A highlight of the late Saturday afternoon sessions at the Society of Biblical Literature meeting was a "shootout" between the leading makers of academic Bible software programs. Having used and reviewed most of them, I thought it would be fun to see advanced users put their whiz-bang features to work in responding to five specified projects.
The presenters, in order, were Logos, the Stuttgart Electronic Study Bible, BibleWorks, and Accordance. Logos 4 showcased a cleaner user interface than I remembered from earlier versions, and demonstrated some surprizing graphical capabilities for illustrating the study of individual words, whether in English or in the original languages. It's primarily a PC-based program, though a Macintosh version that's been in the works for years has finally reached "alpha" development status.
The Stuttgart Electronic Study Bible, with which I was not previously familiar, runs on the same Libronix platform that supports Logos. It focuses entirely on a scholarly audience, featuring the most advanced critical editions of Greek and Hebrew biblical texts, complete with the full critical apparatus of each, all in a searchable format. Wow.
BibleWorks 8 is also packed with features and is capable of incredible feats of linguistic searching. The presenter easily walked it through the five assignments, but relied a bit too much on codes and such that are innate to a power-user but mysterious to others, leaving the demonstration hard to follow. BibleWorks is also a PC program, but it is said to work satisfactorily on a Mac with the use of a PC emulator. The problem is, most folks who use a Mac prefer to avoid emulating a PC at all costs.
Accordance 8 is the only one of the academic Bible software programs that runs natively on a Mac, and it runs like the wind. It focuses primarily on the biblical text and supporting resources that assist with translation, and I find it more intuitive than the other programs. To the extent that you can love a software program, I love working with Accordance. Those who normally use PCs can run Accordance with a free Mac emulator program, losing only a few minor functionalities.
Olive Tree Software, which makes Bible software for mobile devices, also presented, and for the first time I really wanted an iPhone, for which it has developed an astounding product. Olive Tree also supports systems by Blackberry, Android, Palm, and several others, though Greek and Hebrew are not available on all of them. For all of their cool factor, mobile phones lack the processing power and memory needed for the kind of intensive searches that most scholars require, and there's really no need for it. Few researchers who have access to a quality desktop or laptop computer will be relying on their tiny mobile phone screen for serious work.
I've been promised a beta version of the Blackberry product when it becomes available, and will write a review when I get a chance to check it out. If it's anything like the iPhone version, it'll be terrific.
Anyone still reading by now might be interested in the five problems each of the presenters was asked to solve. Here they are (some questions are reworded for brevity):
1. Give the parsing of a word and its meaning from a standard source. (This one was easy: most of the programs provide the information automatically when the users puts the cursor over a Greek or Hebrew word. Some require clicks, some don't. All provide easy access to lexical entries for the word).
2. Show all the occurrences of a word in the New Testament and LXX, and show the Hebrew word which corresponds with the Greek in the LXX (LXX refers to the Septuagint, an early Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible). This one was also relatively easy. All of the programs allow the user to type a Greek word, paste it from the text, or click on it, and then search for all inflected forms of that word. The tricky part was linking the NT and the LXX for the search. Finding the corresponding Hebrew term for the Greek word was the simplest part.
3. Final all the occurrences of ‘oi dé in Matthew's gospel that are followed by a finite verb within the clause. This search generally required setting up a formula using syntax codes that look like gibberish to anyone not familiar with them. Accordance offers a more graphical interface, but even it requires some familiarity.
4. Show how to get all the lemmas (basic forms) of a part of speech (such as an interjection or demonstrative pronoun) and organize the results in such a way that one could write an article or monograph based on the data. Each program handled this differently, but all impressively.
5. Find all Hebrew middle weak verbs, plus all of their occurrences, and organize them in such a way that the variations of their inflections are immediately apparent. The data should enable one to write an article about variations of the Hebrew middle weak verb. Trust me, you don't want to know about this one. It involves creating intricate search formulas that reminded me of calculus.
I came away with a great appreciation for the work that goes into these programs. Most users of Bible software, even scholars, will never exploit the full power of quality Bible software -- but having more than you can use is far better than lacking the features you need.