The motivation behind the Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible is never in question. "When this dictionary was first planned," IDB editor George Buttrick wrote in his preface, "the Editorial Boards asked themselves what groups of people would use it; and they tried, in the light of such questionings and the likely answers, to provide a dictionary of wide advantage. The busy preacher was at the forefront of our concern."
The busy preacher is not at the forefront of the ABD's concern. The busy professor might seem to be, and yet many, if not most, of the ABD'S professor-contributors teach in seminaries or divinity schools or are in the religious studies or theology departments of religiously affiliated universities. In some ways, the old agenda lives on within the new.
Officially, the ABD is neutral and open to all, a monument of learning resting on and only on the historian's disinterested desire to know. Unofficially, one senses the excited presence of multiple agendas, overlapping, bewildering, sometimes contradictory agendas. Were it otherwise, however, the enterprise might have been dropped somewhere well before the seven-millionth word. It would have been untrue to the community that produced it. The energy that powers the criticism of Western literature's supreme, albeit borrowed, classic is like the energy of Western civilization itself: It is released at the points of fissure and collision.
Doubleday, the publisher of this work, once an independent, family-owned publishing house, now a subsidiary of Bertelsmann, the German publishing giant, has largely abandoned the dolphin-and-anchor motif that was for decades its logo. Anchor Books and the less well known Dolphin Books are venerable Doubleday imprints, each named for one-half of the original logo. The dolphin-and-anchor motif derives from ancient folklore according to which dolphins would guide storm-tossed sailors to safe anchor. Literature, the tacit analogy goes, can do the same.
If, for this dictionary, the full logo had been used, the anchor, invisible beneath the waves, might have stood for the conservatism of religion; the dolphin, leaping showily above the waves, for the dynamism of history. Whether the dolphin is guiding the ship to anchor can never be known, but equally mysterious is the fact that dolphins, for some reason, love ships, with their anchors, and follow them, inexplicably, for mile after mile. A dolphin with a ship to save or lose must somehow be a happier dolphin than one on the open sea with only other dolphins for company. The same, conversely, may go for the sailors.
And therein lies the inner tension and endless fascination of this reference masterpiece. Not just for its completeness in detail and its copious and meticulous references to further reading but also for the range and candor of its interpretation, the Anchor Bible Dictionary becomes, at a stroke, the first stop for anyone, scholar or layman, believer or unbeliever, with a question about the Bible. The ABD is not and, for reasons already indicated, does not seek to be the "last word" about the Bible. But for readers who want the state of any Bible-related question, it will remain for years and perhaps decades to come the indispensable first word.