Getting Behind the English Text – II

As I mentioned in my previous post, some scholars have objected to this method of study based on Strong’s numbers (or other numbering systems), pointing out the various pitfalls associated with these kinds of word studies. The dangers are there, to be sure, but if one learns to use the tools, and process the information they give, it can do more good than harm in the long run. Thanks to tools like these, among others, non-specialists do not have to settle for a “shallow” Bible study.

But first things first. If you are unsure about what I mean by “word study,” you could download How To Do A Word Study (PDF file) and see what it took and how it was done before the advent of computer-assisted Bible study.

Now, for a good overview and bibliography on how to perform word studies, you could profit from reading the following:*

Darrel L. Bock, “New Testament Word Analysis”, in Scot McKnight (ed.), Introducing New Testament Interpretation. Baker Book House: 1989, pp. 97-113.

Gary M. Burge, Interpreting the Gospel of John. Baker Book House: 1992, chapters 8-9 (pp. 125-156).

David A. DeSilva, An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods & Ministry Formation. InterVarsity Press/Apollos: 2004, pp. 703-713.

There are also some excellent online resources, like Studying Words, by Mary Hinkle, or simpler and shorter How-to Guides, like Word Study, by Steven C. Ibbotson.

To conclude this post, I would like to quote from two online articles that point out some of the limitations inherent to the use of Strong’s.

Kevin Cauley, in The Strength of Strong’s, writes the following:

As many are familiar, Strong’s also numbers each word indexed so that the reader may look up the original Greek or Hebrew word that is used in the passage under consideration. This can be useful in comparing two different Bible passages to aid the reader in understanding whether the same word was used in both passages. However, a student should be careful not to extend Strong’s beyond its intended purpose; it is a concordance, not a comprehensive lexicon of ancient words.

[…] the Greek and Hebrew dictionaries in Strong’s Concordance ought not to be looked at as ‘the’ definition of a word for all occurrences of that word in scripture.

Overall, Strong’s Concordance is an excellent tool for the Bible student. I highly recommend that every person have a copy in their personal library. However, when it comes to Greek and Hebrew aids, one ought to purposefully limit Strong’s to what it does best in that department. Strong’s aids the reader in understanding where similar original language words are used and where different original language words are used in reference to a single English word. One should limit one’s use of Strong’s dictionary to that purpose. Greater depth of understanding of original language words ought to be sought from a Greek or Hebrew Lexicon.

John K. McKee, in Getting Beyond Strong’s Concordance, also makes the point that Strong’s should be used carefully and thoughtfully.

How many Bible teachers that you know tell you that all you need is a good King James Bible, a Strong’s Concordance, and a Webster’s Dictionary, and that is all you need to interpret Scripture? If this is what you have been told, then you are sadly mistaken.

[...] So when it comes to Strong’s Concordance, and our usage of it, using Strong’s is only a beginning, not the end. It must be where the Bible student begins first looking at Hebrew and Greek words, but by no means should be where the student stops. The problem is that we have Bible teachers […] who stop at Strong’s Concordance. They do not realize that there is a whole world of valuable tools out there that make Strong’s actually look pretty weak. Perhaps what keeps people using Strong’s Concordance is their familiarity with it, but that familiarity has to be tempered with the reality that Strong’s Concordance is an incomplete resource.

So, we must be cautious and exercise some common sense. If we do, we’ll soon realize that the currently available numbering systems can help us discover a little bit of the meaning and nuances that lie behind our modern language translations of the Bible, although it would not be realistic to expect that these tools can automatically turn us into Hebrew or Greek “experts.”

With all the caveats out of the way, in the next post of this series we shall look at some of the implementations of this numbering systems in various Bible software programs.

Notes:

* All of these are currently available in Libronix format from Logos Bible Software.

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Getting Behind the English Text – I

Serious Bible study and exegesis should be carried out in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. There is no question about that, as far as I am concerned. Besides, I am also convinced that it should be expected that those who have had a formal biblical and theological training be proficient in the biblical languages.

However, having said all that, not everyone can afford to do it (and there are many different reasons or excuses that one could think of). I know that the use of Strong’s numbers or interlinears is frequently frowned upon by some academics and commonly labeled as a “crutch.” I do not agree. In an ideal world everybody would read the Scriptures in Hebrew and Greek, but our world is far from ideal. Let’s face it: the vast amount of people who approach the study of the Scriptures do not have a good command of the original languages. That is why those of us who believe the Scriptures should be accessible to everybody, think that any tool that enables people to get behind the English text of the Bible should be welcome (at least in principle). Granted that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and that there will be cases of misuse or abuse of the text (eisegesis, in one word), but, in my opinion, an over-reliance on the modern language translations of the Bible is even potentially worse.

A biblical scholar once categorized Strong’s numbers as “a horrendous device, enabling those who don’t understand Greek at all to pronounce on ‘what the original Greek says’!” (Edward Hobbs, B-Greek, Tue Sep 26 1995), and this comes to show that there is a clear concern for the fact that the use of Strong’s numbers may open Pandora’s Box of exegetical fallacies. This is, of course, quite a legitimate and not at all unfounded concern. But unfortunately, any misuse of whatever resource (including the Hebrew and Greek texts themselves) can leave the door wide open for such fallacies to creep in. So I find it difficult to understand why some of those who have had the privilege to read the Scriptures in Hebrew and Greek, dismiss patronizingly any kind of tool designed for those people Bill Mounce calls “the rest of us” in a couple of his books (i.e., Greek for the Rest of Us and Interlinear for the Rest of Us).

In this post I’d like to address one of the most commonly used methods in Bible software packages to allow users to get behind the English text of the Bible, namely, Strong’s numbers. This is usually done by means of “tagged,” “coded” or “keyed” Bibles that typically display the numbers beside each word, or group of words, thereby linking to the original terms underlying the English translation.

There are currently three* different numbering systems, attached to four** Bible versions: the King James Version (with Strong’s numbers), the New American Standard Bible (that includes a slightly revised and enhanced edition of Strong’s numbers), the New International Version (with Goodrick-Kohlenberger’s numbers), and the English Standard Version (with Strong’s numbers). These electronic Bibles include the biblical text and the embedded numbers. Each number (or word if the number itself is not displayed) in the text is a hyperlink to its corresponding lexicon entry, where we find the Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek term, its transliteration, English translation, and different bits of statistical information about its use in that particular Bible translation.

Numbering systems allow Bible students who are not familiar (or proficient enough) with the original languages to conduct their own personal research on biblical vocabulary. Starting with the English word it is easy enough to identify the number attached to it and look it up. Once this information has been gathered, anyone can find out more details in the accompanying lexicons or, better still, refer to other works that use the same numbering system in order to dig deeper into the study and understanding of each term in its context.

Let us look briefly at the available numbering systems.

Strong’s numbers – In 1890, Dr. James Strong, professor at Drew Theological Seminary, published his magnus opus “The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible”. It was the fruit of 35 years of hard work, during which time he was helped by more than 100 colleagues. This concordance, based on the KJV (and, therefore, the Textus Receptus), included numbers that referred to one of the dictionaries in which one could find the original term, an English transliteration, a pronunciation guide, the etymology of the word, and the various ways it had been translated into English by the translators of the KJV. Modern electronic editions of Strong’s numbers have been corrected and enhanced in various ways.

Goodrick-Kohlenberger’s numbers – In 1990, Edward W. Goodrick and John R. Kohlenberger III published their “NIV Exhaustive Concordance.” They assigned a number to every Hebrew word used in the OT (following the Hebrew alphabetical order, beginning with number 1 in plain style), and every Greek word used in the NT (according to the Greek alphabet, beginning with number 1 in italics). With this system they were able to point with absolute accuracy which English word(s) in the New International Version were used to translate the underlying Hebrew and Greek text. At the end of the Concordance there were Hebrew and Greek indices with a complete list of all those words and their basic meanings. Unlike Strong’s numbers, G/K’s are not based on the TR, but rather on the eclectic text that was used as the basis for the NIV.  There are conversion tables to help those people who have been using reference works based on Strong’s numbers.

The main advantage of these numbering systems is that they allow users to carry out word studies without having to know Hebrew or Greek (at least up to a certain extent), but I will deal with this in my next post.

Notes:

* There is also a fledgling Tyndale-Strong’s numbering system associated with the New Living Translation and some other related works (e.g., the Cornerstone Biblical Comentary series).
** Actually, there are other English versions keyed to Strong’s numbers, like the 1995 Revised Webster Version, as well as some Greek and foreign-language Bibles. However, the four mentioned here are the most widely used.

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Greek, Exegesis and Bible Software

It is good to see that more and more books are taking into account the use of Bible software applications as a tool for approaching the study of the biblical languages and the exegesis of the text. This is the case of Basic Greek and Exegesis, written by Richard B. Ramsay. I haven’t read it (yet), but the book includes a good number of sections that explain how to use Bible software for particular exegetical tasks. You can find the Table of Contents and a sample chapter here.

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