This is the first entry in a series of posts on the use of Strong’s Concordance:
What is Strong’s Concordance? It’s a list of every Hebrew (OT) and Greek (NT) root word in the King James Bible. It numbers each of these roots and lists every occurrence throughout the Bible. Using this tool one can look up the underlying root word which the translators rendered into English. Accompanying this is a list of every occurrence of this word in the Bible and a short English definition called a “gloss.”
“This people honors me with their lips, but their concordances are far from me.”
Matt 15:8 (DSP – Dave’s Sarcastic Paraphrase)
What’s the Big Deal?
This sounds like a great resource that we should use more! While it’s true that Strong’s concordance (and similar resources) is a powerful Bible study tool, it is abused almost as much as the Bible itself.
How can we identify ways in which Strong’s is misused?
Strong’s is NOT a Dictionary
Strong’s is primarily a concordance, not a dictionary. A dictionary defines words. A concordance acts like an index.
While Strong’s does provide a short gloss (English definition) of each Hebrew and Greek word it lists, its function is primarily to show all occurrences of that word in the Bible, not exhaustively define it. There are several problems with using Strong’s as a dictionary:
A. Getting it right doesn’t mean you’ve gotten it right.
Even if you can extract the precise meaning of a word from Strong’s (see point B below), you still don’t know for sure what the author intended to convey by using it. Consider the English noun “bear.” The large, fuzzy, four-legged critter that can ruin your day. Consider these two statements:
“That was a bear!” (At the zoo)
“That was a bear!” (After a hard test at school)
Both statements refer to the creature but mean entirely different things. You can’t depend primarily on a dictionary definition to understand the author’s intent. This is, perhaps, an overly obvious example but the precept remains: The manner in which an author uses a word, not its Strong’s definition, determines its meaning.
Grammatical and syntactical data are important only in that they enable us to grasp the meaning of the statements in their context. Claims of emphasis rarely come from individual words or constructions.
- Dr. Rod Decker “Another Exegetical ‘Grump’ On Grammatical Maximalism“
B. You don’t know how to choose the correct gloss (definition).
We just saw that words change meaning based on context. But context can change our entire understanding of a word! For instance, let’s look at the word Greek word “para.” It’s a preposition (words like “over,” “beside,” and “after”). Para expresses nearness, but in several ways. Here’s the Strong’s gloss:
para: from, of, at, by, besides, near
So let’s try an example. “The message is para Jesus.”
It’s a big difference to say that something is from Jesus rather than being near Jesus. If you’re looking up a word in Strong’s how do you choose? At random? Whichever sounds best to you? Whichever fits your theology best?
Para means “from” when the object of the preposition (“Jesus” in our example) is in the genitive case. It means “beside” when the object is in the dative case. And it means “alongside” when the object is in the accusative case. What are these cases? They are suffixes that change the meaning of the noun (again, “Jesus” in this example). Think of them like adding “s” at the end of the word “ball” to indicate that there are multiple balls. But in Greek the word ending tells you how that word functions (for instance, if it’s the subject of the sentence or not) and, in the case of prepositions, what related words mean.
That was a lot of info. What does it mean? The meaning of a Greek word is often determined by the form of other words in the sentence. And that’s not information that Strong’s gives you. And even if it did, it wouldn’t tell you what case the next word was in anyway so you’d have no way of telling which meaning of “para” was called for in the sentence.
“Strong’s function is to show all occurrences
of a word, not exhaustively define it.”
C. Exact correspondence between languages rarely exists.
The varying glosses (definitions) of a single root typically have a very similar meaning and reflect only varying nuances of meaning. There are, however, many words which have multiple distinct meanings depending on the manner of the word’s usage. This can lead to a “mix-and-match” interpretation where the reader picks a gloss to use based on a) a best guess, b) what they want the passage to say, or even c) at random.
I have seen people pick a definition from Strong’s based on preference with disastrous results. For example, I conversed with one person who supported the Serpent Seed heresy by choosing a particular nuance of the Hebrew “naga” because it best fit his interpretation of Gen 3:3 even though the context gave absolutely no indication that the word had his desired connotation in that passage.
An advanced lexicon (which is a dictionary, as opposed to a concordance like Strong’s) like BDAG or HALOT will provide extra information to explain what usages/contexts will result in each definition. Strong’s, since it is not in the business of defining words, does not provide this information and cannot directly help you make that choice.
In the third part of this series we will look at how Strong’s can help you indirectly understand a word’s meaning.
D. Biblical authors use the same word differently.
Just as today, the biblical authors differed in the ways they used vocabulary. Writing at different times, in different places, from different educational backgrounds and to different audiences, words from the same language held different meanings. Just look at the way Paul and James use the word “faith” – the two authors use the same word to mean different things in different contexts. Does this mean that the Bible is inconsistent? No. It simply means that it was composed by different authors.
“The manner in which an author uses a word,
not its Strong’s definition, determines its meaning.”
But Wait, There’s More!
Strong’s Concordance is still a valuable tool and soon we will look at how best to use it. But before we do that we need to put up a few more barriers to misusing it. I hope this entry has helped you understand that Strong’s Concordance should not be used as a simple dictionary.
Finally, we’ll look at a good example of a prominent blogger using Strong’s well, making a significant contribution to his Bible study.
The Only 3 Tools You Need to Study the Bible… Free!
How NOT To Study the Bible
Stuff Fundies Like: Making 1611 English Mean Whatever You Want
“That was a bear” analogy adapted from Logos Research Systems “Learn to Use Biblical Greek and Hebrew with Logos Bible Software”