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Harper's Bible Dictionary edited by Paul J. Achtemeier with the Society of Biblical Literature (Harper & Row: $27.50; 1,178 pp.) : NEW GOSPEL PARALLELS, VOLUMES I AND II, edited by Robert W. Funk (Fortress: Vol. 1, $29.95; 492 pp.; Vol. II, $24.95; 396 pp.)

March 30, 1986|JOHN DART | Dart is a Times religion writer.

In the mid-1970s, excitement was generated by the discovery of thousands of inscribed tablets found in the partial excavation of a palace under a hill in Syria. An Italian team found unexpectedly rich information about an ancient kingdom called Ebla, whose tablets dating between 2600 and 2250 BC revealed that it was much more than a backwater regime.

Biblical specialists were especially stirred because first reports claimed that the oldest-ever reference to Jerusalem was found, as well as mentions of Sodom and Gomorrah. Some similarities to Hebrew personal names were reported, suggesting to some that important historical, geographical, linguistic and religious benefits might accrue to biblical studies.

The scholarly tendency during the 1980s, however, was to pull back from those initial interpretations and readings of the difficult-to-decifer Eblaite tablets.

The entry for Ebla in "Harper's Bible Dictionary," an all-new edition of a standard reference work, reflects the current state of opinion: "Clearly, no biblical personages can be identified in the tablets; and while personal names can be found there similar to those in the Bible, e.g., Ishmael, such names are not exclusive to Ebla; they also appear in other areas of the Near East. Moreover, Eblaite, though a Semitic language, does not look specifically close to biblical Hebrew, as originally thought; and the proposal to find the Israelite God Yahweh in the Ebla texts cannot be supported . . . ."

Timeliness is one of the best things about "Harper's Bible Dictionary." It was all written within three years before its publication late in 1985--an unusual feat considering that it has 179 contributors. All are members of the Society of Biblical Literature, the leading international academy embracing biblical scholars with Catholic, Protestant and Jewish institutions.

Techniques of historical-literary criticism are used unapologetically, yet the even-handed and sometimes cautious approach should please many readers within evangelical Protestantism, which is often uneasy with research untied to creedal affirmations. Several evangelical scholars contributed to the one-volume work, including Charles E. Carlston, who wrote a fine essay entry on Jesus Christ. The rapidly growing cadre of female biblical scholars supplies most of the major entries relating to biblical women and work on other topics as well.

While the "Harper's Bible Dictionary" is suitable for both specialists and non-specialists, the two-volume "New Gospel Parallels" is designed for the student of the New Testament. Like the dictionary, however, it merits preference over older works of its kind because of the way it reflects advances in biblical research, a field no less burgeoning with new insights and information than other academic disciplines.

The customary "gospel parallels" book enables readers to compare side-by-side the three similar Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke--a sometimes convenient way to see how the renditions of stories and sayings compare. Similar episodes and lines found in the Gospel of John and some apocryphal Gospels have usually been relegated to footnotes.

Editor Robert W. Funk introduced two helpful changes in this kind of source book. One was to take one Gospel at a time, within its narrative order and limits, rather than the usual technique of weaving back and forth (often confusingly) between stories in Matthew, Mark and Luke. Funk's other innovation was to display parallel and related passages from John, the Old Testament and apocryphal Gospels prominently on each page.

Volume I shows the parallels to the first three New Testament Gospels; Volume II does it for the Gospel of John, three important writings discovered in 1945--the Gospel of Thomas, the Dialogue of the Savior and the Apocryphon of James--and 15 other new and previously known apocryphal works and fragments.

Funk's Volume II might have seemed pointless in earlier decades. But recent research has challenged previous conclusions that all apocryphal books were based on the New Testament Gospels and represented fanciful and distorted traditions. Some of the non-canonical texts are now studied for pre-New Testament ideas and formulations, and Funk greatly facilitates that work.

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