March 4, 2008
The Genesis of IVP’s Black Dictionary Series
Back in the late 1980s (oh, so long ago!) I was trying to come up with ideas for new reference books in theological studies. That was my job. And it still is. I don’t recall exactly when and how the idea came to me, but James Hastings’ two-volume Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels (1909) played a role. It was a very dated work, more valuable as a slice of history than as a working resource. So why not do a one-volume Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels? Then, if that worked, we could move on to Paul and “the rest of the New Testament.” (Hastings had done one more, the two-volume Dictionary of the Apostolic Church [1915-1918.) I do recall first expressing this notion in a car—I think it was Jack Kuhatschek’s (now at Baker)—to Mickey Maudlin (now at Harper One), probably on the way to lunch.
I remember thinking that this could be a resource in which a pastor would find under one cover the most significant information, developments and perspectives on Jesus and the Gospels. Likewise with Paul and Pauline theology. Few working pastors have access to theological libraries, so they must rely on their own working library. And their resources are often dated by the decade in which they graduated from seminary. I recall that I actually imagined a pastor, who might withdraw from the church office one day a week to work on the sermon, being able to take a Bible, a good commentary and the Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels in one handy package. Likewise, missionaries or pastors working in less economically privileged areas of the world have even less access to library resources and often need to make their book dollars count. I’d taught in the Philippines, and I thought about how wonderful it would be to have a resource that puts teachers and preachers in touch with summaries of recent scholarship bundled into one package. There are important studies salted away in monographs, held at a ransom price by their publishers and not particularly readable for nonspecialists. What if we could put that kind of material into summary form and make it available?
These kinds of thoughts went through my mind, though it’s difficult to give a truly accurate historical account of how things developed. Things tended to get smashed together viewed from today’s perspective. In any case, some principles for this new breed of Bible dictionary began to emerge. And as I look back, the idea for these dictionaries was far better than I realized initially (and for some reasons I won't go into in this particular blog). I can't help concluding that it was given to me.
One of the simplest rules of thumb we came up with in planning the DJG was that if a topic could be ably and satisfactorily handled within the usual length of a one-volume Bible dictionary, it would almost certainly (there always seem to be exceptions to everything!) not be a topic in "our" dictionary. So all the "nuts & bolts" topics of names, places, etc would be out of our purview, though they might show up as subheads in larger, more broadly conceived, articles in "our" dictionaries. Thus rather than numerous articles on every city, town and village in Palestine, we might have an article on “Geography” and leave the entry on “Capernaum” to a one-volume Bible dictionary or even ISBE or IDB.
Another key principle was that these dictionaries would allow us to "go deeper" into our selected topics. The "deeper" principle has a lot to do with the fact that if we were to have an article on "Prophets, Prophecy" in the DJG, "our" article would focus on Jesus and the Gospels. The OT would figure into it only to the extent that it provided necessary background material. And we would certainly not need to devote time and space to Paul or Acts or the rest of the NT. Thus within a length of article comparable to what one might find in the multivolume works such as ISBE or IDB or ABD, we would be able to go deeper into a narrower field. In addition, we could provide a more specialized and often more extensive bibliography. This has turned out to be a winning formula
One more thing, which I did not anticipate initially, turned out to be a common theme: we would encourage authors not only to bring us abreast of the best scholarship past and present, but also to push the borders of knowledge or perspective by trying to make some original contribution, or at least pointing the way forward. As I recall, it was Ralph Martin, indefatigable editor of the DPL and DLNTD, who formulated this principle (though it was already being practiced in the DJG). In the guidelines for contributors, we included the following paragraph, crafted by Ralph Martin (in his characteristic prose):
It is imperative, therefore, that contributors not simply recycle information available in other reference works. Rather, articles should be based on an awareness of relevant primary sources themselves and engage in fruitful dialogue with the currents of scholarly discussion on the various subjects found primarily in specialized monographs and journals. In this way it is anticipated that the major articles will strive to push outward from the present "state of the question" to embrace, wherever possible, wider issues of inquiry and so move the discussion forward. The editors anticipate that such contributions, written by acknowledged experts in the field, will advance the cause of learning in significant ways and provide a new benchmark of scholarship. Writers are asked to keep this aim in view as they plan and prepare for their contributions.
Over the years a number of contributors have taken us up on that challenge, and I think it has greatly enhanced the value of these dictionaries. I know of at least two ideas for doctoral dissertations that found their inspiration in DPL articles, and I’m confident that there are more.
We originally figured that if this formula worked, we could go on to do volumes on the Old Testament. It did and we have. Twenty years on, with the Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry & Writings about to go to the printer, we are now starting work on volume eight in the series, the Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets, edited by Mark J. Boda and J. Gordon McConville.
Can you wait another four years? In reference book publishing, one good idea can occupy a lot of time—even a career!