Review of Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary

nelson bible dictionary reviewMost of us, when we do daily Bible reading, just read through the passages quickly without stopping much. We’ll come across certain words and our brains will draw a certain conclusion about what that word means.

My favorite example of this is the word “manger”. We all know the song “Away in a Manger”, but the scene that comes to most of our minds is a traditional nativity scene where all the shepherds and sheep and Mary and Joseph are all gathered around the baby Jesus, peacefully sleeping in a bed of straw. But looking up the word in the Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary, you read this as the definition:

MANGER – a feedingtrough, crib, or open box in a stable designed to hold fodder for livestock (Luke 2:7, 12; 13:15). In Bible times, mangers were made of clay mixed with star or from stones cemented with mud. In structures build by King Ahab at Megiddo, a manger cut from a limestone block was discovered. Mangers were also carved in natural outcroppings of rock, such as livestock being stabled in a cave; some were constructed of masonry. 

The definition goes on to describe each time the word is used in the Bible. Understanding the true meaning of the word suddenly brings the context of the Word alive. The physical place that Jesus was born wasn’t a pristine scene where you could hear “Silent Night” playing in the background. It was obscure, anonymous, and probably dirty and smelly. But that’s kind of the point. Jesus’s entire life on earth was one where He has “nowhere to lay His head”, but His whole life pointed to a new, spiritual kingdom that was not of this world.

It’s really interesting to go through the Bible Dictionary and look up other words you always assumed you know what they meant. It’s also fascinating to read up on the background of cities like Ephesus, Corinth, Galatia, and others to provide you context before you read about them in the New Testament.

The Dictionary is substantial. It comes in at over 1200 pages. The paper is thick and the typeface is relatively large and readable. The language isn’t scholarly nor esoteric but easy to read. The pages are all in color with plenty of photographs of artifacts, archaeology, present day photographs of geographical locations, and diagrams (there’s a topological diagram of the path that the Israelites took in Exodus that really helps you understand their wandering in the wilderness, and the beginning of the book are timelines covering the entire Old and New Testament periods in vastly greater detail than you’ll find anywhere else). Entries about the Books of the Bible contain an outline of the book you can use while studying it.

I literally couldn’t think of a Bible-related term that wasn’t covered in the book. One other thing I like about the book is that it attempts to be objective when covering “controversial” topics which different denominations have disagreements about. It lays out the viewpoints of at least the major denominations in a way that doesn’t seem to be pushing one or the other. For example, my own church has a rather conservative view about baptism, and yet reading the entry on baptism, I wasn’t offended or put off, but I found it interesting to read, without the fog of argument nor over-enthusiastic proselytizing, the viewpoints of others.

Overall, this version is a fantastic improvement over the last version, and I’d say it’s a must-have if you’re serious about digging deep into your Bible study. And call me old-fashioned, there’s something nice about having this all in a book you can hold in your hands as opposed to scattered all over the Web.

One thing to be aware of is that you’re buying the most recent version, dated 2014 and named “Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary: New and Enhanced Edition“. There’s an older version named “Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary: Limited, Deluxe Edition”.