The Dictionary of the Bible and Ancient Media

The Dictionary of the Bible and Ancient Media is a convenient and authoritative reference tool, introducing specific terms and concepts helpful to the study of the Bible and related literature in ancient communications culture. Since the early 1980s, biblical scholars have begun to explore the potentials of interdisciplinary theories of oral tradition, oral performance, personal and collective memory, ancient literacy and scribality, visual culture and ritual. Over time these theories have been combined with considerations of critical and exegetical problems in the study of the Bible, the history of Israel, Christian origins, and rabbinics. The Dictionary of the Bible and Ancient Media responds to the rapid growth of the field by providing a source of reference that offers clear definitions, and in-depth discussions of relevant terms and concepts, and the relationships between them.

A review copy was provided some weeks ago and my thoughts on the work follow:

The volume contains a list of entries, a list of contributors (which is almost as long as the list of entries), editorial bios of the three chief editors, a little entry called ‘How to use this book’ and an introduction to media studies and biblical studies.

Entries include such topics as ‘Jan Assmann’, ‘Rudolf Bultmann’, ‘Circumcision’, ‘Code Switching’, ‘Dance’, ‘Epigraphy’, ‘Guslar’ (and I admit, I had no idea what that was supposed to be.  I imagined it must be some sort of Hipster beer or some such thing), ‘Iconography in the Hebrew Bible’, ‘Libraries’, a half dozen or so entries on some aspect of ‘Memory’ (which one would expect given the presence of Chris Keith on the editorial board), ‘Susan Niditch’, ‘Pilgrimage’, ‘Plato (on Writing and Memory)’, ‘Riddles’, ‘Social Memory’ (!), ‘Targums’, ‘Verbatim Memory’ (!!), ‘Wax Tablet’, and a great hoard of others.

It may seem, at first glance, that the topics  selected for entry are completely random, or ideologically motivated.  But that isn’t actually the case.  Rather, the selected topics all do ‘fit together’ and when the volume’s opening section is consulted (the bit called ‘How to use this book’) it all makes actual sense.  It aims, according to the editors, to introduce users to the blossoming field of Media studies and its fruitfulness (or at least potential fruitfulness) for biblical studies, ‘… by providing a convenient handbook of key terms, concepts, methods, and voices that are frequently encountered in media-critical studies of the Bible’.

Naturally, they continue, the entries in the Dictionary are not exhaustive, and many other topics could be included.  Yet it seems clear to this reader that their own key term is ‘communications culture’.  That is the term that summarizes the volume and its central concern.  It is, I presume, the newest ‘buzzword’ and I suspect in the next few years many, many papers at SBL will include somewhere in their titles the phrase ‘Communications Culture’ or ‘Media Culture’.  This volume, to put it plainly, will probably just be the first of many which focus on ‘communications’ in connection with Biblical Studies.

Whether ‘communications culture’ will become the latest flash in the pan fad of biblical studies or whether it will eek out a permanent place in the methodological universe remains to be seen.  We appear to be merely at the opening of the play, with several acts to follow (to mix metaphors).

The question, at present, remains:  is this a useful volume?  Every reader will have their own opinion on the topic and answer to that question, but for my part, I would say yes, very much so; and no, perhaps not.  Allow me to excerpt a portion in illustration of my answer by means of a snippet of the entry on Bultmann:

I think it fair to say that Bultmann would be very surprised to learn that he was a practitioner of ‘Media Criticism of the Bible’.  So perhaps the method is a bit forced at this point.  Perhaps it’s seeing ‘media criticism’ where none is really to be found.  But of course this is a natural stage in the development in any new methodology: in striving to justify its existence, it must provide examples of it.  Sometimes those examples are more than a little tendentious.

However, let me hasten to say that the book does better.  Here’s an excerpt from an entry that actually does have to do with media:

Thus the volume strives mightily to justify itself and its nascent methodology and at some points it fails but in many it succeeds.  For what is essentially the first attempt at a new field in relationship to study of the bible, it’s very useful.

I recommend it.  It will surely be turned to by students and scholars in the near future as a groundbreaking resource.  Whether, however, it has shelf life remains to be seen.