Dictionary of Daily Life in Biblical and Post-Biblical Antiquity – Book Review

Do you want to know more about the world in which the Bible was produced… and I mean REALLY know more about it? Then this is going to be a real treat for you!

There are those treasured moments that one might almost believe that a publisher held a meeting to decide how they might produce a book to fit so perfectly with one’s interests that the only conclusion one can draw was that it was designed especially for you. It is almost as if it has been produced specifically for you. This is one of those moments… No it is more than that, because this is not just one book, but a whole multi-volume set of them!

Hendrickson is publishing a multi-part set of the Dictionary of Daily Life in Biblical and Post-Biblical Antiquity edited by Edwin Yamauchi and Marvin Wilson. Volume I (A-Da) and II (De-H) are already published and volume III (I-N) is due for US release in August (2016) and September in the UK.

Dictionary of Daily Life in Biblical and Post-Biblical Antiquity: Yamauchi and Wilson
Dictionary of Daily Life in Biblical and Post-Biblical Antiquity: Yamauchi and Wilson

The publicity blurb states:

The “Dictionary of Daily Life in Biblical & Post-Biblical Antiquity “is a unique reference work that provides background cultural and technical information on the world of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament from 2000 BC to approximately AD 600. This dictionary casts light on the culture, technology, history, and politics of the periods of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.

… but that does not even scratch the surface of this wonderful treasury of information.

What does it contain?

Yamauchi and Wilson have put together a dictionary that covers all those often over-looked, but nonetheless essential, aspects of everyday life in Antiquity. Entries on Alcoholic Beverages, Aphrodisiacs & Erotic Spells, Barbers & Beards, Dentistry & Teeth, and Doors & Keys rub shoulders with others on Butchers & Meat, Bottles & Glass, Food Production, and Furniture. Topics like these are important helping us to form a clearer understanding of the ancient world and also in throwing light upon the biblical texts.

Volume I has 400 pages and includes 39 topics and an appendix of 7 high quality colour photographs. The 480 pages of volume II comprises 25 entries and 11 colour photographs. Each entry (think more in terms of small chapters – although some are over 20 pages long) includes a short introductory summary which is then followed by six sections that explore the topic in relation to (A) the Old Testament, (B) the New Testament, (C) the Near Eastern World, (D) the Graeco-Roman World, (E) the (post-biblical) Jewish World, and (F) the (post-biblical) Christian World. A bibliography of sources and suggested further reading concludes the entry.

Who is it for?

Hendrickson have pitched the DDL at ‘scholars, pastors, and students (and their teachers).’ Its highly accessible format and style make it an ideal entry level resource and particularly suitable to students and pastors. A paucity of in-text references to modern research (ancient sources are fully referenced) makes it a little less suitable for academic work. However, this does not mean that biblical specialists won’t find it useful and should not dissuade them from purchasing a copy – I can almost guarantee that place this on the desk of even the most expert in the field and they will be lost within its pages within minutes!

Strengths and Weaknesses

This is a monumental undertaking and Yamauchi and Wilson (and all those who have worked with them) deserve our thanks and gratitude. For a work this size, it is inevitable that niggles arise and I feel rather uncomfortable about drawing attention to them in such a open-hearted and generous project such as this.

Although listing nearly 40 contributors, the lion-share of entries have been made by Yamauchi. This is both good and bad. His scholarship is impressive and his historical approach is much appreciated and totally appropriate. However, there can be a tendency with historians (rather than biblical scholars) to use biblical sources a little too uncritically; for example, the assertion that 1 Cor 6:17-18 specifically includes sex with ‘unmarried women’ (2014: 19). 

In some ways, the Old and New Testament sections generally tend to be the weaker sections, often simply being a description of relevant verses – although still highly useful for those not so familiar with biblical material. The high-context nature of biblical texts, that assumes the reader already knows fully the necessary background information, means that things, ideas and practices tend to be addressed cursorily. Therefore it is rather inevitable that we have to look elsewhere to fill in those gaps – hence the need for books like DDL! Where the DDL really begins to shine is in its engagement with the Near Eastern, Graeco-Roman, and post-biblical Jewish and Christian worlds. This gives each of the topics an impressive depth and sets each area within a panoramic (geographical and historical) context.

I have mentioned earlier the lack of referencing to modern research in many, but not all, of the entries. This can be very frustrating as one is faced with some intriguing, but unsubstantiated claims. The annoying recurrence of ‘some scholars argue…’ leaves the reader to guess which scholar (if any) from the bibliography has been used. Each volume has a number of high quality photographs at the back. However, these are not linked to their relevant entries – neither is there any mention within the entries of an accompanying image. This, again, can be rather frustrating as it is not always obvious from the photograph or its caption to which article it belongs.

I am not sure whether the use of BC and AD (rather than BCE and CE) is an editorial decision of the editors or Hendrickson, but for a work that predominantly takes the historical perspective, I have to admit that I find it irritating – however, this probably says more about me than it does about either the editorial team or Hendrickson, and I appreciate that for a target readership that includes pastors and ministers the use of BC and AD might be more user-friendly .

However, to be honest, these are very minor cavils and should not at all detract from the magnificent achievement of this project.

For me, the DDL’s greatest strength is its bibliography for each entry (sometimes extending to three pages). For this alone, it is worth the cover price and should find a place on every biblical scholar’s bookshelf.

Praise for Hendrickson Publishers

One more thing should be noted and that is the part that Hendrickson Publishers has played in this venture and one for which I would like to extend my thanks and appreciation.

In immediately releasing the DDL in paperback at a very competitive price (in the UK between £15 and £17) this makes this an extremely affordable resource. Comparable works (here I would have to include Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary) might match the range of subjects (but not necessarily the depth) of the DDL and certainly not the price.

Secondly, I have been deliberately vague about the number of parts to this volume as their website and cover photograph indicated three, but volume 3 (to be published in UK in Sept. 2016) will only get to N!. I see from Hendrickson’s website that there are now listing it as a four volume set (with the last volume (0-Z) to be published in the US in November 2016; there is no date given for the UK. Hendrickson is to be congratulated for allowing this project to grow and it shows their commitment and confidence in this ambitious project.

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