Using A Theological Dictionary for Word Studies

New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and ExegesisNew International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis
Second Edition
Revision Editor: Moisés Silva



Words are important, even the smallest ones. The comedian Demetri Martin said in one of his routines, “Have you ever noticed that filler words, like ‘sort of,’ are such harmless things to say? It doesn’t really mean anything. But after certain words, ‘sort of’ means everything. Like after ‘I love you,’ or ‘You’re going to live,’ or ‘It’s a boy.’”

Most dictionaries catalog the current usage of words, while biblical dictionaries catalog the “biblical” or past usage of terms. But not all dictionaries are identical or serve a similar purpose. Zondervan recently released a revision of The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology. The first edition was edited by Colin Brown (1975-78, 86) and Moisés Silva has updated and restructured the book.

Rather than reviewing the entire five-volume set, I will seek to answer two questions about the dictionary. First, how is this dictionary different than other dictionaries? Second, how should one use it? To illustrate my points, I will use the entry under Βασιλεύς (king, ruler) as my example throughout.

What is a Theological Dictionary?

What is a theological dictionary? Essentially this volume seeks to bring linguistic (words) and encyclopedic (things) data together in one volume. Not only does the volume discuss the meaning of words, but it also includes historical and contextual information on the concept.

For example, NIDNTTE gives not only the linguistic information for the word “king, ruler,” but also historical and contextual data concerning kings in Greek Literature (GL), Jewish Literature (JL), and New Testament Literature (NT). In the NT section, the dictionary first provides statistics of the use of Βασιλεύς in the NT, and then has a section entitled “Kingship in the NT.” This latter section describes how kingship is designated and employed in the New Testament, not focusing solely on the word usage, but also a theology and development of kingship.

One other distinctive about this volume is worth noting under this section. The first edition grouped terms according to concepts, but this volume placed the words in alphabetical order. Yet, they did not want to lose the strength of emphasizing related concepts and semantic domain considerations, so the revised edition also has a grouped “list of concepts” at the beginning of each volume.

Under the entry for Βασιλεύς there is a line that shows the following:

Concepts: Dwell, Dwelling; Ruler

Therefore if one turns to the list of concepts section at the beginning of the book, “Βασιλεύς” is contained under each of those headings. The concept “Ruler” has some of the following Greek words listed under the category: ἀνθύπατος, ἂρχων, δεσπότης, δυνάστης, ἡγεμων, θρόνος, κεφαλή, etc.

How Should One Use It?

So how should one use a unique resource like this?

First, the dictionary is a good starting point for a word/concept study. Because this is a theological dictionary, it allows one to have linguistic and theological data on words that a commentator may have not discussed. Most pastors are not interested in the detailed analysis of all words, but they can be helped by a theological discussion of the significant of words. This volume is not just for those wanting to find out about the semantic nuances of Βασιλεύς (although that is contained). It also contains a theological commentary on the word. For example, under the heading of Βασιλεύς there is a discussion of Yahweh’s kingship, Daniel 7, and the enthronement Psalms. Although these discussions are not exhaustive, they provide interpreters with a point of reference to further research.

In terms of readability, the dictionary is designed nicely, and it does not assume knowledge of Greek or Hebrew and so provides definitions and transliterations. Therefore, this volume provides a good starting point for understanding a concept.

Second, the dictionary allows one to compare related concepts quickly. Interpreters can begin to compare and contrast Βασιλεύς, ἂρχων, κύριος, and κεφαλή. This sort of study was not impossible before, but interpreters are given a “list of concepts” which help one identify and contrast corresponding words.

Third, the dictionary allows interpreters to see the semantic range of words more clearly. If the concepts related to Βασιλεύς are dwell, dwelling, and ruler, then one can begin to see that “king” and “kingdom” might not imply only a verbal notion of ruling, but also an abstract notion of land or dwelling.  Rather than focusing on a one-to-one concept, the dictionary allows interpreters to see that the semantic ranges of some words are expansive.

Dictionaries Are Not From the Kingdom of Heaven

These three uses of the dictionary overlap, but a word of warning is also necessary. Sometimes students and teachers alike treat dictionaries as if they came straight from word-heaven. They put too much weight on dictionaries and make them bear a burden they were not created to carry. Dictionaries are not the last word on a subject, but rather a compendium of study. But the study might be out of date or simply mistaken. That is why dictionaries need revisions. Dictionaries can be in error and lead people astray just as any other book can. Therefore, one should read a dictionary with as critical an eye as one would read any other book.

The entry on Βασιλεύς is a good example of this warning. One heading has a description of the phrase “kingdom of heaven.” Recent research has shown that at least in Matthew’s case, he was not using the phrase to avoid verbal statements about God. More studies are also showing that this phrase does refer to a territory ruled by God. Nevertheless, the dictionary still advances the popular but flawed ideas that kingdom of heaven is a circumlocution for God, and that it does not refer to a spatial idea. This may be because this entry was written before this research had taken off, but it is a misleading and mistaken oversight.


Word studies are notoriously dangerous and contain many potholes in which interpreters can find themselves stuck. At least one of the manifold goals of the dictionary is to provide a tool that directs travelers away from atomistic approaches that minimize word study problems. As some linguists are claiming, individual words don’t have meaning. Words only have meaning in context, and each word has a wide semantic range. This dictionary seeks to elucidate these points by not only giving statistics on words, but also by treating words in their historical and literary contexts.

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About Patrick Schreiner

Patrick Schreiner is Assistant Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Western Seminary. He completed his Master of Divinity and Doctor of Philosophy at The Southern Baptist Seminary. In addition to his pastoral ministry experience, Patrick also enjoys writing. You can follow Patrick's journey and his thinking online at his blog, Ad Fontes. You can also follow him on Twitter.