What Are Concordances?

Concordances catalog Bible words. Basically, a concordance is a listing of occurrences of words in the Bible. Sounds simple, right? But that simplicity belies the power and importance of concordances for in-depth Bible study. In fact, concordances really are the most foundational reference work in your tool belt, because they enhance your ability to study the Bible on your own, while handbooks, commentaries, and dictionaries all give you information about the Bible that ultimately comes from someone else. It may be good and correct information from experts, but it still is the fruit of someone else’s Bible study rather than your own. Click here to see a list of English language concordances. We also have put together a smaller list of original language concordances.

So What Do You Use a Concordance For?

To Find a Specific Verse

One of the most common ways people use concordances is to locate a specific verse that contains a specific word. Let’s say I am thinking about a verse that says something about “as vinegar to the teeth”, but I can’t remember exactly where it is. I suspect it’s in Proverbs, but without something to help me pinpoint it all I can do is browse through Proverbs to find it. This is time-consuming, difficult, and not even guaranteed to succeed, since my attention might wander at precisely the wrong moment. Instead, I can look in a concordance for the word “vinegar” and search there just through the handful of occurrences of the word “vinegar” for my verse, which we discover in 10:26. What you want to do for searches like this is identify the key words, the words that are less common. You don’t want to look for “as”. There are going to be a million instances of “as”. In this case, we could also search for “teeth”, but vinegar is probably the less common word. Either way, this is faster and more reliable than browsing through the book of Proverbs.

To Find Other Instances of a Word

A second way you can use a concordance is to locate other instances of a word that is important within whatever passage you may be studying. This is, in fact, the first part of a word study, which is a particular Bible study method that is very popular and very useful. So let’s say I’m reading 1, 2, or 3 John. I’ve got kind of an intuition that “truth” is especially important for John, so I use a concordance to do two things:

  1. I look to see how many times “truth” occurs in 1-3 John and in the Gospel of John;
  2. I look to see how many times “truth” occurs elsewhere in the Bible.

In step one, what we discover is that “truth” in the KJV occurs 27 times in the Gospel of John, 9 times in 1 John, 4 times in 2 John, and 6 times in 3 John. That does seem like a high concentration of occurrences, but what about the rest of the Bible? A quick search and count shows that “truth” occurs quite a lot in Psalms (40 times) and in Isaiah (19 times). But the books of the Bible are not all the same length. So let’s get a little more data, specifically how many chapters occur in each book. And finally, let’s figure out the ratio of occurrences of the word “truth” in each book to the number of chapters in each book. A higher ratio will indicate that the word is more frequent in that book and, therefore, very possibly more important to the book’s overall message.

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What we see here is that in the Old Testament, Daniel has the highest number of occurrences of “truth” per chapter, with 0.67 occurrences per chapter. This is followed by Zechariah at 0.36, Proverbs at 0.32, and only then do we see Isaiah at 0.29 and Psalms at 0.27.

In the New Testament, though, some books have much higher percentages, especially Johannine and Pauline books. Look at the Gospels: Matthew at 0.11, Mark at 0.19, Luke at 0.21, but the gospel of John at 1.29, meaning that there are more occurrences of “truth” in John than chapters.

Truth occurs in every one of Paul’s epistles except Philemon, and many have high percentages: Romans at 0.50, 2 Corinthians at 0.62, Galatians at 0.83, and Ephesians at 1 exactly (there are as many occurrences of “truth” in Ephesians as chapters). The same is true of 2 Thessalonians, and 2 Timothy actually has 1.5 occurrences per chapter. So we are justified in identifying “truth” as an important keyword in Paul’s writings.

But now let’s look at 1-3 John: 1.8 in 1 John, 4 in 2 John, and 6 in 3 John! And if we average out John’s books versus Paul’s books we see the difference: Paul’s total corpus, including the pastorals, has a 0.58 ratio, meaning the number of occurrences of “truth” is over half of the total number of chapters. But in John’s corpus, the ratio is 1.64, meaning there are 64% more occurrences of the word “truth” than there are chapters in John’s writings. And if we were to just consider 1-3 John, that ratio goes up to 2.71: there are nearly three times as many occurrences of “truth” as there are chapters! So if we are justified in saying “truth” is an important word in Paul, we can definitely see that “truth” is a critical concept in John. Just based on these statistics, we have good reason to believe that if we want to understand John’s theology, we must focus a lot of attention on understanding what he means by “truth”.

This is just an example of a way to use a concordance to study the Bible. This is only the barest beginning of a word study of “truth” in John’s writings or in the whole Bible, but it is a vital part and it requires a concordance.

Different Kinds of Concordances

The Importance of “Exhaustive”

The most important word in relation to types of concordances is the word “exhaustive”. An exhaustive concordance includes every occurrence of every word in a given translation of the Bible. In contrast, a concordance like what you find in the back of many Bibles will contain a select listing of the most important occurrences of the most important words. This is definitely useful, but of course that raises the question: what constitutes “most important”? Inevitably, you will come to a point where your investigation demands the study of a word or an occurrence of a word that is not included in an abridged concordance. So, my recommendation is don’t bother getting a smaller “concise” or abridged concordance if you can help it, especially when exhaustive concordances are not that much more expensive.

Concordances Tied to Translation

It is important to note that an English concordance is tied to a specific English translation. If you’re going to catalog all the words that occur in an English Bible, certainly that catalog would look different if you were to do it for the KJV on one hand versus the NIV on the other hand. Strong’s Concordance is by far the most well known and most widely used concordance of the English Bible. The Strong’s is specifically a concordance of the KJV Bible, so the usefulness of an Strong’s is going to be directly connected to how close the translation that you are using is to the KJV.

So, if you’re reading a NKJV, you are good to go. There is so little difference between the KJV and NKJV that there isn’t even an exhaustive concordance of the NKJV currently in print (you can find them used). If you’re using a closely related translation, like the ESV or the NASB, you can probably use a Strong’s and get a lot of good out of it, but you would be better off finding a concordance specific to these translations. This is even more the case if you are reading an NIV or a HCSB, or an NLT.

Fortunately, for most widely used translations there are concordances specific to them. The NASB, for example, has one called the Strongest NASB Concordance, which is essentially a Strong’s for the NASB, so it includes the Strong’s numbering system (see below). The same goes for the NIV Exhaustive Concordance, which used to be called the Strongest NIV Concordance.

The ESV, the HCSB, and the NLT have their own alternatives which, while not exhaustive, are called “comprehensive” for a good reason. A comprehensive concordance means every (or almost every) occurrence of every significant word (meaning they exclude particles like “a”, “an”, and “the”). These are, predictably, the ESV Comprehensive Concordance of the Bible, the HCSB Comprehensive Concordance, and the NLT Comprehensive Concordance. Unfortunately, none of these “comprehensive” concordances include Strong’s numbering system or even an alternative numbering system.

The Numbering System

In a Strong’s concordance each occurrence is given a number that identifies exactly which Greek or Hebrew word sits behind that given instance. In the back of a Strong’s concordance it also gives you basic definitions for each word. Some versions of the Strong’s concordance also augment these definitions for important words, such as the Strong’s Expanded Exhaustive Concordance, the Strongest NASB Concordance, and the NIV Exhaustive Concordance. The NIV Exhaustive Concordance actually uses an updated numbering system called the Goodrick-Kohlenberger system in addition to the Strong’s system that addresses gaps and inaccuracies in the Strong’s system. These numbering systems are also used by other reference tools that go into the definitions of Greek and Hebrew words with greater depth, so they are extremely important in the overall functionality of a concordance.

But the ESV, HCSB, and NLT Comprehensive concordances don’t have anything like this, and this is a serious limitation to their usefulness. So what do you do? You probably are going to have to use a Strong’s and possibly another translation alongside your ESV, HCSB or NLT, in order to be able to make use of the Strong’s numbering system.

See a list of English language concordances.

See a list of original language (i.e., Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek) concordances.