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The Society of Biblical Literature is the oldest and largest international scholarly membership organization in the field of biblical studies. Founded in 1880, the Society has grown to over 8,500 international members including teachers, students, religious leaders and individuals from all walks of life who share a mutual interest in the critical investigation of the Bible.
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As those who teach biblical studies are aware, one of the most important tools for the beginning student is a good Bible dictionary. Whether the student needs a general introduction to a biblical book or particular information on an unfamiliar concept, a good Bible dictionary can serve as a useful reference for the fledgling exegete. Finding a reliable and up-to-date dictionary in print is no problem, with a number of publishers having recently come out with new one-volume Bible dictionaries (Eerdmans, Harper, Moody) and with Abingdon releasing the first volume of the New Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible this fall.

Online, however, the situation is very different. Copyrights prevent sites from offering works that are currently in print. Publishers are understandably unwilling to place electronic versions of their works Online, as it has the potential to decrease their sales. Those sites that do provide Bible dictionaries online use texts on which the copyright has expired. Smith's (1884), Easton's (1897), Nave's, and Torrey's dictionaries are frequently found, offered in connection with the King James Version and Matthew Henry's commentary. While the presence of such works Online is convenient, they hardly constitute cutting-edge scholarship. Most of them were written before the advent of form criticism, tradition criticism, feminist interpretation, reader response, and a host of other methods, not to mention the archaeological discoveries that have been made in the past one hundred years.

What is needed is an up-to-date online Bible dictionary that is protected through some means other than copyright. One attempt to provide such a resource is the Blue Cord Bible Dictionary. The Blue Cord Bible Dictionary, whose name is taken from Num 15:37-41, makes use of the concept of a wiki. Most people are familiar with wikis through Wikipedia, which is featured in this issue of The SBL Forum. A wiki is an online document that is written by multiple authors. It is a collaborative effort in which everyone is allowed to participate. Articles in a wiki have multiple authors, and every author is free to edit or add to the work of other people. In theory, this prevents bad information from being disseminated, as the group can edit out additions that do not conform to the community understanding of the topic. At the same time, however, a wiki allows for a multitude of voices to be heard. In cases where people have a variety of competing ideas about a particular subject, the wiki will grow to reflect that diversity. Each perspective is presented by those who espouse the position, and it is left to the reader to make an informed decision.

A number of aspects of the wiki model are attractive within an academic atmosphere. Among the more important of these are the openness to multiple perspectives and the ability of the document to be edited repeatedly so that it stays up-to-date. Other aspects are not so attractive, however, including the ability of anyone, regardless of their level of expertise, to submit material. This is especially problematic in biblical studies, where many people with no training at all feel that they are experts in the Bible. While most people will refrain from contributing an article in a wiki on quantum mechanics or brain surgery, people will not always show such restraint when it comes to offering their expertise on the Bible.

In order to strike a balance between openness to multiple perspectives while still keeping the entries of sufficient quality to serve as a reliable reference, contributors to the Blue Cord Bible Dictionary are required to have a master's degree or higher in the field of biblical studies or a related discipline (Egyptology, Assyriology, archaeology, or classics, for example). This is similar to the requirements that most publishers have for contributors to a commercial Bible dictionary. This adds an extra step at the beginning of the process. Whereas with a standard wiki a person can automatically create an account and begin editing, the Blue Cord Bible Dictionary requires scholars to submit their credentials to the general editor who then creates their account.

With the exception of the requirement that contributors hold an advanced degree, the philosophy behind the Blue Cord Bible Dictionary is openness to multiple perspectives within the field. Contributors are not limited to a particular perspective or approach. Because of the way a wiki works, if an article has been written but a new contributor has a different perspective on the subject, the new contributor is free to reedit the article to add his or her understanding of the topic. And if a contributor thinks of an article that should be written, a few simple clicks will create the new article. Unlike a printed book, there is no "final form" of a wiki. As information becomes outdated, it is simply edited out, with new information being added all the time. This on-the-fly editing also means that articles on new discoveries, such as the Tel Zayit Inscription or the Gospel of Judas, can be added in a timely manner.

The software used for the Blue Cord Bible Dictionary is PmWiki, written by Patrick R. Michaud and distributed under the General Public License. This software is not as feature rich as MediaWiki, which is used by sites such as Wikipedia, but it is more agile and easier to learn. It provides enough features to be flexible without overwhelming the user. The material on Blue Cord is also protected under a Creative Commons license that allows the material to be reprinted for noncommercial use as long as proper attribution is made. This provides legal protection against the articles in the dictionary being plagiarized by someone who wanted to make money off of the project, while giving users more freedom to make use of the material than a copyright would allow.

This project is in its beginning stages and volunteers are needed. Unlike printed dictionaries, there are no assignments or deadlines, although there are also no paychecks. Contributors are free to write on any topic as much or as little as they want, when they want. Anyone who is interested in becoming a contributor may contact the general editor at bibledictionary@bluecord.org.

Kevin A. Wilson, Lithuania Christian College

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Citation: Kevin A. Wilson, " The Blue Cord Bible Dictionary," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Sept 2006]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=600

 
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