James Strong’s 1890 Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible is one of the most frequently cited Bible study resources out there—perhaps because it is freely available in many places online. But its dictionary portion is often misused. I humbly offer three reasons why you should use better resources if you can.
1. Strong’s dictionary entries lend themselves to abuses.
First, Strong included Hebrew and Greek dictionaries—but nobody ever seems to read the fine print to discover what exactly he was trying to do in his entries. These dictionaries therefore sometimes lend themselves to abuses. Just the other day, a Christian said to another Christian online (where else?), “Most English-speaking believers don’t know the true meaning of the words in their Bible.” And to illustrate, he quoted Strong’s (and, as it happens, mixed up Hebrew and Greek entries). “When you read the word ‘trust’ in English,” he said, “you may not realize that in Hebrew and Greek, what it really means is ‘believe, trust, place trust in, RELY, CONFIDE—to entrust (especially one’s spiritual well-being to Christ).’”
But if you read [James] Strong’s introduction, you’ll understand that he isn’t saying that “believe” and “trust” and “put in trust with” add up to a definition of the Hebrew and Greek words for “trust”; they are what’s called “glosses,” single-word translation equivalents drawn, in this case, straight from the King James Version. Some of these fit in only particular contexts; they’re not a menu from which you can select whichever meaning appeals to you.
2. Strong’s dictionary entries often tempt people to make “meaning soup.”
They’re not a soup, either, of all those meanings mixed together, that you can then pour into other Bible passages. This is a second reason you should probably replace Strong’s dictionary: people love to make meaning soup with Strong’s. Take the definition I just quoted from social media. It doesn’t work: the Greek word for “trust” clearly does not always mean “to entrust one’s spiritual well-being to Christ.” How do we know this? Because the demons “believe”—same Greek word (Jas 2:19)—but they haven’t entrusted themselves to Jesus. Dictionaries like Strong’s tend to invite Bible readers to load up Bible words with more meaning than the Spirit intended. Context, not hidden Hebrew and Greek meanings, tells you what level or quality or object of trust is meant.
3. Strong’s dictionary can lead Bible readers into word-study fallacies.
Third, Strong’s dictionary sometimes leads unwary readers straight into word study fallacies. For example, under the simple, common New Testament Greek word for “rejoice,” you get this: “from ἄγαν agan (much) and 242 [the word “jump”]; properly to jump for joy, i.e., exult.”
But words mean what they are used to mean in any given time period, not necessarily what they used to mean. So it simply isn’t true that agalliao means “much jumping.” That meaning doesn’t work, at least not everywhere the word occurs: Mary says in the Magnificat that her “spirit rejoices in God her Savior” (Luke 1:47); her spirit didn’t “much jump.”
So are there better options?
What resources should you use instead of Strong’s dictionary?
Honestly, my first suggestion is that you stick with English. There are so many great Bible dictionaries (Lexham Bible Dictionary and Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible are excellent options) and commentaries (you can find a list of the seven best exegetical commentaries here) that use only the language you already know. Use multiple good English Bible translations, gain some sense for why they differ, and you may actually be better off than someone who likes to ride the sacred cow of original language usage through the slaughterhouse of linguistic fallacies.
My second suggestion is that you use the same tool I use all the time: the Bible Word Study in Logos. It can give you access to good Hebrew and Greek dictionaries such as BDAG (Bauer-Danker-Arndt- Gingrich), CHALOT (A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament), Louw-Nida, Swanson, and the Lexham Theological Wordbook. It will also most certainly help you look at how any Bible word actually got used by the native Hebrew and Greek speakers whom we know as the apostles and prophets.
- Online Bible Dictionaries: Why Everyone Needs at Least One
- 8 Reasons Bible Dictionaries Are the Unsung Heroes of Bible Study
- Bible Sense Lexicon
- Semantic Domains