Easily Creating Synopses for Biblical Languages in Different Directions

Synopses represent an important and user-friendly tool for the comparison of versions of biblical texts. Whether for deepening one’s own knowledge about a particular text or for an easy-on-the-eyes presentation of textual data to others, synopses present a great opportunity. However, a particular problem plagues synopses for biblical texts, particularly those of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament: the relevant languages of the texts run in different directions. That precludes displaying texts synoptically with one version above the other. Here I will describe my process to resolve this issue and make nice looking, user-friendly synopses of biblical texts for my own research.

For my purposes here, I am going to use a short text from my research as an example, 1 Kgs 5:9–14. For ease of preparation, I am using the following programs today: an internet browser (Microsoft Edge, in my case), Notepad, and Excel. Though I personally prefer Excel for this work, I will also supply guidelines for this process in Google Sheets, meaning you can theoretically do all of this with a browser and a simple text editing program.

Gathering the Texts

The first step involves gathering the versions you want to consider. Here, I am going to use the Masoretic Text (as published in the BHS), the text traditionally identified under the name “Septuagint” (in the edition of Rahlfs/Hanhart), and the so-called Lucianic Recension (from the Madrid edition). That is, we have one Hebrew version that reads from right to left and two Greek versions that read from left to right.

I have copied the first two versions from the website of the German Bible Society (Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft).

Copying a text from the German Bible Society website.

For the sake of simplicity and to avoid potential formatting issues, I have copied each text into its own .txt file in Notepad. When you copy these texts, you will notice that the formatting in Notepad needs to be cleaned up, but that is an easy process and depends on your personal preferences. For example, the Hebrew text has the verse numbers on a separate line from the text itself, but this is easily remedied.

The copied Hebrew text in Notepad.

It can be helpful, as well, to change the reading order in Notepad to “right to left.” To do that, just right-click and select the relevant option in the dropdown menu. The Greek text, when you copy it, will appear in Notepad on one line with no spaces between the verse numbers and the text itself. For the sake of ease in the coming steps, I format each text such that each verse appears on its own line and each line begins with the verse number followed by a space. Here’s an image of how these texts from the German Bible Society now look in Notepad:

MT and LXX of 1 Kgs 5:9–14 in Notepad.

The third version comes from the critical edition of the Lucianic Text of Samuel/Kings that I have run through an OCR and corrected for accuracy with the printed edition. (No digital version of this edition is—to my knowledge—available, so that I am currently creating one myself. N.b., the verse numbers in the Lucianic text differ from LXX and MT, but don’t let that bother you.) I saved each version of the text as its own file in a common format so that they are easily identifiable. These .txt files can also be useful for other purposes, such as preparing the text for conversion into .xml or similar.

Importing the Text to a Spreadsheet

So, now we have the textual data in a pure format that it easily manipulated in other programs. What to do with it to create synopses? First, I will use Excel, before providing an overview for Google Sheets. Open Excel and start with a blank workbook. I recommend having one sheet for each version, plus a first sheet for the synopsis of all versions. Like this:

Several Excel sheets make this process easier

Now it is time to copy the texts into Excel. To do this, first mark the individual text in Notepad and copy it. Then switch to Excel and click on the arrow under “Paste” and select “Use Text Import Wizard.”

The Text Import Wizard.

The radio button next to “Delimited” should be marked. Click on “Next” and make sure that a check is set next to “Space” in the list of “Delimiters.”

Defining a delimiter.

From here, you can click “Finish,” and the text should appear with each verse on a row, the verse number in the left-most column,and each word in individual columns. Repeat this process for each version.

So each version has its own sheet, and it is easy to create a synopsis from here.

Creating the Synopsis

Select the version of text that should serve as the basis for comparison (for my purposes, which need not interest anyone further here, I have selected the Lucianic text) and copy it. Then switch back to the “Synopsis” sheet and click on the arrow under “Paste.” Here click on “Transpose.” This pastes the text such that each verse has its own column with a word in each row.

Transposing the data.

From here, you can repeat this process and reorganize the columns so that the versions’ verses stand next to each other. To do this, I first insert two columns between each verse. Then I follow the preceding steps to paste the transposed text after the final of the base version before moving the individual columns to the appropriate place. (I have not found a way to do this automatically. The reason for this is that the columns would all have to be the same length with no empty cells. Since the Hebrew text naturally has fewer words than the Greek, this is not possible as far as I know. If you know of a way to do this, contact me! I’ll keep my eyes out for one as well and update as necessary.) When you’re finished, the text should look like this:

A preliminary synopsis of the data.

With that step finished, the synopsis can now be manipulated so that the elements align. To do this, I simply insert empty cells so that each word aligns with its matching element. I find the faster method to do this is inserting the first empty cell with a right-click and then using the keyboard command “ctrl-y” for all of the others. The Hebrew forms could be divided into their constituent elements where relevant (i.e., conjunction, verb, suffix, etc. or preposition/determination, noun, suffix, etc.). For the sake of ease, I prefer to leave the Hebrew terms intact and leave spaces for all of the Greek elements covered by that Hebrew term. Don’t forget to make the column width automatically match its contents for the easiest comparison. In the end, the table looks like this:

A finalized synopsis.

To undertake this process in Google Sheets, first paste each text on its own sheet. Then a dropdown menu will appear. Clicking on the arrow next to this, select “Split text to columns.”

Importing the data into Google Sheets, part 1.

Then, with the arrow next to “Separator” in the newly appearing menu, select “Space.”

Importing the data into Google Sheets, part 2.

From there, the texts can be copied and transposed in the synopsis sheet by clicking “Edit” —> “Paste special” —> “Paste transposed.” From there, you can continue as with Excel.

Conclusion: Evaluating and Expanding the Data

Having taken these steps, the texts that run in different languages can now easily be displayed next to each other and quickly viewed for distinctions in the versions. By adding further columns, one could even add more versions or translations of each, should that aid students or laypersons in understanding the variants. The text can easily be manipulated and used in other applications or even exported in other formats (e.g., csv). The issue of texts running in different directions has thus been fully eliminated for synoptic viewing and analysis and even for use in other formats.

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