Lexical tools in the NeXtBible Learning Environment

A recent comment on my post "Using lexical tools in Bible study" asked a question about the lexical tools keyed to the Strong’s numbers in the NeXtBible Learning Environment.

A recent comment on my post "Using lexical tools in Bible study" asked a question about the lexical tools keyed to the Strong’s numbers in the NeXtBible Learning Environment. This topic is worth an additional post of its own, because in several previous posts I have pointed out repeatedly how many older commentaries and lexical tools (for example, Matthew Henry’s commentary and Joseph Henry Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon) are quite dated and in some cases have weaknesses due to the state of our knowledge of Greek grammar, the nature of Koine Greek, and our understanding of root meanings of Greek and Hebrew words (etymology) at the time these reference works were written. I have emphasized how the most recent and up-to-date reference works, commentaries, and dictionaries are better sources for Bible study almost without exception. I have told my students for years that older lexical works, in particular those written before the beginning of the twentieth century, are best used as doorstops. That may be a slight rhetorical exaggeration, but not by much. The changes that happened in the study of Greek word meanings, Greek grammar, and linguistics that took place at the beginning of the twentieth century are thoroughly documented and marked such a complete change from the past understanding of these topics, even by the best scholars in these fields, that it was nothing short of revolutionary. Yet in spite of all this, when we turn to the NeXtBible Learning Environment (free online at bible.org) we find — you guessed it — some of these older reference tools, like the Greek and Hebrew Dictionaries from Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance (originally published in 1890). Why are we providing older tools that biblical scholars today (myself included) would not recommend their students use?

I’m going to start by quoting part of my reply to the earlier question, and then I’ll elaborate a bit on what I said. Here’s part of my initial reply to the question:

"It is important to distinguish between the reference works, lexical and grammatical tools used in the preparation of the NET Bible translation and notes on the one hand and the reference works, lexical and other tools made available online for free through the NeXtBible Learning Environment. These sets of reference works and materials are not the same. In translating and editing the NET Bible and notes, the NET Bible Team used the most up-to-date and accurate reference works and materials possible. These are indicated in the notes and in the ‘List of Cited Works’ on page 2459 of the printed First Edition (online click here).

"As for the toolset currently included with the online NeXtBible Learning Environment, we at bible.org are unfortunately limited (1) to what we can get permission to post online (from the publishers who hold the copyrights) or (2) to public domain works, which almost invariably are older and in some cases have weaknesses or are out of date.

"In the case of the Greek and Hebrew definitions behind the Strong’s numbers, most of this material comes from the Greek and Hebrew Dictionaries included as part of the original Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, a work originally published in 1890 and now in the public domain (though versions of it are still being printed today). Naturally it is our intention, as we gain permission to use newer and better material online, to continue to upgrade the reference materials included in the NeXtBible Learning Environment, or as funding becomes available, to upgrade and revise the material ourselves."

So that’s the answer. We at bible.org, with our "Ministry First" emphasis, are committed to posting materials and Bible study tools online for free access by anyone, anywhere, anytime. But this limits the reference works, dictionaries, grammars, commentaries, and other tools that we can post online, either to (1) works that the current copyright holders give us permission to post online for free (to date, this category has been almost nil); (2) older works that are in the public domain and while dated, are still useful for Bible students even if they contain weaknesses in certain areas; and (3) works which we have commissioned or created ourselves "in house" by our team of biblical scholars, some of whom work as volunteers without pay but must do so in their spare time (the NET Bible itself with its extensive and excellent notes fall into this last category).

Now the end result of all this is not exactly rocket science. If (1) we could convince current copyright holders to grant us permission to post some of their works online for free, even in abbreviated form, we could give our users access to some of these newer and better reference tools and commentaries. So far, even after years (literally) of lengthy discussions, this approach has not really borne much fruit. Maybe it will someday. It is our contention that, contrary to reducing or cutting into print sales, publishing an online version of some of these works for free actually enhances print sales because it serves essentially as free advertising, getting people to examine and use a work online that they might not pick up and examine off the shelf of a bookstore. Once having become acquainted with the work, many people would realize its value and add a printed copy to their personal library.

(2) Even in the case where we currently provide older works that are in the public domain online for free, we do attempt to be somewhat selective and provide tools that we consider better rather than worse, or those having fewer weaknesses rather than more. Strong’s Greek and Hebrew Dictionaries (from Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance) are an example of this — the very fact that versions of Strong’s Concordance are still being printed and sold in bookstores today, over a hundred years after its initial publication, testify to the fact that many Bible students still find much of the material in Strong’s to be useful, even though biblical scholars (again, myself among them) would be quick to point out that there are weaknesses in Strong’s that leave much to be desired.

(3) With adequate funding, we could commission or create in house new and up-to-date reference works like commentaries, dictionaries, and other reference tools that we could make available online for free as well as place in print. We really don’t lack for the biblical scholars to produce these works; it is almost entirely a matter of finding donors or sponsors to partner with us to underwrite production of these things. And sometimes adequate funding does not make the difference between getting the project done, since we do have some volunteers who have given and continue to give sacrificially of their time and skills to further the mission and ministry of bible.org, but adequate funding means the difference between having the project done in one or two years versus having it done by volunteers in ten years or more.

I think I have sketched out enough to make clear where we stand on the use of reference tools and materials in the NeXtBible Learning Environment. In a future post I will talk some more about some of the weaknesses of the older works, give some examples, and discuss and how to watch out for these weaknesses and avoid them.


  • Avatar

    charlie cate

    quality tools
    Can you point your readers to some articles or books that demonstrate/explain the weaknesses of the “pre turn of the century ” tools. I read in the forumn one comment indicating that scholars do not take Vine’s seriously. Some may want a little more data before shelling out the big bucks for BAGD, L&N, etc…

    Thanks in advance

    • Avatar

      Hall Harris

      On the weaknesses of older reference tools

      Two of the best places to start would be D. A. Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies (Baker, 1984), especially chapter 1 on "Word-Study Fallacies" (pp. 25-66) and also Peter Cotterell & Max Turner’s Linguistics and Biblical Interpretation
      (IVP, 1989), especially chapter 4, "The Use and Abuse of Word Studies
      in Theology" (pp. 106-128). Both of these deal with the problems of
      older lexical works, though Cotterell & Turner goes into more
      detail. The chief problem of many older works is a fascination (some would say preoccupation) with etymologizing, often known popularly as "root fallacy," the notion that you can derive the current meaning of a word by breaking it down into its component parts. While this exercise may have historical interest in cases where the actual derivation of the word is known, it amounts to little more than speculation in cases where the derivation is not known. Some common English examples would be breaking down the word "broadcast" into "broad" and "cast," or the word "Watergate" into "water" and "gate," and then thinking that these components have some bearing on the contemporary meaning of the (combined) word. Another major problem with the older reference works is that they simply do not deal with all the discoveries of ancient manuscripts that illustrate first-century word usage in Hellenistic Koine Greek, like the discoveries at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt.

      Hall Harris