Organizing Bible Place Names

(Post 3 in a continuing series on building the Bible Knowledgebase: this category, which has an RSS feed here, will track future posts on this subject.)

If you think about the world of the Bible, and limit the discussion to concrete entities in the physical world (not because theology isn’t important, but because it’s much harder to nail down), there’s no question that people are the most important category of things that are discussed therein. The entire history of salvation is defined in terms of God’s interaction with people, from Adam to Noah to Abraham to Moses, continuing on through David up to Jesus and his early followers. Logos Bible Software already ships with a great deal of semantically-organized information about individuals in its Biblical People feature (Tools > Bible Data > Biblical People). Biblical People lets you visualize the family relationships for every named person in the Bible, as well as organizing references to them, and providing other attributes like their roles or occupations. Since joining Logos, i’ve been integrating the previous work i’d done on named individuals in the New Testament to enlarge this knowledgebase with a richer set of interpersonal relationships, and there are still many more relationships we can add.

But now that we’ve got a great start on people, the next big category in organizing semantic information is clearly places. Some of the challenges here are like those for people: for example, multiple places can share the same name (for example, there are two distinct places called Bethany in the New Testament), and multiple names can be used to refer to the same place.

Places have different attributes than people, of course, primary of which is a physical location, represented by latitude and longitude. There are some unique challenges as well:

  • Because places last longer than people do, they’re more prone to changing names.
  • The nature (more formally, the semantic type) of a place can also change over time: villages grow into towns which grow into cities and become capitals.
  • Places can be either supernaturally located (obviously these don’t have latitude and longitude), or metaphorical. Zion is a well-known instance of the latter: sometimes it refers to a physical location, but in other cases it designates a spiritual place (“But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem …”, Heb 12:2). It may also signify the role of Jerusalem as the religious capital of Israel.

“Jabneel” is a random example from the book of Joshua that shows how complex this process can be. First, name ambiguity: there are two different places that go by this name, one in Josh 15:11, and a different one from Josh 19:33. The Anchor Bible Dictionary states (without further explanation) that the first one is “probably the same Philistine town (Heb yabnÄ“h) conquered by Uzziah, king of Judah”, which is called Jabneh in 2 Chr 26:6. So there is name variation as well as ambiguity. (as often happens with this kind of task, Anchor puts most of its content in the sub-entry under Jabneel, while other resources have “See Jabneh” and put their content there).

Though a few of the key places in the Bible either aren’t named or aren’t locatable (like the Garden of Eden in Gen.2.8), there’s still lots of useful information that’s been around a long time, but never organized into a machine-readable form. As with people, access to rich details about the places of the Bible is an important background resource for readers.

I’ve posted previously about the list of place names produced by, which is the most comprehensive one that i know of that’s freely available. Starting from this list, as well as some other internally developed resources, we’re in the process of creating a master database of Biblical places that will include

  • Mappings between names and (physical) places (using an interesting representation that i’ll discuss in a future post)
  • A complete set of Biblical references
  • Types (cities, mountains, rivers, etc.)
  • Latitude and longitude data, so any place can be mapped and distances between places can be computed
  • Categorization of place names into different historical periods
  • Part-whole relationships: for example, the fact that Jerusalem is a part of Judea (in technical parlance, a kind of meronymy)

Each physical places will have a unique identifier (akin to a URI), and once the data is complete we’ll turn it into RDF and incorporate it into the emerging semantic database we call the Bible Knowledgebase. We don’t have a timeline yet for when this data will get turned into a feature and included in the Logos product: that will take some time, and will likely unfold incrementally. But i’m excited about starting this next major step in the Bible Knowledgebase. An extra added bonus is that my wife Donna is working on the data with me!

One thought on “Organizing Bible Place Names”

  1. I would like to know the name of a place in the bible that would be identifiable a city or town in a desert or wasteland.

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