It is widely agreed that patients with bilateral hippocampal damage are impaired at binding pairs of words together. Consequently, the verbal paired associates (VPA) task has become emblematic of hippocampal function. This VPA deficit is not well understood and is particularly difficult for hippocampal theories with a visuospatial bias to explain (e.g., cognitive map and scene construction theories). Resolving the tension among hippocampal theories concerning the VPA could be important for leveraging a fuller understanding of hippocampal function. Notably, VPA tasks typically use high imagery concrete words and so conflate imagery and binding. To determine why VPA engages the hippocampus, we devised an fMRI encoding task involving closely matched pairs of scene words, pairs of object words, and pairs of very low imagery abstract words. We found that the anterior hippocampus was engaged during processing of both scene and object word pairs in comparison to abstract word pairs, despite binding occurring in all conditions. This was also the case when just subsequently remembered stimuli were considered. Moreover, for object word pairs, fMRI activity patterns in anterior hippocampus were more similar to those for scene imagery than object imagery. This was especially evident in participants who were high imagery users and not in mid and low imagery users. Overall, our results show that hippocampal engagement during VPA, even when object word pairs are involved, seems to be evoked by scene imagery rather than binding. This may help to resolve the issue that visuospatial hippocampal theories have in accounting for verbal memory.