Using a Greek-English Dictionary and "Moving Bones"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.[1] This is especially true if older dictionaries are being used which were written before the discoveries, in the late 1800s and in the 1900s, of numerous ancient papyri written in Koine Greek.

Even if the definitions in these dictionaries approximate the possible meanings of a given Greek word, they usually do not adequately provide a cultural or literary background as to how the word was used by the original speakers and authors. Even a simple, short phrase such as kalon ergon (which is easily translated as “a good deed” or “a fine work”) has a depth of meaning that may differ depending on the text and cultural context (e.g. Mark 14:6 cf. 1 Tim 3:1 NIV).

Knowing the definition of a particular Greek word and its grammar is useful, but sometimes it is not enough information to give an understanding of how and why that word (or a phrase) is used in a particular sentence.

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.

An understanding of the Greco-Roman culture, and a knowledge of the literature written around the same the time as when the New Testament was written, are important in helping our understanding of New Testament Greek.[2]

I love what Wayne 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.”
Wayne A. 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 most people do not have the time or inclination to embark on this journey.[3] But if you do want to find out the meaning of a Greek word, be aware that Strong’s and Vine’s are not reliable dictionaries.[4] (But if you do use Strong’s or Vine’s, or any other dictionary, read the instructions on the first few pages about how to use them properly.) Most importantly, we should be careful not to be presumptive or pedantic about ascribing meanings and functions to certain words and phrases that are actually unclear and ambiguous to modern readers.

I love reading the New Testament in Greek. It is more authentic and feels more alive in the Greek than in the 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 that many Greek students are cautioned that “A little Greek is a dangerous thing”.


[1] I know of a Christian school where they have given Greek names to the school houses. One of the houses is called “Meros”. They think it means “respect”; but meros doesn’t mean “respect” in the way they suppose it does.

[2] Seamus McDonald has a tiny post about why we must read non-New Testament Greek to understand New Testament Greek here.

[3] 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) New American Standard Bible, (2) the New International Version (2011), and (3) the New Revised Standard Version. Most English translations are excellent. And read the whole book or letter that contains the passage, looking for keywords and themes. Context!

[4] Strong’s Concordance (first published in 1890) is not always completely 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 began to be published. The newly discovered papyri have greatly helped us to better understand the Greek of the New Testament.

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