There are over 750,000 words in the Bible and everyone of them has a meaning! To find out the meaning of a word, a person normally picks up a Webster’s Dictionary and looks up the definition. While that works just fine for looking up words we encounter day to day, it won’t work out so well when trying to define words in the Bible.
We can’t trust a normal dictionary to define Bible words because word meanings change over time. For example, the word “baptize” means to dip, immerse or submerge. If you look up the word in a modern English dictionary it will tell you that baptism is immersion, sprinkling or pouring. This word, like many other words in the English language, has taken on different or additional meanings over the centuries. The Greek word, as it was used in the day when the Bible was written, meant only to immerse.
What Kind of Dictionary does a Bible Student Need?
The key to understanding Bible words is to find out what the words meant to the people who lived during the time when the Bible was written. Only when we understand what the words meant back then can we figure out how to apply them to our own situation today. As you can see from the example cited above, relying solely on a modern English dictionary would lead you to a different conclusion of the mode of baptism than a Greek speaking person of the first century AD would have reached.
To properly define a word from the Bible, you will need a dictionary of Old and New Testament words. These dictionaries are written by scholars of the ancient Greek and Hebrew languages and are therefore reliable for defining Bible words. A few popular Bible dictionaries are:
- Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (New Testament & some Old Testament words)
- Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (New Testament words only)
- Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Old Testament words only)
- Gesenius’ Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures (Old Testament words only)
Fortunately, these dictionaries are designed for English readers so that you do not have to understand the ancient languages yourself in order to use them. You can purchase all of the above titles keyed to the Strong’s numbering system.
How to Use a Bible Dictionary
Vine’s Dictionary is probably one of the easier ones to use. Let’s look up the word “warn” as an example. Like an English dictionary, Vine’s is alphabetical so using it should come naturally. When you find the word you’ll see that it lists every Greek word that is translated as the English word “warn”.
Each Greek word is spelled in English followed by the Greek spelling (in parentheses) along with its Strong’s number. As you can see in the picture above, there are three Greek words translated using the single English word warn. If you have already looked up the word using a Strong’s Concordance, you’ll be able to zero in on the specific Greek word you are looking for by using the Strong’s number.
Other dictionaries such as Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon are not listed alphabetically, but instead are sorted numerically by Strong’s number. Either way you’ll be able to find the word you are looking for, especially if you use a Strong’s Concordance as a reference.
In addition, there are online resources that will give you pretty much the same information as the hard copy dictionaries. Blue Letter Bible (www.blueletterbible.org) is a good resource which is keyed to Strong’s numbers, has a number of good search utilities and uses Thayer’s and Gesenius’ dictionaries. There are also apps for smart phones and tablets that let you have all these same resources available on the go!
To truly understand the meaning of a word in a book of the Bible, you must determine what it meant in the time period in which the text was written! A good Bible dictionary will help you achieve this.