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A Goodly Heritage (53): The Power of the Printed Page – Concordances

James Brown, Peterhead, Scotland

The digital revolution touched upon in the previous article has been astonishing. Never before has so much information been so readily accessible, with such enormous potential both for good and for evil. Christians can now acquire ‘apps’ for hymn books, magazines and much more. Multiple electronic versions of the Bible, and relevant word searches, are available to aid Bible study. Perhaps the pre-digital age already seems archaic to those younger than 30, but it is worthwhile looking back and appreciating past achievements that were the necessary precursors to these recent innovations.

Groundwork for Concordances

The usefulness of any concordance is greatly enhanced by the arrangement of the books of Holy Scripture into chapters and verses. The subdivision of the text is not inspired and, of course, being a work of man, it cannot be perfect, but it does make referencing convenient and eases access to particular portions of Scripture. A criticism of subdivision has been that it enables the quotation and use of verses out of context. However, to whatever extent this may be true is not so much a reflection upon the tool, but upon unwise usage of that tool.

 It is thought that the first division of Scripture was undertaken by Jewish scribes who, after the Babylonian captivity, marked off their scrolls into sections so that the daily synagogue readings would cover an entire scroll over a given period. By the 5th century AD, the Byzantines had developed a system called kephalaia, meaning ‘heading’, as a means of subdivision. For example, in Matthew’s Gospel, the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ (covering three chapters in modern Bibles) appeared under a single kephalaia mark.

Chapters and Verses, and Early Concordances

A recognisable arrangement of chapters was made in the early 13th century by the Roman Catholic Cardinal Hugo de Sancto Caro, to relate to his concordance of the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible. His contemporary, Stephen Langton (1150-1228), Archbishop of Canterbury,¹ also arranged the books of the Bible into chapters, and it is his arrangement, with slight variations, that is still used today. The division of Old Testament chapters into verses was the work of the Jewish Rabbi Mordecai Nathan, who completed his seven-year task in 1445. Verse divisions in the New Testament did not appear until 1551, when Robert Stephens published his fourth edition of the Greek Testament. The verse arrangement was to assist in the compiling of his concordance, later printed by his son.

Perhaps it was the light and liberty springing from the availability of the Bible in English that gave impetus to John Marbeck, organist at Windsor chapel, to prepare the first English concordance in 1550. The work was not a success, and Marbeck is remembered more for his music compositions. The first English Bible with both chapter and verse divisions was the Geneva Bible of 1560, and a concordance for that translation, prepared by Robert F Herrey, was published in 1578.

Modern Concordances

Further to the great advance made by Alexander Cruden in compiling the first thorough and reliable English concordance in 1737, three major works, also relating to the King James Version of the English Bible, were published during the 19th century. The first, by G V Wigram, was in two stages: The Englishman’s Greek Concordance of the New Testament in 1839, followed by The Englishman’s Hebrew and Chaldee Concordance of the Old Testament in 1843.² Then, in 1879, Robert Young’s Analytical Concordance to the Holy Bible was published. Finally, on the other side of the North Atlantic, Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible appeared in 1884.

James Strong (1822-1894)

James Strong was born in New York City, of English descent through his father, and Dutch through his mother. He was an energetic man who pursued academic, theological and practical interests. After graduating from Wesleyan University, Connecticut, in 1844, he lived for a time on Long Island, and served as Mayor of his home town. He then moved to Flushing, New York, where he organised, and was president of, the Flushing Railroad, as well as pursuing Biblical studies. In 1856, Wesleyan University granted him the Degree of Doctor of Divinity. In 1867, Strong joined the faculty of the recently established Drew Theological Seminary, near New York City, as chair of Exegetical Theology, and went on to serve there for nearly 25 years. He was one of five able teachers (a layman among ministers) who together built the reputation of the seminary which later became a university. His enthusiastic approach to his subject invariably excited the interest of his students, who found him a mine of information. A colleague once said of him “He knew something about everything and he knew everything about the things he gave himself to.”³ It is said that no one went to sleep in his classes!

Strong had an immense capacity for work, but his secret was that he also knew how to work, and this was proved by his achievements.⁴ His responsibilities and duties, particularly during seminary terms, were onerous enough but, in addition, he maintained a substantial literary output. Strong was joint-editor with John McClintock (first president of Drew Theological Seminary) of the Cyclopaedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature; a reference work which extended to ten volumes and two supplements. McClintock was the senior editor, but his early death in 1870 left the major burden with Strong. His experience on this project probably served him well in preparation for his greatest work - the compilation of his concordance.

An Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible

Strong’s concordance, like Young’s, has excellent Hebrew, Chaldee and Greek dictionaries at the end. In addition, two remarkable features of this monumental work are worthy of note. The clue to the first is the word ‘exhaustive’ in the title. It contains every occurrence of every English word, including articles, conjunctions and prepositions. An appendix to the main concordance lists the chapter and verse occurrences of 47 such words. The second feature is its numerical structure. Strong clearly applied his analytical mind to the presentation of data. What might he have achieved in our IT age? Those familiar with the concordance will be well practised in using the number of each word appearing in the main concordance to explore its roots and range of meaning in the relevant dictionary. Strong’s numbers have been adopted in subsequent publications to aid the Bible student. For example, an edition of Wigram’s Englishman’s Hebrew and Chaldee Concordance, published in 1980, was numerically coded to Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance. Strong’s numerical coding is also available in digital forms of dictionaries such as Thayer’s, bringing the benefit of his structure right up to date. Strong could never have imagined such a thing, but we can be grateful for it!


In February 1892, J W Mendenhall wrote in glowing, indeed adulatory, terms of James Strong being a standard-bearer of genuine orthodoxy. He wrote that in “days of agnosticism and rationalism, when professors are turning from the faith, it is fitting to mention one who, having probed science, philology, history and the Bible, as thoroughly as the so-called critics have done, finds no reason for abandoning historical beliefs but, on the contrary, abundant evidence in their behalf.” His final sentence reads “Only within sight of his seventieth birthday, he promises at least ten years more of hard toil for truth and humanity.”⁵ Sadly that was not to be, yet, when Strong died two years later, his lifespan had exceeded those of Alexander Cruden and Robert Young. Of greater importance than the number of their years, is that each man had ‘redeemed the time’, and used it wisely and well, with the result that by their labours they left legacies of lasting worth.

¹ In those days, Archbishops of Canterbury exerted secular influence and power. Stephen Langton supported the barons against King John in the dispute that led to the signing of Magna Carta at Runnymede.

² ‘A Goodly Heritage (16) – George V Wigram’, Believer’s Magazine, May 2014.

³ Quoted in James Strong – Drew University History – U-KNOW.

⁴ J W Mendenhall, The Old and New Testament Student, (Chicago University Press), p 73.

⁵ Ibid, pp 75-76.


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