Getting Behind the English Text – I

Published: October 30th, 2008

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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