Important STEP Bible Update from Dr David Instone-Brewer

Accurate STEPBible data is now freely available.  Tyndale House has decided to release their  STEPBible data on a more flexible public licence to make it easier for other free Bible projects to build on accurate information about the Bible text. Inaccurate data can lead to errors and public humiliation – as I’ll describe below.

The software behind STEPBible is available on a public licence (BSD 3-Clause License), so that anyone can make a better version of STEPBible. A couple of teams have used the code to help their own projects. This has also encouraged coders to help maintain and develop STEPBible itself – something we welcome and rely on. So if you have talents in Java and Javascript, with some time to help, do please contact me.

The data behind STEPBible originated with the usual free sources that many enthusiasts have assembled in the past – to whom everone owes huge gratitude. At Tyndale House we set ourselves to test everything and improve its quality, and then feed this back into the community. The Repository of this updated data is on Github at Tyndale.github.io/STEPBible-Data, where anyone can inspect it, suggest corrections, and also download it for their own projects.

The licence (Creative Commons BY-NC 4.0)  allows anyone to use and adapt the data to fit their project. They can also make corrections, though changes should be recorded for users to see, and we’d prefer they check with Tyndale House first, so our experts can verify it. Tyndale House previously posted this data with a “No Development” (ND) restriction, to help ensure the data remains accurate, but this imposed a difficult legal restriction for some projects, so we are using  this different strategy.

Bodies such as the SBL Biblical Humanities Group have campaigned for Bible data to be more open, so that anyone can use it freely, with less duplication of effort, and to encourage the spread of good research. In Copenhagen this year, ETEN facilitated the meeting of representatives from several organisations, including STEPBible, SIL, UBS, ETCBC, Perseus, Door43 and others, to explore how much private data could be made public. This was the Davos of Bible software, and ground-breaking commitments were made there. One of the results is that STEPBible data will now remove the ND restriction.

The concern that previously prevented this, was that errors might accumulate, unintentionally or even maliciously, so that the trustworthy expertise of Tyndale House scholars might be diluted. Legally, any changes should be reported, but of course this doesn’t always happen. To ensure continual trustworthyness, the original Tyndale House data will always be available in the STEPBible Repository. This includes accurate Greek and Hebrew texts with variants, tagged with vocabulary and parsing, along with simple and detailed lexicons based on academic publications, as well as other datasets analysing the Bible text.

In the past, free software has relied on older data sets which did contain errors. A few years ago I was preparing for a radio debate about a controvertial book with ‘new revelations’ about the family of Jesus. The author’s conclusions turned out to result from his mixing up of two Greek words. He claimed that tekton (‘artisan’ or ‘carpenter’ in Mat.13.55; Mark 6.3) “is derived from the root Greek word ‘timoria‘” (‘punishment’). He added that Jesus’ father was ‘a just man’ (Mt.1.19) and concluded that Joseph was a justice of the peace with the power to judge and punish malefactors! He then published a book based on this ‘discovery’.

“5098” in Strong’s Index at e.g. TinyURL.com/StrongsTekton
“5088” in the printed edition of Strong’s Index

The author wasn’t a biblical scholar, but he was nevertheless an intelligent man who was well trained in another profession – so how did he make this embarrassing mistake? After hunting around I traced the source of his error to the commonly distributed electronic version of Strong’s Index, which is used by most free software. Due to an uncorrected typo (‘5098’ instead of ‘5088’) it said that tekton comes from timoria.

Sitting with him in the studio, before the red “broadcasting” light turned on, I quickly explained what I’d found, and said that I’d only mention it if he mentioned his ‘discovery’. This removed my killer point in the debate, and left him little to talk about, but at least it prevented his public humiliation.

This experience hardened my resolve to develop accurate tools for intelligent people to rely on. Just because someone isn’t trained in Biblical Studies shouldn’t stop them studying the Bible in as much depth as they want, using information that is checked by scholars and trustworthy. This spurred me to work on STEPBible, and now to make the data available to everyone to use.

David Instone-Brewer

Tyndale House, Cambridge

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