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The Dictionary of New Testament Background

Finding the 140 scholars to write what turned out to be 300 articles totaling 1,300 pages was a daunting task.

By Craig Evans
Trinity Western University

    In 1992 InterVarsity Press published the Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (edited by J. B. Green, S. McKnight, and I. H. Marshall), the first of a projected three-volume set devoted to the New Testament. In 1993 the Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (edited by G. F. Hawthorne, R. P. Martin, and D. G. Reid) appeared, and then in 1997 the Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments (edited by R. P. Martin and Peter H. Davids) made its appearance. But by this time the publisher and its Reference Book Editor, Dan Reid, recognized that a dictionary devoted to issues of context and background of the New Testament and early Christianity was both desirable and necessary. Strong sales of the first two dictionaries removed doubts, encouraging the publisher to explore the possibility of a fourth New Testament dictionary. Dan Reid approached Craig Evans; the dreaming and planning began to take shape.

    Why the dictionary was necessary

    The need for the Dictionary of New Testament Background became apparent when it was recognized that many important topics simply would not be discussed in the first three dictionaries. For example, they may offer treatments of Jesus and Qumran or Paul and the Scrolls, but there would be no articles on the Scrolls themselves. The same applied to the many other non-canonical writings that in one way or another contributed to the background of the world in which early Christianity emerged and in the light of which the writings of the New Testament were composed.

    Likewise, we recognized the need for articles that treated archaeology and topography of Israel and the world of early Christianity. Important figures and periods in the history of Israel, Greece, and Rome called for discussion. Social institutions, forms of government and administration, customs and traditions, clothing, jewelry, and a host of other items that could shed light on what the early Christians experienced and took for granted—but with which most moderns are unacquainted—required treatment, either as full articles, or at least as part of other more comprehensive articles.

    How the scholars and topics were selected

    Evans wanted someone with expertise in Greco-Roman language and literature, someone with good connections and strong ties to the scholarly community. Accordingly, Stanley Porter was invited to co-edit the dictionary; happily, he accepted. Evans himself was primarily concerned with the Jewish and Palestinian topics.

    The editors, along with Dan Reid, listed more than 200 potential topics. Several scholars reviewed this list and made suggestions. The list grew, though in the process of review some topics were dropped or combined. Finding the 140 scholars to write what turned out to be 300 articles totaling some 1,300 pages was a daunting task. The age of e-mail arrived just in time, greatly facilitating the sending and receiving of some 2,000 messages. Ginny Evans oversaw this correspondence, keeping careful records of who was to do what and when it was to be finished. Mercifully, nearly everyone invited agreed to undertake the offered assignments, and with few exceptions, everyone completed his assignment.

    Many of the scholars contacted made very useful suggestions as to who might be able and willing to write for the Dictionary. This guidance proved to be invaluable; without it, the work could not have been completed.

    Problems encountered

    As any editor of a comparable project will admit, the greatest problem in producing a multi-author work is getting the several articles completed on time and in reasonable conformity with the desired format. More than a dozen articles were submitted without bibliographies (which were required), some two dozen articles were quite late, and another two dozen deviated significantly from the proper format, placing a great deal of pressure on the editors and the publisher in their effort to complete the proofing, indexing, and printing in time for the Society of Biblical Literature national meeting in Nashville, in November 2000, at which the Dictionary was to be unveiled. Some 200 copies of the Dictionary were shipped directly from the printer to the meeting, arriving just in time.

    Features of the Dictionary that are essential

    There are several features of the Dictionary of New Testament Background that are essential for fully contextualized exegesis: (1) literary context, (2) historical context, and (3) social context. The Dictionary offers numerous articles that speak to these aspects of context. The Scrolls of the Dead Sea region, the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, the writings of Josephus, Philo, and the various manuscripts and text forms of the Bible itself are among the most important topics. Articles on important figures (such as Pontius Pilate, Caiaphas, the Emperors, Apolonius of Tyana), sects (Essenes, Pharisees, Sadducees, Samaritans, Therapeutae), institutions (marriage, Roman government), geographical settings (Galilee, Judea, Asia Minor), cities (Jerusalem, Rome), archaeology (of Israel, of New Testament world), and aspects of culture and customs (friendship, divorce, literacy, books, libraries). Most of these articles treat specific writings and persons. Most of the books of the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, and the Scrolls of Qumran have separate entries, though there are generalizing and summarizing articles as well (Apostolic Fathers).

    But these various articles are written with the principal concern of the Dictionary in mind—the light each topic brings to bear on aspects of New Testament study.

    The purpose of the Dictionary

    Every dictionary or encyclopedia of the Bible is intended in one way or another to assist in the study of the Bible. The Dictionary of New Testament Background probes topics of background and context much more deeply than most other reference tools and commentaries. Typically, these other tools allude to important persons, events, or texts, assuming that the reader possesses requisite knowledge. But many readers do not possess this knowledge and often are unsure where to begin, should they wish to pursue the topic further. The purpose of the new Dictionary is to rectify this problem by gathering into one volume what readers will find scattered in many locations, to summarize in succinct and accessible form what will usually be found in much fuller and more technical form, and to update what is in most other comparable tools dated. The articles in the Dictionary have been written by experts in the very fields of research to which their articles speak; in some instances the articles represent the first published material of any kind, or nearly so, on a given topic.

    Reception of the Dictionary

    Thus far, the scholarly reception of the Dictionary has been very positive. The work became available in November 2000, and in the last eight months, some 7,000 copies have been sold. This is an encouraging early indication of public interest. It is to be hoped that those engaged in serious study of the Bible will take full advantage of what the Dictionary offers.

    Prospects for the future

    The publisher is open to the possibility of revising and reissuing the Dictionary 15 to 20 years hence. Ongoing work in archaeology, papyri, and the Dead Sea Scrolls will make revision desirable. We look forward to future discoveries and new developments.

Craig Evans is a distinguished Professor at Trinity Western University