The value of modern lexicons & dictionaries for Bible study

Today we have a wealth of modern lexical tools available to us. Yet so many people ignore all this, and use Gesenius, or Strong’s, or Young’s, or Vine’s, tools which are massively out of date, sometimes wildly inaccurate, and theologically biased.

Here’s just one example. Let’s look at the Hebrew word ‘sheol’ (grave), typically rendered ‘hell’ by the KJV (one of many reasons why it’s such a bad translation). Here’s what those old lexicons have to say.


“a subterranean place, full of thick darkness (Job 10:21, 22), in which the shades of the dead are gathered together”[1]


“underworld, grave, hell, pit. 1A the underworld. 1B Sheol—the OT designation for the abode of the dead. 1B1 place of no return. 1B2 without praise of God. 1B3 wicked sent there for punishment”[2]


“Second, “Sheol” is used of a place of conscious existence after death”[3]

These entries are all full of error and theological bias. Yet these are the tools trusted by so many Christadelphian Bible students. Now let’s look at two modern lexicons. What do they say about ‘sheol’?

Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament:

“The word does not occur outside of the OT, except once in  the Jewish Elephantine papyri, where it means “grave””[4]

Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament:

“As for the latter what is supposed to correspond to Hebrew שְׁאוֹל is a Sumerian-Akkadian šuʾāru, yet even Baumgartner ThZ 2 (1946) 233-235 does not produce any clear instance of this word with the meaning “underworld””[5]

What a refreshing change; now we’re reading truth. See how the etymology from a word meaning ‘underworld’ is rejected, and it is proved that the only use of the word outside the Old Testament is in the Elephantine Papyri (written by Jews in Egypt), ‘where it means grave’. This is a great example of modern lexicons settling conclusively the meaning of a word in its socio-historical context, and proving that the  traditional translations ‘hell’ and ‘underworld’ are completely wrong (it is used of the ‘underworld’ of pagan theology in a  couple of places in the Old Testament, but this is not the use by the Hebrew writers themselves).

We always try to use the best tools for our regular day work, so why do so many of us think it’s ok to use bad tools for the important work of Bible study? Would anyone of us decide to throw away the computer at their workplace, and swap it for a nineteenth century typewriter? Of course we wouldn’t. So why do this when it comes to Bible study?

Here is a list of reliable Old Testament lexicons and dictionaries:

  1. Johann Jakob Koehler, Ludwig; Baumgartner, Walter; Richardson, M. E. J.; Stamm, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (electronic ed.; Leiden; New York: E.J. Brill, 1999).
  2. Bruce K. Harris, R. Laird; Archer, Gleason L., Jr.; Waltke, ed., Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (electronic ed.; Chicago: Moody Press, 1999).
  3. G. Johannes Botterweck, Helmer Ringgren, and Heinz-Josef Fabry, Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004).
  4. Charles Augustus Brown, Francis; Driver, Samuel Rolles; Briggs, Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (electronic ed.; Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 2000).
  5. James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Hebrew (Old Testament) (electronic ed.; Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997).
  6. James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Aramaic (Old Testament) (electronic ed.; Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997).
  7. Stephen A Kaufman, Joseph A Fitzmyer, The Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon (Cincinnati, Ohio: Hebrew Union College, 1986-).
  8. Ernst Jenni and Claus Westermann, Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1997).

Here is a list of reliable New Testament lexicons and dictionaries:

  1. Walter Arndt, William; Danker, Frederick W.; Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (3rd ed.; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).
  2. Roderick Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert; Jones, Henry Stuart; McKenzie, A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996).
  3. Neva F. Friberg, Timothy; Friberg, Barbara; Miller, Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000).
  4. Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard; Bromiley, Geoffrey W.; Friedrich, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (electronic ed.; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964).
  5. James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Greek (New Testament) (electronic ed.; Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997).
  6. James D. Spicq, Ceslas; Ernest, Theological Lexicon of the New Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994).
  7. Eugene Albert Louw, Johannes P.; Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (electronic ed. of the 2nd edition.; New York: United Bible Societies, 1996).
  8. Gerhard Balz, Horst Robert; Schneider,Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990).
  9. Spiros Zodhiates, The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament (electronic ed.; Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 2000).


  1. Wilhelm Gesenius and Samuel Prideaux Tregelles, Gesenius’ Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2003), 798.
  2. James Strong, Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon (Woodside Bible Fellowship, 1995).
  3. W. E. Vine, Merrill F. Unger, and William White Jr., Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Nashville, TN: T. Nelson, 1996), 227.
  4. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, eds., Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999), 892.
  5. Ludwig Koehler et al., The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament(Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994–2000), 1368.

Author: Jon Burke

One comment

  1. […] A lexicon in the form of an expository dictionary provides much more insight into the word itself. We know that words in English can have a range of meaning depending on the context. For example, the word “stand” can mean an upright position; to rise to one’s feet; to set in an upright position; being situated in a particular place; to remain valid; to remain motionless; to rest without disturbance; to stay on specified course; to be a candidate in an election; or a position in an argument; a piece of furniture; to stop motion; or a group of growing plants such as trees. The correct meaning for the word is understood by the context in which it is being used. This is just as true of words in Hebrew and Greek and a lexicon can help to explain this and also help to keep the word within its context. However, it is important to remember that lexicons can contain theological bias (prejudice towards particular beliefs). This is an interesting article to read on finding study tools that contain less bias: Modern Lexicons and Dictionaries for Bible Study. […]


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