The ESV Blog had a post last week about BibleMap.org, a new interactive mapping application that combines the ESV Bible text, a Google Maps display, and articles from the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ISBE). So you can find a passage, click on the hyperlinks for place names, and see a satellite picture of e.g. where Nazareth is actually located (unfortunately, Google can’t show you what it looked like 2000 years ago!).
Of course, it’s wonderful that people are making these kinds of applications available: thinking about the place names in the Bible is an essential part of really understanding the context, though i suspect most Bible readers tend to simply gloss over them. This kind of tight integration can help bring the world of the Bible alive to modern readers.
Nevertheless, without faulting the creators of this site, i can’t help but wish for more:
- This is a classic example of a stovepipe application: while it’s got a lot of useful data (linking verses to place names, place names to lat-longs, and place names to ISBE articles), all of that data is embedded in the application (the website) itself. That’s fine if all you want is to use it, but not if you want to re-use it. If instead there were a web service behind this, there could be multiple versions of this same basic capability, without having to re-engineer the basic data. I’ve ridden the hobby horse of data before applications before, and this is a basic tenet of Web 2.0 thinking. The most recent version of New Testament Names has some Google Earth data (which i used for this map in my SBL presentation) for just this reason, though (like BibleMap.org) it’s not complete.
- I can easily guess why they chose the ISBE: it’s the most comprehensive Bible reference work in the public domain. But it’s not the most up-to-date (if it were, it probably wouldn’t be in the public domain!), and the depth of information sometimes goes well beyond what casual readers want. Which raises the fundamental question: what’s the right level of information for a reference like this? Most readers won’t care about proximity to modern archaeological sites, and would instead rather have basic information like best guesses as to how large a town was, prominent physical features, etc. Much of this information doesn’t exist in ISBE (or other resources, for that matter).
- Once you start down the road of information integration (using hyperlinks or other mechanisms), you hate to stop. Wouldn’t it be great if the ISBE text itself was also hyperlinked with place names? The first part of the ISBE article on Nazareth reads
“A town in Galilee, the home of Joseph. and the Virgin Mary, and for about 30 years the scene of the Saviour’s life (Matthew 2:23; Mark 1:9; Luke 2:39,51; 4:16, etc.). He was therefore called Jesus of Nazareth, although His birthplace was Bethlehem; …”
Unsurprisingly, definitions for place names typically use other place names to put things in context. Without the hyperlinks here, the text becomes a bit of a dead-end.
- Their display for John 1:28 shows a classic example of why simple string matching gets you most, but not quite all, of the way: Bethany isn’t the same as “Bethany beyond the Jordan”. Happily, there are few enough of these cases in the Bible texts that they can generally be fixed by hand: but having fixed them, that disambiguation becomes another critical piece of data that shouldn’t be stovepiped.
- Viewing a little of the geographic context mostly leaves me wanting more. Back to my example of Nazareth: i’d like to see additional overlays of other towns (and of course, that’s specific to the context of a given passage) as well as other features like travel routes and named bodies of water, since showing that town alone doesn’t tell you much. There’s also the subtle issue of what’s the right zoom level: for Matt.4.13, you’d want the map to show both Nazareth and Capernaum, rather than being closely focused in on Nazareth alone.
It’s always easier to critique than to create, i know. My point is simply this: while these early integrations of open tools like Google Maps with Bible study applications are exciting, much more is still possible.