Building a Library: Lexicons and Parsing Guides for the Greek N.T.

Lexicons and parsing guides belong to the technical and dry side of Bible study. The books we consider here do not in themselves feed one’s soul. A cookbook does not satisfy a hungry man, even less a book on food technology. What he really wants is an appetizing meal; but those who prepare appetizing meals will have delved into cookbooks at some time or other. So it is with lexicons and parsing guides. They are designed to help the person who wishes to read the NT in its original language. Every student reader of the Greek New Testament knows the perplexity of looking at a verb and puzzling, “Is the tense aorist or imperfect; is the voice passive or middle?” The lexicon comes to the rescue.

The writer of the foreword to the 1952 one-volume edition of Vine’s Expository Dictionary remarked that Mr. Vine’s work “clothes the lexical skeleton with the flesh and sinews of living exposition.” The books considered below, while admittedly rather bare bones, are necessary, for without the underlying skeleton the flesh would be limp, and without the flesh the skeleton would be very bare and bony.

A lexicon differs from a concordance in that, whereas the latter gives the occurrences of words, the lexicon is a book to catalogue their form and meaning. NT lexicons fall into two broad categories: those which help the student to identify a word, giving its grammatical form and then a basic definition of the root word, and those which are more like dictionaries, giving the expanded definitions and examples of usage and meaning.

In the first category, older students were (and still are) well served by Bagster’s “Analytical Greek Lexicon.” This work, first published in 1852 and republished in many later editions, lists every word of the Greek New Testament in alphabetical order and indicates its grammatical form and root. A later (1921) but equally popular and parallel work was Abbott-Smith’s “Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament.” It is, as its title implies, a “handy” quick reference work, furnishing the student with basic definitions and etymologies together with Hebrew and Septuagint backgrounds to NT words. It also contains a useful appendix of irregu lar Greek verbs. Similar to these but somewhat limited in its coverage (since it deals only with verbs and verbal forms and is based on a critical text), is Nathan Han’s “A Parsing Guide to the Greek New Testament.”

More advanced character-printing techniques and the dawn of the computer age have accelerated the production of new works. Do not rush out and buy everything new to the market. While this may be what the large publishing houses would like and what marketing recommendations advise, be circumspect. Many of these volumes cover much the same ground. A student may be comfortable with one, and have no need of any other. The possibilities are endless and selection is dictated by one’s budget and level of expertise.

Two more recent works which bring the work of Bagster and Abbott-Smith into the modern world are Wesley J. Perschaber’s, “The New Analytical Greek Lexicon,” published by Hendrickson in 1990 and William D. Mounce’s, “Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament,” published by Zondervan in 1993. Here again we have an instance of publishers following hard on each other’s heels though it needs to be said that these two lexicons, in their main text, follow different numbering systems. The Hendrickson publication follows the Strong’s system, which is more familiar to readers of this magazine. The Zondervan work also has the Strong’s numbers at the back of the volume, but this may involve the user in constant cross-referencing, which can be a deterrent.

Before leaving this category of lexicons, mention must be made of two other reference works which will be useful only to those whose knowledge of the original language will carry them into deeper study. Firstly, there is “A Reader Greek-English Lexicon” by Sakae Kubo and published by Zondervan (originally by T & T Clark in 1975). As the title indicates this tool is mainly a “Reader’s” help. It presupposes the user’s ability to read the NT in its original language. Instead of being arranged alphabetically, as the works previously mentioned, this work is canonical and follows the chapter and verse divisions of the NT. Words occurring over fifty times in the NT are not listed, as it is assumed that the reader will be well acquainted with them. An interesting and helpful feature of this work is that following each entry there are, in brackets, two numerals. The first one indicates how often the given work occurs in the book under reference, the second how many times it occurs in the total NT. On the whole, Kubo’s Lexicon is a very useful but specialized work not advised for the fainthearted.

Another important and recent addition to NT lexicography is a work published in 2000 by Baker Book House, authored by Friberg and Miller, and entitled, “Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament.” Again, the end result is the same as some of the previously mentioned works but the process and approach are somewhat different. Every word of the Greek New Testament is listed alphabetically and then classified using a coded capital letter and number tagging system. Thus a word defined as VIFA-3S is a verb in the indicative mood, the future tense, the active voice and in the third person singular. Likewise a word tagged as N-NF-S is a noun, nominative in case, feminine in gender and singular in number. Similar morphological and grammatical tags are given for every single word in the NT. lt is a specialized tool.

Enough has been said to indicate that the above are works for serious students. Many sincere believers will not find it necessary to consult such works of reference. Others will find it exceedingly tiresome. For those who require such helps, any combination of the works we have just mentioned should allow a reader of the text of the NT to quickly and accurately identify the case of every noun and the tense of every verb he or she encounters.

Lexicons in the second category are more dictionary-like in their presentation and not only identify a word by its grammatical form but also by its contextual meaning. An older generation was well served by the English translation of a German work called, “Thayer’s Grimm.” Grimm, in this case, being the German original and J. H. Thayer his English translator. This work in its English form was a standard in its field for decades and is in some respects still useful, though dated, going back to the 1880’s. Twentieth century investigations of the papyri texts threw tremendous light on the contemporaneous meaning of the Greek of NT times. Much of the fruit of this later research has been embodied in another lexicon compiled by F. Gingrich and published by Chicago University Press in 1956, “A Shorter Lexicon of the Greek New Testament.” A revised edition was prepared by Gingrich, helped by F. W. Danker, in 1983 and published by the same Press. Here the student will not only find classification of how the word was employed in the NT, but also in the Septuagint, Jewish, and Greek Literature, including the early centuries of the Christian era. This lexicon also appears in the large, highly respected edition referred to as “Arndt and Gingrich” in the scholarly world. It is a very extensive but expensive work and the serious Bible student will find the shorter edition to be more than adequate. The larger and newer editions, with their long lists of bibliographical information, carry material necessary only for academics.

Any article on Greek Lexicons would be seriously incomplete without a reference to Liddell and Scott. These names were famous in the world of ancient Greek lexicography. When the student wants to examine a word in the wider context of Greek literature, especially the Classical period, he will need Liddell & Scott. There are the “Shorter” and “Intermediate” editions of this work and, again, either of these is adequate for student requirements. The unabridged volume is prohibitively expensive and crammed with information for academics.

Let me sound a couple of caveats in concluding this article. These works give the fresh student ready access to technical information. This is good provided the student knows how to handle it. It is important to be aware of how to use such material in order to have a better understanding, otherwise, instead of clarifying a text of Scripture, it will only serve to cloud and cover the true meaning with irrelevant grammatical debris. Secondly, some of the above works are available with a number coding system linking them to Strong’s Concordance. That makes their information more widely accessible and so far so good. However, let me say this to a student who may be serious about taking language study beyond the basics. Avoid the number system as much as possible and only use it as a last resort. It will become a crutch that will leave you an exegetical cripple, never able to stand on your own two feet.