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The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Archaeology

July 2014 (118.3)

Book Review

The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Archaeology

By Daniel M. Master. 2 vols. Vol. 1, AEL–INF. Pp. xxiv + 555, figs. 41; vol. 2, JER–WRI. Pp. x + 579, figs. 39. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2013. $395. ISBN 978-0-19-984653-5 (cloth).

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The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Archaeology is impressive. Its 1,100-plus pages contain 121 entries with a striking geographical and chronological range, presented in two large-format volumes, attractively bound. It is not cheap—at $395 it will be beyond the budget of most individual scholars, meaning that it is targeted at libraries. Publishing a volume like this is an expensive business, and so, perhaps, the price is justified. While the individual entries in these volumes are digitally accessible via the Oxford Biblical Studies Online platform (, the absence of a digital version of the two-volume set (at the time of writing) seems unfortunate.

The encyclopedia is one element in a larger project, The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible, a series of two-volume sets, each devoted to a separate subject, all containing long entries that explore topics in depth rather than feature briefer articles on a wider variety of topics.

The two volumes under review commence with a list of entries (without page numbers), followed by the usual front matter of series introduction, preface, and abbreviations, and then the entries themselves, listed alphabetically. Following the list of entries is an abbreviated six-and-a-half-page overview of the archaeological chronology of the southern Levant, a reworking of the entries as a topical outline, and a directory of contributors, rounded off by a lengthy and impressive index of 105 pages.

Master notes in his introduction that the volume pursues “an approach in which geographical and social patterns are explored as a way of enhancing the reading of biblical texts” (xvii). Herein lies the rub: what should a modern encyclopedia of archaeology and the Bible contain? Put differently, does it pursue a biblical agenda or an archaeological agenda? And who is it aimed at? Scholars or laypeople? Biblicists or archaeologists? The answer, according to Master, seems to be to cast the net widely, ignoring the specific needs and expectations of any particular group and to use the volume to explore “lifeways” whose repetition across time and space proffer the context of the biblical narrative (xvi–xvii).

Although Master takes a swipe at those archaeologists who “still feel most comfortable with narrow studies of architecture and stratigraphy” (xvii), it is exactly that—the carefully conducted stratigraphic excavation of hundreds of archaeological sites—that provides the opportunity to explore the wider, Braudelian issues of long-term change that are championed in these volumes. To this end, Master makes the point that all the contributors are “active in the excavation trench and in biblical scholarship,” (xvii) with a view to bringing together archaeology and biblical studies by the recovery and application of these lifeways.

The selection of entries reflects these aims. The topical outline at the end of volume 2 demonstrates their variety, showing that the entries range from the Hebrew Bible to the New Testament to presentations about society and culture from sites in Syria-Palestine to the eastern Mediterranean and Greece and Rome.

In this breadth of scope, the volume in some respects reflects the ambition seen in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East (E. Meyers, ed. [Oxford 1997]). That five-volume set includes entries with a similar focus; however, it is not restricted by the current volume’s biblical ties and so is a more appropriate venue to explore these matters. So, in the current volume, in a short list of only 22 entries of New Testament–period archaeological sites in Syria-Palestine, can the pursuit of a wider approach justify the inclusion of seven of those entries, almost a third, that do not feature in the New Testament at all? Gamla, Herodium, Hippos, Masada, Qumran, Sepphoris, and Tel Kedesh are all important archaeological sites, to be sure, and they demonstrate well the many aspects of cultural change in the Hellenistic and Roman periods in Palestine, but in a two-volume set specifically devoted to the Bible and archaeology, their inclusion raises questions. Other entries of questionable relevance include Aelia Capitolina and Pompeii and Herculaneum. If considered absolutely necessary, any relevant details from these excavations could have been incorporated in a single entry or other entries already included in the volume, freeing up space to include discussions of other sites or subjects of more direct relevance to the title.

The result is an encyclopedia that campaigns for a new approach but risks failing to meet the expectations of anyone except, perhaps, its own contributors. Time will tell if it serves its purpose in changing the focus of the two wider disciplines it seeks to serve, but for some its effectiveness will be undermined by these perceived inadequacies. This, then, is not the place to seek short entries summarizing relevant information about places, or subjects, or even processes or theoretical approaches that relate to archaeology and the biblical world. The entries are lengthy, sometimes dense, and require time and application to work through. In many cases, they resemble journal articles more than encyclopedia entries. Subheadings are sometimes infrequent (e.g., “Ekron”) and occasionally completely absent (e.g., “Roman Forts and Fortifications”). Some entries demonstrate little effort to relate to the biblical text, while others have little or nothing to do with archaeology (e.g., “Infancy, Childhood, Adulthood, Old Age, Bronze and Iron Age”).

That said, the entries themselves are generally excellent. Time spent on careful study will bring much reward. Bibliographies are useful, and not extensive. In some cases, the authors have added short descriptions about each bibliographic entry and its relevance.

A brief review of a few articles may offer an insight into the whole. The site entries range from the well known and well published, such as “Ekron” and “Gezer,” to the lesser known and lesser published—and therefore all the more interesting—such as “Cana,” which considers three competing claims to the biblical site. (Though, again, with all the possible New Testament sites that could have been listed, is Cana in any of its manifestations sufficiently important in its own right or as a factor in long-term cultural change to be included?) A copyediting error has crept into the Ekron entry: on pages 364 and 365, square meters have been replaced by square miles, and the square mileage has then been given in square kilometers as well. The error is repeated in the entry on Ashdod (68). However, apart from these rather startling errors, the copyediting is very good.

The entry on “Beersheba,” by Lehmann, includes a review not only of the well-known site of Tel Sheba, excavated by Yohanan Aharoni and Ze’ev Herzog in the 1960s and 1970s, but also of Bir-es-Saba in the modern town (not widely published in English) and the Chalcolithic sites within the modern city that were excavated largely in the 1950s. Lehmann ends his article by suggesting that the larger, less densely built-up settlement of Bir-es-Saba, inside modern Beer Sheba, is the biblical site, not Tel Sheba, 2.5 miles (4.8 km) away. Size is critical, he says, noting that Bir-es-Saba was more than 10 times the size of Tel Sheba and the largest site in the northern Negev in the eighth century B.C.E., though he concedes it may have been sparsely settled.

By contrast, the entry on “Capernaum,” by De Luca, is less enlightening. The references to the archaeological excavations contain no information about who dug there, or when; nor does it say anything about the competing interpretations of the site, all surely important in an encyclopedia entry. The author writes that “it is not always easy to interpret the architectural system of the village because of the superimposition of different phases of buildings” (173); yet the subsequent descriptions of the archaeology and its interpretation do not demonstrate the caution that this statement calls for. The description of the synagogue presumes some prior knowledge of the site and familiarity with the stratigraphy; references to “Corbo’s stratum A” and “stratum C” (174) are not very helpful. There is a table showing the phases of the synagogue (174), but its lack of continuity with the text is demonstrated by the mention of a “white synagogue” in the text (the one that is visible at the site today), while the table does not mention a white synagogue, but a “limestone synagogue.” Here, and in the description of Peter’s house, a plan would have been helpful. The controversies surrounding the latter are impossible to deny and are not addressed. The author writes that in the second half of the first century C.E., Room 1, or the “venerated room,” began to receive special treatment. Later developments with this building are dated to the third and fourth centuries, but no evidence is brought for these dates, nor are we told who came to this conclusion. What are the finds, and where are they published? If an encyclopedia leads us to further study, we need to know where to look.

The entries on society and culture are likewise varied, ranging from reviews of agricultural practice to architecture, dress, music, and religion. Covering the eastern Mediterranean, the Hebrew Bible, and the New Testament, they provide information on a range of subjects that aptly fulfill the editors’ focus on lifeways. Some are more archaeological and historical, with little or no biblical references, such as the entries on “Stone Tools, Bronze and Iron Age” and “Roman Forts and Fortifications,” while others are almost entirely devoid of archaeological content, such as “Puberty, Marriage, Sex, Reproduction and Divorce.” To some extent, these biases are a function of the titles of these entries; most of the entries do a good job of including both archaeology and the Bible in their contents.

Master’s very useful and well-summarized chronology of the southern Levant at the end of volume 2 is one of the most valuable elements of the book. It contains sensible descriptions of each phase from the Neolithic starting ca. 8500 B.C.E. and going to the end of the Roman period in 337 C.E. For the Iron IIA period, he incorporates the crux of the recent debate surrounding the lower chronology, presenting the views both of those championing the rise of the United Monarchy early in the 10th century B.C.E. and those seeking a date later in the 10th century for the increase in monumental architecture and other factors associated with the emergence of the state. It is notable that he does not give credence to any proposals to lower the start of these developments into the ninth century.

The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Archaeology is a useful addition to the list of encyclopedias in these fields. It is different in its approach because it seeks to promote long-term change in geographic and social patterns as a template for interpreting the archaeology of the region, and enhancing the reading of the texts, and because it breaks with biblical archaeology’s unfortunate heritage of Albrightian identity and historical particularism. But it is restricted in doing so by the very title of the work, which brings archaeology and the Bible inseparably together. The result is that neither archaeologists nor biblical scholars will be entirely satisfied. In spite of being more than 1,100 pages, its reliance on lengthy articles means that it is not broad enough to be encyclopedic for archaeologists in the way that, say, the Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East was in 1997, and its general bias toward archaeology will leave some biblical scholars frustrated. As noted, its price will render it inaccessible to a significant number of scholars, and particularly students. Nevertheless, for those who can afford it, the volume is an important one that deserves a place on the shelves of biblical and archaeological scholars who wish to go beyond the narrow confines of stratigraphy, architecture, and textual criticism.

Garth Gilmour
Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies
Oriental Institute
Oxford OX1 2LE
United Kingdom

Book Review of The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Archaeology. Vols. 1–2, by Daniel M. Master

Reviewed by Garth Gilmour

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 118, No. 3 (July 2014)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1183.Gilmour

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