Dec 7, 2011 David Lang

Eerdman's Dictionary of Early Judaism Now Available

EDEJ-cover-sm In the high school English class I teach, I had my students write an actual sermon manuscript. (I figured that would be more interesting than having them write a mere "persuasive essay.") One of my students wrote a sermon on the prologue to John's gospel, and at one point she contrasted the Jewish and Greek understandings of the word logos. It was impressive, but also a little unsettling. Since I didn't ask my students to cite their sources (that will come in later assignments), I had no idea where she got that information. Had she heard it from her own pastor? If so, how did the pastor know how first-century Jews and Greeks used a particular Greek word?

It's the same feeling I get when I listen to many preachers. They'll share some tidbit of background information which sheds new light on the passage they're teaching, and it's admittedly very exciting. Still, I've been around long enough and have heard enough misinformation to know that it "ain't necessarily so." I know these preachers are probably not experts on the symbolism in ancient Jewish apocalyptic, or the differences between the schools of Shammai and Hillel, or the distinctives of various first-century Jewish sects, so I'm left wondering where they got those cool bits of background info.

The challenge, of course, is knowing how to do the necessary fact-checking. You can consult a general Bible dictionary, but even the best ones may not address specific first-century Jewish beliefs and practices. Or if they do, it may not be easy to find in the midst of a larger, more general article. To further complicate things, our understanding of early Judaism has been rapidly changing in recent years.

John J. Collins, the editor of the new Eerdman's Dictionary of Early Judaism, explains why this is:

The field of Second Temple Judaism has emerged as a major area of study only in this generation. In large part, the flowering of the field has been due to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which made available for the first time a wealth of primary sources for the period between the Bible and the Mishnah. There has also been a resurgence of interest in the Pseudepigrapha, the large and loosely-defined corpus of literature transmitted by Christians that includes many works of Jewish origin. At a time like this when many scholars' long-held opinions are being challenged and revised, there is both great excitement and great confusion. The average pastor, rabbi, or student can't possibly keep up with all the new developments, so he or she tends to catch bits of information that may be more urban legend than actual fact. In order for non-specialists to "take stock of this burgeoning field" and have a reliable source of background information, there is need for "a major reference work devoted specifically to this period." That, Collins explains, is precisely why the Eerdman's Dictionary of Early Judaism was written.

The dictionary itself includes both a series of summary essays on various aspects of early Judaism, as well as alphabetically arranged articles on specific terms and topics. The summary essays survey the current state of the field, the history of the period, the various bodies of ancient Jewish literature, the way Jews of the period related to Greeks and Romans, the relationship between early Judaism and early Christianity, and more. The dictionary articles cover such topics as each body of literature and religious sect, religious observances, key figures, theological concepts, and important aspects of Jewish life during the Second Temple period.

So can Eerdman's Dictionary of Early Judaism help a non-scholar like myself verify my student's assertion about Jewish and Greek understandings of the word logos? A quick search for "logos" turned up an article which discussed the use of the term in Greek Philosophy, in the Greek Septuagint, in Hellenistic Jewish speculation, in the New Testament in general, and in the prologue to the gospel of John. What about when a preacher talks about the differences between Shammai and Hillel? A search for either one provides helpful information. The same goes for when a pastor mentions first-century Jewish sects or discusses the subtleties of ancient apocalyptic. A few simple searches can provide the information I need in an easily digestible form.

For scholars and students working in the field of Second-Temple Judaism, Eerdman's Dictionary of Early Judaism is an even more helpful reference. And having that reference available within Accordance makes it incredibly useful. Whether you need it for information about your field of study, or would simply benefit from a reliable source of background information, I think you'll find this new dictionary incredibly helpful.

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