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How violence, disease, and Donald Trump are signs of the end times

December 9th, 2016

At least according to searches for end times on Bible Gateway:

Bible Gateway searches for end times peak during certain events.
(The farther away the point is from the center of the circle, the more searches there were on that day.)

This image comes from The Three Kinds of Popular Keyword Searches on Bible Gateway, which talks about the three keyword search patterns Bible Gateway sees: perennial (not much variation throughout the year), event-driven (spikes around news cycles, like end times), and holiday-themed (spikes at the same time every year).

Bible Gateway doesn’t see much of a fourth pattern I might expect: a “seasonal” pattern that’s similar to “holiday-themed” but is more spread out and not driven by a particular day. For example, plotting Google Trends data for jacket using a similar methodology as above yields a much longer-lived rise and fall, where 75% of yearly searches happen between September and March, but there’s not a single, strong peak:

Google searches for jacket peak in the fall and winter.

I think–but haven’t been able to locate independent research to prove–that most search keyword data will fall into one of these four patterns (perennial, event-driven, holiday-themed, and seasonal) when plotted on this kind of chart.

The immediate inspiration for this visualization was Google’s Rhythm of Food (also see the associated Wired article), which explores this kind of seasonality in food searches on Google: they identify “seasonal” and “holiday-themed” patterns. Rhythm of Food plots absolute numbers of queries, so you can see that searches for kale have been falling since 2014 (it’s clearer in the animation if you click through):

Google searches for kale peaked in January 2014.

My interest in the Bible Gateway data wasn’t to track absolute numbers of queries but to explore yearly continuity, so each point on the Bible Gateway chart reflects the percent of queries on that day for the year (smoothed over the preceding and following three days). The downside of using percentages is that they can magnify small absolute differences.

Bible Gateway’s 2016 Year in Review lets you explore these patterns for 1,000 popular queries on Bible Gateway in 2016.

The Washington Post spins this report as More people searched the Bible for “end times” because of same-sex marriage than because of Trump.

If you’re curious how these thousand searches fit the concept / quote / entity / story framework I proposed for Bible queries in 2011, here’s how I categorize them:

Type Description Example Count
concept “Show me verses about…” love 593
quote “I’m looking for a specific verse.” I can do all things 253
entity Person or place Abraham 101
story Shorthand for a longer passage David and Goliath 53

“Data and the Bible Online” Interviews

November 21st, 2016

BigBible has been running a series of interviews called “Data and the Bible Online.” The latest is with me.

A recent interview in the series is with John Dyer. In part of his interview, he says, “I do worry that even for those of who value Scripture as part of their spiritual lives, it’s easy to confuse access to the Bible (i.e., having an app installed) with wisdom, maturity, or formation.” Just today I read This $1,500 Toaster Oven Is Everything That’s Wrong With Silicon Valley Design, with the tagline, “Automated yet distracting. Boastful yet mediocre. Confident yet wrong.” That tagline could well describe the future of digital Bibles.

In the article, Mark Wilson writes:

June [the oven] is taking something important away from the cooking process: the home cook’s ability to observe and learn. The sizzle of a steak on a pan will tell you if it’s hot enough. The smell will tell you when it starts to brown. These are soft skills that we gain through practice over time. June eliminates this self-education. Instead of teaching ourselves to cook, we’re teaching a machine to cook. And while that might make a product more valuable in the long term for a greater number of users, it’s inherently less valuable to us as individuals, if for no other reason than that even in the best-case scenarios of machine learning, we all have individual tastes. And what averages out across millions of people may end up tasting pretty . . . average.

Bible software can fall into these same traps, especially if an AI is involved. As Nicholas Carr likes to remind us, the more you automate something, the worse you become at it. Or, in Idiocracy terms:

Smartspeek: We think for you. We speek for you.
Image: 20th Century Fox

On the other hand, I can’t say that the American church succeeded in developing believers’ “wisdom, maturity, and formation” even before digital technology increased the Bible’s availability and immediacy. Matthew Block writes in First Things that evangelicals in particular misapply the Reformation idea of Sola Scriptura:

many Christians seem to think saying Sola Scriptura is the ultimate authority somehow means it is my personal “solo” reading of Scripture that is authoritative. They reject the witness of the Church down through the ages in favor of a personal, private understanding of Scripture (which is not at all what the reformers meant by the term “Scripture alone”).

Digital Bibles will accelerate this process by emphasizing personal application and understanding of Scripture, possibly–but not necessarily–building a theological echo chamber in which an AI can present you internally consistent interpretations that nevertheless fall outside what most would consider the bounds of orthodoxy.

Dyer argues elsewhere that embodied practices could serve as one antidote to these virtualization trends seeping into culture and consequently the church. We already see a secular reaction against the always-connected mentality with organizations like Time Well Spent, and Dyer suggests that the church has the tools it needs to speak to people both discomfited and empowered by technology.

As the U.S. moves to a post-industrial Christianity likely characterized by increased fragmentation and polarization, and as gatekeepers shift–Christianity Today recently chronicled the rise of parachurch women’s ministries that counterpoint the decline of traditional Protestant denominations–developing (or rediscovering) a solid theology around embodiment and presence will become increasingly important to the church. I lament in my BigBible interview the paucity of formal theological education related to digital engagement: the need to equip pastors and others to understand and respond deeply to people’s relationship with a technology-mediated existence. I believe the American church will need to grapple with this relationship in the near future–if only because the wider culture will also struggle with it.

Topics for the U.S. presidential election

November 18th, 2016

The below chart lists the most-popular topics on the topical Bible on the days after the U.S. presidential elections in 2012 and 2016.

End times, praying for government, and honoring leaders top this year's list of topics.
* “End times” includes the following topics: signs of the end times, end of the world, end of days, the end of times, in the last days, last days, the apocalypse, judgment day, america in the end times. “Honoring leaders” includes: honoring leaders, submission to human authority, obeying authority, respecting authorities, respecting those in leadership. “World government” includes: world government, new world order.

Topping the list this year is “end times,” which includes several related topics. The “end times”-related “the antichrist” and the 1990s-vintage “world government” also jumped a number of places. The Google Trends report for end times shows spikes around the 2012 and 2016 elections, though world events (especially in the Middle East) regularly increase “end times”-related searches.

Power of words” also jumped up a few places; during the October 7 news cycle around the Donald Trump/Billy Bush video, “power of words” was the fourth-most-popular topic, behind voting, marriage, and forgiveness.

Christianity Today puts this data in more context in their article The No. 1 Bible Verse and Top 25 Topics of Trump’s Election.

Emoji in the news

July 13th, 2016

I have two emoji-related pieces out today (since World Emoji Day is coming Sunday–mark your calendars, or, alternately just use the calendar emoji (📅), which on iOS says July 17).

The first is Emojis Reveal How Minorities Tweet the Bible Differently at Christianity Today, which looks at how Bible verses tweeted with darker-skin-toned emoji differ from those with lighter skin tones. I felt the topic differences between the two groups were especially stark (“money management” vs. “long-distance relationships,” for example).

I couldn’t find a good place for the following chart, which shows overall which emoji are most associated with darker and lighter tones (as tweeted with Bible verses). Fingers pointing upward (👍, 👆, ☝) are apparently a light-toned gesture, while bowing deeply (🙇) is a dark-toned one. It makes me wonder whether bowing and upward pointing carry similar semantics for different groups. It’s also a little funny to me how fingers pointing every other direction except up (👇, 👉, 👈) are more common among tweets with darker tones. And I don’t know what to make of the dark-toned raised fist (✊) vs. the light-toned fist bump (👊).

Nail Polish, Bowing, and Writing are most associated with darker tones, while Santa Claus, Thumbs Up, and Finger Pointing Up are most associated with darker tones.

The data behind the article is available for you to work with if you’re interested. You may want to turn off the filter in the “Tone users” column if you want the complete list of verses and not just the more-common ones.

The second post, All the 🌲🌳 of the field will 👏, is at the Bible Gateway Blog and talks about how you can now conduct emoji searches on Bible Gateway. The search engine preprocesses your query, replacing certain emoji with English translations. As with all translations, a certain amount of semantic leakage is inevitable, so searching for 💀 uses the literal translation, “skull,” rather than how people often mean it: “death.” I was tempted to translate 🕴 (man in business suit levitating) as something related to the rapture, but I restrained myself. Instead, it returns no results.

The Unrelenting Positivity of Contemporary Christian Music

June 4th, 2016

Leah Libresco at FiveThirtyEight recently analyzed the lyrics of Contemporary Christian Music and found that they’re overwhelmingly positive, especially compared with historical shape-note (Sacred Harp) music:

Pairs of words, like life/death and sin/grace skew to the positive in modern Christian pop.

In the article, Libresco talks to Peter Beck, who offers the following axes of Christian experience to explain how upbeat Christian pop songs (which in a church context often repurpose themselves as worship songs) neglect “Winter Christians,” or Christians who engage (“commune”) with God and the church but who see complaining or lamenting to God as part of their spiritual experience. Instead, Contemporary Christian Music appeals to “Summer Christians,” who can have a tense relationship with Winter Christians.

Two axes, high/low communion and high/low complaint, illustrate four kinds of Christians.
Source: Experimental Theology.

Winter Christians follow a rich history, with lament Psalms making up almost half the book of Psalms. Indeed, my analysis of online Bible notes from last year found that complaints and requests for help accounted for 43% of all prayers recorded in these notes. Beck’s model is static, but he adds, “Personally, I think both situational and dispositional issues are in play. Many Summer Christians have ‘dark nights of the soul.’ But I also think there are some people who are tempermentally Winter in orientation.” In other words, while you might have Summer or Winter tendencies, circumstances can push you to the opposite side for a time.

Types of prayers in 52 online Bible notes (bold indicates a complaint)

Type Percent Count
Examination (examining / devoting self) 35% 18
Intercession (help for others) 23% 12
Adoration (praise) 13% 7
Tears (sadness) 10% 5
Radical (boldness) 10% 5
Petition (help for self) 8% 4
Suffering (agonizing with others) 2% 1

Libresco also quotes David W. Stowe, who suggests that “when that secular pop music moved on from this fear [of nuclear war and annihilation], so did the Christian music.” I would further suggest that the “all pop is now Scandinavian pop” effect is no small part of this shift. John Seabrook describes circa-2015 pop music this way: “ABBA’s pop chords and textures, Denniz PoP’s song structure and dynamics, ’80s arena rock’s big choruses, and early ’90s American R&B grooves.” The hooks, or catchy melodies, for these songs almost demand upbeat lyrics to match their upbeat feel.

The extensive crossover between secular and Christian music is visualized at, which argues that Gospel music as a distinct genre (below, at the top in blue) effectively ends as a major force in 1968 with the advent of modern Contemporary Christian Music. Instead, each secular genre develops a “Christian” subgenre: Christian pop, Christian R&B, Christian metal, etc. Libresco doesn’t talk about differences between modern secular genres and their Christian equivalents, but such an investigation would be interesting: does Christian rap, for example, “complain” less than secular rap? Do certain genres speak better to Winter Christians than Christian pop?'s genres include gospel, arranged vertically by time.

For another look at the relative popularity of Christian music genres and artists over time, see Google Research’s Music Timeline.

What Twitterers Are Giving up for Lent (2016 Edition)

February 13th, 2016

The top 100 things that people on Twitter are giving up for Lent in 2016.

This year, more people are giving up chocolate than anything else; last year’s favorite, school, dropped four places to #5.

Several were topical: TOPS came in at #40, referring to Louisiana’s discontinuation of the college scholarship program of that name. Presidential candidate Donald Trump came in at #82, while “running for president” came in at #84, referring to the withdrawal of candidates Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina from the race after disappointing results in New Hampshire. “Politics” came in at #91.

Big gainers this year are “indifference,” at #51, and “being petty” at #59. The former follows Pope Francis’s Lent message from last year, which a few media outlets picked up this year.

The total number of tweets, around 200,000 (with the 60,000 non-retweets specifically mentioning giving up something serving as the basis for this analysis), dropped in half from last year’s total. I don’t know whether people are using Twitter less or if Twitter is throttling the data available in their API. Either way, much less data is available this year than last.

Rank Word Count Change from last year’s rank
1. Chocolate 2,235 +1
2. Social networking 2,115 +3
3. Alcohol 1,904 +1
4. Twitter 1,903 -1
5. School 1,565 -4
6. Swearing 1,413 0
7. Soda 1,112 0
8. Sweets 1,003 0
9. Coffee 881 +1
10. Fast food 870 -1
11. Meat 793 +3
12. Sugar 792 +18
13. Lent 654 0
14. Facebook 624 +7
15. You 607 -3
16. Bread 603 +3
17. Pizza 541 +1
18. Sex 489 -2
19. College 459 -8
20. Chips 453 0
21. Junk food 439 -4
22. Homework 410 -7
23. Beer 369 +3
24. Boys 367 -2
25. F***boys 344 +3
26. Candy 313 -3
27. Work 301 +2
28. Starbucks 291 -1
29. Life 283 +4
30. Religion 278 -5
31. Ice cream 267 +1
32. Netflix 255 -8
33. Instagram 243 -2
34. Snapchat 239 +6
35. Smoking 225 0
36. Cheese 221 +13
37. Wine 220 -1
38. Cookies 218 0
39. Marijuana 193 +3
40. TOPS 179  
41. Rice 177 +3
42. Food 170 +6
43. Stuff 161 +7
44. French fries 160 +12
45. Makeup 157 +21
46. Catholicism 156 +1
46. Shopping 156 -3
47. Carbs 150 +5
48. Fried food 137 +11
48. People 137 +9
49. Caffeine 133 +18
50. Red meat 127 +10
50. Feelings 127 -9
51. Desserts 121 +4
51. Indifference 121 +124
51. My phone 121 -6
52. McDonald’s 118 -1
53. Hope 114 +10
53. Negativity 114 +15
54. Masturbation 110 +7
55. Procrastination 109 +9
56. Complaining 108 +9
57. Booze 107 +10
58. Virginity 104 -12
59. Sobriety 103 +5
59. Being petty 103 +104
60. Coke 102 -2
61. Liquor 97 +22
61. Hot Cheetos 97 +21
61. Online shopping 97 +29
61. Fizzy drinks 97 +12
62. Breathing 96 +15
63. Caring 91 +29
64. Pasta 90 +29
64. Dairy 90 +38
65. Takeout 89 +3
66. Diet coke 86 +9
67. Chick Fil A 84 +4
68. Chipotle 82 -29
68. Sleep 82 +11
69. Cake 79 +1
69. Eating out 79 0
70. Pancakes 78 +6
70. Porn 78 +4
71. Men 77 +16
72. Stress 75 +37
73. Sarcasm 71 +15
74. Taco Bell 70 +12
74. Him 70 +24
75. Gluten 68 +25
75. Peanut butter 68 +5
76. Juice 67 +19
77. My attitude 66 +64
77. Cruelty 66  
77. Tea 66 +7
78. New Year’s resolutions 64 +20
79. Christianity 63 +29
80. Church 62 +21
81. Sixth form 61 +88
82. TV 60 +24
82. Donald Trump 60  
83. Pork 58 +42
83. A levels 58 +14
84. Running for president 57  
84. Exercise 57 +16
85. Lying 55 +41
86. Everything 52 +24
86. Being mean 52 +11
86. Sweet tea 52 +5
87. Studying 51 +24
88. Chicken 50 +16
89. Naps 49 +5
89. Dunkin Donuts 49 -4
89. Potatoes 49 +28
89. God 49 +29
90. My job 48 +32
91. Nothing 46 +5
91. Politics 46 +100
92. Tinder 44 +41
93. Laziness 42 +35
94. Being single 41 +20
94. Being nice 41 +27
94. Hoes 41 +31
95. Girls 40 +10
95. Benefits 40  
96. Math 39 +10
96. Selfies 39 -34
96. Losing 39 +35
97. Bacon 38 +18
97. My boyfriend 38 +4
97. Dieting 38 +53
97. Dating 38 +60
98. Elevators 37 +32
98. Classes 37 -20
98. Buying makeup 37 +76
98. Going to school 37 +21
98. Donuts 37 +8
98. Plastic 37 +85
99. Jesus 36 +32
99. Boba 36 +28
99. Her 36 +19
99. Football 36 +83
99. Trying 36 +54
99. Snacking 36 +11
99. My feelings 36 +45
100. Tacos 35 +65
100. Lint 35 +24
100. Guys 35 +29

Social Media

Snapchat passes Instagram for the first time this year. WhatsApp continues to rank surprisingly low given its popularity.

Fast Food

Chipotle’s well-publicized food-safety woes reversed its trajectory this year.

Chipotle falls below McDonald's after passing them last year.

Snack Food

Hot Cheetos show no signs of slowing down.

Hot Cheetos continues to outpace other snack foods.


Boba, or bubble tea, is the new beverage of choice, apparently.

Boba has been steadily increasing compared to regular tea.


Rank Category Number of Tweets
1. food 15,459
2. technology 5,021
3. habits 4,299
4. smoking/drugs/alcohol 3,513
5. school/work 3,235
6. relationship 1,974
7. irony 1,812
8. health/hygiene 908
9. sex 902
10. religion 738
11. generic 577
12. entertainment 462
13. politics 374
14. relationships 344
15. shopping 341
16. money 147
17. sports 125
18. celebrity 78
19. possessions 70
20. weather 57
21. clothes 49

Media Coverage

The Lent Tracker received some media attention this year:

  1. Naples Daily News
  2. Times Union
  3. Independent
  4. Spokesman-Review
  5. Kansas City Star
  6. Fox 8 Cleveland
  7. Irish Central
  8. Newstalk
  9. Knoxville News Sentinel
  10. Des Moines Register

Track in Real Time What People Are Giving Up for Lent in 2016

February 8th, 2016

See the top 100 things people are giving up in 2016 for Lent on Twitter, continually updated until February 13, 2016. You can also use the Historical Lent Tracker to see trends since 2009, though 2016 is still in flux, so I wouldn’t draw any conclusions about 2016 yet.

As I write this post, with about 2,000 tweets analyzed, perennial favorites “chocolate,” “alcohol,” and “social networking” lead the list. Currently, “cruelty” is #6, reflecting a campaign by PETA UK asking Christians to go vegan for Lent. With the New Hampshire primaries on Tuesday and several U.S. presidential candidates likely to withdraw from the race, I’m expecting jokes about how the candidates are giving up their presidential aspirations for Lent.

Look for the usual post-mortem on February 13, 2016.

The Bible on Twitter in 2015

December 31st, 2015

Here’s a quick look at the 40 million Bible verses shared on Twitter in 2015.

Through the Year

As with last year, in 2015 we see the prevalence of through-the-Bible-in-a-year plans that feature certain verses on particular days. Also note the cluster in Leviticus and Deuteronomy after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage.

This graph emphasizes that many people tweet Bible reading plans.

Most-Popular Verses

Rank Verse Tweets Text
1. Phil 4:13 262,150 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
2. John 3:16 206,480 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
3. Jer 29:11 127,355 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.
4. Rom 8:18 115,719 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
5. Rom 8:28 115,588 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
6. Prov 3:5 110,216 Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.
7. 1Pet 5:7 98,974 Casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.
8. Rom 5:8 97,841 But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
9. 2Tim 1:7 88,924 For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.
10. Ps 56:3 86,998 When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.

You can also download a text file (411 KB) with the complete list of verses and how many times they were tweeted in 2015.

Top Verse Sharers

Here are the top non-spam (as far as I can tell) accounts and how many Bible verse tweets they tweeted this year (including retweets):

  1. JohnPiper (109,589 tweets)
  2. Franklin_Graham (94,341 tweets)
  3. DangeRussWilson (83,176 tweets)
  4. JosephPrince (76,031 tweets)
  5. siwon407 (31,141 tweets)
  6. DaveRamsey (29,690 tweets)
  7. TimTebow (29,212 tweets)
  8. mainedcm (28,687 tweets)
  9. JoyceMeyer (25,381 tweets)
  10. BishopJakes (24,243 tweets)
  11. jamesmacdonald (23,753 tweets)
  12. camerondallas (22,499 tweets)
  13. JordanElizabeth (21,735 tweets)
  14. AllyBrooke (21,108 tweets)
  15. Kevinwoo91 (19,735 tweets)
  16. ToriKelly (19,716 tweets)
  17. ihopkc (16,920 tweets)
  18. revraycollins (16,211 tweets)
  19. InTouchMin (15,888 tweets)
  20. ToddAdkins (13,825 tweets)

Most-Retweeted Tweets

Here are the year’s most-retweeted tweets with Bible verses in them. Here you’ll find tweets from various pop stars, Vine personality Cameron Dallas, someone named Cory Machado (I’m unclear why he has a million followers), a fan account for boxer Manny Pacquiao (not the boxer himself), and Tim Tebow. I don’t understand Korean pop star’s Siwon Choi’s tweet at all.

Bible Spam

Around 20 million of the 40 million verses shared on Twitter this year, as far as I can tell, came from Bible spam accounts–accounts that do nothing but tweet Bible verses all day (hundreds of times a day in some cases). I removed the most-prolific accounts from the above data, but undoubtedly it still contains tweets from many Bible spammers.

Trending thirty years of Bible translations on Google Scholar

November 22nd, 2015

Google Scholar keeps track of book citations, including citations of the Bible, in academic works. By crafting careful queries, we can try to identify trends in Bible translation usage among scholars:

Share of Bible Translation Citations in Google Scholar, by Year


First, the prevalence of the King James Version surprises me, since in general I’d expect biblical scholars to cite more modern translations in their work. However, it turns out that when scholars outside the field of biblical studies cite the Bible (generally for just a single quote), they’ll often use the KJV. Since Google Scholar doesn’t limit results to only religious scholarship, the KJV comes out on top.

Second, scholars prefer the NRSV and RSV more than the wider Christian audience does: the NRSV has held a roughly 12% share of scholarly citations since its introduction but is responsible for under 2% of Bible translation searches on Google. The RSV (and even the KJV) declined in scholarly share shortly after the release of the NRSV in 1989.

Third, the only translations to gain substantial scholarly share over the past thirty years are the NIV, the NRSV, and the ESV; the latter two are revisions of the RSV.


I constructed a spreadsheet of thirty-two major English Bible translations and how many citations they had each year from 1984 to 2015. (My favorite article that I came across discusses “Voldemort Phrases” (PDF)–the generic “he,” as in, “He Who Must Not Be Named”–in Bible translations.)

This methodology has several major limitations; therefore, you shouldn’t read too much into the exact numbers but should instead focus on broader patterns. Overall, however, the percentages largely match my expectations.

The first limitation is that the queries are imperfect: “ESV,” for example, can serve as the abbreviation for any number of phrases (e.g., “end-systolic volume”). While I tried to pick queries that appeared to yield relatively few false positives, they’re definitely still there. I couldn’t combine queries (e.g., [niv bible or “new international version”]), so the absolute numbers shouldn’t be taken too literally.

Second, Google Scholar’s definition of “scholarly” work is fairly loose; some of the fluctuations in certain translations may be the result of Google changing its scope over time.

Third, a straight counting approach, as here, doesn’t necessarily best represent scholarly influence. However, I couldn’t do anything more sophisticated since Google temporarily prevented me from accessing Google Scholar a few times for collecting even this basic data by hand. (They felt that it looked like I was running automated queries.)

Inspired by Metacanon.

Visualizing historical English metaphors related to the Bible

July 18th, 2015

The images that come to mind when you think of heaven aren’t the same ones you would’ve conjured had you lived a hundred, five hundred, a thousand, or two thousand years ago. The word heaven accretes and shifts meaning over time–the cosmology of the Israelites who first heard the creation story in Genesis, for example, uses the metaphor of a “firmament” to explain the structure of the heavens, while your idea of the physical heavens probably involves outer space and Pluto.

Or take angels. Before the Renaissance, you wouldn’t have pictured a cherub as a chubby baby, yet today the first image that comes to mind when you think of angels might very well be this:

Detail of Raphael's Sistine Madonna showing two child-looking cherubs.
From Raphael’s Sistine Madonna, 1512

Linguists can pinpoint precisely when English speakers started to use cherub to refer to a child in this way: 1705. (The OED entry for cherub elaborates that this image developed further during the 1800s. Thank you, Victorians.)

Researchers from the University of Glasgow have created a website that explores how metaphors from different semantic domains (“angels” and “children,” for example) bleed into each other over time: Mapping Metaphor.

While the website lets you visualize the data in a number of ways, I thought it would be interesting to combine a couple of their visualizations to clarify (for myself) the historical cross-pollination of some Bible-related metaphors in English.

The first chart shows how metaphors have shifted over time for heaven and hell. The arrows indicate the direction of the metaphor. For example, an arrow points from height to heaven because linguistically we apply the real-world idea of height to the location of heaven: the metaphor points from the concrete to the abstract. Conversely, when the arrow goes the other direction, as from heaven to good, the metaphor points from the abstract to the concrete. When we say, “This tastes heavenly,” for example, we’re applying some qualities of heaven to whatever we’re eating.

Historical metaphors for heaven and hell.

The second chart explores the application of metaphors relating to angels and the devil. The Mapping Metaphor blog discusses this metaphorical angel/devil dichotomy in some detail.

Historical metaphors for angels and the devil.

There’s also data for Deity (i.e., God), but its historical connections overlap so much with other (mostly Greek) deities that it’s not so useful for my purpose here.

Finally, I want to mention that the source data for the Mapping Metaphor project, The Historical Thesaurus of English, is itself a fascinating resource. It arranges the whole of the English language throughout history into an ontology with the three root categories represented by color in the above images: the external world, the mental world, and the social world. Any hierarchical ontology raises the usual epistemological questions, but I think the approach is fascinating. The result is effectively a cultural ontology (at least to the extent that language encodes culture).

I compared a few Historical Thesaurus entries to the Lexham Cultural Ontology (designed for ancient literature) and found a surprising degree of correlation: all the entries I looked up in Lexham mapped to one or a combination of two entries in the Historical Thesaurus. Considering that we know (pdf, slide 33) that people who write linguistic notes in their Bibles are more interested in the meanings of English words than they are in the definitions of the original Hebrew and Greek words, I wonder whether an English-language-based ontology might prove a fruitful approach to indexing ancient literature–at least for English speakers.

Via PhD Mama.