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Something New Under the Sun: Computer Concordances and Biblical Study

by Ralph W. Klein

Ralph W. Klein is dean and professor of Old Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. He welcomes suggestions, additions, corrections and queries at rklein@lstc.edu. This article appeared in The Christian Century, November 12, 1997, pp. 1034-1037. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Most pastors and other students of the Bible are aware that the revolution created by the personal computer has spawned a new set of tools for exploring the Bible. But if you’re wary of computers, or are uncertain whether—or which—computer programs are worth the investment, the world of Bible software may be a dark and forbidding territory. It shouldn’t be. After a decade or more of software development, the benefits of the electronic study aids are clear.

Programmers have designed biblical search engines that far outstrip anything that can be done with a hard-copy concordance. When one is looking for specific verb or noun forms or even phrases or clauses, the entries can be sought in the original languages or in multiple English and European-language translations and all this can be accomplished in seconds or even nano seconds, and the results displayed via a laser printer.

More than 40 companies have electronic concordance products on the market. I’ll mention five of the best. For the Mac: Accordance (http://www.gramcord.org). For those with a PC: Bible Windows (http://www. silvermnt.com), BibleWorks for Windows (http: //www.bibleworks.com), Gramcord for Windows (cf. Accordance) and Logos Bible Software (http: //www.logos.com). Each has a few bells and whistles that are different from its competitors, but they all do most of the same things. All of the above come on CD-ROM disks. Logos also makes available on companion disks a reference library, including the Harper’s one-volume commentary and one-volume Bible dictionary, the New Jerome Biblical Commentary and, soon, the multi-volume Word Biblical Commentary. To check any of these products for yourself, just call up the Web sites listed above.

A number of pastors and laypeople may already use QuickVerse by Parsons Technology (http://www. quickverse.com) or one of its English-only competitors. Inexpensive and based on the English Bible, QuickVerse also offers the user an option to purchase a "translation" keyed to the numbers used in Strong’s Concordance, based on the King James Version. Careful use of Strong’s numbers allows people without knowledge of the original languages a roundabout approach to word study of the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek vocabulary. Those who have had even a modicum of language study, however, should opt for one of the first five concordances—or one of the other original-language competitors.

So what do these electronic concordances do? I’d suggest four specific benefits.

1) They help people read the Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible. Because of the broad-ranging and demanding M.Div. curriculum and the relatively late start many get in their seminary education, most seminary students barely get enough Hebrew and Greek to navigate through exegetical courses—and then they rapidly forget what they did learn. I am convinced that wise users of these programs can maintain and even improve their skills in the original languages. One can put on the screen the original Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek text and list under the original languages as many interlinear versions as one wants. Wave the mouse over the Hebrew or Greek text, and a little window gives you a complete parsing of the word and more than adequate excerpts from excellent biblical lexicons.

In the past, the task of parsing verb forms and looking up vocabulary was too wide a ditch for many a seminarian and young pastor to get over. Now the answers shine out from the computer screen, making it possible to compare the best of the modern versions with the original or even produce an original translation without having to spend hours thumbing through a big old lexicon or trying to recall the recognition points of the Hebrew Piel pattern. Those who have had basic courses in the biblical languages and are willing to devote 20 minutes a day to such language study should gain enough language ability to base their sermon text study on the original text, and they should have enough linguistic skill to use the best of the great philological commentaries, which often cite words from the original languages.

I’m so convinced of this that now when I teach beginning Hebrew I introduce BibleWorks on the first day of the course, project it on a screen, and demonstrate how it can supplement the students’ linguistic knowledge. (Bible Works is the program I use most, and my comments are based primarily on it.) As students learn the basic paradigms and the structure of biblical Hebrew, they will be able to understand and gain access to the wealth of information stored on the CD-ROM and have a fighting chance of maintaining their linguistic skill throughout their ministry. Instead of settling for the minimum in biblical languages, I try to teach that minimum and introduce an electronic product that will make translation almost nice.

2) Electronic concordances enable users to make fresh word studies while vastly reducing the tedium and the time required to assemble the basic data. Take the second word in the Hebrew Bible, "created." This verb occurs 54 times in 46 different verses—my computer told me so in two-thirds of a second. I can scroll through the list of each of these occurrences in its Hebrew context and read an interlinear translation of the corresponding verse in NRSV (or RSV, KJV, NIB, NEB, REB, etc.). I quickly note that of the 18 occurrences of this verb in Isaiah, only one is in 1 Isaiah. There is one occurrence in Jeremiah, five in Ezekiel, one in Amos and one in Malachi—only three occurrences in texts plausibly dated before the exile. That helps to show that this technical term gained wide currency relatively late in Israel’s history. In less time than it takes to write about it, I can transfer all 46 verses to an editing window and print them out—in Hebrew with parallel English—for more detailed study. If I search for the English word "created," I get only 33 occurrences and no assurance that all of these are renditions of the Hebrew word bara’. In fact, they are not always translations of that Hebrew word (see, for example, Deuteronomy 32:6 and Proverbs 8:22).

All 424 occurrences of the Hebrew noun ordinarily translated as "justice" are listed in .55 seconds. Only three of them are in Genesis; nine are in Deuteronomy. By contrast, the noun appears 23 times in Job, 63 times in the Psalter, 42 times in the Book of Isaiah and 32 times in Jeremiah. Unless you are a doctoral candidate or teach the Bible at college or seminary, you probably would not want to go through all 424 passages. So pick one book for closer study of this word. This is a better procedure methodologically in any case, since a given writer is likely to put his or her own connotation on the word.

Or consider the verb "forgive" or the noun "forgiveness." "Forgiveness" occurs 22 times in the New Testament, ten of which are in Matthew-Acts, and only two times in the Pauline correspondence broadly understood (Eph 1:7; Col 1:14). The main Greek word is afesiz; (it appears 12 times in Matthew-Acts; twice in "Paul"). The verb "forgive" occurs 28 times in the New Testament, 17 of which are in the four Gospels and only four of which are in Paul. Clearly, "forgiveness" is more important in the Gospels than in Paul. On the other hand, all six occurrences of the word "justification" in the New Testament are in letters unanimously ascribed to Paul. I learned that in .11 seconds.

If one tries to find the English word "messiah" in the Old Testament, one gets no "hits." But the word does occur 66 times in the NRSV New Testament. If you then go back and study the Hebrew word usually translated as "anointed," you will see it usually refers to the contemporary king, often without an obvious eschatological connotation, at least originally. Soon you will understand why most scholars believe that the title "messiah" became a technical term at a relatively late time, after the Old Testament had been completed.

Another advantage of using an original language concordance is that one can study a given form of a word. How is the verb used in the Aorist tense? When its subject is in the third-person feminine singular? When a noun has a first-person singular suffix (e.g., my child)? What’s the difference in meaning between the Niphal and the Piel patterns? People who teach biblical languages can come up with plenty of exercises for the electronic concordance. One can ask for a list of all 109 perfect tenses in the Hophel pattern in the Old Testament or only the 12 that occur in Jeremiah. Prior to the computer, you would have to page through every page of the lexicon to find this information.

What if your knowledge of Hebrew or Greek is very weak, almost nonexistent, because you never had a course in it or have forgotten everything you learned? Then something like QuickVerse from Parsons may be your concordance of preference. Let’s return to the study of the word "messiah" in the Old Testament. Once you find a passage where the word "anointed" is used with the meaning you want (e.g., Ps. 2:2: "The kings of the earth set themselves and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and his anointed, saying"), you will see that Strong’s number for "anointed" is H4899 and the transliteration chosen is mashiyach. In a split second you will get the list of the 38 verses (39 total occurrences) in the Old Testament where this Hebrew noun occurs. If you had searched for "anointed" itself in the NRSV, you would have come up with 85 total occurrences in 82 verses since "anointed" is a verb as well as a noun in English. The verb anoint (Strong’s H4886), according to QuickVerse, appears 70 times in 67 verses in the Old Testament. Just to complicate things a bit, try searching for "anoint*," where the asterisk stands as a wild card for any ending—anoint, anoints, anointing, anointed—and the total climbs to 140 times in 129 verses.

"Boolean" searches include words like and, or or not. Perhaps there would be reason to find all verses in the Bible that refer to Peter, James and John. Or one might want to look for all verses in the New Testament in which the names of either Saul or Paul occur—that would help you to find all the references to the apostle before and after his call. One could find all the verses in which Peter is mentioned and not Paul, or in which either Peter or Paul is mentioned, but not both. These electronic concordance programs enable users to devise complex searches that meet their particular research needs.

3) These electronic computer programs produce impressive handouts for adult forums or other educational programs. Perhaps you want to study "justice" in the eighth-century prophets (Amos, Hosea, Isaiah 1-39 and Micah) with an adult class or your social ministry committee. Any of these computer programs can print out the 27 verses from the NRSV that then could be duplicated and distributed to the group. One could even delete a number of the passages so that the class would need to study only the best 10-12 occurrences. Perhaps your own comments or questions could be printed in a different type-face between the verses. One could also search for John 4 in the electronic concordance and it would print out the entire text. Producing an English handout for the chapter that way would be much cheaper and more accurate than typing it out, and better looking than xeroxing a page from a regular Bible.

4) These programs may become your dog-eared Bible. All these programs allow users to add notes to specific chapters or verses, and one can use these notes and add to them throughout a lifetime. Through reading or study a pastor may discover new meanings or emphases, reflecting her own spirituality or experience. In using these programs and adding notes on specific verses, one is creating ones own personal commentary on scripture.

It would be interesting and informative to see where pastors concentrate their study over their lifetime or how experience in the ministry leads to deeper or altered perceptions of the meaning of the Bible. For years I carried around a battered copy of the RSV, mended with duct tape, that had marginal notes and underlinings where I wanted them and needed them. It was a walking file cabinet, and I was indeed displeased when it finally fell apart. That old copy of the RSV could never contain the wisdom that can be packed into notes on a computer Bible.

Electronic concordances are not the only computer-based tools for Bible study, though currently they are the most important. Parsons Technology has developed two programs to help students learn the biblical languages: Parsons Hebrew Tutor (check it out at http:://www.parsonstech. com/software/hebrew.html) or Parsons Greek Tutor (at http://www.parsonstech.com/software/greek.html). There are also several splendid atlases available that make precise mileage measurements a snap or that can be used to print out customized maps for specific regions or events. There are a few CD-ROMs on the market that provide excellent and interesting information about the Bible in general or the Dead Sea Scrolls in particular, with many more programs to come. Pastors who preach on a lectionary system can keep the textual notes for Pentecost 20, Series A, in a special file in their word processor and return to that file every third year to regain old knowledge and to put in new data.

Finally, the Internet shall not go unmentioned. There are a number of discussion groups on the Bible and the ancient world and hundreds of Web sites that provide exegetical, archaeological or other helps. Here are a few addresses (URLs, or uniform resource locators) to get you started:

ABZU (http://www.oi.uchicago.edu). A comprehensive series of references by the staff of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago to resources on the ancient Near East.

Bibelwissenschaft von Franz Böhmisch (http: //www.uni-passau.de/ktf/bibel/index.html). Don’t let the German put you off. This site holds data for every book of the Bible and for related fields such as art and literature.

Bible Analysis for Scholars, by Harry Hahne (http://www.writing.berkeley.edu/chorus/bible/index.html). The focus is on scholarly research with the original-language texts of the Jewish/Christian scriptures. (Bible and Art (http://www.christusrex.org). References to art resources in the Vatican. Pictures can be downloaded.

Bible Resources Page, with links to many biblical resources (http://www.vts.edu/jross/index.htm).

Bible Tutor (http://www.luthersem.edu/learnet/ biblepro/). This helps the reader learn the basic content of the Bible. Includes self-quizzes.

Diotima: Materials for the Study of Women and Gender in the Ancient World (http://www.uky.edu/ArtsSciences/Classics/gender.html).

High Places in Cyberspace (http://scholar.cc.emory.edu/scripts/ highplaces.html). This site contains updates to a recent book by the same name, written by Patrick Durusau. The book provides a guide to biblical and religious studies, classics and archaeological resources on the Internet.

Material Culture of the Ancient Canaanites, Israelites and Related Peoples: An Information DataBase from Excavations (http://staff.feldberg.brandeis.edu/-jackal ANEP/ANEP.html).

Society of Biblical Literature (http://shemesh.scholar.emory.edu/scripts/ SBL/bible-pubs.html). This site will lead the student to dozens of other important sites.

Torrey Seland’s Resource Pages for Biblical Studies (http://www.hivolda.no/asf/kkf/rel-stud.html).

World Wide Study Bible (http://ccel.wheaton.edu/wwsb). An attempt to organize all of the Bible-related resources on the World Wide Web.

World Wide Web Sites Relating to the Ancient Mediterranean (http:/www.stolaf.edu)


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