The next stage in the process was to find the best Bible data, and make sure the verse structure was consistent in every version so that different languages and translations can be compared, verse for verse. Thankfully, by the time STEPBible was being built, an organisation called Crosswire Bible Society had already pulled together the majority of the free Bible texts and released them in a common format with aligned versification. “Most free Bible software in the world owes a debt to Crosswire,” says Instone-Brewer, “and certainly STEPBible uses a great deal of its coding for presenting and searching text. There are now 280 languages included on STEPBible, and 450 different Bible versions. This is only possible because commercial Bible publishers have been enormously generous in allowing us to use their texts.” If you open STEPBible in Hong Kong it will open in Cantonese; if you open it in Saudi Arabia it opens in Arabic. It’s not only the Bible that is in a reader’s own language, the menus and hints are in that language too.
Whereas a concordance can tell you (for example) every place the word “believe” occurs in your Bible, STEPBible will show you that it is translated from the Greek pistis and also indicate every place where the same word is translated “trust” in your Bible. It will then allow you to look the word up in a lexicon (a list of all words used in the Bible in its original languages, and their meanings). STEPBible has three different levels of lexicon. There’s a simple definition; then a Scriptural summary (how it’s used throughout the Bible); then a historical one (how it was used in other texts of the time). “That is where the treasure is,” says Instone-Brewer. “The people who were reading the New Testament for the first time, their understanding of words was shaped by the whole of Greek literature and how language was used in the ancient Greek World. We still have some of this literature, and we can apply it to find out how language was used in Bible times.”
“The early experiments were appalling. In one instance I tried to get Google to examine the wording of the first chapter of John, and it turned out that ‘the Word became meat’. Which is thought-provoking, actually – flesh has become a theological term, but suddenly that verse got its original shock value back, even if not the right nuance. However, it didn’t really help us create useful information for STEPBible.”
In fact the project is now using a form of AI, which is being taught to analyse two texts and form probabilities about how the words correspond. “I decided to start with Swahili,” says Instone-Brewer, “which is the most difficult for a computer to understand because it uses a huge number of prefixes and suffixes. I thought, if we can make it work for the most difficult language then we might be getting somewhere. I don’t know Swahili, but that’s deliberate because I don’t want to teach the computer each language, I want the computer to be able to handle any language I throw at it.”
Although STEPBible is Instone-Brewer’s brainchild, bringing it to life has only been possible because of the work of almost 100 volunteers, working virtually, many of whom he has never met. Some are Bible enthusiasts without formal training, others are skilled linguists, but all are united behind a vision to put tools that have only ever been available to scholars in the hands of anyone who chooses to pick them up. “I like to think that I am lifting up the lid,” says Instone-Brewer, “and helping people to see how the text works. I can’t imagine a better job – every day I get to play with the Bible.”
STEPBible allows users to access the original languages of the Bible without any prior knowledge of Old Testament Hebrew or New Testament Greek. It can be found at www.stepbible.org. Details of how to use the site, including a video guide, can be found by clicking on the Help menu in the top right-hand corner.
4. Click the magnifying glass in the search box or press enter
Your chosen passage will appear in the text box.
✚ Hover over any word to see it in its original language, and a definition will appear in a blue information box, including details about how often the word appears in the Bible.
✚ To see all occurrences of any word, click on the word, then click on “Search for this word” in the right-hand panel.
✚ Click on the options icon (the cog) to see different ways of viewing Bibles together, including verse-by-verse, word-by-word, and side-by-side.
✚ Can’t remember the Bible reference for the verses you want to see? STEPBible can also be used to do free-text searching.
✚ STEPBible doesn’t just have Bible texts – click on the navigation bar to see a list of commentaries and Bible helps.
Kay Carter is Director of Communications at Tyndale House
All images by Doug Robar