Posted By MSH on November 23, 2009
I’ve been going to SBL meetings for over ten years. For those of you unacquainted with what biblical studies scholars do for excitement, SBL is the place where you’ll hear tweed-clad academics gush over technical research papers on things like prepositions in dead languages and pottery jar handle styles. This year, though, there was something a bit different: The Bible Software Shootout. While no one was killed or wounded, there was one casualty: the status quo of Bible software.
I work for one of the participants, Logos Bible Software. It would be easy to call me biased. Maybe I am a bit. But I’m also honest and have no trouble complaining when our software doesn’t do some things I want it to do as an academic. I’ve worked at Logos for five years now, and the people in my department, the folks closest to the academic content of the software, aren’t afraid to talk about something a competitor does well and where we can improve. It’s not an environment characterized by paranoia or wishful thinking. I saw some things from the other presenters at the shootout (our competitors) that I really liked, and I’m not going to get punished for saying so. But I say all that to say this: Logos has made the competition obsolete. The status quo is now passé. Let me explain.
Shootout competitors to Logos were BibleWorks, Accordance, the German Bible Society’s SESB package, and Olive Tree (Bible software for mobile devices). I’m going to exclude the SESB from what follows since Logos (Libronix) is the engine for the SESB (i.e., that product is in the Logos platform).
All the competitors except Olive Tree had solutions for the shootout questions (submitted in advance):
1. Give the parsing of a word and its meaning from a standard source.
2. Show all the occurrences of a word in the NT and LXX and show the Hebrew word which corresponds with the Greek in the LXX (if there is a correspondence).
3. Find all the occurrences of oi de in Matthew’s gospel followed by a finite verb within the clause.
4. I want to study a part of speech, e. g., demonstrative pronouns or interjections. How do I get all of the lemmas for that part of speech, get all the occurrences of those lemmas, and the results organized in such a way that I could write an article/monograph on that part of speech from the data?
5. I want to study the inflections of the Hebrew middle weak verb, and I want to see what the range of possible variations is for each of the conjugations (perfect, imperative, etc.) person, number, gender, and stem. This means I need to find all the middle weak verbs, find all their occurrences, and organize them in such a way that the variation of their inflections are immediately apparent. The goal of the data organization would be to allow me to write an article about the variations of the Hebrew middle weak verb.
To be fair to Olive Tree, since their business is about software for mobile devices, there are technical hurdles that prevent them from producing the kind of software necessary for queries 3-5. They admitted that, but took part anyway. Frankly, other than our own product, I thought they were the most impressive part of the program. It was really amazing to see what they could actually do within their constraints. They got very close to duplicating the queries, despite the method being awkward at times. They deserved all the positive comments I heard directed toward them after the shootout.
BibleWorks was presented by a friend of mine, Glenn Weaver. I heard some people in the audience (during and after) comment on the awkwardness of how BibleWorks solved questions 4 and 5. Basically, their solution involved putting a long string of unmemorizable and unintuitive codes into the command line. I understand the gripe, but it’s a bit unfair. The questions requiring the command line gymnastics were arcane, and no one designs software for the most obtuse, seldom-desired queries someone can think of. The fact is that BibleWorks had a solution, which surprised no one. What did surprise people (including me) was that BibleWorks could not run a morphology search across more than one text corpus at a time. I’m guessing it’s something they’ll address in the future and do a fine job of it. I also really like their Help system; it’s immediate and intelligently focused.
The shootout was the first time I’ve ever seen the Accordance software in action. It’s obviously a powerful package, and Roy Brown, the presenter, did a fine job in his time. I did wonder, though, what the wow factor is with Accordance that I have heard so much about. I didn’t see anything spectacular or especially compelling about it. When I mentioned that to a friend who uses Accordance (and also has Logos and Bible Works), he had a response that made a lot of sense. To summarize his comments, Accordance has had the look and ease of use I saw at the shootout for years, and had it much earlier than any of the PC packages. It made me realize that if I was buying Bible software in the era before Windows or right when Windows came out, Accordance would have looked very slick and been much easier to use to someone like me, who isn’t a techie. The sort of look and feel we take for granted now would have been their exclusive domain. But we’re no longer in that era.
Adios, Status Quo
Since all of the major Bible software packages could handle the shootout queries, what do I mean by the status quo of Bible software coming to an end? In a nutshell, from my view there are four things that set Logos apart and change the game. Two of those could be said of Logos 3.0. The most recent version, Logos 4, released at the beginning of November, added two more. Here they are.
Logos is the only platform that has syntactical databases. Briefly, all the software packages have powerful databases and tools for doing morphological searching of the type that the shootout proposed. Morphological databases have every word of the text tagged with word-level information, things like part of speech, tense, grammatical person and number, lemma, etc. A syntactical database tags words for their role and function within a clause and with respect to each part of the clause. Logos has three syntax databases for the Greek New Testament and three for the Hebrew Bible (including SESB and one that will be released sometime in 2010).
Anyone who has had Hebrew or Greek knows how important syntax is. The second year of language study in each language is typically devoted to learning syntax. Words don’t mean anything in isolation; they only have meaning in context, and part of the context is their syntactical relationships. More simply, a morphological database can tell you where words are to be found in a text; a syntax database moves you toward understanding what they mean and do.
Despite the critical importance of syntax, since I’ve been with the company, I’ve actually heard some users of other software packages make light of it. The charge is that syntactical tagging is “subjective” since it gets into interpretive decisions. In a word, this charge is lame, and it isn’t hard to explain why.
First, identifying and labeling syntactical constructions are often not subjective exercises. There is nothing subjective about identifying (and tagging) a wayyiqtol followed by an expressed subject with a following accusative marker with noun. There are dozens of other such features marked in a syntax database that are not subjective. The construction is what it is, and is often crystal clear. So, in one respect, a syntax database does what a morphological database does when it identifies things. Morph databases identify words; syntax databases identify clusters of words. True, some “clusterings” require decisions, but the subjective part primarily comes when a database creator interprets what the clusters are doing with respect to meaning.
Second, the subjectivity charge assumes incorrectly that morphological tagging is immune from subjectivity. This isn’t the case. Grammarians do have disagreements about certain points of morphology, and so they make choices in how words are tagged in morphological databases.
Third, morphological databases can be used subjectively. This was most apparent in the Accordance presentation. Accordance does not have syntax, and so it does not have true clause delimitation. Roy Brown was honest with the audience about this, making a note to tell the audience that a search he was constructing would approximate clause boundaries through the use of punctuation in the Greek New Testament. This is clever and resourceful. It’s also ultimately subjective. Punctuation is not present in the oldest NT manuscripts; scholars know it was added later. This involved decisions of the scribes and therefore is not self-evident. Using punctuation to mime clause structures is an artificial construct that aims to try and do something syntactical within a morphological database (and clauses are but one small point of syntax). I’m not sure BibleWorks can do what Accordance did since the presenter didn’t try it, instead directing attendees to their diagrams of the Greek New Testament. Diagrams are naturally more familiar to scholars than syntax databases. However, the diagrams in BibleWorks are static and cannot be searched. And of course diagramming is also very subjective since diagrams are decision-driven.
Fourth, and most importantly, the charge is hypocritical. The fact is that scholars publish decisions and opinions every day. Anyone who has spent a little time studying what lexicographers do knows that a lexicon has decisions on every page. A lexicon isn’t just a published list of words that occur in a given language corpus. Scholars collect word usage instances and then make judgments about their semantics. In other words, a lexicon is filled with subjectivity. And yet all scholars, including those who sneer at syntax databases, use them habitually. These same scholars also use reference grammars which, not surprisingly, are also full of interpretive decisions. Any top-flight reference grammar in Hebrew and Greek is riddled with opinions and decisions. It’s what they’re about. Frankly, syntax databases are a partial cure for this, since they allow the scholar to search far beyond the word level and thus evaluate the claims of reference grammars for any given syntactical construction and assertion. Scholars also use that wonderful stuffed pig of subjectivity, the commentary. Yes, even scholarly commentaries like Hermeneia, WBC, Yale-Anchor, ICC, and NICOT/NICNT are bloated with interpretive decisions. (And well they should be—why else would anyone open one?) Yet scholars have no trouble consulting them in their research and (perish the thought) writing them. Finally, scholars also use and write journal articles, which are anything but treatises of the self evident.
Looks to me like analysis of the subjective is part and parcel of the enterprise of scholarship. If one wants to exclude syntax databases from that, I’d say it’s a pretty subjective (and unwise) decision.
The major Bible software packages all have a number of important scholarly books, at least several dozen of them. Logos has a couple thousand. I speak here of scholarly books. Some readers may have heard that Logos has 10,000 books in the platform. That’s true, but many of those would not be considered scholarly. My claim that Logos has a couple thousand scholarly titles can simply be verified by taking a visit to the website. Aside from major commentaries, reference grammars and reference books, we have a couple thousand single titles from Continuum (e.g., JSNTS, JSOTS), Pontifical Biblical Institute (e.g., the Analecta Biblica series), Eerdmans, Zondervan, Baker, JPS, Brill, SBL, etc. And the means of searching these titles is superior as well due to under-the-hood issues.
3. Display of Morphological and Syntax Database Search Results (new with 4.0)
Those who attended the shootout know that all the platforms can return search results in useful ways. I would suggest that Logos 4’s new datasheet is by far the most flexible and useful way this is done. When I get back to the office, I’ll create a video of it and update this post. Basically, the datasheet is a spreadsheet on steroids with drag and drop functionality, where any column of data can be moved and hierarchicalized at will (and also sorted). In my view, this is the single best improvement for the scholar in Logos 4. It’s a powerful solution to a problem Logos has had with displaying the abundance of data in our databases. And when you use it for the results of syntax searches (which incorporates morphology), there’s just nothing like it on the planet.
4. Cross-Platform Capability, Including the I-Phone (new with 4.0)
Logos is the only Bible software package that is available for PC, Mac, and now the I-Phone. The Mac version of 4.0 is in alpha at this point, but the aim in 2010 is true parity with the PC version. Logos 4.0 is web-based, and this is important for the I-Phone app. Users need only buy books once, but they can now work on a PC at work, go home and open the software on a Mac to exactly the same page or window where they finished, and do the same on their I-Phone. Everything on your desktop is synched between all three machines (if the user has all three, naturally).
Toward the Future
The Bible software game has changed. Biblical scholars no longer need to live in the world of morphology. To be honest, when I first saw the shootout queries, my initial thought was that they were written by people who could not think about the problems posed or doing research in anything but a morphological database. That’s the old way, the status quo. This sort of inside-the-box way of thinking about the text is not what’s going to advance research in the original languages of the biblical texts. Morphology is still important, but it’s miles from the cutting edge. Your software shouldn’t merely equip you to do yesterday’s analysis.
What we hope at Logos is that more scholars at least add us to their toolbox. We need the scholarly community. Tools like syntax are new to us, too, since they are the results of the labors of scholar-pioneers in the academy (sometimes over decades). The more scholars that use the data, the better, since it will force us at Logos to keep coming up with better ways to implement the data in the software so they are truly useful. Like Steve Jobs said, “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” We agree. You will, too, when you give it a look.