23 June 2021

Searching the bible with Siri. Or Google.

You know how it goes: Half a verse pops into your head, and you think to yourself, “What’s the whole verse? Where’s that located? What’s its context?” (Or at least you should be asking yourself about its context.)

So what I usually do is whip out my iPhone, activate Siri, and quote my half a verse to her. Presto, she finds it. Usually on Bible Gateway, with a link I can press to go right to it. Takes all of 15 seconds.

Don’t tell me the olden days were better. They bloody well were not. If you had half a verse in your head and wanted to know where it was in the bible, you had to get out a concordance. If you don’t know what that is, God has been kind to you: It’s a big ol’ book, about five times bigger than a bible, which has every word in a bible translation listed in alphabetical order. Well almost every word; they skipped the far too common words, like and or the or in. But underneath every other word, they list every single occurrence of that word in that translation.

Fr’instance the word “wet” appears five times in the New Living Translation:

  • Exodus 16.13: “…the camp was wet with dew.”
  • Leviticus 11.38: “But if the seed is wet…”
  • Judges 6.37: “If the fleece is wet with dew…”
  • Judges 6.39: “…the ground around it is wet with dew.”
  • Job 16.13: “The ground is wet with my blood.”

Not that stuff doesn’t get wet in the New Testament—people get baptized, remember?—but the translators didn’t use “wet” to describe any of it. “Soaked,” yes. Not “wet.”

Anyway, back in the olden days this is what I had to do when I wanted to find a verse. I had to be home, ’cause that’s where my concordances were, ’cause nobody was yet able to carry books around on their phone. I had to make sure I remembered the verse in the proper translation: My churches had me memorize ’em in the King James Version until I was about 12 or so, and then everything sorta shifted to the New International Version. (Probably ’cause the last anti-NIV holdouts in the denomination had died. Hey, sometimes that’s what it takes for positive change to happen.) So if I couldn’t find it in my KJV concordance, I had an NIV concordance. And if I couldn’t find it in that either… well, it’s probably because I had memorized the verse in the 1978 edition of the NIV, but my concordance was published in 1990 and used the 1983 edition. I didn’t yet know present-day translations get occasional updates. Most people still don’t.

If this all seems like a headache to you, it is. Now imagine life before concordances.

Although sometimes, if you were lucky enough to have one of these people in your community, there’d be a person with an eidetic memory who’d read the bible and could quote most if not all of it. And could tell you the chapter and verse of anything you quoted to them. It’s like having a human Siri. I once met a woman who could do that; it was neat. You could have her recall verse address after verse address all day, for fun, and she found it fun too.

Bible software is cool too.

Back in the 1990s I discovered bible software. Specifically MacBible, ’cause I had a Macintosh. MacBible is not to be confused with The Macintosh Bible, Arthur Naiman’s popular comprehensive exploration of all things Macintosh, published way back in the ’80s when you could actually be comprehensive about the Mac within 1000 pages. Not anymore.

MacBible was the first bible software I’d come across, and let you search the entire text of the entire bible—and spit up results much faster than you could flip through Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance. Well, assuming your computer was already turned on; computers needed maybe 2 minutes to boot up. And it’d help if the software was already running, ’cause that would take 20 to 60 seconds to load from your spinning-plate hard drive into RAM—and even then, it wouldn’t load the bible into RAM, ’cause the bible is too big to fit into the 2 to 4 megabytes of RAM your top-of-the-line computer possessed. The program had to access the bible on your hard drive, and make it spin some more. You’d have to wait 5 to 15 seconds for results. I know, right?—but that 5 to 15 seconds was “screaming fast,” compared to the 20 seconds it takes to thumb through a concordance.

Anyway I bought an NIV MacBible. It came on floppy disc; more accurately four floppies. You inserted the first one, which had the loader program, and let it load till it ejected the disc and asked for the next one. Then ejected that and asked for the next one. And so on, till it was fully installed, and now you open the app and search for words, and thereby do word studies. But, y’know, faster!

Eventually I realized I was gonna have to get the KJV version too, ’cause half the verses in my brain are in that translation. So I did. Then I went back to school and minored in biblical languages, and realized a digital version would come in handy, so I bought the Hebrew Masoretic Text and the UBS Greek New Testament, third edition.

And then I discovered this free bible software called Online Bible, which had a bunch of free translations and modules—the copyrighted NIV wasn’t free, but plenty else was! But what I particularly liked about Online Bible was the search results were way faster. You didn’t wait 10 seconds; you waited one. So I switched over to that software for a few years.

By the time I finally wondered, “Hey, has MacBible been upgraded any?” I found out the developer had ditched it to create a new program called Accordance, which could do even more than Online Bible. I’ve been using Accordance since.

Yeah, most of the pastors and scholars I know use Logos Bible Software. Largely that’s because they weren’t Apple users; for a while there your software depended on your hardware. Mac users had Accordance and Windows users had Logos. Today both apps are cross-platform. But after you’ve bought a few thousand bucks’ worth of references and bible translations for your app, you’re unlikely to switch. I’ve fiddled with Logos a bit on a friend’s computer; it looks like really good stuff. But I’ve already got Accordance on all my devices: MacBook, iPad, iPhone, my Android tablets, my work computers, my home computers.

But here’s the thing. If I want to look up half a verse, and I type the half a verse into Accordance, and I get it in any way inconsistent with the translation I’m searching, it’s gonna give me a null result. Either a window will appear which requires me to select words which are known to be in that translation, or an alert will pop up: “There are no verses in the current range of the [TRANSLATION] text, which fit the current search entry.”

Siri is way more forgiving. So my half-verse isn’t an exact quote. She’ll come as close as possible… and point me to a Bible Gateway page.

Bible app search engines are way better than they used to be. They get near-instant results, same as internet search engines like Google. They catch verb tenses: If I search for “think” in Accordance it’ll also give results for “thinking” and “thought” (unless I specifically tell it not to). They can search multiple bible translations, search by Strong number (which you kinda want it to do in a proper word study), search for whole phrases, search verses which contain a particular word but not another particular word. They’ll even make graphs… if you’re into graphs; I’m not, but it feels like I know way too many bible nerds with a major boner for graphs.

But unless I’ve got a hyper-specific search, yeah, Siri’s my go-to bible search engine. (And Google, when I’m using one of my Android tablets.)

Probably true for you too. Most of the Christians I know, either have no bible software whatsoever and only read Bible Gateway, or they have a very basic bible app which lets them read the bible… plus it has devotionals, for when you’d rather read about the bible instead of actually reading the bible, but that’s another rant. Whenever these folks wanna find a bible verse, sometimes they use the website or app’s search feature, but most of the time they just Google it.

No, it’s not disloyalty to your favorite bible software, or favorite bible websites, to say so. In fact if you feel any such disloyalty, you gotta get rid of that. Too many of us have been conditioned to think brand loyalty is valuable and shows integrity. It really doesn’t. If your favorite brands fail you repeatedly, yet you put up with them anyway, you’re letting them abuse your goodwill. Don’t. They’re not family. (Not even when they’re run by family.) Find something better, which does the job. If Siri ever gets to a point where I can’t trust her results because she’s trying way too hard to sell me stuff Facebook-style, I’m switching search engines. And if my bible software ever develops a Siri-like feature which gets similar or better results, I’ll likely use it instead. Why not?