The Library Basement
Reading under ground

Category Christianity

Solomon and quantum mechanics

Wisdom of Solomon 7:17:

For it is [God] who gave me unerring knowledge of what exists, to know the structure of the world and the activity of the elements;

The hubris of this passage was amusing to me. It shows that in a pre-scientific society, the king really could boast that he knew everything.

(The author goes on to unpack what this knowledge consists of in the subsequent verses: namely solar cycles, constellations, animal behavior, "the powers of spirits", psychology, and botany.)

The Wisdom of Solomon has been a fairly good read at the opening. I'll share a couple more gems, starting with 1:11:

Beware then of useless grumbling, and keep your tongue from slander; because no secret word is without result, and a lying mouth destroys the soul.

And the author makes space for godly childlessness in 3:13 and following:

For blessed is the barren woman who is undefiled . . . she will have fruit when God examines souls. Blessed also is the eunuch whose hands have done no lawless deed . . .

. . .

Better than this is childlessness with virtue, for in the memory of virtue is immortality, because it is known both by God and by mortals.

It is good to be back in the regimen of reading through the apocrypha after a lot of disruption.

Esther and the cycles of history

The apocrypha includes not only whole books, but also Greek additions to books in the Hebrew canon. In the case of Esther, the Septuagint version includes a lot of additional detail (as well as making the religious subtext of the book explicit). One of the details which gets filled in is the text of Ahasuerus' proclamation for the destruction of the Jews:

Now when I asked my counselors how this (peace) might be brought to pass, Haman . . . declared to us that in all nations throughout the world there was scattered a certain malicious people, who had laws contrary to all nations and continually despised the commandments of kings, so that the uniting of our kingdoms, honorably intended by us, cannot go forward. Seeing this, we understand that this people alone is continually in opposition unto all men, differing in the strange ways of their laws and bringing about evil to our state, working all the mischief they can, so that our kingdom may not be firmly established: Therefore have we commanded that all those who are signified in writing to you by Haman . . . shall all, with their wives and children, be utterly destroyed by the sword of their enemies, without all mercy and pity . . .

Sadly the Jews were taking the blame for societal problems long before the rise of the Third Reich.

Jesus' vocabulary

A friend of mine asked if I had a list of all of Jesus' words, sorted by frequency, with common words like "the" removed. I did not have such a list at hand, but I took it as a challenge.

Thanks to software, most of the work to create a sorted listed of Jesus' vocabulary is trivial. I can easily make a frequency list of his words and remove common stopwords. The most challenging part for me was finding a source of the gospels from which it was easy to extract just Jesus' words.I asked around, and found that the World English Bible XML contains a \<wj> (i.e. "words of Jesus") tag which delimits exactly what I need. So after a bit of processing, and thanks to NLTK, I was able to provide a basic list of Jesus' most common words:

  1. one - 221
  2. father - 211
  3. tell - 210
  4. man - 196
  5. God - 163
  6. things - 163
  7. come - 158
  8. son - 149
  9. go - 123
  10. also - 113
  11. know - 111
  12. may - 111
  13. kingdom - 104
  14. see - 102
  15. lord - 97
  16. said - 96
  17. therefore - 94
  18. give - 93
  19. heaven - 86

Based on the top of the list, I'd say Jesus was primarily talking about the good news.

I've shared the code.

Bible software galore

We are experiencing a downpour of new Bible software offerings. Here are just three which have come to my attention lately:

  • Sofia (or Bible Web App v. 2) is an advanced web application which can work without internet access in any browser ([useful for restricted countries][]).
  • Verity, a desktop application for Windows and Linux.
  • MetaV ("the meta-version"), including a web UI called [MetaV Explorer][], which lets you browse the Bible by time and location.


When in the world was Judith?

The apocryphal book of Judith opens with geopolitical circumstances which I cannot locate in history. Assyria is lead from Nineveh by a king Nebuchadnezzar and conquers Media, most of Mesopotamia, Tyre and Sidon, and parts of Palestine. For those of us familiar with the ancient near east and biblical history, Nebuchadnezzar was the Babylonian king who threw off Assyrian domination and destroyed Nineveh.

In the fifth chapter things get more confusing. Nebuchadnezzar's general inquires of the history of the Jewish people, and an Ammonite recites the story of Israel. The history he recounts goes from Abraham clear through the return from the Babylonian exile. That return of course occurred after the time of Assyrian power and Nebuchadnezzar's reign.

So the setting of Judith seems ahistorical. I am by no means an expert on ancient near east history, so I could be wrong. If there is an alternative explanation (e.g. this is simply a case of mistaken identity and Assyria was indeed powerful during the intertestamental period), please comment or email me. Until then, I'll look for significance in this book outside of its depiction of geopolitics and history.

Almsgiving as the theme of Tobit

Tobit died in peace when he was one hundred and twelve years old, and was buried with great honour in Nineveh. He was sixty-two years old when he lost his eyesight, and after regaining it he lived in prosperity, giving alms and continually blessing God and acknowledging God’s majesty.

Opening the final chapter of Tobit is yet another reminder of the importance of alms-giving for righteous living. Indeed, if pressed to summarize Tobit, I would say "God favors those who give alms." It seems to be the thread running throughout the book which explains why God's fortune came to Tobit through all the misery.

I'll wind up my experience reading Tobit with a couple more observations:

  • The author of Tobit uses a literary form where he tells the result of the story in brief and then returns to fill in the detail. For example at the end of chapter 3 it reveals how Raphael is sent to restore vision to Tobit and to free Sarah from the demon. I have not observed this technique elsewhere in the scriptures.
  • At the end of the story, Tobit references Nahum's prophesied destruction of Nineveh. That is somewhat remarkable since there is not much cross-reference among the Hebrew prophets.

Tobit, man of sorrows

Tobit has a wrenching story, and I'm only five chapters in. Living after the division of the Kingdom of Israel, Tobit, though being of the tribe of Naphtali in the North, continues to worship in Jerusalem. Then being carried off into exile in Assyria he at first finds favor in the foreign administration. But when the new king Sennacherib arises, Tobit finds himself on the run, being hunted down for surreptitiously burying the bodies of fellow Jews executed by the tyrant. All of this eventually leads to Tobit losing his eyesight when sparrows defecate into his eyes while he sleeps beneath a wall. A rough life, to be sure!

Yet the major message thus far in the book is that Tobit remained righteous throughout it all. He is determined to pass on this lifestyle of charity and piety to his son Tobias.

In chapter 4 Tobit is preparing for his death and so gives some ultimate instructions to his son before sending him on a risky journey to retrieve some money. First Tobit commends the care of his wife to his son. Then he implores his son to walk with God. A significant portion of that is expressed through charity:

Indeed, almsgiving, for all who practice it, is an excellent offering in the presence of the Most High.

Tobit then turns to some instructions with which I as a Christian am not comfortable. Tobias should only choose a wife from among his Jewish kinsmen. He must also apparently "give [no bread] to sinners." The latter is clearly contradicted by Jesus' ministry, and the imperative to marry only within ethnic groups is arguably countermanded by Paul's declaration that "there is neither Jew nor Greek."

Nonetheless I feel quite comfortable reading Tobit thus far. He seems to have been a fairly positive example of righteous and charitable living in a world fallen to pieces.

Useful metadata for Bible passages?

What types of metadata would you like to see tagged onto Bible passages? Here are a few I can think of (many of which have already been implemented):

  • Morphological tagging (parsing, lemma, etc.)
  • Cross-references
  • Explanatory footnotes
  • Textual variants
  • Diologue info (e.g. identifying who the speaker is)
  • Geo-coding
  • Time and date
  • Related media (photos, art, etc.)
  • Topic
  • Genre

Any others?

Lectionary Radio for January 8, 2012

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The Readings for January 8, 2012 - Baptism of the Lord (Year B)

The Gospel - Mark 1:4-11:

1:4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

1:5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

The Baptism1:6 Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.

1:7 He proclaimed, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.

1:8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

1:9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.

1:10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.

1:11 And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

Summary of Discussion

  • (1:52) As a reminder, the Vanderbilt Revised Common Lectionary Site contains links to art for each week's slate of readings.
  • (2:12) Would I go down to see what John's baptism was all about if it were happening today?
  • (3:23) There is a debate among Christians in Nigeria regarding [how best to respond to increasing religious violence][].

Lectionary Radio for December 11, 2011

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The Readings for December 11, 2011 - Advent 3 (Year B)

The second reading - 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24:

Always be joyful. Never stop praying. Give thanks no matter what happens. God wants you to thank him because you believe in Christ Jesus.

Don't put out the Holy Spirit's fire. Don't treat prophecies as if they amount to nothing. Put everything to the test. Hold on to what is good. Stay away from every kind of evil.

God is the God who gives peace. May he make you holy through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept free from blame. May you be without blame from now until our Lord Jesus Christ comes. The One who has chosen you is faithful. He will do all these things.

Summary of Discussion

  • (1:30) Today's reading was from the New International Reader's Version.
  • (1:35) It is a version intended for early readers. [I offer a brief insight on this version][].
  • (2:10) A Roman Catholic archbishop in Ireland has urged lapsed Catholics to get serious or leave the church.

Random Genesis

I have just begun working through Natural Language Processing with Python. One of the first features highlighted in the first chapter is the ability of nltk (the Natural Language ToolKit - a Python module) is to generate random text from a corpus.

Without further ado, here is what my system generated based on the book of Genesis in the KJV:

In the selfsame day , neither do thou any thing that creepeth upon the bank of the east wind , sprung up after th And I will send thee a covering of the Philistines unto Gerar . And he commanded the steward of my master greatly ; and she bare unto Jacob , went forth to go down and buy thee fo But if thou be in the second , and fall upon Adam , in the land is good : and his two womenservants , and begat sons and his eleven sons , and put every man ' s

Sound realistic? ;-)

Testing the waters of the NIRV

My wife and I ordered a copy of the New International Reader's Version of the Bible, published by Zondervan. She thought it would be useful for Sunday school to have an easy-to-read Bible which was a full translation, unlike most children's bibles. So far I like how it reads.

I'll share one example from the beginning of Hebrews, which I think is one of the more difficult books of the Bible to read. First, in the NIV:

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.

And now in the NIRV:

In the past, God spoke to our people through the prophets. He spoke at many times. He spoke in different ways. But in these last days, he has spoken to us through his Son. He is the one whom God appointed to receive all things. God made everything through him.

The first thing that should jump out at you is that the NIV has one sentence, but the NIRV breaks these two verses into six. The sentences are shorter and easier, though splitting them up this results in some repetition (since the verb "he spoke" gets repeated for each adverb).

The vocabulary is simpler, and people and place names are unified (which is something which may give biblical theologians fits). Overall I like it. A real translation which is more accessible to less-experienced readers is a positive in my book. Now let's see who all complains about it.

Strong's Dictionary in sqlite3

Someone asked the Open Scriptures mailing list about getting the Strong's Dictionary data into a sqlite3 database. Challenge accepted. And it was quite the challenge.

The Strong's repo for the Open Scriptures project contains an xhtml version of the Strong's dictionary. I would have used that data as a source, but for two problems: 1. it lacked transliterations, and 2. some of the unicode lemmas for the Hebrew portion were missing. Thankfully the repo also contains the XML sources for the Greek and Hebrew. I decided to unleash Python with xml.sax.

Unfortunately those XML sources were two different data types, so I had to write two different parsers. Also, the Greek portion contains self references with just the number, not the unicode string, so I had to write a second pass parser to fill in the missing lemmas. It also turns out that some of these self references are to Strong's numbers which are not a part of the dataset, which has me a bit perplexed (I'll be following up on that soon).

After changing my mind a few times about how I wanted to approach the "description" part of each entry (and some accompanying refactors of the code), I finally got a working product. You can find it in my Biblical Studies git repo. I put it under the MIT license so people can do whatever they need to do with it.

I am not really sure if there are any other open sources Strong's->sql importers out there. Maybe someone can take my script and give it support for other databases (or even frameworks, like Django).

Edit: And Darrell Smith provided code for doing it with regex in PHP. Technology can provide many paths. Glad to see there are so many helpers on the Open Scriptures mailing list.

Update: I've update the script to use 1.5 of the Strongs Greek XML, and it also downloads the source files automatically, so you don't have to checkout the Open Scriptures git repo if you don't need it otherwise.

Update 2 (March 10, 2012): The MorphGNT site was moved to Github, so I've updated the link to the Strongs Greek database in the script. Also, here is a compressed copy of the sqlite3 database which results from the script.

Lectionary Radio for December 4, 2011

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The Readings for December 4, 2011 - Advent 2 (Year B)

The First Reading: Isaiah 40:1-11:

40:1 Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.

40:2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord's hand double for all her sins.

40:3 A voice cries out: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

40:4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.

40:5 Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken."

40:6 A voice says, "Cry out!" And I said, "What shall I cry?" All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.

40:7 The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass.

40:8 The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.

40:9 Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, "Here is your God!"

40:10 See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.

40:11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.

Summary of Discussion

  • (2:02) A completely flat landscape with straight roads is a common visualization in the Hebrew latter prophets.
  • (2:37) The SBL annual meeting just completed. The pronunciation of biblical Greek was discussed.
  • (2:55) Reconstructing pronunciation of "dead" languages and dialects is difficult but there are some techniques which can shed some light.
  • (3:24) Daniell R. Streett provides a basic overview of [the panel on biblical Greek pronunciation][].
  • (3:46) Most students of biblical Greek do not have a functional fluency in the language, which is unusual for college-level language study.
  • (4:15) Randall Buth is pursuing [immersion education for biblical Greek][].


Trust in the Lord for ever,
for in the Lord God
you have an everlasting rock.
For he has brought low
the inhabitants of the height;
the lofty city he lays low.
He lays it low to the ground,
casts it to the dust.
The foot tramples it,
the feet of the poor,
the steps of the needy

\~ Isaiah 26:4-6, NRSV