Tuesday, July 18, 2006

But Jesus called them to him and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Matt.20.25-28)

I've been thinking about topic labels for Scripture passages lately: a deceptively simple idea that's quite hard to nail down. The notion of topic includes many different things: a person might be a topic (Jesus talks about John the Baptist in Luke.7.24-30), but every mention of a person probably isn't a topic in quite the same sense (the same passage mentions the Pharisees, but the passage isn't really about them, it simply mentions them). Sometimes key words and phrases are topics ("luxury" is a word in the same passage, and a relatively distinct one at that: it only occurs 4 times in the New Testament). But if that's what you mean by a topic, then word searches will usually find what you want. The toughest cases (and therefore the most interesting ones) are when you don't have a distinctive lexical item for a topic decision.

The classic Librarian Problem is that whatever i call a topic may have different meaning to someone else, or fall outside the conceptual schema they're using for searching (Shirky has a nice overview of this). The kind of folksonomic tagging popularized by del.icio.us works well at a personal level (i know what my "facets" tag means to me, even though you may not), and it works well at the larger level because enough others might happen to use the same tags that aggregation adds value. I expect this kind of tagging for Scripture will start to show up in some interesting ways in the next year under the Web2.0 rubric.

A picture named 076422560X.01.LZZZZZZZ-thumb.jpgHere's what got me thinking about this: i was reading Humility by Andrew Murraythis morning (highly recommended, by the way), and he discusses the passage above as an example of Jesus' teaching about humility. I'd agree (as would Naves, and most other topic-oriented indexes): but if you wanted to label such passages in some automated fashion, what evidence would you use? The words "humble" and "humility" are nowhere to be found, and neither are their direct antonyms like "proud". Jesus mentions the contrasting examples of Gentiles who "lord it over them" and others who "exercise authority over them": but these complex semantic constructs aren't easy to take apart (and the first one isn't very typical English: the Contemporary English Version's translation of "order their people around" is arguably more natural). Certainly being the servant of others implies the personal trait of humility, but the relationship is quite abstract.

Just another argument for why this kind of annotation of Scripture will probably be done the old-fashioned way (by hand) for the foreseeable future ...

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