Those in whom the Greek word lives only while they are hunting for it in the lexicon, and who then substitute the English word for it, are not reading Greek at all; they are only solving a puzzle.
C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy. (A longer quotation is here.)
To read the New Testament fluently in Greek is one of my ambitions, an ambition I am actively pursuing. The more I learn about New Testament Greek, however, the more I see errors and problems where people have relied on brief entries in Greek-English dictionaries in explaining certain Bible words and passages. This is especially true if older dictionaries are used that were written before the discoveries, in the 1800s and 1900s, of numerous ancient papyri written in Koine Greek.
Even if the definitions in these dictionaries accurately provide a range of the possible meanings of a given Greek word, they usually do not provide adequate information as to how the word was used by the original speakers and authors. For example, a phrase such as kalon ergon (which can be translated as “a good deed” or “a fine work”, etc) has a significance that can differ depending on the context (e.g., Mark 14:6 cf. 1 Tim 3:1 NIV).
Knowing the dictionary definition of a particular Greek word and its grammar is useful but sometimes this is not enough information to gain an understanding of how and why that word (or a phrase) was used in a particular sentence or by a particular author.
A dictionary definition does not always give the sense the author intended. It does not alert us to any rhetorical devices being used, devices such as hyperbole or irony. And it may not note the use of idioms. Moreover, information about the etymology of words, which is included in some dictionaries, can mislead people about how the words were used and what they meant in real life.
A knowledge of the Greek literature and documents that were written around the same time as when the New Testament was written, as well as a knowledge of early Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures, are important in helping our understanding of New Testament Greek.
I like what Wayne A. Meeks says on this topic:
… so simple a task as translating a sentence from an ancient language into our own requires some sense of the social matrices of both the original utterance and ourselves. When we take up the dictionary and grammar to aid us, we err unless we understand that they only catalog the relics of language as a fluid, functioning social medium. If we translate without that awareness, we are only moving bones from one coffin to another.
Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul, Second Edition (Yale University Press, 2003), 5.
We need to be careful that our use of Greek dictionaries and other aids is truly helping us to see the living Word of God more authentically and that we are not using them to “move dead bones.”
Learning New Testament Greek takes a long time and is an ongoing process, and most people do not have the time or inclination to embark on this venture. Nevertheless, if you do want to find out possible meanings of a Greek word, be aware that Strong’s and Vine’s are not reliable. And if you do use Strong’s or Vine’s, or any dictionary, read the instructions on the first few pages about how to use them properly.
Using a dictionary is a first step in understanding the meaning of a word, not the final word. And we should avoid being presumptive or pedantic about ascribing meanings and functions to certain Greek words and phrases that may be unclear and ambiguous to modern readers.
I love reading the New Testament in Greek. The New Testament is more authentic and seems more vivid in Greek than in English, but I have to keep reminding myself to take it slowly and carefully, and not to rush to conclusions about definitions and interpretations.
It is no wonder Greek students are cautioned that “A little Greek is a dangerous thing.”
 Seumas McDonald has a tiny post about why we must read non-New Testament Greek to understand New Testament Greek here.
 If you can’t read Greek and want to find out the scope of meaning of a certain passage, read the passage in several English translations. I recommend the (1) Christian Standard Bible, (2) New Revised Standard Version, and the (3) Common English Bible. Most well-known English translations are excellent. And read the whole book or letter that contains the passage, looking for keywords and themes. Context!
 Strong’s Concordance (first published in 1890) is not always accurate. Strong’s is a wonderful work, but it was written and published around the same time as the numerous newly-discovered Greek papyri in Egypt were beginning to be published and discussed. The newly discovered papyri have greatly helped us to better understand the Greek of the New Testament.
George Milligan has written about the value of these papyri in his “General Introduction” to the dictionary he produced with J.H. Moulton, The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament: Illustrated from the Papyri and Other Non-literary Sources (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1929), vii-xx. This can be read here.
 For example, the italicised English words in Strong’s (not counting the pronunciation guide) are not to be taken as definitions of the given Hebrew or Greek word. Rather, they are every rendering of that word in the King James Bible, and some of these renderings involve compromises as is always the case in any translation from one language to another. The words following these italicised words are definitions, but some are not as accurate as they could be.
Furthermore, I’ve seen novices make errors because they haven’t understood that Strong’s, and most Greek-English dictionaries and lexicons, usually only provide information on the lexical forms of nouns, verbs, and adjectives and not on words in their inflected forms.
Postscript 1 : September 1, 2021
Reading Biblical Languages and Entering the Culture
John H. Walton echoes Meek’s point about understanding the social matrices behind a language. Writing about biblical Hebrew, Walton urges his students to “enter the culture.”
When people want to study the Bible seriously, one of the steps they take is to learn the language. As I teach language students, I am faced with the challenge of persuading them that they will not succeed simply by learning enough of the language to engage in translation. Truly learning the language requires leaving English behind, entering the world of the text and understanding the language in its Hebrew context without creating English words in their minds. They must understand Hebrew as Hebrew text. This is the same with culture. We must make every attempt to set our English categories aside, to leave our cultural ideas behind, and try our best (as limited as the attempt may be) to understand the material in its cultural context without translating it.
Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 9.
Postscript 2: January 13, 2022
The Cambridge Greek Lexicon
I do not recommend the new Cambridge Greek Lexicon for students of the New Testament. This lexicon was written with students of Classical Greek in mind. The lexicographers did not consult the Septuagint, Jewish authors writing in Greek (e.g., Philo and Josephus), inscriptions, or papyri. These post-classical sources shed light on New Testament Greek. The Cambridge Greek Lexicon does not cover the New Testament itself apart from the four Gospels and Acts.
Postscript 3: February 19, 2023
Best Greek Lexicons for the Greek New Testament
In answer to many questions I’ve received, no lexicon is perfect but the best lexicon for the New Testament is BDAG:
Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Third Edition, revised and edited by F.W Danker. (I’ve used BDAG in these articles.)
However, I use Liddell, Scott, and Jones’s exhaustive lexicon (LSJ), more often. I have the (huge) book but I usually use it online (for free) here. LSJ covers the New Testament and has no theological bias. (I’ve used LSJ in these articles.)
And I always have the Pocket Oxford Classical Dictionary handy. This small and inexpensive book is very useful when you just need a quick, short definition.
BDAG, LSJ, and the Pocket Dictionary need at least a little bit of Greek knowledge to use because the Greek words are written in Greek letters and only lexical forms are used in headings.
Note that HELPS word studies on Bible Hub has a strong theological bias, and I don’t recommend the Cambridge Greek Lexicon (see above).
Freebies for Students of New Testament Greek
Which Bible translation is best?
The Bible and “Plain Sense” Reading
“Must manage his own household well” (1 Timothy 3:4)
Various articles looking at certain Greek words are here.
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8 thoughts on “Using Greek-English Dictionaries and “Moving Bones””
I really like how you cautioned against not being careful with how you use a Greek-English dictionary. I am sharing this with others. Thanks!
Thanks Sarah. I think I will have to read this article myself from time to time. I’ve been studying Greek for a few years now and sometimes I think I know more than I actually do. (And sometimes I can just make a dumb, clumsy error when translating.)
Note to self: Be slow, careful and cautious.
Well said Margaret. You’re pointing out what really needs highlighting.
After searching through the works of many ancient writers and the Egyptian papyri, I was shocked to read how differently they use so many of the words we take for granted, words that are defined in our NT Greek/English dictionaries (even the best ones). Translating and interpreting are not word games where you substitute the Greek word for the English and out pops the meaning. If we don’t have the literary and historical background, then we may be missing most of the context.
Quite right Margaret: be slow and cautious and be prepared to do some heavy lifting in the library (literally) and read how the writers themselves use the words. I think I’d better make this my own personal mantra. Thanks for a great article.
Thanks Lyn! And thanks for letting me borrow Meeks’s book. 😀
I like Wayne Meeks comment – ‘moving bones from one box to another’. But how difficult it is if we look for ‘meaning’ in a word. What’s that phrase – words do not have meanings, meanings have words. Or words do not have meaning, they have usage. Yet even these warnings do not solve the problem of meaning. Meaning can be both mean in the sense of cruel, and mean in the sense of leveling. What we search for and need is to be known rather than to know, to be in conversation. Perhaps it was even a problem for Jesus when they said – no one dared ask him a question. But NT is not my specialty – I have worked mainly with Hebrew poetry – and I, like you, realize I know too little, but I would have learned nothing if I had not simply dived in.
Thanks for your “meaningful” comment, Bob. 😉
I hope my article doesn’t stop people from diving in. I just hope they watch out for the rips and rocks.
Are there any up to date resources that are available instead of having to rely on Strong’s?
Can you recommend some excellent Greek (or Hebrew) English dictionaries and interlinears?
I own the most recent edition of BDAG and frequently consult it.
I also own LSJ, but it is freely available online here:
I like Perschbacher’s Analytical Greek-Dictionary. It’s easy to use and concise.
For an even more concise dictionary, the Pocket Oxford Classical Greek Dictionary does a great job. And it’s inexpensive and portable.
I don’t use interlinears, so I can’t really give a recommendation.
For Hebrew, I use BDB because it’s on my shelves.
But HALOT is better.
You need some Greek or Hebrew to use these resources. Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts to gaining a real understanding of Greek and Hebrew.
Having said that, I encourage you to use whatever resources that are available to you. We all have to start somewhere. Just remember, a little Greek (or Hebrew) is a dangerous thing. And there are errors in some freely available Greek and Hebrew resources online, such as on Bible Hub.