Wednesday, March 22, 2006

I had my own experience of failed Scripture search yesterday: i had a vague recollection of a verse with the phrase "you will know them by their words". I opened e-Sword and tried looking for the two words "know" and "word", with no luck. Just looking in the Gospels under "word" returned hopelessly many results. Somehow (i forget now what the path was) i got to Matt.7.16, "you will recognize them by their fruits". I guess that's what i was thinking of, and some other version used "know" instead of "recognize", and then i confused "work" (as fruit) with "word"? Funny how our brains work sometimes.

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Yesterday i got a copy of the New Testament Indexby Robert G. Bratcher. This slim volume (only 37 pages) is nothing more than what the title suggests: "a guide in locating passages in the New Testament dealing with a wide range of subjects, persons and places." Since i've been thinking lately about indexes and indexing schemes, i wanted to compare it in detail to other approaches like Nave's Topical Bibleand similar works. Bratcher's index was published in 1963 as part of the Helps for Translators series by the United Bible Societies: so you'd expect it to be practical in orientation. Bratcher's introduction says it's intended for "readers who do not have a more complete Bible Concordance": most Bible software today has one of those, but concordances aren't the whole story in terms of making information accessible (more about that in a future post, i hope).

Here are the subjects from the "B" section. I've omitted names of people and places, which account for about half of the entries: there it's hard, though not impossible, to improve on a concordance. I've also left out the references to spare my fingers:

  • Baptism, baptize:
    1. John the Baptist
    2. Jesus
    3. Christian
    4. with the Spirit
  • Beast
  • Beatitudes
  • Beelzebul (references followed by "See Devil")
  • Belial (references followed by "See Devil")
  • Believe: see Faith
  • "Benedictus" [Luke.1.68-79 in case you're not familiar with that term]
  • Betray, betrayer
  • Birth
    1. physical
    2. spiritual
  • Bishop(s): see Church ministers
  • Blaspheme, blasphemy
  • Blessed
    1. general
    2. addressed to Christ or God
  • Blind, blindness
    1. physical
    2. spiritual
  • Blood
    1. animals
    2. men
    3. Christ
  • Boast: see Pride
  • Body, bodies
    1. human
    2. of Christ
  • Book
    1. general
    2. of life
  • Born: see Birth
  • Bread
    1. material
    2. spiritual
    3. of the Presence
    4. Lord's Supper
  • Bride, bridegroom
  • Burial
    1. of Jesus
    2. other
    3. figurative

Sometimes less is more: if you're looking only for general material, a selective index like Bratcher's has an advantage in that it is not exhaustive, so you don't have to wade through every last entry for common topics. And clearly this goes beyond a simple word concordance, which wouldn't contain "Benedictus". Some of the sub-heading lead in the general direction of taxonomic classification: Christian baptism versus that of John the Baptist. The contrast of physical and spiritual sub-headings occurs several times: directly under Birth and Blindness, and in related ways under Bread and Burial (where "figurative" might also be called "spiritual"). There's also some simple semantic grouping (for Believe, see Faith; for Bishop, see Church ministers).

As with all content indexes, it's interesting what's included and what's left out. Under "Book", we find the special NT idiom "Book of life", with seven references, all but one in Revelation. However, we don't find "bread of life", an idiom used several times in John's Gospel (though all in Pericope 125), under "Bread".

We know indexes are both imperfect and incomplete (Shirky has some typically thought-provoking comments on this). I would assume that the field of library science, where this is a well-established professional concern, has looked carefully at the critical quantitative issues of how well people are able to satisfy their information-seeking goals using existing indexes. However, i don't know of (but haven't looked for) any studies on this specifically related to concordances or Scriptural indexes. I'm still mulling over Stephen Smith's search statistics from the ESV site: but of course this only tells you about searching, not finding.

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