John R. Kohlenberger III died on September 29, 2015. For more than ten years he had successfully warded off the debilitating effects of advanced prostate cancer, but when the end came, it came suddenly. [See the news release.]
John’s contributions to Christian publishing in general and his contributions to Bible publishing and Bible study reference tools in particular are without equal in his generation.
John used to joke that he hoped he would not go crazy creating concordances, as had one of his predecessors, Alexander Cruden, the creator of Cruden’s Complete Concordance to the King James Version of the Bible. But in the late 1970s John and his mentor, Edward W. Goodrick, had a crazy idea that they successfully sold to Zondervan—by combining their expert knowledge of the biblical languages with the newly emerging technologies enabled by computer hardware and software, they proposed to create concordances for the recently published New International Version of the Bible more quickly, exhaustively, and accurately than ever before.
One hundred years earlier it had taken Robert Young 40 years to manually create Young’s Analytical Concordance and a few years later it took James Strong nearly 30 years to create Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Crazy though the idea was, with the help of computers, in seven years John and Ed were able to complete the first edition of The NIV Exhaustive Concordance, a massive work of nearly 1,900 pages with over 556,000 lines of text. In the process they replaced Strong’s number system with a far more accurate numbering system (known as the G/K numbers) for identifying every Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek word in the manuscripts of the biblical languages; they matched up every word of the NIV to the words of the original languages of the biblical texts; and in so doing they also indicated the nature of the relationship between the words of the NIV and the original texts. No one had ever before created an exhaustive Bible concordance with such care, precision, and accuracy.
The NIV Exhaustive Concordance was the crowning achievement of Ed and John, but while Ed was working on the computer compiling the database from which the New Testament portion of the exhaustive concordance would be generated,
John created and typeset a Crudens-type concordance to the NIV as well as other smaller concordances that were published for the NIV, including all of the concordances that are still featured in the back of NIV Bibles. And for good measure he created the cross-reference system that is also still used in NIV Bibles, again assisted by computer technology.
After the death of his mentor, Ed Goodrick, John carried on the work the two had begun. He continued to refine the database from which the exhaustive concordance had been created, and he single-handedly updated the database of that work to the text of the NIV 2011; from that, John created and typeset The NIV Exhaustive Bible Concordance, 3rd Edition, published just six months before his death.
John’s most recent contribution to biblical studies was in designing and typesetting the NIV portion of The Greek-English New Testament: UBS 5th Revised Edition and New International Version, a joint publication of the German Bible Society and Zondervan, scheduled for release October 16, 2015.
But these achievements merely scratch the surface of John’s work. He created The Interlinear NIV Hebrew-English Old Testament, Hebrew-English and Greek-English concordances, an unabridged concordance to the NRSV, a revised and corrected version of a Strongs-type concordance to the KJV, an innovative chronological arrangement of the NIV titled the NIV Integrated Study Bible: A Chronological Approach for Exploring Scripture, and he designed and typeset scores of Bibles for Zondervan and other Bible publishers.
I first met and began working with John in 1980. John was well-mentored by Ed Goodrick, and had Ed lived longer he would have been proud of John, because John took what Ed taught him and surpassed Ed’s own achievements.
John never went on for PhD work, but honestly, I think it’s just as well he didn’t. Most of it would have been redundant to what John had already learned and done. In my book, he did the equivalent of PhD work several times over. In fact, I’ve often said that what James Strong was to the KJV, John Kohlenberger was to the NIV; although he was able to accomplish more than the great James Strong because of the tools that were available to John.
John should be remembered for his contribution to the success of the NIV, for his contribution to Bible publishing in general, and for his desire to make Bible study reference tools that were accessible to students without advanced knowledge of the biblical languages. I grieve the loss of a close friend and publishing colleague. But I’m grateful for the rich legacy of tools for Bible study that he has left behind.
Dr. Stan Gundry is senior vice-president and editor-in-chief for Zondervan.
[Also see, A Tribute to My Friend, John Kohlenberger by Randy Alcorn]