Strong numbers. Or Strong’s numbers. Whichever.

From time to time I refer to Strong numbers or Strong’s numbers. I suppose I need to explain ’em before people get the idea I’m introducing them to numerology.

A concordance is a list of every single word in a book. People make ’em for the bible so they can use it as kind of an index: You might remember there’s a verse in the bible about “the meek shall inherit the earth,” but not remember where it’s found. (And you might live in 1987, when you couldn’t just Google it.) So you bust out that concordance, flip to “meek,” and find out where it’s hiding. Seems it appears 17 times in the King James Version.

Nu 12.3 the man Moses was very m., above all the men H 6035
Ps 22.26 The m. shall eat and be satisfied H 6035
Ps 25.9 The m. shall he guide in judgment H 6035
Ps 25.9 and the m. shall he teach his way. H 6035
Ps 37.11 But the m. shall inherit the earth H 6035
Ps 76.9 to save all the m. of the earth. H 6035
Ps 147.6 The LORD lifteth up the m. H 6035
Ps 149.4 he will beautify the m. with salvation H 6035
Is 11.4 reprove with equity for the m. of the earth H 6035
Is 29.19 The m. also shall increase their joy H 6035
Is 61.1 to preach good tidings unto the m. H 6035
Am 2.7 and turn aside the way of the m. H 6035
Zp 2.3 Seek ye the LORD, all ye m. of the earth H 6035
Mt 5.5 Blessed are the m.: for they shall inherit G 4239
Mt 11.29 for I am m. and lowly in heart G 4235
Mt 21.5 Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, m. G 4239
1Pe 3.4 even the ornament of a m. and quiet spirit G 4239

So check it out: The meek inheriting the earth comes up twice, actually. In Psalm 37.11, and in Christ Jesus’s “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” Mt 5.5

Some bibles have a mini-concordance in the back, to be used as just this sort of index. They don’t include every word. Really, not even an exhaustive concordance does: There are 64,040 instances of “the” in the KJV. (More instances of “the” than there are verses.) When people are trying to track down a verse, they don’t use “the.” Too common.

Anyway. Dr. James Strong wasn’t the first guy to produce an exhaustive concordance of the KJV, but his was powerfully useful for one reason: His numbers. When you looked up any word in his 1890 concordance, you’d find it provided a number. In the back of the book were his Hebrew and Chaldee Dictionary of the Old Testament, and Greek Dictionary of the New Testament. Don’t even have to know the Hebrew or Greek alphabets: You look up the word by its number, and there you go: The original-language word behind the KJV’s translation.

Wanna know the original word for “ass” in 2 Peter 2.16? Strong’s concordance will point you to number 5268, and once you look up that number in the Greek dictionary, you find this:

5268. ὑποζύγιον hupozugion, hoop-od-zoog'-ee-on; neuter of a compound of 5259 and 2218; an animal under the yoke (draught-beast), i.e. (specially), a donkey: ass.

Nice, huh? Wanna know the original word for “buttocks” in Isaiah 20.4?

8357. ‏‏שֵׁתָה shethah, shay-thaw'; from 7896; the seat (of the person):—buttock.

Yes, I’m twelve.

Juvenile words aside, the number idea was just plain brilliant. Yeah, Strong could’ve only given people the original-language word, then turned ’em loose to fumble around for it. But I know way too many people who are totally wierded out by foreign languages. Even Spanish scares ’em. Throw a foreign alphabet in there, and they’re lost. But anybody can look up a number. So instead of trying to figure out how on earth you’re gonna find ὑποζύγιον or ‏שֵׁתָה in the bible, you look up the numbers 5268 and 8357. Simple.

Nope, Strong’s system isn’t perfect. Some of the numbers are redundant: Different forms of the same word sometimes got different numbers. Aramaic words (which he called “Chaldee”) got mixed up with the Hebrew words, and people can mix up the Hebrew meaning with the Aramaic and get the wrong interpretation.) Pronunciation is a little off, ’cause it’s not taken from native speakers, who’d pronounce those two words I listed as ypodzýghion and šetá. And if you wanna use Strong’s Greek dictionary to look up words from the Septuagint, he didn’t write it for the Septuagint, so good luck. (For that you’ll need a Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon… and maybe a semester of ancient Greek.

But the popularity and utility of Strong’s concordance means you’ll find Strong numbers in a whole lot of reference materials.

The G-K numbers.

If you’ve read my article on the King James Version, you might know this translation has its drawbacks. Namely that the Greek and Hebrew texts used to translate it, and the bibles the KJV drew from, had flaws. Archaeology wasn’t invented yet, and textual criticism was a new science. Robert Estienne’s Textus Receptus, his Greek New Testament, was based on present-day Greek copies of the bible, not ancient copies. Once scholars started basing their Greek NTs on the most ancient texts, it meant a few words needed to be added to Strong’s dictionaries… including new numbers for those additional words.

So when new bible translations wanted to create Strong-style exhaustive concordances, but they based their translations on updated Hebrew and Greek texts, they hit this problem: Sometimes the words they translated didn’t have Strong numbers. Now what?

They took two different routes. Take the New American Standard Bible: When they cranked out their first concordance in 1997, they put those additional words into their Hebrew and Greek dictionaries—in alphabetical order, as they’d usually go—then added b, c, d, and so forth. There; nearly all the Strong numbers match. (They still do this in their current edition of the concordance, which reflects the NASB’s 1995 edition.)

The other route was that of the New International Version: For their first concordance in 1984, the editors, Edward W. Goodrick and John R. Kohlenberger III, simply renumbered the dictionaries from scratch, and call their system Goodrick-Kohlenberger numbers. Or G-K numbers. The NIV and its distributors, Zondervan, are trying their darnedest to get the G-K system to catch on, using it in their reference materials and getting other translations to use it for their concordances. Kohlenberger has also taken to producing concordances marketed as “Strongest Strong’s” for various translations, which sync up Strong and G-K numbers for your convenience.

Me, I use computer bibles. So I can’t tell you how long ago I’ve used a concordance to look up a word by its Strong number. (Or G-K number.)

Every once in a while you’ll come across bible nerds who actually care which number system you use—Strong versus G-K—and insist you stick to their favorite, for all sorts of reasons. I won’t go into them. Frankly they’re like tech nerds who insist you get an iPhone or an Android phone, and all you wanna do is make phone calls. Who cares? What’s gonna do the job? Both. So why the fuss?

But you’re gonna find Strong numbers in most resources: Like the KJV, they came first, and they’re no longer copyrighted so everyone can use ’em. So use ’em. Or do as I do: Use a computer bible, and click on the words instead of the numbers. Way easier.

Bible study.