The editors of The Oxford Companion to the Bible describe their work as “an authoritative reference for key persons, places, events, concepts, institutions, and realities of biblical times” and as a guide to the current “interpretation of these topics by modern scholars.” They present the Bible (the Old and New Testaments and the Apocrypha) in light of the latest, yet often contradictory, opinions from “anthropology, sociology, and literary criticism,” producing a handbook that is “consciously pluralistic” and “inclusive.” The Companion‘s intended audience ranges from the lay reader to ministers and rabbis to academics, although one guesses from its availability in chain bookstores and from various book clubs that it is aimed primarily at the general public.
Compiled by Princeton Seminary’s Bruce M. Metzger and Stonehill College’s Michael D. Coogan, the Companion‘s more than 700 entries are the work of Jewish and Christian biblical scholars from 20 countries. The authors rely throughout on the gender-sensitive New Revised Standard version of the Bible (“Let us make humankind in our image”), and its general tone and content place the Companion comfortably within the modernist, skeptical mentality. It proceeds consciously from the Enlightenment tradition, which, as the editors remind the reader, dispensed once and for all with the notion of the Bible as “God’s eternal, infallible, and complete word.” hi line with this presupposition, the Companion’s bibliography lacks a single representative from established or recent conservative biblical scholarship, while the articles reach beyond such conventional and expected subjects as “Eden,” “Judas,” “Frankincense,” and “Myrrh” to include such unusual and unexpected ones as “Ecology,” “Jung,” “Freud,” and “Marx.” Obviously, the editors’ pursuit of diversity took them places the lay reader could not have anticipated.
There is much in the Companion to commend. It includes a fine set of maps and a thorough index, and many of the articles are just the sort of thing one looks for in a Bible handbook. For instance, Jacob Neusner’s contributions on the Mishnah and Talmud are concise and appropriate, and Professor Metzger’s entry on the Bible itself is clear, factual, and impartial, while his “Curious Bibles” is a lively discussion of unusual formats and oddities in printing and translating the Bible over the centuries, SUCIT as the scandalous 1631 “Adulterous Bible” that inadvertently dropped the word “not” from the Seventh Commandment. Metzger’s articles are so finely turned out that one wishes he had written the entire volume.
In the end, however, the Companion fails as a study aid by its inappropriate tone and diction, its trendy views and modernist bias, and its inexplicable inclusions and exclusions. The tone is set from the start by the introduction, which alerts the reader to the fact that the Bible is full of “many repetitions, inconsistencies, and contradictions,” and few articles miss an opportunity to reinforce this point. The authors’ language is often polemical rather than scholarly and therefore inappropriate for an encyclopedic handbook. The entry under Hagar, for one example among many, judges St. Paul’s allegorical use of the Genesis story of Hagar to be “tendentious.”
Another problem for the general reader is the Companion’s tolerance of unintelligible academic jargon. What is the average student of the Bible to make of such insights as the fact that hyssop was used “in purificatory and apotropaic rituals” or, worse, that widespread literacy in ancient Israel is attributable to “the use of a limited acrophonic system of graphemic representation”? The Companion’s contributors often use an annoying, private vocabulary that renames the Crucifixion the “Christ event,” the Resurrection the “Easter event,” and the infant Church the “post-Easter community.” Of course, Jesus never “expected an individual resurrection for himself,” his disciples merely had post-Easter “revelatory encounters” with him, and the empty tomb is “an ambiguous fact.”
The reader is also treated to an array of fashionable topics, from “Homosexuality” to “Feminism and the Bible” to “Structuralism.” Catering to current intellectual appetites, one contributor argues that the Apostle Paul condemned the homosexual act simply because it transgresses “hierarchical gender boundaries” and thereby allows women “to transcend the passive, subordinate role accorded to them by nature” and permits men to forfeit their “superordinate, active role” and sink “to the level of women.” Of course the word patriarch has to be eliminated from our lexicon altogether. Under “Patriarchs” the editors offer only a note explaining that the Companion uses “the more inclusive terms ancestor(s) and ancestral for the biblical patriarchs and matriarchs.” Sorry, Abraham. Other similar concessions to fashion include the claim that Genesis’s supposed obsession with procreation “reflects the vigorous pronatalist worldview” prominent when the Old Testament was written. And more than two double-column pages are devoted to “Structuralism,” initiating the reader into the occult world of “deep structures” and textual meanings lurking beneath “the surface of the empirical manifestations.” Employing this approach, the article on women contemplates the Bible’s “unspoken political or rhetorical subtexts.” Entries of this sort guarantee that the Companion will soon be dated and, one suspects, quickly become something of a curiosity gathering dust on the shelf.
Additionally, how the editors determined what topics to include and exclude in the first place remains a mystery. Among the longest entries in the Companion are the articles on Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Karl Marx, to whom more space is devoted than to “Forgiveness,” “Sacrifice,” or “Atonement.” And the inclusion of these modern prophets draws attention to the fact that other important thinkers are missing entirely. While venerating Sts. Sigmund, Carl, and Karl, the editors confer no such honor on Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, or Edwards, or any other significant theologian for that matter. One can only wonder what absurd criteria omitted these giants of biblical interpretation.
The enticing blurb on the Companion‘s dust jacket heralds this handbook as “an ideal complement to the Bible, an essential volume for every home and library, the first place to turn for information on the central book of Western culture.” But for anyone concerned with the integrity of the Bible and with the survival of the civilization built on that revelation, for anyone who wishes to keep modernism and its deadly skepticism at bay, the Companion is the last place to turn. It was largely written by and for people for whom the Bible holds little or no authority, by and for the kind of religious modernists who try to prove how much they know by how little they believe. The contributors and editors would have done well to consider Carl Jung’s own lament in 1959 that in this “restless and crazy” age “our Christian doctrine has lost its grip to an appalling extent, chiefly because people don’t understand it any more.” Unhappily, The Oxford Companion to the Bible only encourages this fatal detachment from the Bible and its claims upon us.
[The Oxford Companion to the Bible, edited by Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan (New York: Oxford University Press) 864 pp., $49.95]