Whenever I use an electronic research tool, I become all too aware of my e-limits. The questions which I pose to it always seem circumscribed by my own failure of imagination: I expect it to give the same answers as I would get from working with printed texts -- only faster. But on the edge of my e-limits, I am asking what is the real range of this resource? Must one use it within conventional textual parameters, or are there new possibilities in the electronic medium?
Accordingly, while testing the range of the Stuttgart Electronic Study Bible [SESB], I assembled a team of students to help me.1 All are senior undergraduates or first-year MA students; their areas of expertise are Classics or Religious Studies or both. All are proficient in one or more of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin; they have very varied levels of experience with electronic research tools.
Two initial caveats: the SESB requires a Windows platform; and it needs quite a substantial amount of storage space (60-400 MB). Those familiar with Libronix (on which this CD-ROM is dependent) will recognize the interface. Those not familiar may go to the online demonstration: the textual range immediately available from the SESB is more extensive, but the layout is almost identical. For those accustomed (as I am) to using a Macintosh, the navigation process is a little counter-intuitive; Windows users felt wholly comfortable with it.
The SESB is essentially a tool for facilitating comparative textual study of the Bible. In the best Northern European tradition, it favours the original languages of the Bible over the Biblia Vulgata: the texts in both Hebrew (Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia) and Greek (Septuagint as well as New Testament) offer substantial morphological and lexical aids which are not available for the Latin. In addition, there is a variety of translations of the Bible into modern languages: German, English, French, Dutch, and Danish. All these texts can be juxtaposed and searched, in various sizes of sense-unit and at various levels of sophistication.
The homepage is clear and self-explanatory; the students agreed that they had not needed to use the printed manual except to troubleshoot the initial installation of the program (Libronix needs to be downloaded before this CD-ROM will function). We all liked the fact that one can start searches immediately from the homepage: little time is wasted in acclimatisation.
The immediate option is to select a keyword or a biblical passage for which to search; the Bible version preferred may be selected from a drop-down list. Beneath that (we are still on the homepage) lie the more sophisticated options: one can investigate a passage in all available versions of the Bible, or one can select a shortlist from the available versions; one can explore parallel verses and parallel passages.
The results of the search open in adjacent windows: search on left, passage on right. A keyword search, for example, gives a list of chapters in which the word occurs on the left, the full passages (one at a time) on the right; the word is highlighted (blue on black) and initially signalled -- a whimsical touch -- with a flashing star, somewhat reminiscent of that followed by the magi. The results of the search can be exported to a 'verse list', sorted by canonical status. Boolean searches can be used.
Typing in a passage to be searched produces a list of subtitles. These are in French, and it is not clear that the language can be changed; but as one student observed, 'It can't be that hard to figure out the French, if you have some familiarity with the text.' This is an extremely useful basic tool: if all you know is that you want a passage in (say) 1 Cor, you can scroll through the subtitles till you find the relevant place.
As I have mentioned, the SESB offers substantial morphological and lexical aids for both Hebrew and Greek. One can access the lexica directly (they translate Septuagint and New Testament Greek, and Hebrew and Aramaic, into English and German), but it is more efficient simply to move the cursor over the text and right-click on a word: a small 'information window' pops up in the middle of the screen, which contains an exact morphological description of the word, and the range of its biblical meanings. (The students found it frustrating that this capability was not available for the Latin too.) One can also perform this search backwards, as it were, to find (say) all uses of the first person singular aorist optative in a particular passage. In Hebrew, the search capabilities are even more sophisticated. The manual contains a fascinating essay on how the Hebrew text was analyzed to facilitate more complex syntactical searches:
Once aware of the great variety of language-oriented questions, one also begins to understand that most of the questions biblical scholars ask in their daily work are usually characterized already by a high level of abstraction. For example, could I find those clauses where God is the subject? Could one collect those cases of direct speech that begin with the conjunction 'and' or 'since'?
And so on. Many of these types of questions, the author observes with justifiable pride, can already be answered by the SESB software. This analysis remains a work in progress, and an exciting one.
If searching for words in Hebrew or Greek, the F2 function key changes the alphabet of the keyboard. The students were taken by surprise that the search engine did not appear to recognize Beta code, but soon adapted.
The students loved the ease with which they could record and print their results: 'I especially love the option of having all the search windows open at the same time (and the fact that new searches open in new windows) for easy comparison and to create a log.' Given the endless travails of producing platform-independent versions of non-Roman scripts, it is worth remarking that both Greek and Hebrew printed impeccably.
The student who was most excited by the possibilities of the SESB was the one most closely engaged already with biblical exegesis: her senior thesis was an exposition of Ezekiel 36 in the light of ideas about impurity. She used the SESB first to generate a list of all uses of niddah in the Biblia Hebraica, then to see how it was translated in the Greek, then to see which other Hebrew words the Greek vocabulary might translate. She is proficient in Hebrew but has only a semester of Greek; however, with careful cross-referencing and reverse-dictionary work, she came up with a substantial set of results (and, she observed wistfully, in a couple of hours' effort rather than the months which the thesis research had taken).
It should be noted that the SESB as currently constituted is only the beginning. Its search engines are designed to facilitate work with many more texts than those initially available, and users are encouraged to download more texts and expand their biblical library. This immediately addresses one of the students' criticisms, which was that there were only two English-language versions of the Bible in the start-up package (the New Revised Standard Version and the New International Version). They missed the King James Bible, for example; but this could presumably be downloaded via Libronix.
There was one more substantial criticism. Given that the SESB supports detailed and sophisticated work with biblical texts, it is surprising that there is (as far as any of us could find) no account of variants in the textual tradition. It would be fascinating to be able to access significant variant readings through hyperlinks -- and, one might think, potentially revelatory, too.
Google has just announced that it is planning to expand its sphere of operations into serious text search operations: it will make available some 15 million books in fully searchable electronic format ("Google is Adding Major Libraries to its Database": New York Times, December 14, 2004). In light of this announcement, one should ask whether it is worthwhile for libraries to dedicate their scant funds to purchasing a resource like the SESB? Won't this material be available online for free very shortly?
Yes, it is still worth libraries' while to invest in the SESB, for a number of reasons. These include the stability of the non-Roman texts; the morphological aids for Greek and Hebrew; the elegant simplicity of the interface; and the speed of the search engine. While Google's initiative is in all sorts of ways laudable and exciting, it does not take much imagination to see how much more suitable and convenient the SESB is for the complex and detailed textual work envisaged by its developers. The price quoted above is for single-copy use, the location of the user being unrestricted. Multi-user licenses are also available to individual organisations 'at a reduced price' -- how much reduced is not revealed. To return to my original questions about the scope of the SESB: while the imaginative parameters of this resource are still fundamentally textual, the technological sophistication of the textual juxtapositions and subdivisions nevertheless opens up new possibilities for the researcher.
In conclusion, this would be a magnificent resource for libraries. Two of the students involved in the review even said they wanted to buy the SESB for their own use. Especially in view of the plummeting dollar, this is no small compliment to a beautifully presented and highly efficient research tool.
[[For an addendum to this review by Catherine Conybeare please see BMCR 2005.01.23.]]
1. Catherine Barrett, Patti Blaha, Molaika Canas, Jennifer Gamble, and Katheryn Whitcomb.