With the advent of masses of digital resources integrated by Bible software user interfaces, the problem has arisen, How shall all these resources be integrated together? Typically, the unifying element has been the biblical text itself, especially the text in the original Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek.
Actually, the problem is not unique to the Information Age, but has been addressed since at least the mid-19th century. James Strong (1822−1894) compiled The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (1890). One of his goals was to align the English translation of the Bible with the original language. He chose to do this at the word-level, which fit one of his other objectives: an exhaustive concordance of the English text, namely the King James version. It took him and more than 100 colleagues 35 years to complete this monumental task — and without computers! His number system recognizes 8,674 Hebrew and 5,523 Greek lemmas. Let me focus on the Hebrew side of things.
The lexical scholarship upon which Strong’s Hebrew dictionary depends is that of Wilhelm Gesenius. In 1833, Gesenius published a Latin work, Lexicon Manuele Hebraicum et Chaldaicum in Veteris Testamenti Libros. There were successive editions until the end of the century, when BDB (Brown Driver Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, 1891–1905) became the new scholarly standard. Strong’s Concordance most certainly used Gesenius for the lexicography of the Hebrew Bible.
BDB reflected the new discoveries in the Middle East during the latter half of the 19th century and, importantly, the rise of new methods of the study of language: structuralism (Saussure), descriptive (Bloomfield, et. al) and comparative linguistics, that is, using other Semitic languages to help puzzle out the meanings of Hebrew words and expressions. But in this heyday of archaeological discovery, even BDB was quickly superceded by discoveries (in 1929 and later) in Palestine, especially at Ras Shamra, ancient Ugarit. There a huge repository of clay tablets were discovered, including those using an alphabetic writing system to record a language that is closely related to Hebrew.
With such a wealth of new material, Hebrew lexicography changed dramatically, with new lemmas proposed and old lemmas dropped. Additional scholarship reassigned lemmas to specific occurrences in the Hebrew text. If Strong compiled his Hebrew and Greek dictionaries and associated list of lemmas today, it would be quite a different list, including the assignment of those lemmas to words in the text. And Strong might not have chosen the King James Version to concord.
Connecting digital resources
Strong’s Concordance indeed became a standard and is widely used even today, being reprinted regularly. Other lexicons, word books and study Bibles included Strong’s numbering, even when the text was no longer the King James Version. Hence, when software developers began to write Bible study software, the need arose for an index between the Hebrew text and various other resources, Strong’s Numbers were a natural choice. There was the consumer demand for a tool familiar to them from printed Bible study resources. Also, there was a practical economic concern on the part of developers: the work was mostly done for many resources. Further, if one needs to create a universal index, how does one chose? Strong’s numbers seemed to be a natural choice, already “universal” in some sense. Finally, there was the requirement that the index never change. If the index changes, the linking to other resources is broken and it costs time and money to fix it. The implication of this is that we already certain that Strong’s 160-year-old lemmatization of Greek and especially Hebrew is complete, correct and need not ever change.
And that is how I got involved with this question. At the Groves Center we maintain a linguistic database known as the Westminster Hebrew Morphology (WHM), which, among other things, offers a lemma for each and every one of the approximately 480,000 morphemes found in the Hebrew Bible. The lemma assignment is based upon the latest scholarship that we have, but in the final analysis is a decision based upon our own judgment. We never consulted Gensenius’ Lexicon, never mind Strong’s system of lemmas. Given its age, it never occurred to us.
Imagine our dismay when we were asked why we didn’t have Strong’s numbers assigned to our lemmas. Such a mapping is impossible:
- Some of Strong’s lemmas don’t exist in the WHM.
- There are new lemmas in WHM; what Strong’s number should they have?
- Some of Strong’s lemmas have been split into different meanings (homonyms, for example) in the WHM.
- Many of the lemma assignments to individual words in Strong’s have changed in WHM.
These differences make using Strong’s numbers as a universal index for integrating digital resources problematic and just plain wrong. The demands of the consumer and pragmatic and economic concerns must be resisted; else, we are perpetually stuck in the mid-19th century of biblical scholarship.
A fresh look at resource integration
Let’s step away from the question of the suitability of Strong’s numbers for resource integration, and look at the issue of integration afresh. Strong’s numbering of Hebrew and Greek lemmas is only one possible solution.
Two possible — and practical! — solutions come immediately to mind: search engines and topic maps. These technologies were responses to the need to integrate resources that are dynamically changing and are semantically diverse. One is not limited to lemmas but can index any arbitrary string. Topic maps allow for more than one way to identify a subject. They handle ontologies (as understood by computer scientists; philosophical ontology is something else) quite well. Consider that competing lemmatizations such as Strongs and WHM are competing ontologies for the vocabulary of the Bible in the original languages. In this scenario, it doesn’t have to be “either Strong’s or WHM”, but “both-and.” Then we allow the user to decide what is most valuable or correct. This solution to the problem is better because both the number and internal content of resources one integrates can change freely as desired.
I am encouraged to see signs that Bible software is gradually evolving in this direction. As I see it, as the number of digital resources increases, the above two solutions become ever more compelling.