Bible Dictionaries

What Are Bible Dictionaries

If handbooks summarize the Bible, commentaries analyze the Bible, and concordances catalog Bible words, Bible dictionaries explain Bible words and concepts. There are actually three different things someone might mean by the word “dictionary” in relation to Bible study:

  1. A dictionary of the English language;
  2. A traditional Bible dictionary, which is an encyclopedia of Bible names, places and concepts;
  3. A word study dictionary.

All three of these sub-categories explain Bible words and concepts, but they do that in different ways. Click here to see a list of Bible Dictionaries.

Dictionaries of the English Language

As someone who has worked in Christian retail, I know that there are many people looking for some tool that will define English words they encounter in their King James Version Bible. They are not looking for any kind of theological or historical explanation, rather they just want to know what “firmament” or “propitiation” meant in English.

For this you do not need the tool that we call a “Bible dictionary”. Rather, you need a dictionary of the English language, such as the Oxford Dictionary of English. But you do not even have to get something in print. You can search for word meanings on the Internet at,, or Also, you can Google the definition of a word by typing “define ‘word’”. Moreover, Merriam-Webster, Oxford, and all have dictionary apps that you can use for free with ads, or you can pay for upgrades. Of the three,’s app has the most features. Both it and Merriam-Webster’s app have the good user-interfaces, but’s app uses less than half the space of Merriam Webster’s.

Click here to see a list of Bible dictionaries with links to BSE reviews.

Bible Dictionaries

A traditional Bible dictionary is a kind of encyclopedia of Bible names, places, and concepts. These come in different sizes: compact Bible dictionaries, full-size one volume dictionaries, and even multi-volume dictionaries.

Compact Bible Dictionaries

A compact Bible dictionary is a ready reference and not especially helpful as an in-depth research tool. They contain fewer articles, those articles are of necessity on the short side, and they usually contain no bibliography. All of this is done to save space. Compact Bible dictionaries are most useful to people who are relatively new to Bible study. They do not need to know just yet Ephraim’s significance in Israelite history, different theories of the origin of the tribe of Ephraim, or where they can read further about Ephraim in scholarly literature. They just need to know that Ephraim is a son of Joseph and a tribe of Israel. Remember: the print in compact Bible dictionaries is pretty small. If you need a large print Bible, you are going to have an easier time with a larger Bible dictionary.

Click here to see a list of Bible dictionaries with links to BSE reviews.

Full Size, One Volume Dictionaries

As useful as compact dictionaries are, if you want a Bible dictionary that really starts helping you dig in and study, you need a full-size Bible dictionary. Not only are there more entries, but these entries also tend to be a little longer and interact a little more with biblical scholarship.

It used to be that one of the most important features of full-size Bible dictionaries were the bibliographies you found at the end of the entries. But recently the trend in big hardcover Bible dictionaries has been not to include bibliographies. The Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary, the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Dictionary, The Baker Illustrated Bible Dictionary, and the HarperCollins Bible Dictionary are all full-size Bible dictionaries that are commonly found in bookstores, but they all lack bibliographies in their entries.

This, in my opinion, severely limits the usefulness of these volumes as Bible dictionaries, such that the main advantage they have over their compact cousins, other than a marginal improvement in scope, is that their print is bigger and easier to read. This is why I recommend looking for the New Bible Dictionary, published by Intervarsity Press, the Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, published by Eerdmans Publishing Company, or even The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary, by Moody Press. In each of these, some degree of bibliography is included at the end of major articles. The bibliography enables you to know where the entry writer gets his or her information and where you can go to pursue this subject with greater depth.

One last Bible dictionary that is available online is the Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bibliographies are a very important of the Lexham Bible Dictionary. I know because I wrote several entries for it. It is freely available through Logos Bible Software’s various platforms, including a mobile app and, which is an online Bible study platform. The digital Faithlife Study Bible, which also has an app, includes the Lexham Bible Dictionary, as well.

Click here to see a list of Bible dictionaries with links to BSE reviews.

Multi-Volume Dictionaries/Encyclopedias

The most in-depth kind of Bible dictionaries are multi-volume dictionaries, also called encyclopedias. Multi-volume dictionaries tend to be designed for purchase by libraries, but there is no reason individuals cannot purchase them. Because these really are written with researchers in mind, multi-volume Bible dictionaries are generally written from a critical point of view. What I mean by that is that they are not going to tell you that Moses wrote the Pentateuch. They will tell you that tradition attributes it to Moses, but that many scholars have other ideas. These articles are intended to be introductions to the state of scholarship on the given subject. This means part of the value of these high level dictionaries lies in their bibliographies. If you want to know where to go to find the pivotal original research on a given subject, this is where you go to begin your search.

Click here to see a list of Bible dictionaries with links to BSE reviews.

Using a Bible Dictionary

So how, exactly, do you use a Bible dictionary. It first starts with identifying important words in whatever passage you are studying. That is where the concordance often comes in, as we saw with the word “truth” in relation to John’s writings. But let us say, for example, you are reading in Genesis 18 and you come across the “the oaks of Mamre”. What is Mamre, and what is the significance of its oaks? If you want to read more about Mamre, where we think it might be and its significance in the Bible, you can look up MAMRE in a Bible dictionary. Or let us say you want to learn about Abraham, where the bulk of his story is, and what his importance is throughout the Bible, you can look up ABRAHAM. Or let us consider the word “truth”. You can look up the word TRUTH in a Bible dictionary and find a long article talking about how the word is used the different parts of the Bible. The Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible has more than a page article on truth, with a paragraph dedicated just to truth in John’s writings. It also, importantly, has a short bibliography referring you to commentary on John (the Anchor Bible volume on John 1-12) and an entry in a specialist word study dictionary. If you know where to find these other reference tools and how to use them, this article has just launched you on a pretty extensive research project.

Word Study Dictionaries

The final kind of reference tool that is included under the umbrella term “dictionary” is what we might call a “word study dictionary.” These are dictionaries that give you definitions of and theological discussions on Bible words in their original languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. So, let us say you have used your Strong’s concordance to find all those instances of “truth” in John and throughout the Bible, and by checking its number system you can see that there are several different Hebrew and Greek words that we translate using the English word “truth”. In John, that word is Greek aletheia. But Strong’s, in itself, will only give you a very basic definition of those words that does not really tell you anything you did not already know.

So instead, you can take your newfound knowledge of aletheia and look it up in a word study dictionary. The old standby in America has been Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. This is still published and commonly available. It comes in both a “concise” and a “complete” form. I do not recommend the concise Vine’s. If you are going to go this far, it makes no sense to skimp on this stage of Bible reference tools. Rather, it would be better to spend a little bit extra on your Strong’s concordance and get an expanded Strong’s that augments the word definitions in the back with a selection from Vine’s. If you are going to buy Vine’s, get the complete Vine’s.

But Vine’s is a little dated at this point. Even better than Vine’s is the Expository Dictionary of Bible Words by Stephen Renn, or Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words, edited by William Mounce, who is a well know Greek grammarian. All three of these books are arranged in alphabetical order by English word, so they are designed to be used by non-specialists. They are keyed to Strong’s number system, so if you have found the Strong’s number for a word, you can look it up in an index in the back. If we are looking up “truth” from John, we can do it in two ways. First we can look up “truth” in English alphabetical order. Under each word you will find first Old Testament words and then New Testament words. Among the New Testament words for “truth” we will find aletheia with a fuller discussion of its various nuances and meanings. There are even more advanced word study dictionaries, but these start requiring a degree of specialist training to look and read Hebrew or Greek. For the average Christian, one of these one-volume word study dictionaries will provide more than enough data to significantly enhance the richness of one’s Bible study.

Click here to see a list of Bible dictionaries with links to BSE reviews.