An (Updated) Bible Dictionary?

Let me just say upfront that I don’t have a problem in theory with the idea of a Bible dictionary accompanying the LDS version of the scriptures as a study help for members. Reading the Bible in English (or any other modern language for that matter) for devotional purposes these days presents enormous interpretive challenges, as it represents a translation (in the LDS case, a largely 400 year old translation) of a heterogeneous anthology of ancient Israelite, Jewish, and Christian literature that developed in contexts far removed from our own–historically, culturally, and linguistically. A handy reference tool that briefly introduces general LDS readers to material whose purpose is to somewhat lessen that historical, cultural, and linguistic divide on the basis of the best of recent biblical scholarship and all from the particular theological perspective and needs of the LDS faith would seem to be an obvious desideratum.

The problem I have is that the BD appended to the LDS KJV since 1981 never filled that role very well, and the recently updated version looks to continue more of the same for the foreseeable future. From what can be gathered, those responsible for the new online BD have chosen to make only the most minimal of changes to the old BD’s content. The changes found in the expanded list of adjustments produced by the Church are limited to formatting, presentational, and typographical issues and the correction of a few historical and factual errors. While a close reading of the new BD suggests that some changes were made outside of these categories, including a handful of editorial additions and deletions that may represent subtle doctrinal or presentational shifts, on the whole the adjustments reflect no serious engagement with recent biblical scholarship whatsoever. The updated version of the BD is for all practical purposes the old BD. Apparently, the editors of the new version felt that their mandate was to finesse what was already a worthy and acceptable LDS reference work on biblical topics.

As a student of the Bible, I find this lack of engagement to be distressing and unfortunate. The biblical scholarship reflected in the Cambridge Bible Dictionary upon which the LDS BD was based was already old at the time it was appropriated during the 1970s, and needless to say, scholarship has changed significantly over the last forty years. As a result, much of the interpretive content contained in the BD, particularly that relating to Israelite religion and Old Testament historiography, history, and literary development (to mention only areas that I’m interested in), is almost totally useless and only serves to reinforce earlier (Bruce R. McConkie era) fundamentalist understandings and attitudes.

This is truly unfortunate because the first edition evinced a somewhat open and expansive attitude to academic scholarship of the Bible. The introduction claimed that it had been drawn from “the best available scholarship” and openly acknowledged that it was “subject to reevaluation based on new research and discoveries”, suggesting that the BD would be continuously revised as academic study of the Bible progressed.

But after three decades no revision has been forthcoming. The content of the BD has come to be seen as almost part of the stream of tradition, something that needs to be only tweaked here or there. Its dependence on the scholarship of the Cambridge Bible Dictionary has been gradually effaced and forgotten, while in the introduction to the new BD the suggestion found in the old BD that the reader should consult a more exhaustive dictionary if elaborate discussion is desired has been deleted.

Some might argue that the lack of substantive changes to the BD is nothing to make a fuss over, since the Church denies official endorsement of the material found in it. But I would argue in response that contrary to the BD’s claim to be non-official, this little reference work has exerted a powerful normative force on the average Anglo-American LDS reader of the Bible since its inclusion in the standard LDS version of the scriptures. It implicitly bears the approval of the church and speaks with an authoritative voice on a range of historical and doctrinal issues. For the vast majority of English speaking members over the last thirty years, the BD has been a basic scriptural resource used to gain an understanding of the Bible’s cultural world, history, and literary nature. Thus the decision to not revise has very real and practical consequences on the intellectual and ideological makeup of the Church.

In conclusion, it would seem that Philip Barlow’s critical appraisal of the 1981 BD as exhibiting strong fundamentalist, literalist, and harmonizing tendencies remains accurate for the 2013 BD as well. As he stated in 1991,  “the new ‘Bible Dictionary’ is not really a Bible Dictionary but a dictionary of LDS theology, conservatively construed, using biblical terms.” [1]

[1] Philip Barlow, Mormons and the Bible: The Place of the Latter-Day Saints in American Religion (Oxford, 1991), 210

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