New Ways of Searching with Biblindex: some statistical results
Excerpts from the post-refereed, pre-print version of the following article:
Mellerin, L., New Ways of Searching with Biblindex, the online Index of Biblical Quotations in Early Christian Literature, chapter 11, in Claire Clivaz, Andrew Gregory, David Hamidovic (eds.), Digital Humanities in Biblical, Early Jewish and Early Christian Studies, Brill, Leiden 2013, p. 175-192.
Examples of research results which may be obtained with Biblindex.
1. The utility of BIBLINDEX for biblical scholars
1.1. Studying the constitution and history of the canon
Because of the accuracy of its data, BIBLINDEX will make it easier to see
and compare the pre-canonical forms of the Scriptures. Ancient Christianity
did not know a global definitive list of books, and even less a list of
editions or authorized versions. BIBLINDEX can throw light on the spread
of biblical writings in such or such a part of the world to such or such a
period, and thereby highlight the synchronic and diachronic dimensions
of the texts’ transmission.
For instance, the Book of Ruth has always been known as canonical,
but was not very often quoted, and not everywhere. BIBLINDEX shows
that it was used since the third century in Alexandria and Caesarea. The
Antiochene Fathers seem not to refer to it as a canonical work before the
fifth century, when Theodoret of Cyrrhus writes his Commentary on
Ruth. Researchers might have believed that it was excluded from the
canon until four quotations of it were discovered in a work of John
Chrysostom, his Commentary on Matthew, whose authenticity was absolutely
proved. This simple fact is evidence of its inclusion.
Another example shows that using BIBLINDEX may open new research
fields. Why do these Antiochene Fathers so rarely quote the Book of
Ecclesiastes, whereas in Alexandria there are hundreds of references?
The three books attributed to Solomon, Proverbs-Song of Solomon-
Ecclesiastes, were not used very much in this area, but the references to
Ecclesiastes are at a particularly low level.
1.2. Studying biblical Apocrypha
BIBLINDEX has established the following principle: from the moment we
know that a text was considered biblical by a Church Father at a given
time, the statement of its occurrences in BIBLINDEX is relevant. Our compilation
of biblical referencing systems will therefore include all possible
books quoted in a specific language.
It will thus be easier to study the survival and the diffusion of apocryphal
texts, today lost, such as the books of Pseudo-Ezekiel. If we search
for quotations of Ezekiel 37:7 in Origen, Gregory of Nyssa or Epiphanius
of Salamis, we read a phrase, ‘bone with bone and joint to joint’ (ὀστέον πρὸς ὀστέον καὶ ἁπμονία πρὸς ἁπμονίαν.),
which does not entirely match the well-known Hebraic text: ‘and the
bones came together, bone to its bone’. Besides, these quotations more
closely match a text from the first century before the Christian era, found
in Hebrew in the Dead Sea Scrolls and called Pseudo-Ezekiel. In this
way we can demonstrate that Epiphanius, at the end of the fourth century,
still knew this text and that he probably read it in Greek, just as
Gregory of Nyssa did. So there was a Greek translation of it (See Vianès, L., ‘Vers un texte grec du Pseudo-Ézéchiel? La vision des ossements desséchés’,
in L’Antiquité en ses confins. Mélanges offerts à Benoît Gain. Hors série 16 de Recherches
et Travaux (Grenoble: Université Stendhal-Grenoble 3, 2008), 163–175).
More generally, the influences and the geography of the history of
ideas are better known, in qualitative terms – thanks to the text of the
quotations – as well as in quantitative terms – according to the number of
1.3. The textual criticism of the Bible
And finally, when our textual phase is completed, BIBLINDEX will become
a great tool for the textual criticism of the Bible. The comparative
search for the quotations of the Fathers, often rich in variants and unexpected
readings compared with earlier or modern standard texts, can
contribute to the reconstruction of the original text. Indeed, even though
passed on by late witnesses, quotations found in authors older than most
of the preserved biblical manuscripts allow us to go further back into the
history of the biblical texts.
2. The utility of BIBLINDEX for patristics scholars
The data have to be improved and checked and the corpus has to be enlarged,
but some results can already be obtained. The main fact of bringing
together so much data highlights global patterns of which we were
not necessarily aware before this data was collected. In this paper a total
of some 500,000 references, in texts from the first six centuries, are taken
2.1. The most quoted texts
48% of the quotations refer to the Old Testament and 52% to the New
Testament, although there are of course many more verses in the former.
Thus we should not overestimate the percentage of New Testament references
by a specific Father.
In the chart above, the number of references to each section of the Old
Testament has been weighted according to the text length of each section.
We can see very clearly that Torah and Psalms are quoted disproportionately;
prophetic texts are very often referenced, but in relation to
their text length this number of references is not as significant as for the
Psalms. Historical texts are very clearly underquoted.
If we go a step further, we see that the Church Fathers’ three favourite
books are the Psalms, Genesis and the book of Isaiah.
As far as the New Testament is concerned, the Gospels and Pauline Epistles are the most
quoted texts, both absolutely and in relation to their text length.
Matthew’s Gospel is overrepresented, whereas Mark is not very often quoted.
This is due to the actual practices of the Fathers, but also from a selection
bias due to the systematic choice of Matthew in the database in
case of identical synoptic parallels.
A top ten list of the most quoted verses can also be established. After the
integration of Cyril of Alexandria’s works into the corpus, the first verse
of John’s Gospel is the most quoted by far. We can see the predilection
of the Church Fathers for christological verses: equality between God
and his Son and the reality of the incarnation are the main issues debated
with pagan, Jewish or heretical adversaries. These are not surprising
results, but the establishment of such global comparison points is completely
These are not surprising results, but the establishment of such global comparison points is completely new.
2.2. The distortion between the Bible and its patristic reconstruction
Insofar as the text of the patristic quotations will be gradually integrated
into the database, we shall ultimately be able to reconstruct the Bible of a
particular author. One would then be able to compare the Bible of two
authors, or one author’s Bible at different periods of his life.
Studying the use of a specific pericope can also lead to very interesting
results. If we take as an example the opening of John’s Gospel,
which contains the most frequently quoted verse, John 1:1, we have a
sample of more than 6,000 quotations or allusions. Although it is not
exhaustive, we can assume that such a huge corpus may be a representative
sample from the period that we are studying. We can draw a curve
showing the number of references to each verse of this biblical section,
very far from an equal use of each verse. Verses about John (6–8) are far
less quoted than the verses about the Word (whom John identifies with
Jesus): less than 20 references, whereas verse 1 is quoted more than
2.3. Association of verses
As an instrument of textual comparison and hermeneutics, BIBLINDEX
makes visible thematic relationships, similarities in the grouping of references
and echoes between the authors. Without this tool, such comparisons
could only be perceived with difficulty.
For instance: Augustine identifies the blasphemy against the Holy
Spirit in Matthew 12:31 – ‘Therefore I tell you, people will be forgiven
for every sin and blasphemy, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be
forgiven.’ – with the unforgivable sin of the First Epistle of John 5:16 –
‘If you see your brother or sister committing what is not a mortal sin,
you will ask, and God will give life to such a one […] There is a sin that
is mortal; I do not say that you should pray about that’. Is this an original
idea, or did some Fathers associate these two verses before him? We can
find 160 references to these two verses, but only four works which quote
them together and near from each other: the treatise De Pudicitia by
Tertullian, The Commentaries on John and Matthew written by Origen,
and Ambrose’s treatise De Paenitentia. As a matter of fact, Tertullian
and Ambrose are Augustine’s sources on this precise subject.
2.4. Textual criticism in the patristic field
Last but not least, the biblical references provide information about the
history of the texts which quote them. They give us valuable information
about the textual family or the biblical manuscripts to which the author
had access; about the debates on which he was dependent. They supply
him with quotations he does not always verify or reinterpret. These elements
can be deduced from the shape taken by the quotation (i.e. the
biblical variants of which it gives evidence), or from the interpretation
given. The precise form of the text helps to classify texts.
Biblical references may enable to date a work: thus we find in John’s
first Apocryphal Revelation (Tischendorf, C., ‘Apocalypsis Iohannis Apocrypha’, in Apocalypses apocryphae, C.Tischendorf (Leipzig, 1866, repr. Hildesheim, 1966), XVIII–XIX (introduction), 70–94 (Greek text edition).) biblical groups containing typically heterodox
eschatological views, based on which we can guess it was written in
the Byzantine Middle Ages. Isolated or organized together, these are a
classical criterion to authenticate a work. Similarly, a previously unidentified
allusion to the Letter of Jude helps, for example, to remove the
paternity of a text ascribed by some authors to John Chrysostom who, as
an Antiochene, would not quote this biblical book. The links between
two or several texts, not just as far as their authenticity is concerned but
also their literary or doctrinal influence, come out more clearly; it is
particularly true as regards the ‘jungle’ of the anthologies or chains,
exegetical compilations containing many fragmentary, badly attributed
or deformed texts. Duplicates will be spotted by establishing that a particular
fragment comes from a work transmitted and known in another