Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature


Offering an extraordinary window on centuries of dialogue between the Bible and literature, this superb, unprecedented, and award-winning reference work is designed to help the modern reader understand how biblical motifs, concepts, names, quotations and allusions have been transmitted through exegetical tradition and used by authors of English literature from the Middle Ages to the present. The book includes several hundred encyclopedic articles (more than a million words) written by a distinguished ...
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Offering an extraordinary window on centuries of dialogue between the Bible and literature, this superb, unprecedented, and award-winning reference work is designed to help the modern reader understand how biblical motifs, concepts, names, quotations and allusions have been transmitted through exegetical tradition and used by authors of English literature from the Middle Ages to the present. The book includes several hundred encyclopedic articles (more than a million words) written by a distinguished international roster of more than 160 contributors representing the disciplines of biblical studies, theology, patristics, and literary studies.

Over 15 years in the making, an unprecedented one-volume reference work. Many of today's students and teachers of literature, lacking a familiarity with the Bible, are largely ignorant of how Biblical tradition has influenced and infused English literature through the centuries. An invaluable research tool. Contains nearly 800 encyclopedic articles written by a distinguished international roster of 190 contributors. Three detailed annotated bibliographies. Cross-references throughout.

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Editorial Reviews

John Updike
A prodigious piece of scholarship, indispensable in the libraries of Anglophone Christendom.
Henry Chadwick
This Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English will tell biblical scholars much about literature, and students of literature much about the Bible. It is clearheaded and balanced...an essential handbook for English-speaking culture.
Frank Kermode
Clearly a very serious, very large, and well-researched undertaking.... Promises to fill a genuine need.
Calvin Theological Journal
This is an indispensable work for anyone seriously interested in the Bible as literature and the Bible in literature.
Christianity and Literature
As useful as this volume is for reference and as a guide for further study, it also provides irresistible browsing pleasures.... I heartily recommend the Dictionary as an antidote for the growing biblical illiteracy in our society.
"A book that re-establishes its premise with a kind of loving exuberance on every page.... The particular joy of Jeffrey's dictionary is that while demonstrating that, yet indeed, the Bible is everywhere in English literature, it takes you to places in English literature that you haven't been and, even better, to places in European literature that you have never thought of visiting.... This is an opus magnum full of erudition, judgment, and mature humanity."
Society for Old Book List Testament Study
This is a superb book, enticing both for the student of English literature and the biblical scholar....This is an authoritative, suggestive and mind-expanding volume.
Robertson Davies
This is precisely the book that I have long wished for—a truly compendious reference on the relation between literature in English and the book which, with the works of Shakespeare, must be regarded as the primary influence and model. At a time when familiarity with the Bible cannot be expected among people otherwise literate, such a book has an assured place as a work of reference.... It promises to be a wonderful book for the student and the browser, and it should be of inestimable value to scholars, teachers, and writers.
Containing several hundred encyclopedic articles by some 160 international contributors representing the disciplines of biblical studies, theology, patristics, and literary studies, this comprehensive guide is designed to help the modern reader understand how biblical motifs, concepts, names, quotations, and allusions have been transmitted through exegetical tradition and used by the authors of English literature (American as well as British) from the Middle Ages to the present. Includes topic-specific bibliographies for longer entries, and three annotated bibliographies of biblical studies, the history of exegetical tradition, and the biblical tradition in literature. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802864550
  • Publisher: Eerdmans Pub Co
  • Publication date: 6/30/2008

Read an Excerpt

from the Preface (pages xi-xiii)

To understand something of the Bible, and of its transmission in and through English literature, is to reckon sympathetically with the development of English cultural consciousness in its richest and most coherent levels of expression. Matthew Arnold recognized this when, in God and the Bible and Literature and Dogma especially, he wrestled with the late-nineteenth-century "problem" of how to preserve the cultural richness and coherence of biblical tradition while somehow getting out from under the Bible's religious and ethical constraints. Though subsequently admired and imitated, Arnold's secularizing archivalism largely failed to achieve its stated objective. Yet it is no less widely recognized now than a century ago that for literature in the English-speaking world no text has continued to exert a more formative influence than the Bible, and, correspondingly, that the fading recognition of biblical narrative, especially in the second half of the twentieth century, has shadowed into nearly intractable obscurity many of the greatest secular texts in our literary heritage. Indeed, the need for recovery of biblical tradition is perhaps more urgent now than Arnold could have anticipated.

These factors have contributed to a recent dramatic increase of critical interest in the Bible as literature. At the same time, literally hundreds of books and articles have appeared which try to recover for modern readers an appreciation of the role of the Bible in literature. These studies are diffuse and widely targeted, with many of the most valuable known only to specialized literary scholars working on a given body of texts on which the articles or books are focused. Meanwhile, the few works of general reference which have been available to map this scholarly and critical effort at recovery often remain inadequate to the needs of students or serious general readers whose cultural memory comprises only a sketchy or fragmentary biblical literacy. It is in this context that A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature was conceived. It has been designed to help meet the evident need for a general reference guide to an already compendious and still growing field of critical inquiry. In addition, it is intended to provide initial guidance for further, more focused particular study, and so offers extensive (if still select) bibliographies in basic biblical studies, in the history of biblical interpretation, and of the presence of the Bible in works of English literature.

The general plan of the Dictionary may be briefly described as follows:

Form of the Entries

Each of the more important alphabetically listed entries normally consists of three parts, sometimes written by more than one author but edited for continuity by the editors. The entry describes how the word or phrase has been understood and used: (a) in the Bible; (b) in exegetical tradition, including Jewish commentators, the church fathers, and exegetical writers by period, especially those whose influence has been well established (e.g., Aqiba, Rashi, St. Augustine, St. Jerome, St. Bernard, St. Thomas Aquinas, Nicholas of Lyra, Wyclif, Luther, Calvin, Beza, Lapide, Poole, Henry, etc.; and (c) in English literature—a basically chronological outline of literary adaptation. This section does not attempt to provide an exhaustive catalogue of specific references. Rather, it traces significant strands in literary development through exemplary representations from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century.

The entries are drawn from six general categories:

  1. Biblical proper noun: e.g., BABEL, JACOB, GABRIEL
  2. Common noun: e.g., HARP. Several types of common nouns occur in the Dictionary: distinctive biblical terms (e.g., MAMMON); ordinary nouns which have acquired iconic overtones in later tradition (e.g., APPLE); words which have specific allusive value because of association with a well-known biblical passage (e.g., MILLSTONE).
  3. Concept: e.g., CONSCIENCE. Concept terms are not always biblical terms, since they occasionally derive from exegetical and theological formulations (e.g., TRINITY, OMNISCIENCE). These formulations themselves, of course, are part of established biblical tradition.
  4. Common quotation or allusion: e.g., JUDGE NOT, FLESHPOTS OF EGYPT, I ONLY AM ESCAPED
  5. Parable: e.g., PRODIGAL SON. There are individual entries for most of the parables of Jesus, as for a selection of Old Testament parables.
  6. Familiar terms in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, in the latter case drawn from the Vulgate text of the Bible or from liturgical adaptations of it (e.g., AGNUS DEI, NOLI ME TANGERE, IN PRINCIPIO)

The Dictionary also includes numerous short identification notes (e.g., to more commonly used terms from the Siddur and talmudic literature) and hundreds of cross-references directing readers to main entries....

The Bible is a book like no other book. It presents itself to those who read it as revelation, the enduring Word of God, not merely the ephemeral words of men and women. Yet, as a poem by Jorge-Luis Borges reminds us, it also declares itself to have been entrusted to "un hombre cualquiera," a "common man"—with all the incomprehensible risks that necessarily entails ("Juan 1,14"). Men and women for more than three millennia have been "writing out" these hallowed words, soberly and sometimes foolishly, or "reading them in" to their own lives. And writers especially have interlineated the scriptural words again and again in verbal half-tones, echoes, quietly investing their own authorship with an authority human writers could not pretend otherwise to claim. To acknowledge that the Bible is foundational for Western literature is in part to admit an irony in typical quests for literary identity. Explicitly or not, writers tend to depend for personal authority on authority clearly not their own. But it can also seem—as it does to Borges—that divine authority itself persists in curious symbiotic dependency: the Word "condescends to the written word" only when mortal readers somehow again accept it as "entrusted" to them, and so renew it, from generation to generation, each time in a new vernacular.

If dependence upon unstable translation, upon "reading in" as well as "reading out," is clearly the paradoxical condition of each generation's reading of the Book, our recurrence to biblical tradition as foundation is unavoidably temporized and self-implicating. That it has always been so for English writers is precisely what makes a comparative historical analysis so interesting. Nor is this the only enriching complexity such a retrospect discloses. The Bible, for many of the English-speaking peoples of the world at least, is in some sense foundational for literacy as well as literature. By it many who spoke in the unlettered dialects of four continents learned the lineaments of their own language written, as well as the English many have come also to speak and write. All of this happened, at least initially, to enable access to a book written after all in Hebrew, then in Greek (and a little Aramaic), and for centuries known in the West only as mediated through Latin. Bede's famous story of Caedmon, the illiterate cowherd whose "Creation Hymn" is adduced as the earliest example of recorded English poetry, is indicative. With his new and biblical literacy came poetic free translation and the earliest identifiable tradition of Anglo-Saxon literature, marked by titles such as Genesis, Exodus, and Daniel. Cynewulf's adaptation of New Testament narrative further exemplified a tradition extending through Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Bunyan, and Defoe, as through Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, and Dickinson, to Eliot, Auden, MacLeish, and Nemerov. As a result, contemporary readers of English literature for whom the Bible itself remains a closed book, even a "dead" book, continue to "hear" it persistently, inter alia. Whether or not the Bible's literary presence comes to be reckoned with cogently is a question upon which, it seems, much else depend's—even, perhaps, the probable shelf life of a substantial body of our most accomplished literature.

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