Improving Your Bible Study with Dictionaries

TorrenceToday’s guest post is by Kyle Anderson, from the Logos Bible Software electronic text development team.

“Don’t let commentaries rob you of the joy of discovery!”

This little bit of advice from my New Testament professor has really stuck with me, and shaped the way I study the Bible. Rather than simply reaching for one of hundreds of great commentaries out there, I now look for another way. It’s not that my professor was against commentaries and forbade us from using them. Far from it. He simply recognized that studying the Bible should be a thrilling adventure full of twists, turns, detours, and discovery. For the student of Scripture, jumping to a commentary was akin to skipping to the final chapter of a novel: you get the gist of what happened, but you miss out in the process. Instead, the commentary should be a conversation partner that helps balance your own discoveries with someone more experienced than you.

This didn’t mean you could simply open a Bible, read a passage once, and expect to understand it completely. There are occasional obscurities and difficulties that need assistance to resolve before we can reach that place of discovery. To aid us in our discovery, he recommended a whole host of tools to put in our box: lexicons, grammars, apparatuses, and my favorite of the bunch—dictionaries.

Logos offers a whole host of dictionaries. Some of my favorites include The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, the Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, and The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. But perhaps my favorite are the IVP Dictionaries. We currently carry Dictionary of New Testament Background, Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments, and the IVP Dictionary of the Old Testament Bundle (2 Vols.), which includes the Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch and the Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books.

Featuring top-notch scholarship, reader accessibility, and the connectivity of Logos, these dictionaries open us up to a greater awareness of the ancient world from which our Bible texts emerged.

For example, you might want to have a better handle on the ancient practice of slavery since this plays such a huge part in the Exodus story and you have a hunch it might not be the same as more recent practices of slavery. Looking at the entry for “Slave, Slavery” (pp. 778-783) in the Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch you learn

  1. The actual practice of slavery in the ancient near east
  2. Its historical place in the first five books of the Bible, and
  3. The history of slavery within Israel itself.

Finally, the article provides you with quick links to related topics within the dictionary and provides you with a handy bibliography if you’re wishing to pursue this avenue of study even further.

The pages of Scripture (especially the Old Testament) are inhabited by a sometimes strange and foreign world. As we grow in our familiarity with this world, the Bible comes alive in a way that we never knew possible. And this is, of course, a great joy.


  1. John Kaess says:

    And not a word on how to search dictionaries for a particular topic or word.

  2. I heartily applaud this basic sentiment. As Christians, we are supposed to be enjoying the Bible, not reading the tale of how some other person enjoyed it. It is refreshing to read the following from Gordon Fee, in his NICNT commentary on First and Second Thessalonians (p. T): “…as has been my lifelong habit, I write the commentary first and then consult the secondary literature, making any necessary adjustments and adding the proper footnotes.” Of course, this is Gordon Fee, who is able to write a basic commentary on the text without any secondary literature, a feat far beyond what most of us can handle. Still, the ideal is the same.
    How sad to realize that many commentary writers are spending more time in the secondary literature than they are in the text of Scripture. This is one of the side effects of the multiplication of commentaries in the last few decades.
    On the other hand, the student should qualify the point of this blog: dictionaries do not supply “objective” information as contrasted with the supposedly subjective commentaries. I regularly use the IVP dictionaries and access the Anchor Bible Dictionary almost daily; I have also written articles for both series. All study involves interpretation, in dictionaries, certainly in word study series, and to some extent even in lexicons.

  3. John,
    Kyle was focusing on some dictionaries that he has found particularly helpful. Sometimes we focus on products and sometimes we focus on training.
    For anyone interested in how to search a topic and restrict the search to specific kinds of books, there is a great forum thread that illuminates this well.

  4. Gary,
    This response comes from Kyle Anderson, the writer of Improving Your Bible Study with Dictionaries:
    Excellent response Gary. I greatly appreciate your Gordon Fee quote.
    You are absolutely correct in your assessment that dictionaries are not “objective” (your term) or even “neutral” (my term). Any author of an article approaches the task or topic from a certain point of view and aims to make a certain point. This is important to keep in mind while reading or using any Bible study tool, Dictionaries especially.
    My hope though is that more and more people will use tool like Dictionaries in the early stages of their study of a particular passage and save the commentary for the end. Then the commentary becomes more like a conversation over coffee between two students where our impressions, thoughts, conclusions, and questions become more sharpened and brought into greater focus.

  5. Another great way to learn; and probably the best, is to put all the books away except the Bible and see what God Himself teaches us. So often we forget that and jump to other resources.

  6. Sean Boisen says:

    There’s also good help on search at, as well as several videos at

  7. John Kaess,
    Here’s a quick word on how to search for a word or topic on your dictionary. 1) Create a collection of all your dictionaries (IVP Dictionaries for example). 2) After you create your collection go to basic search. 3) Choose your dictionary collection from the drop down menu. 4) Type a word or topic (e.g. Sabbath or Abiathar)…And then 5) click “GO” or just press the ENTER key and you will get your results…Ta….dahhh! I hope this helps! ;-)

  8. I am currently taking a Biblical Exegesis course with Rikk Watts (Fee’s protege) at Regent College. I have really enjoyed this work! Now, if only there were a bundle of all of these dictionaries that a student could afford! Thanks for posting this. Peace, Brian

  9. I have long been a lover of the IVP dicitionary set, although I do not have the electronic copy. the set is amazing, and for you seminary students…professors love to see this resource in your bibliography. The IVP can give the background, which helps develop the story.

  10. Why doesn’t Logos offer the Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry & Writings? The IVP Dictionary of the Old Testament Bundle should be a 3 pack!