The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and the Arts

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Timothy K. Beal
  • Oxford, U.K.: 
    Oxford University Press
    , December
     1224 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The study of the relationship between religion and the arts is a growing field, which over the last several years has found increased traction in the curricula of seminaries, divinity schools, and religious studies programs, as well as academic publishing, and faith communities. In response to the needs of reception-historical and cultural-historical approaches to biblical studies, The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and the Arts, edited by Timothy Beal, offers “in-depth introductions to the cultural history of biblical texts, themes, characters, images, and ideas of scripture and the Bible as they have circulated in the arts” (xv). In contrast to previous reference works, such as The Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation (Abingdon, 1999), The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and the Arts takes a cultural-historical approach, organizing its content by artists, movements, and media, such as “Caravaggio,” “Gospel Music,” and “Photography,” rather than entries on biblical topics such as “Noah’s ark” or “Mary Magdalene.” The advantage of this approach is that an artistic expression is understood in its particular cultural context. Moreover, the 148 entries, ranging from 2,000 to 7,500 words, by 129 authors and bound in two volumes, not only provide basic factual information, but also introduce the reader to the major scholarly debates and questions. That is, the encyclopedia offers a substantive orientation to the field and a springboard for further scholarship. For example, the article on Latin American Art is framed by the question: “Is it possible to have one essay address the Bible and the arts in Latin America?” (543). After acknowledging the impossibility of the task named in the question, the author, Cecilia González-Andrieu, engages an artwork by Latino artist John August Swanson as a means of introducing key issues, questions, and tools in approaching Latin American Art. (There are about eighty images and figures in the encyclopedia.)

This encyclopedia is part of the Oxford Encyclopedias of the Bible Series, which was developed in conversation with the online reference tool Oxford Biblical Studies Online—“where the greatest potential for this encyclopedia will be realized” (xvi).Other encyclopedias in the series are dedicated to topics such as archaeology, ethics, law, and gender studies. In the print series, each entry includes a brief introduction, content organized under section headings, references and recommendations for further reading, as well as cross-listings to other entries. In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and the Arts, readers may navigate the encyclopedia’s content with the List of Articles, found in the first volume, or with the more useful 124-page index, in the second volume. A Topical Outline of Contents (471-74) lays out the scheme of the various entries under the topics of the Bible and Literature, Music, Theater and Performance, and Visual Art. As one might expect, Theater and Performance has about one-third of the representation of the other categories. In the second volume, it is also possible to locate articles by the individual contributors, who are drawn from a variety of fields and institutions.

Given that conversation about the Bible and the arts tends to focus on the visual, the inclusion of non-visual art forms, such as music, poetry, literature, and performance are especially welcomed. While many of the “usual suspects” are addressed in the encyclopedia (e.g., Dante Aligheiri, C. S. Lewis, Jesus Movies), numerous entries reflect more recent scholarship on contemporary culture (e.g., Indie Music, Rap and Hip-Hop Music, Rock Music). Other entries acknowledge (though not exhaustively) the significant contributions to biblical art by cultures beyond the white, European West (e.g., Native American Art, Latin American Art, Japanese Art). Additionally, several articles explicitly address the role of colonialism and postcolonialism in biblical art. There are also some pleasantly surprising articles on figures such as Stephen King and Anne Rice, which demonstrate the pervasiveness of biblical concepts in contemporary culture—even in the genre of horror!

A work like this cannot hope to cover every relevant topic. Indeed, the preface acknowledges the limits of this particular encyclopedia, due to a whole range of practical issues (xvii). Among the lacunae listed, some of the most regrettable include Islamic Literature, Korean Art, and Middle Eastern Art. Additionally, published entries such as Byzantine Art do not make up for the lack of an article dedicated to Orthodox Art and Iconography. It should also be noted that despite the rather broad title of the encyclopedia, the vast majority of the essays concern Christianity. In this case, The Oxford Handbook of Religion and the Arts, edited by Frank Burch Brown (Oxford, 2014), proves to be a useful supplement in its approach to world religion.

The intentionality with which this encyclopedia was approached and the great depth of the essays (as well as their bibliographies) make The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and the Arts an invaluable resource for academic or personal study. Just as the contributors are drawn from a diversity of fields, so will educators across disciplines and levels find this encyclopedia to be a generative tool in their teaching. While the preface may be right in noting the inevitable media revolution of digital network culture, there is still something to be said for being able to flip back and forth between the physical pages of a book, making discoveries and connections that are only possible in carefully curated collections such as The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and the Arts.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jennifer Awes-Freeman is Assistant Professor of Theology and the Arts at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities.

Date of Review: 
October 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Timothy Beal is the Florence Harkness Professor of Religion at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. He has published twelve books, most recently The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental BookBiblical Literacy: The Essential Bible Stories Everyone Needs to Know, and Religion in America: A Very Short Introduction. In addition to scholarly articles, he has written essays on religion, Bible, and culture for The New York TimesThe Washington Post,, and The Chronicle of Higher Education, among others. He serves on the editorial board for the Bible Odyssey project.


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