Book review: The Oxford Encyclopaedia of the Books of the Bible

A mosaic featuring Christ and the apostles in Rome.''Picture: Getty
A mosaic featuring Christ and the apostles in Rome.''Picture: Getty
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THESE books represent the kind of serious, high-minded and authoritative project that perhaps only university publishers can now feasibly undertake.

More than 100 scholars have contributed to an immensely thorough, and, although rigorously academic, never dusty benchmark in learning. There are many benefits from the “wikification” of knowledge, but occasionally, what is required is something less prone to amateurism and the unreflexive capitulation to what the majority thinks it thinks. Although the cover price means that these books might be more borrowed than bought, more referred to than read, this is the kind of resource I would hope that every library service in Scotland would make available to its readers. It is also the kind of resource that, had I just won the Lottery, I would gift to the green-inky groups whose knowledge of the Bible is in inverse proportion to the shrillness of their prejudices.

The greatest problem with the conservative and literalist readers of the Bible is that, far from being precise in their reading, they laxly assume that their own literalism was shared by the writers of those books. Under Michael D Coogan’s editorship, The Oxford Encyclopaedia Of The Books Of The Bible is generous, spirited and genuinely radical in what it defines as “the Books of the Bible”, and has the historical, theoretical gravitas to make those claims significant.

How many books are in the Bible? It’s a kind of QI question, since the answer depends on a number of factors. If you’re in the Church of Scotland, it’s 66. If you’re in the Church of England, it’s 66 as well, with an extra 14 relegated to the “take ‘em or leave ‘em” category of “Apocrypha”. If you’re a Roman Catholic, it’s 73. If you’re Greek Orthodox, it’s 76, plus their Book of Daniel is significantly longer, and there’s an extra Psalm. If you’re a member of the Ethiopian Coptic Church, it can go beyond 80 depending on whether or not you’re a believer in the “broad canon”. The Bible as we know it coalesced over time, and even now disputes exist about the canonicity of some books – which makes the favourite verse of the literalist (Paul’s Second Epistle to Timothy, Chapter 3, Verse 16: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness”) – more than slightly problematic. Which “all Scripture”, exactly?

Certain elements about the Bible were agreed upon early on: Athanasius in 367, in his Festal Letter, outlined which books, broadly, were “in”, which were useful but not essential, and which were “out” for the New Testament. Earlier, around 180, Irenaeus, in his book Against Heresies, wrote that there were four, and only four gospels. His reasoning may seem associative and lateral to us (there were four cardinal directions, there were four kinds of angel around the throne of God in Ezekiel, there were four covenants – Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus) but they were compelling enough to win widespread approval: other versions, such as the attempts by Tatian, Marcion and the Ebionites to either exclude gospels or re-write them as one story, failed to influence the early Church. But ironically, Irenaeus himself quotes books which were read at meetings of Christians as “scripture” that Athenaeus rejected. The section in The Oxford Encyclopaedia Of The Books Of The Bible on texts like The Shepherd of Hermas and the Epistle Of Clement show that there was a thriving need for discussion about these new ideas (one scholar estimates we have only 1 per cent of the total writings by Christians from the first two centuries). Some of the early texts we have are obviously later inventions (though that might not have made them spurious in the eyes of the early Christians): the Acts of Paul is more like a Greek novel, with love-plots and baptising lions. Some, since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, have gained greater significance: the apocalyptic writings of “Enoch”, for example, seem to have had more traction on the sympathies and aspirations of Jewish and Christian believers in and around the turn from BC to AD than we might have thought in 1912.

In terms of the texts now recognised by Churches, the editors of the Encyclopaedia are scrupulous (as such books are) to the point of prevarication. A major section of academic work points out that certain beliefs and certain forms of language are dissimilar between the early Paul and the later works which may, it is claimed, have been written by others and attributed to Paul. This is an argument which I find vexatious. Non-biblical scholars are perhaps more attuned to the idea that styles can change over a lifetime: the early Shakespeare of The Comedy Of Errors doesn’t sound like the Shakespeare of Cymbeline; nor is it easy to hear in Beethoven’s first symphony the creator of the late string quartets. There are “pseudepigraphal” works – works that were obviously written later than Paul’s death, such as the supposed correspondence between Paul and the Roman philosopher Seneca – but even some of these have an influential afterlife: the Coptic church, for example, still recognises the Third Epistle to the Corinthians.

In part, some of these works were created because of a perceived lack in the Bible as it stands – Paul mentions other letters he has written (such as the Epistle to the Laodiceans as well as other letters to Corinth) and the idea of authorship in the 1st century did not exclude more creative varieties. The Bible is full of references to lost books; Exodus 17:14 for example has God directly telling Moses to write a book about the defeat of the Amalekites, no copy of which has ever been found.

The significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Nag Hammadi library in Egypt, the Samaritan Pentateuch and the Targumim (Aramaic translations of Hebrew texts) is that we can see a wealth of regional variation in the supposedly authoritative books. Some are so enigmatic as to be more similar to fiction, such as the Copper Scroll, a work written on copper found at Qumran, detailing lists of fabulous amounts of treasure (most likely, it should be stressed, metaphorical treasures).

Since the books that make up the Bibles are so different – laws, songs, histories, letters, poetic visions, fables – there are no “set” forms for the Encyclopaedia entries. Each does, however, present a broad overview of the critical tradition, theories about composition and authorship and most will discuss the book’s interpretation and reception (so the entry on Isaiah includes a note on Handel’s use of it for Messiah). I have spent a month now both dipping in and reading through, and each visit has provoked delight and deep pondering.

The dual digital and print versions mean that the Encyclopaedia, like the books it describes, will be in a constant process of revision as new evidence comes to light. And that happens more frequently than you might think: only in 2005 did a fragment of papyrus from Oxyrhynchus, dating back to c250 AD, cause headline news. This scrap contains a part of Revelation where the infamous Number of the Beast is … 616.

The Oxford Encyclopaedia of the Books of the Bible

Michael D Coogan, Editor-in-Chief

Oxford University Press, two vols, 1,178pp, £265