Learning to thrive in the new life Jesus offers us – 2 Corinthians 5:16-17

Using a Greek-English Dictionary and “Moving Bones”

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 1900s, of numerous ancient Koine Greek papyri.

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 differs 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 just “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 the best 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.

Using a Greek-English Dictionary and "Moving Bones"

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Posted November 6th, 2012 . Categories/Tags: Bible Translation and Interpretation, Church History, , ,

Unkind, judgemental, bizarre, and off-topic comments will be deleted.

9 comments on “Using a Greek-English Dictionary and “Moving Bones”

  1. Sarah says:

    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!

  2. Marg says:

    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.

  3. Lyn says:

    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.

  4. Marg says:

    Thanks Lyn! And thanks for letting me borrow Meek’s book. 😀

  5. 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.

  6. Marg says:

    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.

  7. Pam says:

    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?

  8. Marg says:

    Hi Pam,

    I like Perschbacher’s Analytical Greek-Dictionary. It’s very easy to use and concise.

    I also own the most recent edition of BDAG and frequently consult it. I have a great respect for the late Frederick Danker.

    I don’t use interlinears, so I can’t really give a recommendation.

    For Hebrew I use The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon.

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