The 18th World Congress of Jewish Studies

Reclaiming the Bible and Searching for a Modern Jewish Soul: The Making of the Encyclopaedia Biblica

In 1950, the first volume of Encyclopaedia Biblica was published in Jerusalem. After fifteen years of hard work, the editors of the encyclopedia produced a book that would serve as an alternative to a long tradition of Talmudic encyclopedias. The initial intention of the editors was to showcase the research conducted at the Hebrew University, emphasize the centrality of the Land of Israel in Jewish tradition, and present a summary of philological and archeological research. However, until the encyclopedia reached completion and over the course of three decades, the academic goals and political agendas of the encyclopedia had gradually changed. New editors were no longer committed to the values of mainstream Zionism, and from the 1960s onwards, they presented positions that were unusual in Israeli politics. In a time of political isolation and cultural seclusion within the greater Middle East, the encyclopedia presented an alternative option of open borders, cultural exchanges, and tolerance towards minorities. Although the encyclopedia editors did not pretend to present the encyclopedia as a Canaanite manifesto or even as a coherent political idea, they seem to have used the book as a tool of protest. This paper discusses the history of the encyclopedia focusing on how methodology and thematic choices have been used to formulate a political position. In addition, this unique and unfamiliar history may add to the discussion about the place of the Bible in Zionist thought and Israeli culture.