The Internet of Ancient Texts

We live in a happy age when Bible-related text resources that I as an Aussie would once have had to cross the seas to see are available in my web browser any time. Here are a few of my recent favourites, with a focus on resources for textual criticism:

Origen’s Hexapla

This great six-column comparative text-critical resource from the smartest, if not the most orthodox, thinker in the ancient church, Origen, was largely lost in subsequent centuries (many of his works were deliberately purged), but there is a portal that talks about a new forthcoming edition of the surviving fragments and offers links to previous editions of the great work: http://www.hexapla.org/

The Aleppo Codex

This manuscript’s bigger and younger brother, the Leningrad Codex, can be accessed in many Bible software packages and websites, and forms the basis of the diplomatic Hebrew text of Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (in the process of being updated as Biblia Hebraica Quinta). But it isn’t so easy to get to the Aleppo Codex, also more than 1,000 years old and covering the majority of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew Univerity Bible offers an Aleppo Codex-based text, but only the Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel volumes were ever published to my knowledge. But now you can see it all visually at http://www.aleppocodex.org/, including those occasional places where your BHS apparatus identifies divergences between the major Masoretic manuscripts.

The Dead Sea Scrolls

I still love and regularly use the Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library, where you can go and look directly at the Qumran textual evidence for a particular Old Testament textual question. Sometimes it all hangs on a letter, or even reconstructed line spacing without any extant letters! But so real, so…textual! E.g. Isaiah 1:15 from the Great Isaiah Scroll below:Snapshot of Isa 1.15 from Gt Isaiah Scroll.png

You can personally check the evidence with your own eyes, if you know Hebrew in the Aramaic square script and once you get used to the particular style of the scribe.

The Old Testament in the Syriac Peshitta

This is not as easy to find on its website, being a bit buried in the site structure, but you can look at the Peshitta for any OT book and click on any word to get its analysis. I recommend you print off a chart of the Syriac alphabet in order to decipher the letters. The language actually works rather like biblical Hebrew, and if you’ve boned up on biblical Aramaic at all, you’re better prepared again, though you’ll need to come to terms with an unfamiliar script. A ready reference chart on your office wall helps.

Snapshot of Peshitta Isa 1.1-8 RHS from CAL D'base.png

This is part of the opening chapter of Isaiah, in a snapshot I saved for a class, though what my particular point was, I can’t remember now. Don’t be put off by how it looks. With a knowledge of Hebrew, a reference chart and the clickable analysis function, you can navigate your way to the particular word that relates to the textual issue you’re studying.

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Digital Septuagint, One Last Time

Better success lately finding help for reading the Septuagint (as per usual, for free) online. Let me put it in terms of good, better and best. And this is still in terms of how it works when logged on with my Android tablet. The first two work on the basis of double-tapping the mystery Greek term in the Septuagint and doing the suggested Google web search on it.

  1. Good is a new one, a book that comes up reasonably often in the search results provided by Google Books: an Analytical Lexicon of the Septuagint by one Bernard Adwin Taylor. I hadn’t heard of it before, I don’t know why, but it’s handy that a Google search can find your desired form in it pretty regularly.
  2. Better is the solution I mentioned last post: most such searches bring a result on the front page from the Perseus Greek study tool at www.perseus.tufts.edu.  (Tufts offers a lot of good digital tools, like the versatile VUE – Visual Understanding Environment.) This sort of result comes fully parsed and, when you click ‘word frequency statistics’, will tell you where it turns up in classical Greek writings and how often. You could do worse.
  3. Best is a website that I just hadn’t found before: www.greekdoc.com/lxx, seemingly created by one John Barach. There is it, the whole thing, every word linked to its corresponding entry in an analytical dictionary. Tap the form you don’t recognise, see its analysis, and you’re back to reading the text in about two seconds. Which to my mind is the critical thing when we’re going for fluency in reading the Bible in the original languages. That, finally, is the morning reading solution for me. When I’m doing serious study, BibleWorks it is.

Okay, I think I have Septuagint posts out of my system. (Could be wrong…) Back to digital repositories for primary document study really soon.

A Second Interlude: Back to Digital Bibles

The test case for online Bible tools that I floated in my last post was, which freely available tool caters well for the Septuagint (LXX, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament) reader? I’m imagining the reader (easy, because it’s me) who can read the Greek reasonably well but has a knowledge of Greek birthed in the New Testament and will often not recognize LXX-only Greek terminology, or words familiar in classical Greek but missing from the New Testament. The pricey tools, Logos, Accordance and BibleWorks (best value, in my biased opinion), provide such helps in spades, but what’s there for the ordinary punter not yet ready to splash out to the extent of many hundreds of dollars in order to read the Bible on his/her tablet in the original languages?

I can reaffirm from further looking what I said in my last post. It looks as though you cannot get a free tool that offers definitions and parsing for all of the words in the LXX for just a click or hover. Tools like Step Bible and MySword offer ready access to roots available in the old Strongs dictionary for NT Greek words. But a fully tagged Septuagint in a cheap or free Android or Windows app or online, I can’t find.

But here are a couple of handy workarounds.

  • I remembered that Tyndale’s http://www.2letterlookup.com/ is really quite a quick and handy way to look up biblical roots in original languages, hooking in to all the old-but-good lexica such as Liddell, Scott and Jones. Works very well indeed for the triliteral roots of Hebrew. Greek, however, is not so simple, since so many Greek roots incorporate common prefixes like ‘epi’, ‘pros’ and such like and so open with the same pair of letters, leaving you to look through hopelessly long lists of words. This is helped by a graphical bar diagram that appears once you click a lexicon link under a word listing. It looks like this (below, for the lexicon known as ‘Middle Liddell’)…but for common prefixes, it’s still just too cumbersome.

lexicon-graphic-in-2letter-lookup

  • Better is a solution that was staring me in the face from my Android tablet the whole time. Open up the Bible app of your choice; I’d recommend one that has really attractive Greek typeface in the LXX. I found Blue Letter Bible and Academic Bible really good this way, and in the latter case, you’re getting the text of a recent, critical edition. Just double-click on the mystery word/form and your tablet offers you a Google search on the term. I was thinking that with the language barrier involved it would never yield meaningful results, but I was wrong. We live in Unicode World now, where you can move digitally from one language to another with ease. Every search on a Greek term brings up meaningful search results. Admittedly, some of them are modern Greek web pages that still use the term in question. But nearly every search I did brought up the form, fully parsed and defined, in the Perseus Greek word study tool, which is absolutely the best online tool since sliced virtual bread for this kind of thing, and an old favourite of mine. (It’s not working as smoothly on my Windows PC as I write this, but it’s the tablet where I was looking for a good solution in any case.) And it’s quick, quick enough not to lose momentum while reading.

I should mention that I’ve been corresponding with David Instone-Brewer, the head sherang at Step Bible, who tells me that a fully tagged Septuagint is well into preparation by the Tyndale crew (see the Tyndale Tech blog), so I encourage you to keep checking the Step Bible tool regularly. It keeps getting better, and will no doubt have this cracked before long.

Digital Document Detective, Interlude: Online Bibles and Their Limits

My new task for this and subsequent years is to read the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Old Testament that forms the basis of so much New Testament teaching and gospel proclamation. But I have wanted to get my technology right first. My question has been:

Can I find an online bible, or better, a downloadable app, that would provide parsing of difficult Greek terms in the Septuagint, with root definitions?

Out of the ‘big three’ Bible software universes, Logos, Accordance and BibleWorks, I made my choice a long time ago, more or less in ignorance, of going with BibleWorks. I don’t regret it, either, primarily in value-for-money terms, where I think BibleWorks really excels. Logos does many, many things well, but is chiefly for the building of a large, digital library of secondary sources. I feel a little intimidated by how much it seems to cost, and continues to cost, and feel as if it’s the Hotel California of Bible software. You can check out any time you like, but you’ll receive promotional emails practically forever. Accordance would tempt me more now, but I have always been a Windoze user and it was once a Mac thing, so the die was cast. Oh, and my devices now are Android, and I move in Google and Microsoft online spaces.

So what is out there that might let me, rather than booting up my PC proper to read the Septuagint of a morning, just boot up my tablet and browse the Septuagint, but get help with those rarer or forgotten Greek words I need definitions for, and occasionally, parsing?

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The Digital Document Detective Episode 2: Ancient and Medieval Backgrounds

You can find many important ancient, medieval, Renaissance/Reformation and Modern primary documents online. The scene is changing all the time, and sometimes documents you could find earlier disappear. But more often the trend is towards greater availability, and other parties such as European libraries and universities are catching up to Google in providing materials online. Top-notch critical editions and recent scholarly publications are the two categories of documents usually not available online except behind paywalls. Older materials, private translations, book previews, online journals…there is still much that is useful that can be found online for free. Here is merely a sample list, stemming from things I was looking for in my own research:

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The Digital Document Detective Episode 1: Online Sources for Patristic Study

One of the guilty pleasures of research for me is trying to beat the challenge of finding that hard-to-discover primary or secondary document (i.e. the original source, or the things written about that source). At first blush, it looks as though you have to travel to Stuttgart or the British Library to find that rare document, which from Melbourne, Australia, where I live, is not just around the corner. But when you scratch around in internet land and locate it in some obscure digital repository, there’s a definite nerdy satisfaction to be had.

I’ve found a few new places, or kinds of places, where those old writings can be found, or newer ones that at first seem locked away in universities. I am studying church fathers at the moment, so that determines which digital doorways I’m going to mention this time around. On the off chance that it helps your research, if you’re a student of ancient Christian thought and writing, here are some ideas. And they’re all free.

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Double-Duty Software Tools for Teaching

Just an update on my experiments with software tools for study and research purposes. I thought I’d talk about this in terms of some that are meant to act as in-between tools that combine functions done singly by others. Sometimes such double-duty tools have worked for me, others not, and others I haven’t really tried. Here’s what I found out.

Teaching Technologies Diagram

  1. Microsoft Word you know. Zotero is a reference (or citation) manager that I have found more versatile than EndNote, particularly in its ability to cater well for notetaking, linking of references to each other, and instant harvesting of references from web pages such as lists of books on Amazon. (EndNote is more powerful in some ways, but on balance Zotero is more useful for me.) Now there is an Aussie startup called ComWriter that handles both word processing and the citing of sources. To combine these functions makes all the sense in the world to me. But as Darth Vader said, “It’s too late for me, son.” I’m familiar with MS Word and find it quite powerful and effective, though it isn’t “the latest thing to come across the wire.” And I’ve invested heavily, first in EndNote, and now even more in Zotero. I can’t start from the beginning again, and don’t really feel the need to. But if I was a student starting out, I’d give it a serious look, especially now that it’s serious for student.
  2. While we’re talking about Zotero, I gave a good go to a program meant to combine the functions of a citation manager and a mindmap. What a great idea, to mindmap your references! One edition of Zotero was blessed with a user-written add-on (the kind of thing you get with such open-source software) that rendered one’s Zotero references in a fantastic concept mapper called VUE, or Visual Understanding Environment, put out by TUFTS University. VUE is very powerful, though I have not always found the instructions attached easy to understand. I tend instead to use the simpler mindmapping program FreePlane in many cases. That’s where Docear comes in. It is a program that combines FreePlane and a reference manager called JabRef. Again, a great idea, and I’ve toyed with it, not to replace Zotero but as a next step. It handles references internally and readily maps them. But…I haven’t found it always easy to use, hitting roadblocks at times that I can’t find a way around. That kind of lost time is hard to replace. I’m simply copying and pasting Zotero references one by one into FreePlane and manipulating them from there as needed.
  3. It is also possible to graphically map your writing process, and Scrivener famously allows writers to do this, including corkboarding the plot of a novel and moving units of writing around. It’s all the rage these days, and I was tempted to take the bait, but it doesn’t do one very critical thing for academic writing. It does not handle or integrate the referencing process. And for me, that’s a deal-breaker. I have experimented with using FreePlane to map out an article-length piece of writing in skeleton form, and found it to work well. So there’ll be no ‘literature and latte’ for me.
  4. On a different plane, I use presentation tools a lot, especially PowerPoint and now, mostly, Prezi. And increasingly needing custom graphics, I’ve delved into the world of vector graphics, which, instead of being composed of bits, are constructed using mathematical functions. The outcome is graphics that never lose resolution at any magnification, perfect for zoomable presentation formats. Being cheap, rather than Adobe Illustrator, I use the open-source alternative Inkscape for this purpose and increasingly love it. The halfway house in this case is Sozi, a zoomable presenter built originally as an extension for Inkscape, and now a stand-alone program. I’m new to it, but find it easy to use. It effectively takes a series of snapshots of your vector graphic in SVG format, such as Inkscape produces, that become your presentation slides and provides for customized transitions between them. It’s all zoomable and rotatable just as Prezi is, but rather than the somewhat hand-holding though very user-friendly graphics capabilities of Prezi, you have all the graphical freedom of Inkscape to work with. It looks very promising.

I am always evolving in my use of software tools for research and teaching, and have to watch that I don’t pick up something new to learn every couple of months. That’s not a good use of time. But good tools can mean good craftworks, and anything that expedites research or makes teaching more effective is good. Explore!

P.S. the above graphic was whipped up in Inkscape – took me most of an hour, but an expert user might have taken 10 minutes. Right now, though, WordPress won’t let me embed vector graphics, as far as I can tell.