A Quick Guide to
Word Context Studies
Table of Contents
- Pick the word
- English to Hebrew/Greek
- Greek Lexicons (if you read Greek)
- Hebrew Lexicons (if you read Hebrew)
- Write the Glosses
- Greek Lexicons
- Hebrew Lexicons
- Read More Examples
- Revisit Glosses
- Context Determines Meaning
1. Pick the Word/s to Study
- Read your Biblical passage in at least four different translations: NASB, NET Bible, Common English Bible, and a version of your choosing (BibleHub.com makes this easy).
- Make a list of words that would require further study, or if you have a word in mind, look at how it has been translated in the different versions.
- Pick a word to study and find out what it was in its original language (Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek). Bible Web App, Step Bible, or the NET Bible’s Lumina page will help with this. Mouse over the English word and any of these sites should tell you what the word was in its original language. For a couple of the sites you may have to open the Greek/Hebrew parallel text first.
2. Write the Glosses
A gloss is a very short definition of a word, usually consisting of one-word definitions. A definition is a longer description of a word’s meaning/s. Henry Neufeld’s blog series on word study will get you up to speed on the fundamental concepts of word study. Start here for “gloss” vs. “definition,” then read this, this, this, and this if you want to go deeper into the discipline.
- Write a gloss for the word. Find out all the ways the word was used in the cultural context of the original audience. (cf. “diachronic vs. synchronic linguistics”).
- Then add various glosses that represent all the ways the word was used in the cultural context of the original audience/s. Include at least three examples for each gloss on your list. The examples can come from the Bible, though you will want to be aware of how other contemporaneous literature also used the word.
- Read each of the examples you included. Begin to get a sense of how other texts used your word, and how that may or may not be relevant to your particular passage’s use of the word. For example, Paul and James famously have different connotations associated with their use of the word “law” (nomos).
- Your gloss might look like this
- 1. Owner. (Gal. 4:1; Mk. 12:9; Mt. 20:8; Lk. 19:33.)
- 2. Authority figure, Lord, master. (1 Peter 3:6; Acts 16:30; Rev. 7:14.)
Any of the following resources will help you fill out your gloss:
- Step Bible. Good for OT & NT passages. The end of the mouse-over pop-up definition asks if you want to search for the word in the rest of the OT or NT.
- Bible Web App. Good for OT & NT passages. The end of the mouse-over pop-up definition asks if you want to “Find all occurrences” of the word in the rest of the OT or NT.
- Lumina/NET Bible. Better for NT than OT word studies. The lexicons are all out-of-print and decent, though they are not top-tier lexicons. You can do a Strong’s word search, which will help you find other places the Greek or Hebrew word has been used.
- Perseus. Good for the NT. This website contains a massive library of Greek texts, including the text of the Greek New Testament. The texts are all linked to a centralized, searchable database. The website also uses the Liddell-Scott Greek-English lexicon.
- BibleStudyTools.com – Hebrew. This is an Old Testament Hebrew Lexicon. You can enter a Strong’s Number, or Hebrew word, or English word, and it will give you basic definitions, based on the Brown, Driver, & Briggs (BDB) Lexicon.
- BibleStudyTools.com – Greek. The Greek lexicon is based on the Thayer’s and Smith’s Bible Dictionary.
- Mounce, William Dm. Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006.
- Arranges English words in English alphabetical order. Billing itself as the successor to Vine’s Expository Dictionary, Mounce’s dictionary is easy to read and has a number of helpful indices at the back. The dictionary itself does a very good job listing the biblical passages in which the Hebrew and Greek words are used. It does not provide diachronic context, but instead focuses on where the words have been used in the Biblical text.
Greek Lexicons (if you can read Greek)
- Bauer, Walter. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. Edited and revised by F.W. Danker. Translated and adapted by W.F. Arndt, F.T. Gingrich, and F.W. Danker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. (BDAG)
- This edition is the newest and best revision of this lexicon. The earlier, 1979 version is quite good, and is the latest edition in some libraries. The older version is abbreviated (BAGD). This is the academic gold-standard for NT word-study.
- Moulton, James H. and George Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament: Illustrated from the Papyri and other Non-Literary Sources. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1930. (Moulton-Milligan)
- This gives you a word’s usage in the ancient world, based on non-literary texts such as papyri mss, inscriptions, etc. This type of evidence tends to give us a glimpse into how “regular people” used Greek words. It would be analogous to defining modern English words by using evidence from songs, emails, signs, notes, and certain types of blogs.
- Liddel, H.G., and R. Scott. A Greek-English Lexicon. Rev. ed. Aug. by H.S. Jones. 9th rev. ed. Oxford: Clarendon 1996. (Liddell-Scott)
- This is the academic gold-standard for Classical Greek. It does the same thing as BDAG, except it works with Classical, as well as Koine, Greek.
- Balz, Horst, and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament. 3 vols. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990.(EDNT)
- Arranges Greek words in Greek alphabetical order. Selective in the words it discusses, but the discussions are helpful.
Hebrew Lexicons (if you can read Hebrew)
- Clines, David J. A. (ed.). The Dictionary of Classical Hebrew. 8 vols. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993-2016.
- This is the newest and most ambitious Hebrew lexicon in a generation. Its scope includes not just the Hebrew Scriptures, but also the Dead Sea Scrolls, Ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus), and Hebrew inscriptions. Every Hebrew word from that literature is included, over 6,000 entries in all. At the end of each verbal entry is a list of nominal forms derived from that word, and at the end of each nominal entries is a list of derived verbal forms. Volume 9 of the original 8 volume set includes an English-Hebrew index, an index of synonyms, and a Word Frequency Table that distinguishes frequency within each of the for copora (Hebrew Bible, Ben Sira, Dead Sea Scrolls, Hebrew Inscriptions).
- Clines, David J. A. (ed.). The Concise Dictionary of Classical Hebrew. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2009.
- This is an affordable condensation of the larger 8 volume set.
- Koehler, L. and W. Baumgartner, et al., eds.. The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. 3rd ed. 5 vols. Brill, 1994-2001; Study edition, 2 vols. Brill, 2001. (HALOT)
- This is the arguably the best, affordable Hebrew lexicon. It is easy-to-use, easy-to-read, and is the academic gold-standard for OT word-study. This particular volume is an abridgment of the original, 5-volume, German version of the HALOT, composed by Koehler & Baumgartner.
- Holladay, William L. A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971.
- Brown, Francis, S. R. Driver, and C. A. Briggs, eds. A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament. Oxford: Clarendon, 1907. (BDB)
- This is still the standard Hebrew lexicon for many. It was the gold-standard for a long time, but has been supplanted by newer lexicons. Because it arranges Hebrew words by their theoretical roots, and because it has not been updated since the turn of last century, it is a good, but not the best, Hebrew-English lexicon out there.
- Harris, R. Laird, Archer, and Bruce Waltke. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. 2 vols. Chicago: Moody Press, 1980. (TWOT)
- This original English composition is a very good place to start your word study. The index at the end of volume 2 is keyed to Strong’s numbering system.
Concordances have very nearly been replaced by the word search function on bible software such as Logos, Accordance, and BibleWorks, as well as on websites such as Lumina.Bible, StepBible, and BibleWebApp. If you are in a situation where you are using a print concordance, here is what you should know:
- “Exhaustive” Concordance = Every word, every occurrence
- “Complete” Concordance = Every word, not every occurrence
- “Analytical” Concordance = word & occurrence, also indicating which original word in which occurrence stands behind the English translation.
- Strong, James. The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. New York: Eaton & Mains, 1990. (Strong’s)
- Lists English words in English alphabetical order. This concordance lists every English word of the KJV New Testament, followed by examples of each occurrence. The back of the book has a Hebrew-English and Greek-English dictionary that lists the underlying Hebrew or Greek word. Each word in the original language is assigned a number. Because of the popularity of the KJV and Strong’s concordance, these “Strong’s Numbers” are widely used in interlinears and other sources targeted to non-Hebrew/Greek reading people.
- Goodrick, Edward W. and John R. Kohlenberger III, eds. NIV Exhaustive Concordance. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990.
- This does the same thing as the Strong’s, but is based on the English of the NIV, not the KJV.
- Kohlenberger, John R., III, ed. The NRSV Concordance Unabridged, Including the Apocryphal/ Deuterocanonical Books. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991.
- This does the same as Strong’s, but is based on the English of the NRSV.
- Moulton, W.F., A.S. Geden, and H.K. Moulton. A Concordance to the Greek Testament. 5th ed. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1978; repr. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997.
- I. Howard Marshall updated the 6th edition in 2002. This lists Greek words in Greek alphabetical order according to their occurrence in the Greek New Testament.
3. Read More Examples
Carefully read/reread the places where the word is used. Do further research to fill out the fuller range of the word’s semantic domain/field. As you read examples and look into secondary sources, think deeply about the what the word has been used to convey. Think about specific examples as well as larger concepts. Write your thoughts in complete sentences and explain the various denotative and connotative senses that have been associated with the word.
Any of the following resources will help you fill out the word’s semantic domain:
- Louw, J. and E. Nida, eds. A Greek-English Lexicon based on Semantic Domains. 2nd ed. 2 vols. New York: United Bible Society, 1989. (L&N)
- Unique among the standard Greek lexicons, this lexicon arranges the words of the GNT into 93 semantic domains. Since words can be listed across multiple domains, you will want to start by finding your word in the index, and then look into how the word functions within each semantic domain in which it is listed.
- Moisés Silva, ed. The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis. 5 vols. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014. (NIDNTTE)
- Arranges Greek words in Greek alphabetical order. Not comprehensive, but has added 800 entries to those covered by the NIDNTT. This Silva version is an update of: Collin Brown, ed. The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology. 4 vols. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975-1978.(NIDNTT) This version arranges English words in English alphabetical order. Not comprehensive, but discusses words of major theological significance.
- Spicq, Ceslas. Theological Lexicon of the New Testament. Translated by James Ernest. 3 vols. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994. (TLNT)
- Arranges Greek words in Greek alphabetical order. Selective in the words it discusses, but the discussions are helpful.
- Balz, Horst, and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament. 3 vols. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990. (EDNT)
- Kittel, Gerhard, and Gerhard Friedrich, eds. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Translated and Edited by G. W. Bromiley. 10 volumes. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964-1976. (Kittel, The one-volume edition is know as Little Kittel)
- Arranges Greek words in Greek alphabetical order. Multi-volume, thorough discussion of important New Testament words. Definitions are discussed by time period (e.g., Classic Greek and Hellenism; Judaism; NT). *The criticism of this work is that it tends to be imprecise about contexts. It does a fine job with diachronic (“through time”) analysis, but does not do so well with synchronic (“within a set time frame”) analysis. This is a good source to get a broad sense of the ways a word has been used from the 800 B.C.’s – 1st few centuries A.D., but it is not consistently reliable for defining the parameters of how the NT limits a word’s the semantic domain. TL;DR – Kittel is helpful but sometimes sloppy in distinguishing ancient usage from contemporaneous, 1st century A.D. usage.
- de Blois, Reinier, and Enio R. Mueller, Semantic Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew. Swindon, England: United Bible Societies. In Process. http://www.sdbh.org/ (SDBH)
- VanGemeren, W.A. New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis. Carlisle: Paternoster, 1997. (NIDOTTE)
- Arranges Hebrew words in Hebrew alefbetical order, (i.e., not by their English translation.) If you don’t read Hebrew, then you can still find words by looking in the indexes in volume 5, or in the topical dictionary in volume 4.
- Jenni, Ernst, and Claus Westermann. Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament. 3 vols. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1997. (TLOT)
- Arranges Hebrew words in Hebrew alefbetical order. Selective in the words it discusses, but the discussions are helpful.
- Botterweck, Johannes, and Helmer Ringgren. Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament. Revised edition. Translated by John T. Willis. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975. (TDOT)
- This is the Hebrew companion to Kittel’s TDNT. The original German of the TDOT was composed from 1970-1995, and, like its English counterpart, was a multi-volume work.
Bible Dictionaries (Sometimes you’ll find an article on your specific word)
- Powell, Mark Allan, ed. HarperCollins Bible Dictionary. Revised and updated. 3rd ed. New York: HarperCollins, 2011.
- This updated edition was a project of the Society of Biblical Literature and represents some of the best of cutting-edge biblical scholarship. The only drawback is that it’s only one volume long. But it’s a great place to start, and then you will want to check with Anchor Yale’s or New Interpreter’s Bible Dictionary.
- Freedman, D.N., ed. Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary. 6 vols. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008. (ABD)
- This is a massive, scholarly work on words and ideas related to both Old and New Testament studies.
- Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob, ed. The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. 5 vols. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.
- This and Anchor vie for top spot in the multi-volume Bible Dictionary set.
- Bromily, Geoffrew W., ed. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. 4 vols. Rev. ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979-1988. (ISBE)
- This is another good dictionary. It has more maps and illustrations than the other two, and its bibliographies are helpful.
- Freedman, David Noel, ed. Eerdman’s Dictionary of the Bible. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000.
- Richards, Lawrence O. Expository Dictionary of Bible Words. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985.
- Use your library’s journal search function to see if you can find an article on your word. EBSCO Host and ATLA/S, especially ATLA/S, are going to be the most helpful journal search engines. You could also try a Google/Bing/Yahoo/AltaVista web search on your word to see if anything helpful comes up. If you sign up for academia.edu, you might find an article there, too.
4. Revisit Glosses
Now that you a better sense of how the word has been used, rethink the glosses that you would use to translate the word into a target language. Revisit the preliminary glosses you wrote down and add other glosses that would convey the sense of the word in different contemporary settings. Try formal, informal, and intimate registers of language. Consider slang and idiomatic expressions. This stage of brainstorming in light of what you have discovered is an important step, even if you do not ultimately suggest all your ideas as translation options.
5. Context Determines Meaning.
Now that you have a better sense of how the word has been used and how one might communicate it today, examine how you think the context of the Biblical passage you are studying shapes the meaning of the word. Again, Paul & James or Luke & John may use the same words, but they have very different cultural experiences that may lead to them using the same word in different ways.
For further reading on words and words tudy, see BibTheo.com/words. For resources useful to biblical study, see BibTheo.com/bibliography.
“Meaning is not on the level of words, but on the level of discourse.”