Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Review: "Catholic Bible Dictionary," Scott Hahn

Title: Catholic Bible Dictionary
Author: Scott Hahn, ed.
Pages: hardcover, 1,008
Published: Doubleday Religion
Released: June 16, 2009

With his mammoth yet manageable Catholic Bible Dictionary, professor and theologian Scott Hahn has created an indispensable contribution to the field of religious studies and produced a reference book that libraries, churches, and individual parishioners will all do well to own.

At 992 pages plus maps, the Catholic Bible Dictionary feels more like an encyclopedia in many ways, with many entries running for several pages and being broken up into thematic segments. The writing is exceptionally clear and as concise as can be given the subject matter. Hahn avoids any major theological dispute and gives the introductory-level reader a fair chance to get involved with the content without becoming overwhelmed. As someone who was raised with a Bible library at home and required Bible study every day, I admit that I probably have a bit of an unfair advantage when it comes to telling my Pharisees from my Saducees. But that background has also helped me build up a knack for spotting useful Bible reference books versus filler, and this is absolutely in the former category.

Hahn does several things exactly right. When he tells you what gum is, he doesn't just give a basic definition and list a few verses where it's mentioned; instead, he explains why it was so important during Biblical times (as a valuable item for trade). When defining the word "Jew" -- which is always a fun task -- he gets into the difference between what that meant in the time of Jesus versus today. Likewise, Hahn goes over what "grace" means and represents in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the Christian Scriptures. (The dictionary does follow the Catholic tradition of calling them the "Old" versus "New" Testaments, which is of course rather minimizing towards Judaism and its adherents.) When giving background on "Yahweh," there is an overview of the various spoken and written interpretations of the Tetragrammaton and how they came to be.

Similar to explaining who a "Jew" was then versus now, Hahn goes into detail about the historical context of "Gentiles" during Biblical times, including their differing reputations and connotations depending upon geography and even attributed Bible book author. He gives lengthy treatment to often overlooked yet very common Biblical words such as "face," going over the various usages of it throughout the Bible; he is exceptional at reminding the reader to always view language in its context and not use the same understanding and interpretation for every application.

There are a few areas where the dictionary could use some improvement in its next edition. Some metaphorical terms, such as the "sea of glass" from the Book of Revelations, are presented with their literal but not metaphorical or symbolic definition. When discussing terms from books like Revelation or Daniel, as two easy examples, it is less than helpful to leave out the deeper meaning. If Hahn can explain that "reeds" symbolize weakness, surely he can delve into topics that are arguably more meaningful. There are also some odd choices in which terms get more treatment than others; for a Catholic Bible dictionary to say less about "Palm Sunday" than virtually obscure figures like "Johanan" and "General Sosipater" is an odd choice indeed. Finally, when describing a geographic location (like "Phoenicia"), it would be helpful to include a note saying "(see map #__)" at the end of the entry.

The Catholic Bible Dictionary contains two appendices -- a chronology of the "Old Testament" and a list of the kings of Judea and Israel -- as well as seven glossy, full-color 8.5" x 11" maps of fair quality. It is overall decidedly worth your money and shelf space.

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