A Review of Oxford Biblical Studies Online

A number of bibliobloggers have been helping Oxford University Press advertise their new on-line website, Oxford Biblical Studies Online, with a free-access pass good through the end of May (I learned of it through my colleague Mike Heiser’s blog). Since i wasn’t one of them 🙂 i can give an honest evaluation of the time i spent perusing their site. 

Their site offers an integrated tool for accessing

  • Six different Bibles, along with concordances and the Oxford Bible Commentary
  • Reference tools that span nine different sources (The Oxford Companion to the Bible, Oxford Bible Atlas, Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East, etc.)
  • A collection of about 1000 images and maps.

Whether this is helpful to you will be strongly determined by whether you value Oxford’s resources, of course: this is a walled (publisher) garden in that respect. But in my opinion (and those of real scholars as well) there’s a lot of very good material here. They provide an integrated search feature so you can search by keyword across all the reference works, Bible texts, and image resources. You can also limit that search by some general domains like Archaeology, Geography, Material Culture, etc.: that’s a nice way to make the search results a little more manageable in size. 

There’s also a timeline feature, with links to the reference works (like Oxford History of the Biblical World and Companion to the Bible). I found that an interesting way to navigate to relevant information: you can find an item in the timeline (“Manasseh is king of Judah”) and then follow a link to an article on Manasseh.This kind of interface, where you can get to new information without first having to know exactly what you’re looking for, is important for those who aren’t already specialists in the domain of Biblical studies. 

One very helpful feature is that dictionary-type articles have some number of terms hyperlinked: Bible references, of course, but also maps and other articles. So the article on Manasseh links to articles on Chronicles, Deuteronomic History, Ephraim (for the “other” Manasseh: the article combines both), and others. These links are also displayed in a sidebar, not just embedded in the text. This feature is limited somewhat, though, by the fact that the links are only within the current reference. What would make this feature really useful would be to link across their collection, so you could also easily get to e.g. the Bible Dictionary article on Ephraim. Of course, you can do that by going back to the search interface, but that’s some added friction. Also, it would appear that at least some of the links were automatically generated: the prose about Manasseh (son of Joseph the patriarch) links to “Joseph (Husband of Mary)”. 

I found a few things i didn’t like as well. While the “unbundled” content of the reference tools is available, in some cases (for example, the Companion to the Bible) i couldn’t figure out a way to actually read the books as books: i could only get to them as disembodied search results. I suppose that’s all right for strict reference purposes, since search is probably the normal way you’d access them. But since some other volumes (like the Illustrated History of the Bible) can be read sequentially, i don’t quite understand why this isn’t possible for all of them. Another mild annoyance: while they helpfully link Bible references to their text, they only put the chapter and verse in the hyperlink, like this:

Amos 9: 9        

In addition to looking a little weird, it also makes for a smaller (and therefore harder to hit) mouse target. I can understand doing this in a list of references where the book name isn’t repeated: but where the book is adjacent in the text, i don’t see the rationale. I also noticed that some features of the site (like Look It Up) didn’t seem to work quite right with Google Chrome.

These are pretty mild complaints, however. Overall, i’d say there’s a lot of very valuable information available here. The annual subscription price of $295 would seem to best fit serious professional users, however. I’d encourage you to take advantage of the free trial period and investigate it for yourself. 

[This seems like as good an opportunity as any to point out that i followed the good example of my colleague Rick Brannan and created a Disclosures page, to avoid any potential confusion about my financial relationship to the things i write about. In this context, full disclosure: i work for a company that is partially in competition with Oxford’s site. ]