Saturday, January 06, 2007

The Sword Project

If you aren't interested in the Bible, you'll probably want to move on right now.

Mind, this doesn't mean that you have to be particularly religious to continue reading. The Bible is such an important part of our culture that everyone is affected by it each and every day, no matter what their personal opinion is. If you think not, start reading David Plotz's Blogging the Bible over on Slate. Don't worry, it's a secular take on the Bible. It's also highly entertaining.

Still with me? The problem with reading the Bible is that it was written in ancient Hebrew and Koine Greek. This makes a translation necessary for roughly 99% of the population. For English-speaking Protestants the traditional translation has been the Authorized (aka King James) Version. While beautifully written, it has certain deficiencies from the modern point of view, mostly because we know a lot more about languages and theology in the Classical period than we did in Shakespeare's time. As a result, there has been a massive proliferation of Bible translations in my lifetime.

All of which puts those of us who occasionally teach Bible study in a quandary. Which translation to use? Is it really right? Is there another take on this passage? While these questions are addressed by many writers, sometimes it's worthwhile to try to tease the answers out of the text itself — and that means either learning Hebrew and Greek, or looking at a variety of translations and trying to figure out the sense of the passage by looking at it from all sides.

Looking up at my bookshelf, I see I have seven translations here (King James, New Revised Standard, Jerusalem, New King James, New American Standard, Contemporary English, and Living Bible). I didn't set out to buy all of these. Some are confirmation Bibles, one (Oxford's NRSV) I use because it has copious notes, and one (Jerusalem) I bought for 10¢ when the local library was cleaning off its bookshelves. But I only have a small number of translations. There are literally hundreds. And you can't spread all of them out on a table to easily look at a group of translations of a particular passage. Plus, you can't search them easily, and you certainly can't pack them all up and haul them around the countryside.

Enter the Open Source SWORD Project. This includes software for Linux, Windows and Macs, along with a set of modules which can be loaded onto each platform. The modules include Bible translations (even Joseph Smith's), not all of them in English, as well as Commentaries (including translations of Luther), Dictionaries, Maps, and the complete surviving works of Josephus.

There are some things missing. You won't get the NRSV, for example, because that's under copyright, even though you can read it online. The best modern translation available is probably the Net Bible, though some versions of the software leave out the massive translator's footnotes available from the Net Bible's own download.

If you run a Windows or a Mac, you can go now. The rest of this is for Linux users.

The software for Linux is available in two versions: GnomeSword, for use with (duh) the Gnome desktop, and BibleTime for KDE. Both are available using apt-get or synaptic. (On this, I'm agnostic. I use FVWM.) I tend to like GnomeSword's interface better than BibleTime, but BibleTime shows the translator's footnotes and/or cross-references, and so far I haven't been able to figure out how to do that with GnomeSword.

The biggest challenge will be installing the modules. Ubuntu has a limited set of modules available, but not many. To get more, you have to download them from Sword's modules page. With GnomeSword you can do this by going to Edit =>Module Manager =>Configure. There you'll have the choice of installing in your local directory, e.g. $HOME/.sword, or in /usr/share/sword. To do the latter you'll have to have root access. The software thoughtfully warns people living in "a persecuted country" that they should probably not be downloading over the Internet.

If you use BibleTime, or if the module you want doesn't come up on GnomeSword's menu, you'll have to do a manual install. This isn't too hard. Pick the Raw ZIP version of the module, save it as, say, ~/downloads/ Then

  • To install it in your local directory,
    $ cd ~/.sword
    $ unzip ~/downloads/
  • For a global install:
    $ cd /usr/share/sword
    $ sudo unzip ~/downloads/

The module will be available the next time you start either GnomeSword or BibleTime.