February 06, 2011

Nelson's Biblical Cyclopedic Index

Thanks to Thomas Nelson for the review copy.

I picked up this book to review because I was intrigued by the concept. Quite simply, it is a combination between a concordance, a topical index, and a Bible dictionary. It covers around 8,000 entries. Almost every entry has a brief descriptive phrase or short definition (for example, "Lute—musical instrument" or "Evil—that which is morally injurious"). Then the entry contains a list of descriptive phrases linked with a scripture reference or two to explore how a word is used, or to point to key uses of a word in the Bible. More extensive entries are broken down into groups to help orient the reader to various approaches the Bible takes concerning an idea or various ways the word is used (for example, the heading "difficulty" is broken down into four subgroups: "kinds of," "examples of," "negative attitudes toward," and "positive attitudes toward"). As an abbreviated concordance or subject index, this cyclopedic index does function quite well. I have obviously not looked at every entry in detail, and I have no doubt that one could squabble endlessly about the various passages chosen for various topics. But overall, it seems to be a great quick reference to get an overview of some of the key teachings about various people and subjects. Many of the entries could easily turn into outlines for a group study of a word, with the subgroupings giving some helpful direction about ideas to emphasize.

A second key feature of the cyclopedic index is that it serves as a miniature Bible dictionary, with around 300 brief word studies. These are short (one small to medium paragraph) definitions of important words that help to orient the reader as to their meaning. They usually include comments about the word in the original language and point to some of the range of meanings it has and how it is used in the Bible. In all, these short entries seem to be helpful, at least as a starting point. But herein lies one of the greatest difficulties. The authors are obviously making an attempt to bring original-language scholarship to a wider audience, but they rarely if ever specify if a word they're talking about is in Greek or Hebrew. A knowledgeable reader will find it obvious, because they go on to refer to how the word is used in either the OT or NT, making it clear which language they are talking about. But they never make this explicit. Nor to they differentiate in the entries between Greek and Hebrew words. I can imagine much difficulty and complexity that would come from trying to be thoroughgoing in differentiating between the two languages, and think that in the index proper, it's probably okay to mix the two languages by focusing on the English words. But in the word studies, when they are quite transparently looking at either the Greek or Hebrew word behind the English translation, they should have specified which language they were studying, to help readers understand which testament their insights apply to most directly. This is especially the case in the handful of cases where a word is defined twice, first with a view to its Hebrew origin and then with regard to its Greek, so people would know roughly how the definitions should fit with the entries that follow (key words such as "rest" or "judgment" get this more expansive treatment). It should be stated that the authors give the Strongs number for each entry they define in this broader way, so, again, more study will quickly make plain the language the word is based on, but this seems like it would have been a helpful, if not essential, addition, especially as it would help warn readers about some of the perils of word studies across the two testaments.

So, in all, I'd have to say this is a handy quick reference, an entry-level tool with some nice features for those beginning in Bible study, or a guide for quickly making sense of a more complex topic by putting references into helpful groups. So it clearly has value. But it also has some shortcomings, as do almost any reference works, and maybe this one more than some because of the number of functions it seeks to perform. It's an intriguing concept to put out a reference with this blend of information packed together, but I think particularly some additional information and guidance regarding OT and NT uses of words would further enhance its value.

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