Bible Software History 101

W. Hall Harris III's picture

In an earlier post I said that I would cover Bible software in future post(s). I realize it is going to take more than one to do this topic any justice at all. For several years now I have been teaching two courses on the use of software and Internet tools for New Testament exegesis (master's level elective) and for biblical exegesis (D.Min. level). Every year the list of available programs and resources gets longer. It's best to start with some basics. Eventually I will also discuss some pitfalls (yes, there are pitfalls) as well as advantages to using electronic Bible study tools, either online or on your computer.

But first, a bit of history (recent history) is in order. It did not take long after computers became "personal" (early 1980s) for people to start using them for Bible study. The initial advantage computers had over printed Bible study tools and materials was speed...they could search large amounts of text relatively quickly. So the first Bible programs were little more than basic electronic concordances, useful for finding where certain words were located (at first in the King James Bible, then other translations were added). Later as computers improved in their ability to handle foreign language fonts, the original Hebrew (OT) and Greek (NT) texts of the Bible were added. When working with the original biblical languages, one of the first capabilities to be added was morphology (often called parsing), information concerning the forms of verbs, nouns, adjectives, and other words (many of these parts of speech assume different forms in different contexts). At this point we saw the emergence of Bible software programs still around today: Gramcord and BibleWorks for PC and Accordance for Macintosh. (These early programs were installed on your computer. The use of online tools for Bible study began a little later with the rise of the Internet, so I will treat them separately).

But pretty quickly people realized if you could do more than just search for words and phrases or find parsing information, computer programs for Bible study would be a lot more useful. In other words, it would be nice to be able to look up information in Bible dictionaries, encyclopedias, and commentaries, just like you would do in a library. Thus the initial model for Bible software was the Concordance, and the alternative model was the Library. Here the software functions as a collection of integrated books and reference tools, and searches get a bit more complicated because they have to work across whole categories of books, not just the Bible. Searching for information in a Greek or Hebrew grammar is not the same as searching for information in an encyclopedia or dictionary, and neither is the same as searching for words in the Bible.

One of the pioneering efforts to use hypertext (linking of texts, now common on the Internet) and electronic Bible study resources to create an electronic library was begun at my own institution, Dallas Seminary, by some of my colleagues, including Dr. Darrell Bock, around 1987 (thus over 20 years ago. This was known as CD Word Library. The idea was to put Bible study tools and resources on a CD which could be read and searched by a computer (this was in a time when almost no computers had built-in CD drives). The project was visionary and was really ahead of its time. It was hampered by the fact that most people did not own CD-rom drives and they were very expensive. Eventually through a series of events the rights to this digitized information came to be transferred to Logos Bible Software, and it formed an important core of texts in the Logos Library System, the predecessor of the current Logos Bible Software (Libronix). Logos Bible Software is the most widespread software that follows the Library model as opposed to the Concordance model.

Over time the lines between the two initial models, the Concordance and the Library, have tended to become somewhat blurred, as the producers of the concordance-type software realized that users would in fact want to be able to look up Greek or Hebrew terms in a dictionary (lexicon) or consult a grammar or a theological dictionary or encyclopedia, for example. So some of these reference tools made their way into almost all Bible software, at least the premiere programs available for purchase. Still, the Logos Bible Software, following the Library model, has more commentary series available in electronic form than all the others combined.

Some Bible software has followed more of an open distribution model. One of the best and most widely used of these free programs is eSword, available for download online. Some modules are add-ins and are not free, although the basic program components are.

Other Bible software, like the NeXtBible Learning Environment, is available online (with an Internet connection). There is nothing to download or install, and everything, including the advanced search capabilities, is done over the Internet. If you can click on a link in a web page, you can use the NeXtBible.

Which Bible software program is right for you? We'll make some comparisons in an upcoming post.