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Review of BibleWorks 9

by Ched Spellman

June 16, 2015
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I bought a copy of BibleWorks 6 when I began seminary in 2005.

Since then, I’ve used BW6 as my go-to program for exegesis and language study. A decade later, BibleWorks is still my preferred Bible software. Despite the value of alternative systems (e.g. Accordance or Logos) and the explosion of online resources, there are several reasons why I still use BibleWorks.

Perhaps the most idiosyncratic reason for this preference is that BibleWorks is just what I know. I cut my teeth in language studies with BibleWorks, so this is the platform I’m the most familiar with. And, it’s served me well! Virtually every Greek or Hebrew character that I’ve ever used in research or in print was initially accessed from this program.

I remember the first few times I used the program as I careened toward my first exegetical paper on Col 3 (which was rough!). I pulled up Col 3:1, double-clicked on Χριστός, and then did a phrase search on τῷ Χριστῷ. In a matter of seconds, I had accessed several hundred cross-references, and just kept hovering my mouse over random words as the analysis window kept scrolling through a deluge of lexical and morphological data. Magic! Sorcery! I felt like I had entered the exegetical matrix, and my heart was strangely warmed.

And so, as a creature of habit, I keep going back to the software that has worked for me for a long time. For a while, now, though, I’ve been window-gazing at all the new programs that are now available. As you know, ten years in “tech years” feels like time, times, and half a time. Additionally, in the intervening dispensation, I’ve also been transferred from the domain of darkness into the kingdom of light (i.e., I now use Macs).

Aside from no longer having to spend an entire redemptive-historical epoch waiting for my laptop to “wake up” from its “soul sleep” (granted this might have had something to do with the fact that I was using a late 90s Dell!), this hardware shift has also changed the way I interact with software.

Along these lines, I’m going to review BibleWorks 9 (BW9) in light of these areas:

  • Is it worth upgrading to the newer version? I'll be comparing BW9 to BW6 (some of the "new" features I'll discuss were added with BW7 + 8).
  • Why stick with BibleWorks in light of readily available online resources? 
  • Can BW9 handle a Mac environment?
  • What are the features that keep drawing me back to BW9? 

Layout and Workflow

One of my favorite changes from BW6 is the modified layout of the program. On opening the program, the user sees three separate windows. These sections are named for their function: Search, Browse, and Analysis.

This intuitive design reflects the process involved in the task of exegesis. First, you locate your text, next you examine it, and then you use tools to begin further analysis of specific textual features. These separate “sandboxes” are connected, but they also maintain their edges in order to allow you to hone in on the particular data you need to access.

For example, the Search window displays your search term and a list of the “hits” that your search generates. Clicking one any one of these references automatically adjusts what you see in the Browse window but does not alter your Analysis window.

The Analysis window syncs with whatever you’re pointing to in the Browse window. The text under review is located in the middle of the screen, with the search column to the left, and the given resources to the right. The Browse window also clearly displays the text (either the primary text or a series of comparative translations/versions).

The windows themselves are also adjustable. So, if I would like to quickly see the sentence context of my search results, I can make the Search window wider. Then, if I’m accessing a resource, I can do the reverse and increase the space of the Analysis window. This is particularly helpful when accessing a lengthy lexicon entry (e.g., in BDAG or HALOT) or viewing a manuscript image.

These small structural features make BW9 easy for me to use, and they also create a helpful workflow when I’m studying a passage at length.

In terms of user experience, this modified layout is one of the most significant enhancements to the program from earlier versions (at least BW6 and earlier).

User Experience on a Mac

Back in ’05 [1], my laptop had 18 gigs of space, and because it didn't have enough juice to run the program, I had to install BW6 on an external hard drive (and I duct-taped the hard-drive to the back of the screen, like a boss). So, when I switched to a Macbook in ’08, the scales came off of my eyes and I didn’t have to schedule my lunch hour in order to turn on my computer. One of the biggest drawbacks, though, was leaving BW6 behind.

Really the only solution then was to run a “parallel” program on a dedicated disk and then install BibleWorks on a separately installed (and separately purchased!) copy of windows (in my case WindowsXP). This was a workable work-around, but it was an atrocious user experience. I’m sure many people were fine with this, but I couldn’t stand it. It was like taking a brand new Mustang out for a spin but first hitching a Winnebago to the back and then finding an old abandoned gravel path so you can practice parallel parking.

Because I was using a “bootcamp” like parallels program, I had to restart the computer to make the switch each time, and the program itself was glitchy as well. So, I found it dreadfully cumbersome to get into the program, and so I ended up using my old laptop just for BW6 (which also meant my use of the program was not integrated into my workflow well at all).

This is the historical background information that explains my reticence about Bible software that claims it can provide the same user experience across platforms (i.e., PC → Mac or Mac → PC). This is one of the primary reasons I began looking at alternative program options to BibleWorks (primarily Accordance or Logos). Even when the BibleWorks team started talking about Mac options (a few versions ago), I remained skeptical. I didn’t want to have to have so many workarounds if I didn’t have to.

All this to say that I’m pleasantly surprised by the Mac option for BW9. The “mac installer” was easy to install, and it runs directly from my Mac operating system. It’s not perfect: It’s clearly not native Mac software, and this creates some quirky features (e.g., x-ing out of the program actually closes the program, “right click” doesn’t work the same way, etc). However, for as long as I’ve been using it, my computer hasn’t frozen up, the program hasn’t shut down, and it functions in the same way that it does on my PC.

Though it’s not a native application, it does have the same features and feel of the full program. Sometimes the “mac version” of given software feels like a stripped down version of the real deal. However, the program feels and functions virtually identical. As they mention, "The interface is the same as the Windows version of BibleWorks so in a classroom setting with Windows and Mac users students and instructors will all have the same program interface." At this point, their developers say that the Mac option for BW9 has roughly 98% of the features/functionality of the Windows version [2].

For sure, the ability to run the full program on my Mac without the hijinks of cross-platform issues is one of the primary reasons I’m sticking with BibleWorks and now recommend it across the board. I hope they continue to develop and provide support for the Mac version of the program. Being able to utilize BW9 from my Macbook means that I will use the software more frequently and can now recommend the software with fewer reservations.

  1. I realize that I'm starting to sound like Uncle Rico
  2. See their "BibleWorks on a Mac" page, where they lay out the specific details. The option I prefer is the "native" option. As I mentioned, I'm sure the "virtual" or "bootcamp" options are better than they were "back in '05," but I would never wish that user-experience on anyone! The details for ordering the "Mac Installer" are also available (for BW9 users, it's $6 for the unlock code). 

A Few of my Favorite Features

After noting the general layout, conception, and workflow of BW9 (and its usability on a Mac), I want to conclude with a rundown of a few of my favorite features in the program.

I’ll limit myself to three: searches, manuscripts, and vocabulary resources.

The Depth and Complexity of Searches 
Perhaps the most important strength of Bibleworks is and has always been the depth of its search capabilities. If you will only use a Bible program to look up verses or parallel versions, then there are online resources are readily available for free. Also, if you are looking for the Greek/Hebrew text along with basic morphological data and some exegetical helps, there are an increasing number of websites and online platforms that will suit your needs.

However, there is simply no way to duplicate the depth, speed, and complexity of the searches that BW9 allows you to execute. This functionality ranges from the very simple to the very complex.

For example, you can simply double-click on Χριστός in a verse to find all the instances of this word + form in the current search version, or you can search for this word preceded by any preposition in the NT (i.e., typing '*@p* Χριστός in the command line with BNM tagged search version). Further, with the Graphical Search Engine (GSE), you can execute increasingly complicated searches [1].

When you combine this searching capacity with the fact that all the results are automatically synced to all the other resources that BW9 puts at your fingertips, it is clear that BW gives you more than enough “bang for your buck.”

Integration of Manuscript Images 
In my recent book on the canon, I note the significance of manuscript evidence for discussions about the biblical canon:

Another important recent development is the wealth of manuscript evidence now available to historians of the biblical canon. Discovery of ancient manuscripts and artifacts is ongoing. The growing number of extant manuscripts that have been discovered in the last century has enhanced historiographical reconstructions of the history of canon formation. As Hurtado notes, ‘Christian manuscripts from the second and third centuries witness strongly to the rich and diverse fund of texts produced, read, copied, and circulated among Christians’. Further, there has been a concomitant recognition that these manuscripts have a story to tell and have a tangible bearing on questions of canon formation.

For instance, the manuscript fragments of many of the New Testament documents indicate that they were circulated within codex-bound collections very early in their existence. The nature of the extant manuscript evidence lends legitimacy to the task of examining the function of individual writings within collection units (e.g. Romans within the Pauline corpus) and also the function of those discrete units within the larger biblical collection (e.g. the Pauline corpus within the New Testament). [2]
In light of this, one of the new features available in BW9 that I’m most excited about is the “BibleWorks Manuscript Project” (“Mss” tab in the Analysis Window). In this tab, you have access to high quality images of some of the most significant Greek codex manuscripts of the biblical canon (OT + NT).

For example, Codex Sinaiticus (Codex א), Codex Vaticanus (Codex B), and Codex Alexandrinus (Codex A) are all available [3]. What is more, the transcriptions of many of these manuscripts are integrated and synced to the rest of the program (the BW team plans to keep developing the amount and accuracy of this data).

So, when you study a particular passage, BW9 automatically locates the transcription and the exact location of the verse under review on the manuscript image itself.

The manuscript image can be viewed within the analysis window or can be accessed by itself in a pop-out window.

Most of these images have been made available for some time online, but the ability to access these images and manuscripts within the BibleWorks ecosystem is very helpful. Because of this feature, students, pastors, and scholars can study some of the most significant manuscript copies of the biblical text that are available as part of their normal exegetical study. I’m now able to see these images and access these texts on demand and on a daily basis. What a remarkable gift. 

Potential for Vocabulary Building
Some of the improved features present the produce of BW’s exegetical engines in a format that makes vocabulary building and familiarity with the biblical languages easy and intuitive. In addition to tools like the “vocabulary builder” that allows you to customize vocabulary lists according to usage frequency, passages, books, or larger selected sections, the “use tab” is also helpful in this regard.

The "use tab" displays the instances of a selected word within the context of the current biblical book.

The simple display allows for a lightning fast “book level” picture of how an author uses a particular word in a particular writing. This feature has the added potential of helping interpreters keep word studies firmly rooted in usage (where they belong!).

BW9 allows me to look at words, phrases, and sentences in a variety of ways and angles. These vocabulary tools are serious aids in the serious task of becoming saturated in the biblical languages and knowing your Bible better.

  1. For a helpful orientation to these complex searches, see the many and varied user-submitted search possibilities here
  2. See Toward a Canon-Conscious Reading of the Bible: Exploring the History and Hermeneutics of the Canon(Sheffield: Sheffield-Phoenix Press, 2014), 43-44.
  3. For a full list of the available manuscripts, see here

Ched Spellman is an Assistant Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at Cedarville University in Cedarville, Ohio.



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