“It is a mistake to shun the lexicon as a graveyard haunted by columns of semantic ghosts or simply fall back on it as on a codebook identifying words that did not appear in first-year vocabulary lists.”
— Frederick W. Danker in Multipurpose Tools for Bible study
Greek dictionaries and lexicons are foundational for effective study of the New Testament in its original language. They are essential for understanding what individual words mean and how authors used them in Biblical Greek and surrounding writings. What kind of dictionary you need depends on what your goal is.
What’s the Difference between Greek Dictionaries and Lexicons?
Why are some Greek dictionaries called lexicons and others called dictionaries? Dictionary is the general term. Dictionaries are used when the reference work in question is designed to provide broad, general coverage of the language and for small more glossary-like works. That’s why most English dictionaries are termed “dictionary,” as well as Brill’s Greek-English Dictionary of Ancient Greek (GE).
Lexicons are specialized dictionaries with narrower, but more comprehensive coverage of a particular corpus or author. Hence, BDAG—one of the most important Greek lexicons—is titled A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. It’s limited to the New Testament, Apostolic Fathers, and various New Testament apocryphal works.
You might protest at this point, noting that the title of Liddel Scott Jones (LSJ) is A Greek-English Lexicon. Yet, isn’t it a general dictionary? LSJ was actually originally conceived as a lexicon devoted solely to the corpus of the Classical period. It was only in later editions that editors decided to expand its coverage to attempt to cover Greek more generally. Its coverage continues to be strongly slanted toward the Classical period of the language. Still, the Logos Edition of LSJ, with its fully integrated supplement, makes it one of the most essential English resources for papyri and inscriptions.
Biblical Greek Lexicons
The standard for New Testament lexicography is, of course, BDAG. Its entries are comprehensive and detailed for the New Testament, with context- specific lexical information for vocabulary outside the New Testament. But BDAG’s most useful feature is arguably its thorough bibliographic information. For theologically important words, especially, BDAG’s entries, very nearly provide a comprehensive history of research.
The other major New Testament lexicon is Louw & Nida's Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, which is unique in that, while providing fewer citations, it organizes lexical items based on meaning rather than alphabetically. This makes it possible to quickly see which words are semantically comparable to any word you are interested in—something that historically has been all but impossible without substantial personal research.
Lexicons of the Septuagint also exist. The most important of these is not available digitally: Takamitsu Muraoka’s A Greek-English Lexicon of the Septuagint. But Johan Lust, Katrin Hauspie, and Erik Eynikel’s A Greek-English Lexicon of the Septuagint, which is available, continues to have value.
Finally, one additional lexicon sits on the fuzzy boundary between biblical Greek lexicons and specialty lexicons: Moulton and Milligan’s Vocabulary of the Greek Testament. While it does not cover all biblical Greek words, it is focused on New Testament vocabulary, providing insights from personal letters and documentary papyri discovered in Egypt. Its unique information and position make it incredibly useful. That’s why you’ll see it regularly cited in commentaries and even other lexicons.
Specialty Dictionaries and Lexicons
Sometimes you may need even more information than a standard dictionary or lexicon offers. In those situations, theological dictionaries become incredibly valuable. Written as full prose articles, these works provide valuable historical context surrounding the words and ideas to which they refer. Barclay Newman’s A Concise Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament, Revised Edition and Alexander Souter’s A Pocket Lexicon to the Greek New Testament are both excellent choices, with Souter’s lexicon having the unique status of being one of the few Greek dictionaries produced entirely from scratch rather than revision.
Other times, your primary need might be historical information about a word: how it was formed, the origins of its constituent parts, or its earliest use. For this, the best resource is Beekes’ Etymological Dictionary of Greek. It’s up to date and far more reliable than most older works, such as Etyma Graeca: An Etymological Lexicon of Classical Greek, since our grasp of the history of Greek and related languages has grown so quickly over the past century.
For later periods of Greek, there aren’t as many options. Brill’s Greek-English Dictionary of Ancient Greek (GE) provides slightly better coverage than other major works but is still limited. Sophocles’ Greek-English Lexicon of the Byzantine Period and Early Modern Greek provides the most coverage of the period but is effectively a 1,200 page glossary. And then there’s Lampe’s A Patristic Greek Lexicon, which is designed to supplement LSJ, sometimes even taking LSJ’s sense numbers as a given. Still, it provides the most information about patristic vocabulary of anything available.
Encyclopedic Reference Works
Exegetical and theological lexicons are essential for understanding the cultural and social context in which individual words are used. These works do not replace standard dictionaries or lexicons (not the least because they often only cover words deemed “important”), but they help contextualize a word’s usage in ways that help illustrate how history, society, and culture influence how words end up being used by native speakers. Still, they must be used carefully. Often, people are tempted to confuse what a word means with the concepts that undergird that meaning. Chapter 7 of Linguistics and Exegesis has a helpful discussion of this particular challenge.
Spicq’s Theological Lexicon of the New Testament does an excellent job integrating the recent study of the papyri and documentary texts into his encyclopedic lexicon. The Lexham Theological Wordbook covers both Greek and Hebrew and, along with the New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis edited by Moisés Silva, represents one of the newest entries for this kind of reference work.
How to Use Greek Dictionaries and Lexicons
Using specialized lexicons (like analytical lexicons) can be simpler than using more general dictionaries and lexicons since they are designed for looking up inflectional forms or the lemmas of particular inflectional forms. Large scale dictionaries and lexicons, however, can be overwhelming, as they often contain detailed entries filled with inscrutable abbreviations as well as obscure references and citations.
Learning to read a lexical entry is an essential skill for any student of biblical Greek. There are also a few resources that can help, such as Danker’s Multi-Purpose Tools for Bible Study and Rodney Decker’s excellent essay on how to use BDAG. The excellent festschrift for Frederick Danker, Biblical Greek Language and Lexicography, also has much to offer.
But one of the most practical exercises is readily available to anyone with two lexicons—or the person with at least BDAG and an internet connection since an edition of LSJ almost as good as the Logos edition is available online through Perseus. The trick is to simultaneously and methodically work through both lexicon entries and consider where different definitions or glosses are located and how the information is organized. Then, ask questions about what might motivate similarities and differences. A few examples of this practice are in the blog posts below.
Useful online resources for studying Greek words include the Perseus Project (using their Word Study Tool) and Logeion. Logeion, especially, provides access to lexical information difficult to find elsewhere.
An increasing number of Greek lexicons are available through Logos. Logos editions are enhanced to facilitate searching, note-taking, and easy navigation between primary sources and reference works. See all Greek lexicons available in Logos.