The bit, the byte, and the Word. (Bible-study software) (Software Review) (Evaluation)
by Anthony Moses
The picture is jarring: Moses descending from Sinai, cradling in his arms not two tablets of stone but a pair of laptops. Dr St. Paul the apostle, green in the glow of a monitor as he taps at a file named corinth 2. txt.
Jarring, perhaps, but in the history of the Bible, computerization is the next logical step. The Bible, in its various stages of development, has passed through nearly every sort of information-retrieval system known to history, beginning with oral tradition and progressing to stone tablets and then to scrolls; early in Christian history the clumsier scroll was replaced by the codex, the forerunner of the common bound book, and in the fifteenth century, the advent of the printing press made it possible to buy a bound Bible for something less than the price of a good war horse. It only makes sense that when personal computers became available at (comparatively) reasonable prices, PC versions of the Bible weren't far behind. What some may not understand is the need for them.
The Bible is, frankly, a difficult book. Its sheer size can be daunting: The Protestant canon of the Bible is a small library composed of sixty-six separate works of varying lengths. If printed in normal-size typeface on standard-size pages (rather than the usual cramped double columns on India paper), the books of the Bible would easily fill a shelf. Small wonder that after buying a Bible, your next purchase is usually a concordance (or word index), just so you can find your way around.
The Eternal Quest
But there are problems other than size. Coming as it does out of vanished cultures, originally written in two ancient languages, and most commonly available to readers of English in a translation that is pushing four centuries in age, the Bible can at times be simply incomprehensible. A serious student of the Bible will probably end up investing in at least a Bible dictionary and will probably want to purchase one other translation, as well as a topical index, a Greek-Hebrew lexicon, and any other study aid he or she can afford. There then follows the less-than-edifying game of text juggling--shifting between Bible and study aids while trying to follow the development of a particular Biblical theme, keeping bookmarks (or fingers) lodged between the pages of reference works and using one's free hand to jot down study or sermon notes. Whatever gains you make in spirituals or linguistic insight are pretty much balanced out by a loss of patience.
That's where a PC Bible comes in handy. While it's true that nothing less than a Cray could contain and process all the available information on the Bible, your personal computer can at least handle the most frequently performed Bible-study tasks if you can get the right software.
Considering the matter ideally, a PC Bible program should be able to do several basic but important things. At the very least, it should be able to perform as a concordance--that is, to list and display occurrences of words in the text of the Bible, preferably through Boolean and wildcard searches and with an option to limit the search area. It should also come with a topical index, which allows you to search the Bible not only by word occurrences but by themes and concepts. These two functions by themselves would greatly reduce much of the investigative drudgery of Bible study, but we can always wish for more. For example, it would also be helpful if the computerized Bible-study aid could display more than one translation at a time, to compare English renderings of the original languages--and, for that matter, it would be nice to have a peek at the original Hebrew and Greek words themselves, along with their definitions and shades of meaning. And finally, though not an absolute requirement, it would be an advantage to have a Bible dictionary online, to define obscure words and proper names.
Two pieces of commercial Bible-study software that perform all of these functions are THE WORD Processor 5.0 (from Bible Research Systems) and PC Study Bible 3.0 (from BibleSoft). THE WORD Processor is available in several popular translations, though you'll need to get the King James Version (KJV) or the New International Version (NIV) as your basic translation if you wish to use any of the Strong's-based study aids. THE WORD Processor's Verse Search employs the now-standard pull-down menus to navigate you through the Bible.
THE WORD Processor
THE WORD Processor used to consist of what are now two separate programs: Verse Search and Librarian. However, since THE WORD Processor is the more commonly used name, I will use it to refer to these two packages collectively. Bible Research Systems also provides a number of other tools at additional cost.
You begin using THE WORD Processor by opening a Bible window; from the Search menu you can choose the book, chapter, and verse of the Bible translation you want to display. THE WORD Processor allows you to display multiple Bible windows and to size them for maximum readability or to autosize them side by side. The translations can be synchronized--that is, when you change verse references in one translation window and then switch to another window, the new translation window will jump to the same reference. The Search menu also acts as a concordance; you can either choose the popup box containing particular words in the Bible and view Bible verses containing the word you've chosen--or (even better) switch to the Find screen and enter multiple search values to determine the search range (the whole Bible or particular books). This last method will produce a list of relevant Bible verses and display the texts for you.
In addition to the basic Verse Search package, THE WORD Processor offers several online helps through its StudyAids menu. The most valuable of these for serious Bible students are probably the Greek and Hebrew Transliterators, available at additional cost, which are based on Strong's Concordance of the Bible and will give those who haven't had the chance to learn the Biblical languages a glimpse into the original words underlying the English translations. Through the transliterators, you can call up the Strong's numbers for the words in a particular verse and locate other verses with corresponding word numbers. Or you can switch to the Greek-Hebrew Dictionary screen, which will display the English verse and the Strong's numbers in one box, while an accompanying box will provide a transliteration of the original Greek or Hebrew word and translate its various senses.
THE WORD Processor provides other helpful Bible-study tools through the StudyAids menu. One of these is an online chain reference in the form of a screen that will display your current Bible verse along with a list of related verses, which may themselves be displayed in turn--or you can go to any related verse and make it the basis for a new reference chain.
The Chronological Bible screen is a historical outline of Biblical events and their approximate dates, with an option to view the relevant Bible verses. The Librarian option on the StudyAids menu will give you access to a list of Biblical topics and people, which can generate another verse list and let you read Bible verses dealing with the subject area you've selected; you can also create your own specialized topic lists.
THE WORD Processor also offers the well-known Smith's Bible Dictionary as an online guide to names and words as they're used in the Bible. Once you've done your research, you can access the Lesson Editor, a large pop-up window that is, in essence, an internal word processor allowing you to compose sermon or study notes, copy Bible verses directly into your own text, and then print out the file. (If you prefer working in your own word processor, you can utilize Verse Typist, a TSR program that lets you into THE WORD Processor so that you can copy pertinent verses from the Bible.) Or if you're the kind of person who prefers writing in the margins of your Bible, you can do the PC equivalent with the Personal Commentary command, which lets you append notes to verses and then marks the noted verse with an asterisk.
THE WORD Processor's many attractive features have made it a solid study Bible for a number of years, but some users may have a few problems with it. Though it does support a mouse for some functions like sizing and switching between windows, scrolling the Bible text, and clicking on command boxes and pulldown menus, interaction with THE WORD Processor is chiefly through the keyboard. While this may delight the mouseless user, others who are used to mousing around a program may wish that THE WORD Processor's mouse support were stronger. Some might also wish that you didn't have to leave the Bible window to perform some of the Search or StudyAid functions; easily confused users (like me) may sometimes find it a little hard to get back to the original text.
Word from Biblical Research Systems has it that a Windows version is in the works.
PC Study Bible
People who like more mouse support may prefer using PC Study Bible 3.0, which has many of the features of THE WORD Processor (including a number of the more popular translations) but adds an impressive array of Bible-study aids. As with THE WORD Processor, you can open one or several Bible windows in various translations and move or size them as you like. Unlike THE WORD Processor, PC Study Bible doesn't have the option of synchronizing translation windows; however, as you can switch between translations inside a window with only a mouse click, this is not a major problem. PC Study Bible provides a concordance search through single words or phrases or a Boolean search; it then pops up a list of Bible verses and allows you to view them.
PC Study Bible includes the Strong's Greek-Hebrew Dictionary; Vine's Expository Dictionary, a more detailed consideration of the meanings of all the words in Strong's and Nave's Topical Bible, probably the best known of the topical indexes. Englishman's Concordance, another Strong's-related study aid, indexes English words in the Bible according to Strong's reference numbers. Another welcome addition is Nelson's Bible Dictionary, which functions almost as a miniature Bible encyclopedia, with nicely detailed definitions.
Access to the study aids is somewhat easier than in THE WORD Processor: Just position the pointer beside a verse and then click on the CrossRefs menu, and you're given the choice of accessing the Nave's Topics, Nelson's Dictionary, or Vine's Articles, all of them already keyed into the selected verse. Or, if you want to access any of these independently of the Bible text, you can go to the Open menu and choose any of the above aids, plus the Englishman's Concordance and Strong's Dictionary sections. Selecting the Strong's section from this menu moves you to a screen with a list of the words (and their Strong's numbers) in your selected Bible verse; the KJV version of the passage is also displayed, along with any other translation you have online. From this screen you can find in the Strong's section the definition of any highlighted word, read from the Vine's section an article about the word (when available), or perform a search through the Englishman's Concordance for the word by its number.
In fact, one of the strengths of PC Study Bible is the interdependence of its study-aid screens. If you're working in the Englishman's Concordance screen or the Vine's screen and want a definition for a Strong's number mentioned in the text, you can highlight the number and instantly call up a definition without leaving the screen. The Nelson's Dictionary screen will let you look up any Bible verses in its articles from within the dictionary itself. The result is that you save a lot of the time and frustration involved in repeatedly opening and closing study aids--and whatever screen you're in, the text of the Bible is always instantly available to you. Bible students with a liberal theological leaning, however, may be annoyed by the slant occasionally evident in the Nelson's Dictionary section, which is pretty clearly leaning toward the conservative end of the theological spectrum.
To ease the process of study or sermon preparation, PC Study Bible provides an online notepad for sketching out your exegesis and onto which you can copy Bible verses or any information from any of the study aids. The text file can be printed out from within the program or stored as an ASCII file and then accessed from within your own word processor. However, one (perhaps minor) drawback of PC Study Bible is that it doesn't allow you to footnote individual verses with personal commentary.
A third popular Bible-study package, QuickVerse 2.0 for Windows (from Parsons Technology), may at first seem to offer less than the other two packages. As with PC Study Bible and THE WORD Processor, Quick-Verse has several translations available and allows you to open as many translation windows as you like; it, too, provides (at additional cost) a topical index (Nave's Topical Bible), an English concordance and a Hebrew and Greek transliterated Bible based on Strong's Concordance and using the standard Strong's reference numbers. You may be initially disappointed to discover that Quick-Verse contains no Bible dictionary (apart from the scanty definitions in the Nave's section) or internal word processor, as do THE WORD Processor and PC Study Bible. But this disappointment will evaporate when you actually begin to use QuickVerse.
Mouse-addicted users will be happy to note that QuickVerse, though it hasn't actually eliminated the need for a keyboard, has less need for one than the other two programs. In addition to mouse-accessible pull-down menus, it has an icon bar that duplicates many of the menu functions and speeds them up. Even selecting which Bible text to view can be performed by calling up a pop-up list of all the books of the Bible and then clicking on the book, chapter, and verse you want to see.
But QuickVerse's strongest feature, and the one that most sharply distinguishes it from its competitors, is its display of translation and study-aid windows. Like THE WORD Processor and PC Study Bible, QuickVerse allows you to size the windows according to taste and to arrange them as you like--but perhaps the best way to use it is through its tile display. This autosizes the windows displayed and arranges them symmetrically, with translation windows occupying the upper two-thirds of the screen and ancillary windows (textual notes and the Strong's Dictionary screen) occupying the lower one-third of the screen.
QuickVerse also provides superior synchronization of windows, so that if you switch to a different verse in one of the translation windows, all other windows switch with it instantly. Once this setup is achieved, all of the available information on the verses in question can be simultaneously displayed, without having to leave the Biblical text to read it on another screen. Highlighting a word in the KJV text will correspondingly highlight the Greek or Hebrew equivalent in the Transliterated Bible window, and the Strong's number and definitions of the word instantly appear in the definition window below.
The only time you need to leave the Bible text is when you're performing a search for a new word or phrase. The Search function can scan the Bible using the concordance (which allows wildcard and Boolean searches) or the Nave's Topical Bible section, and the search parameters (through particular books and either or both testaments) can be readily defined.
The QuickVerse menu also allows a search of the Strong's Dictionary screen by either the English equivalent or its Strong's number. But if you want to search for other occurrences of a word in one of the Bible windows without leaving the Bible text, you can use the Quick Search function if you don't mind using the QuickVerse default options. Either method will display a pop-up Search List of verses and allow you to view the verses or copy them to a file or the Windows Clipboard. When you're finished with your QuickVerse session, you have the option of saving the desktop, and when you return to it later, you'll be just where you left off last time.
QuickVerse allows you to create your own footnotes for Bible verses and even to copy information from the Strong's screen into your notes. However, those who regularly prepare sermons may lament the absence of an online notepad (present in the other two packages) that lets you make notes for a Bible study or sermon and copy verses or other study-aid information onto it. QuickVerse has worked around this lack to some degree by allowing you to open a file to which you can copy Bible verses or definitions from the Strong's screen and then access them (in ASCII format) via your own word processor. If your word processor is a Windows applications or supports Dynamic Data Exchange, you can use it to import Bible text from QuickVerse. If you're still using a DOS-based word processor, however, you'll have to open it under Windows and take the circuitous route of copying the highlighted verses from QuickVerse to the Windows Clipboard and thence to your word processor. Sometimes, a pen and paper still work best.
The Christian Bible is the most heavily computerized sacred text, but students of the Koran will be pleased to know that it is also available on disk in the form of The Alim from ISL Software.
If the point of a PC Bible is to reduce the more tedious and time-consuming aspects of Bible study, which of these Bible-study packages does the job best? Well, if you're a Bible student, you already know that answers don't come easily. Each has certain strengths and weaknesses. THE WORD Processor 5.0 is a worthy application offering a number of impressive study aids and fast and easy access to the Bible text, but it may seem a bit cumbersome compared to its fellows. PC Study Bible 3.0 has the advantage of better mouse support and a larger number of study aids that allow extensive cross reference between themselves and the Bible text, though users other than those with a conservative theological viewpoint may find its study aids inappropriate for them. In terms of Bible text and study-aid display, as well as mouse support, QuickVerse 2.0 for Windows is clearly the winner, though there are some users who might well wish for more study aids (such as an online Bible dictionary) and a notepad--or at least better support for DOS-based word processors. But all three packages do the job and do it well.
And that leads to the larger question of whether a PC Bible should be doing what it does so well. Some might object to what they regard as reducing the Bible to a database from which you extract the bits of information you want without regard to a whole literary context; the basic unit of the Bible is not, after all, the verse, but the book. It's a valid enough objection, and one that applies not only to the Bible but to all the other books that (sooner or later) are going to wind up on disk.
The computerized Bible may be a test case that will begin to show us not only how people will be performing Bible study in the near future but perhaps how they will be reading and studying other works as well.