usefulness of a well-written book. To serve this purpose among the Catholic faithful comes the Catholic Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 2009) edited by Scott Hahn.
The Catholic Bible Dictionary is exactly what it sounds like—a dictionary of well-known and important (and sometimes less well-known) people, places, and concepts from the Christian Bible. Working from Vatican II’s call for all Christian faithful to “learn the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ, by frequent reading of the divine scriptures,” this dictionary is designed to help non-specialists become more familiar with their Bibles. Recognizing that the need for the Bible to be handled with care (it is a double-edged sword, after all) as well as the need for Christians to become more intimately acquainted with the Scriptures, this Bible Dictionary presents itself as an easy-to-use and accessible tool for readers of all ages and backgrounds. If there is a criticism of this dictionary, it would have been beneficial to see a little more front matter, with perhaps an explanation of how this dictionary could be used in conjunction with lectionary readings or a personal Bible study. However, the materials as presented in an appropriate and straightforward as they currently stand.
Entries in the Catholic Bible Dictionary range from the common (Desert: “Today scientists define a desert as a place of arid conditions with annual rainfall of less than 10 inches….”) to the obscure (Deuel: “The father of Elisaph of Gad and a commander under Moses….”), with nearly a thousand pages of entries in-between. Each entry contains pertinent information about the subject without being too technical or overly verbose, and related entries are helpfully bolded (for example, Jesse: “The father of David, a member….”). Especially useful is this dictionary’s willingness to engage the historical and theological sides of Biblical topics. The entry Jesus Christ, for instance, contains an outline of the historical sources used to understand Jesus (433-438), a summary of His life, teaching, and work (438-444), and a section on Biblical Christology (444-447).
While the Catholic Bible Dictionary is (obviously) intended for a Catholic audience, its contents nonetheless provide ample information for Orthodox and Protestants as well. Hahn is very upfront with the Catholic “ethos” of this dictionary, and its contents make no apologies for their theological perspective. Yet the entries are amicable toward Protestantism, very often noting where Protestant history and interpretation intersect with the Catholic perspective. A good example of this is the entry for Apocryphal Books, where Protestant rejections of the Catholic portions of the Old Testament Apocrypha as canonical are noted and explained. Additionally, there are two appendices that readers of all backgrounds will appreciate, one on the chronology of the Old Testament and another on the chronology of the kings and Israel and Judah, these in addition to some standard Biblical maps.
Overall, the Catholic Bible Dictionary serves as an extremely useful and easy-to-use research tool for Catholic Biblical Studies, and has many advantages for non-Catholics seeking to better understand the Bible as well. Hahn and his team are to be commended for the approachability and balance of this dictionary, which should have a place on bookshelves everywhere.I received this book from Random House Publishers and Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review. All opinions expressed are my own.