Culture Mapping

Decoding the Bible

Ken Zhang, Carlos Folgar and Jess McCuan

11.21.2016

It was perhaps a leap of faith to think software could shed light on the Bible.


But two California biblical scholars were willing to take the leap with us, and last month, they liked where Quid landed.


Quid software distills massive amounts of text-based data, including news stories, blogs, patent applications, and academic papers. But a new feature in Quid, Opus, can handle any text -- including an ancient one like the Bible -- and our team wanted to see how all the individual chapters of 66 books of the Old and New Testaments visualized based on their linguistic similarities.


To help us understand the outcome were two noted biblical scholars: Father John Endres of the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University, an expert in the Old Testament; and Father Daniel Kendall of the University of San Francisco, who’s spent his career studying the New Testament. The two professors met with us in early October to review parts of Quid’s analysis.


In the following network visualizations, each node is a chapter (e.g. Exodus Ch. 27). A link connecting two chapters means they share unique words relevant to the entire corpus. Dense clustering of chapters represents groups of chapters that share a strong similarity in unique words. Other structural features of the network, such as distance and bridges between clusters, represent how the chapters connect with each other based on their language.

Then we colored the network to show the difference between the Old (blue) and New Testaments (red). The algorithm detects a clear distinction between the two testaments.

Once we could see the difference between testaments, we colored the chapters by their pertaining book (below). The resulting visualization shows many regions of the network with multi-colored chapters, meaning chapters from different books share similar language. But there are a few books’ chapters that clustered together, suggesting that the topics in those books are unique. According to Father Kendall, this makes sense: “You find some characters that are only in Genesis.”

The later chapters of Exodus clustered fairly separately from any other book. Mainly, the scholars explained, because those chapters are descriptions of construction projects -- detailed accounts of Bezaleel and his methods and measurements for building the Ark of the Covenant.


Our analysis also revealed that the books connecting the two testaments are Revelation and Acts.

Then we looked at sentiment. The highest degree of negative sentiment, not surprisingly, fell in the Old Testament books -- particularly Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Zechariah. Jeremiah, for example, heavy on themes of punishment and justice from a wrathful God, accounted for a significant chunk of the most negative part of the map. One of the most cited passages from Jeremiah:


“Thus says the Lord concerning the house of the king of Judah…I will make you a desert, an uninhabited city. I will prepare destroyers against you….And many nations will pass by this city, and all of them will say one to another, “Why has the Lord dealt in this way with that great city?” And they will answer, “Because they abandoned the covenant of the Lord their God.”


Some of the Psalms also had a surprisingly high degree of negative sentiment. Father Kendall explained that around a third of the Psalms are laments, complaints to God about what’s going on.

In Quid, the possibilities for the project seem to go far beyond the Bible. The Quid team’s long-term goal is to compare the Bible with the Qur’an, or even the ancient Vedic texts. The Biblical scholars were interested in Quid’s analysis as a teaching tool -- aiming to inspire graduate theology students to use technology as a novel study aid. At the very least, said Father Endres as he gazed at a Quid projection on a screen: “It’s nice to think of the Bible in colors.”

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