Word studies are one of the basic tools of Bible study. With today’s tools, you don’t have to know Greek and Hebrew to do a good word study. Here’s how.
And if you are really short on time, here are some shortcuts.
What you’ll need
In addition to a Bible, you’ll need either: 1) a physical concordance, dictionary and commentaries; 2) Bible study software; or 3) access to the internet to use the online tools.
Decide which words to study
To decide which words to study, read through the passage using 1 literal translation and 1 dynamic equivalent translation. Look for the words that are:
- crucial to the meaning of the passage
- difficult, obscure, or rare
- “religious” or profound
- were translated very differently in the different versions
Study these words. They may or may not be repeated.
Find the Strong’s number
The first step in doing a word study is to find the Strong’s Number for the word you want to study. Since each Hebrew or Greek word may be translated by several English words, or one English word may be used for several different Hebrew or Greek words, the Strong’s number ensures you have the right word.
You can find the Strong’s number through most Bible study software or a concordance.
- In E-Sword the translations noted with a plus (e.g. NASB+) include Strong’s numbering system in the text.
- On biblehub.com, type the verse into the Bible search bar. When you have your verse, under “Study Bible”, mouse over your word, the number in the pop-up is Strong’s.
- On blueletterbible.org, locate your verse with the search bar, then click on Tools, Interliner.
- On Strong’s Interlinear Bible Search, enter your verse number and search. Mouse over the word of interest The number that pops up is Strong’s number. You may need to enable pop-ups in your browser to access these tools.
Find the etymology
Etymology traces the meaning of the word’s parts back to their earliest usage. Think of it as the history of the word’s meaning. For example, “etymology” comes from the Greek words etymos ( which means “true”) and logos (which means “word” or “reason”).
When researching etymology, our aim is to find the “lowest common denominator” or the basic concept that ties all a word’s nuances together. But BEWARE: the etymology of a word is rarely, if ever, the current meaning of the word. Words change meaning over time and culture.
Find the Strong’s number for your English word and note the etymology. If your word comes from some other number(s), then check the etymological information under all the appropriate number(s). For example, “word” in 1 John 1:1 is G3056 which comes from G3004.
If you’re using a physical concordance, locate your English word in the verse in question. Then turn to the appropriate dictionary in the back. The etymology is usually found between the pronunciation help and the list of words used in translation; that is between the first “;” and the “:-“.
Using bible study software (like e-sword), navigate to the verse, click on NASB+ and click on the number. The etymology is usually located after “from…”
If you are using online software, like Strong’s online, the etymology is usually at the top under ‘HELPS Word-studies”.
Determine the range of meaning
Next, we want to learn how the word is used throughout Scripture. Our goal at this stage is to determine the word’s scope of meaning. We will study the usage of a word throughout 1) the passage, 2) the author, and 3) the rest of Scripture, in order to discern how the biblical authors used this word.
If this process seems overwhelming, break it down into sections, starting small and working outward until you “get it.”
- First study the word in the passage
- then, in the chapter or book
- then, the author’s other writings
- then in the rest of Scripture
- then, in the Septuagint
- finally in sources outside the Bible, including classical Greek or Aramaic
Use your Strong’s number to find all the ways that word is used in Scripture. Find all the English words which translate your word and all the verses where your word is used. Watch for recurring ideas, general categories of usage, synonyms, antonyms, recurring words or phrases used with your word, etc. Ideally, you should check all the English words used to translate your word.
If you’re using a physical concordance, note all the Scripture references with that number and then look them up.
If you’re using e-sword, under your Dictionary Tab, check Strong’s and your concordance.
If you are using Strong’s online, type your number in the appropriate box (Greek or Hebrew), and check the concordances.
Check reference works
Having gathered an idea of the word’s meaning from your own study, it’s a good time to check the conclusions of other scholars and reference works. Our goal is to refine, as closely as possible, our understanding of the word. People have been studying Scripture for over 2000 years. Someone before us must have figured it out, so let’s find it.
- Check Bible dictionaries, language lexicons, commentaries, etc. looking at how others define and summarize the meaning of the word. Read carefully and demand proof.
- It’s often useful to study the same word in the opposite language. For example, if your word is Greek, study the Hebrew word it translates and vice versa. All the New Testament authors (except Luke) were Jewish. Their understanding of Hebrew and the Old Testament often influences the Greek words they choose.
If you’re using e-sword, click through your dictionaries and commentaries.
If you are using Strong’s online, search through the dictionaries and commentaries.
Draw conclusions, taking all your work into account. Try the different nuances of a word’s meaning in your passage to see what makes the most sense in context, considering the implications of your conclusions.
Be prepared for any conclusion. Sometimes your study reveals the obvious (e.g. the Greek word for “fire” means fire). But usually your study reveals a nuance or level of meaning you would otherwise have missed.
- Words have different nuances and a large legitimate scope of meaning. No one word has 1 single meaning.
- Words are not necessarily used the same way throughout the Bible. Because Paul used mystery to mean “revelation” in one context, does not mean James means the same thing in his.
- Words are not necessarily used the same way by the same author. Paul may use “walk” in Ephesians differently than in Colossians.
- In any given text, a word does not mean all of its nuances.
Previous: 5Ws and H
Part of the Series: Bible Study 101
Photo used here under Flickr Creative Commons.