Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias are my secret weapon when it comes to Bible study. They’re my go-to resources for when I want to get a full view of how a person, place, thing, or idea is treated across Scripture.
That makes Bible dictionaries instrumental in answering questions like:
- Which Herod tried to kill baby Jesus—and which one killed John the Baptist?
- Why is Michael called an archangel, and are there any other archangels in the Bible?
- Who wrote the book of Hebrews? (Well, I don’t get a solid answer on this, but I get a lot of historical theories.)
Bible dictionaries are insanely useful for digging into Scripture, and I wanted to share a few that I tend to reference more often than others.
The 4 best Bible Dictionaries, and why
Here’s my quick list of the best Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias, and a one-sentence reason I recommend them. I’ve written more thoroughly on why and how I use them below.
Most balanced: Use this for approachable, highly relevant dives into any biblical subject.
Most scholarly: Use this for historical context from a critical, scholarly perspective (but not doctrine).
Conservative: Use this for a conservative evangelical perspective.
Best price: Use this because it’s surprisingly both free and helpful.
A few quick notes on this list of Bible dictionaries
But before I jump into the list of my favorite Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page.
A Bible dictionary is a reference book full of articles on the people, places, things, and concepts of the Bible. A good Bible dictionary will give you an idea of how these are addressed throughout Scripture, plus plenty of information on how ancient, medieval, and modern people think (or have thought) of them.
This is NOT a list of Bible lexicons: books used to look up an English biblical word in its original language.
Fine print is no fun, so I’ll tell you up front: the links to buy these products on Amazon are affiliate links. That means if you buy them based on my recommendation, Amazon gives me a small kickback. Don’t worry: you’re not charged extra!
Now, let’s get into the best Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias, shall we?
The best Bible dictionaries & encyclopedias
(And by “best,” I mean my favorites to use for both personal study, teaching, and building stuff for Bible geeks on this website, of course.)
You want to know the most-referenced book in my library (besides my NASB)? It’s this book. The Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible is a phenomenal Bible dictionary.
Bible dictionaries tend to lean in one of two directions in terms of content. They’re either mega academic articles or general here’s-some-info write-ups. I don’t find all that many that make it easy for non-academics like me to understand the big picture, and then dive into the details.
Baker handles this masterfully.
I can look up any Bible character or book of the Bible and get a bunch of helpful information written in a very approachable way. In fact, I can look up anything in the BEB and it immediately orients me with its ancient, theological, and spiritual significance.
For example, let’s say I wanted to write a piece on covenant in the Bible. While other Bible dictionaries are going to give me a (helpful) crash course in ancient Near Eastern treaties, Baker leads with:
[Covenant is an] arrangement between two parties involving mutual obligations; especially the arrangement that established the relationship between God and his people, expressed in grace first with Israel and then with the church. Through that covenant God has conveyed to humanity the meaning of human life and salvation. Covenant is one of the central themes of the Bible, where some covenants are between human beings, others between God and human beings.
Helpful, right? I immediately get a high-level view understanding of what “covenant” means throughout the Bible. From here, I can dig into the rest of the article before I move on to more scholarly articles.
I’m sure you can understand how this Bible dictionary was invaluable when I was writing articles on all 66 books of the Bible.
The Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible is a good option for “Bible-believing” evangelical Christians. While some of the other Bible dictionaries in this list take a more inquisitive approach to the Bible, the BEB generally assumes that the Bible says what it means, and what the Bible says is true.
That makes this a terrific stand-alone tool for faithful Bible study. However, I recommend coupling it with a more critical Bible dictionary, because you’ll generally want to understand the questions that people are asking and have been asking about a given subject in the Bible. (This is what I do.)
And on that note, let’s get to my other favorite Bible dictionary . . .
HEADS-UP: if you’re of a more fundamentalist persuasion, you may want to skip to #3.
This is by far the most valuable Bible dictionary I’ve ever paid for. I can’t recommend it highly enough—if you use it correctly. This 6-volume set is precious to me for a few reasons.
First, this Bible encyclopedia is incredibly thorough. If I want to know what anyone has ever thought about a certain book or character or concept in the Bible, this resource will give me the motherlode of information.
For example, if I look up the book of Obadiah in Baker’s Encyclopedia of the Bible, I’ll get a 1,300 word article. That’s great for giving me an understanding of the book.
But in Anchor Yale? The entry on the book of Obadiah is more than 2,700 words long—more than double the length of Baker’s!
That’s my standard experience with Anchor Yale. It’s consistently going to be the Bible dictionary with the most info on just about anything in the Bible.
Second, Anchor Yale’s Bible dictionary is broad. While other Bible dictionaries will focus on people, places, things, events, and concepts you can find within the pages of the Bible, Anchor Yale expands the scope.
For example, let’s say I want to read up on the Gospel of Thomas. I know it’s not a book of the Bible, but I’m curious as to what it’s about, and why I hear people mentioning it on the History Channel from time to time.
Baker turns up nothing. But Anchor Bible Dictionary gives me a thorough article on the Gospel of Thomas. And not just a stub: a 5,700-word write-up about the document and the controversies surrounding it.
It’s a 6,000-entry work by 800 scholars. It covers almost anything you’d want to learn more about as you study the Bible.
Thirdly, it’s critical (some would say, “liberal”). If you spend much time on this website, you’ll know that I’m rather moderate-leaning-conservative when it comes to my view and interpretations of the Bible. However, I generally try to keep the content here as undenominational as possible. (Mostly because I think there’s a lot of interesting stuff in the Bible that gets overlooked because nobody’s fighting about it.)
That’s one reason it’s been important to me to have a less evangelical, more critical Bible dictionary on hand. It forces me to think through (or at least recognize) the issues that scholars have wrestled with on a given subject, which helps me check my own biases and assumptions.
Anchor Bible Dictionary gives me that diversity of ideas—which shouldn’t be surprising. As opposed to a full suite of Protestant Christian scholars and pastors, ABD features contributors of Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, and even nonreligious persuasions.
So that means that while some of the other dictionaries assume that the Bible means what it says, and that what it says is true, Anchor Bible Dictionary tends to say, “Here’s what the Bible says,” without necessarily affirming it as true. (In fact, you’ll find a lot of “givens” called into question as you read this work.)
That means you can expect to learn a lot about the Bible from this book, but you shouldn’t expect to learn why the Bible is true.
All in all, though, I can’t overstate how helpful I believe this set is.
HEADS-UP: if you’re of the more progressive theological persuasion, you may want to skip to #4.
This is the standard when it comes to conservative Bible dictionaries, folks. It’s thorough. And if you want to blend observation with conservative interpretation, this is a rather educating shortcut. (And those are hard to find.)
The ISBE is admittedly the Bible dictionary I use least out of those listed here. However, I find it a good place to dig deeper than Baker’s Encyclopedia of the Bible goes.
One strength for conservative readers is that ISBE is a teaching resource: it does some of the interpretation for you. That means you’re not necessarily left with the information to put together yourself. Instead, the articles are written in a way to show you a generally accepted conservative understanding of a topic (at the time the article in question was written).
Of course, with this strength comes a weakness: The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia can be dogmatic here and there. I’ve found some articles to feel more like scholarly arguments than descriptions. Take, for example, this line from the article on Creation:
Augustine was no doubt right when, from the human standpoint, he declared that the world was not made in time, but with time. —J. Lindsay, “Creation”
But this isn’t the case throughout.
In fact, some articles balance different points of view on particularly disputed topics. While the article on Creation is in favor of theistic evolution (sorry, Ham fans!), the article on women in church leadership explores multiple viewpoints based on some of the more prominent Scriptures used in that conversation.
Overall, it’s a helpful resource that gives you a lot of information on any biblical topic.
4. Lexham Bible Dictionary
OK, I can’t make a list of recommended Bible dictionaries without mentioning this one, for two reasons:
- It’s FREE.
- It’s surprisingly good for a freebie.
I actually consult this Bible dictionary along with the other four here. Sometimes free stuff turns out to be good.
For years I’ve been telling my friends that the LBD is the best-kept secret of Lexham Press, which is a sub-brand of Faithlife, the makers of Logos Bible Software and a former employer of mine (queue that song about small worlds from Disneyland).
Back in 2011, someone at Faithlife got the bright idea to pull together a bunch of scholars, pastors, and authors to create a Bible dictionary. And it totally works. Somehow, there’s a free Bible dictionary full of modern biblical scholarship that gives controversial topics rather fair treatment.
Let me give you one selling point on the Lexham Bible Dictionary: you get Dr. Michael S. Heiser’s take on the Nephilim, spiritual warfare, and ancient mythology for free. If you know who that is, then you know why that’s a really cool deal.
Where can you get it? Well, it’s a digital-only Bible dictionary from Faithlife, so you have two options to get it for free:
- Download the Logos Bible app, then add the LBD to your library from logos.com.
- Download the Faithlife Study Bible app and get the LBD included.
Now, while I’m on the topic of Logos, and since I’ve finished my list, I think it’s only fair that I mention to you that I use all of these Bible encyclopedias in Logos . . . because they have something pretty special.
All of these are better in the Logos Bible Software Bible Factbook
OK, this one is technically in a grey area in terms of the Bible dictionarium. The Bible Factbook is a feature in my favorite Bible study software, and the way it’s set up would make it nigh impossible to ever print.
And that’s precisely why I couldn’t let myself write up a list of Bible encyclopedias without mentioning it.
The Bible Factbook is tied to Logos Bible Software’s data on the people, places, things, concepts, and themes in the Bible. That means you can enter in a character, say, Michael the archangel, and get not one article, but a smart list of everything in your library about the warrior angel.
But it doesn’t stop there. Thanks to Logos’ tagging system, you can see:
- The events in the biblical narrative Michael plays a part in
- The ways the Bible refers to him (archangel, prince, etc.)
- The words in the original language that refer to him
- All the media in your library that’s related to Michael (not pictured)
And of course, this just leads to more on-ramps to biblical knowledge.
Some downsides to the Logos Bible Factbook:
As is the case with all things Logos Bible Software, the tool is only as good as the person wielding it. The Factbook is essentially a search engine for your Logos library. It pulls in all the encyclopedic info on the stuff you’re looking up.
That means Logos does a TON of heavy lifting, but it’s often still on you to make sense of the results.
For example, did you notice a weird entry in the screenshot above?
According to the Factbook, Michael is referred to as “who was appointed over the good ones of the people and over the chaos.” Say what now?
And how many hits did that turn up in the Bible? Zero?
Hmm. Something’s weird here.
Turns out that is a quote from the book of Enoch in the Septuagint (the translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew to Greek). I have the Lexham English Septuagint in my library, so here we have this non-biblical result showing up in my Bible Factbook.
You can see how this could be a disaster in the hands of a lazy preacher!
But if you keep an eye out for these sorts of things, you’re in the clear.
Where can you buy it? It’s only available in Logos Bible Software. Logos is rather expensive, but I can hook you up with a discount . . .
Any important ones I should check out?
I’ve laid out the Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias I use, but I know this is only scratching the surface. I’d love to hear what you use in your own Bible study.
Leave me a comment!