I regularly encounter citations of outdated Biblical reference material: a friend recently sent me an article that referenced definitions from Grimm’s Greek-English Lexicon, another friend has cited entries from Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words and Strong’s Concordance is frequently used in sermons to give us the meaning of the original languages.
So what’s wrong with these sources? Using biblical reference works of the past is like seeking medical advice from a 19th century medical dictionary. Would you feel comfortable if your doctor flipped open the 1858 edition of Gray’s Anatomy while he poked and prodded you?
Our knowledge of linguistics, archeology and history has advanced considerably in the last century, and even more so in the last fifty years. It’s not that those older sources are entirely wrong (though they may be), it’s that we have so much better information available to us now. Many older sources were produced by a single person, who, for very practical reasons, simply could not be an expert in all the relevant subject areas. Modern reference works usually draw upon multiple authors who are all experts in their specialized fields. There have also been been numerous manuscript and archaeological discoveries over the past century that have helped us gain considerable knowledge of ancient languages and cultures — valuable resources and perspectives that were simply unavailable to writers of the past. In short, Biblical scholarship today is at a level far above that of previous generations, so why wouldn’t we want to avail ourselves of it?
I want to be clear that there is much to be valued in older works. As C.S. Lewis said, “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.” It is extraordinarily important that we return to original sources — that we remain rooted in and engaged with the ideas of the past. But the point I’m making is in regards to reference works that deal in factual information. An encyclopedia from 1940 is a historical curiosity that is practically useless in terms of historical study. My parents had just such an edition that I would flip through as a child, fascinated by the entries on “The Great War” and perplexed by how much of the world around me was missing from its yellowed pages. We shouldn’t fail to engage with the substantive works of the past, but we should always be cognizant of their shortcomings and use them with appropriate caution.
We should make use of the best tools available to us, such as Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words instead of Vine’s or BDAG instead of Grimm’s. Using modern reference works will not ensure perfect exegesis, proper methodology must be used as well. But just as you wouldn’t set out to build a house with a set of rusty turn-of-the-century woodworking tools, you shouldn’t try to study the Bible using only resources from the distant past.