Stephen Smith doesn't look like a mad scientist, because he's not one. Not really. He's not even a code guy by training. But he has packed the room at BibleTech, an occasional gathering of coders, hackers, publishers, scholars, and Bible technology enthusiasts. And the standing-room-only crowd is starting to turn on him. No pitchforks and torches. But for once in this collegial, tight-knit retreat, you can feel the tension growing.
They've seen his experiments before. You might have, too. He's the guy who wrote the code to quantify what folks on Twitter gave up for Lent and how the fasts change from year to year (forswearing swearing is up, dropping alcohol is down). He figured out what Bible verses went viral after Osama bin Laden was killed, or at any other time (chances are good that "I can do all things through him who strengthens me" and "For I know the plans I have for you" are doing really well right now), and the most popular saints and mountains in American church names. (Mt. Pisgah beats out Mt. Nebo. And Lutherans almost never call their church "First Lutheran"—though "First" is a fifth of Presbyterian churches.)
If someone releases a new API (code that lets applications interact with each other), or if Google unveils a new tool in beta, or if a new dataset is published online, it's a fairly safe bet that Smith will try to connect it to the Bible. In 2012, Stanford University published a Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World. Smith used it to calculate the time and cost of each of Paul's missionary journeys. The photo-sharing site Flickr lets users search by GPS coordinates, and he created a tool to feature contemporary photos of Bible places. Smith also used Flickr's API to look up each word in each Bible verse, grab the top 30 photos for each word, layer them on top of each other, and then take all the images from all the words in each verse and layer them on top of each other. That experiment didn't turn out well. Almost every verse just becomes a big orange blob. But it was an interesting idea.
Smith's new idea isn't so innocuous. It's scary. And Smith knows it. But he loves it anyway.
"There are about 30 modern, high-quality translations of the Bible in English," Smith announces to the BibleTech group. "Can we combine these translations algorithmically into something that charts the possibility space of the original text?"
In other words, Smith is going to show the room what he calls his Franken-Bible maker. It's YouVersion, if that name actually meant what it suggests. With minimal effort—and no knowledge of Greek or Hebrew—you can create your own English Bible translation. You, dear reader, may not be interested in having your own personal translation that's different from the three on your shelf. But might you like one from your favorite celebrity pastor? Wouldn't a Max Lucado Version sell well? The Southern Baptist Convention has its own translation. Can a Mars Hill Church Standard be all that far behind?
Algorithms are already used heavily for translating Scripture into new languages (see CT's February 2005 article, "Wycliffe in Overdrive"). And people are already remixing existing translations—last year, for example, Dallas Theological Seminary's John Dyer created a Google Chrome extension that would indicate the plural sense of "you" in online Bibles, no matter the translation. You can choose between "y'all," "you guys," "you lot," and other regional options.