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Why Syntax Matters... to You!

How Logos Bible Software’s new syntactical databases take Bible study, sermon prep, and scholarly research to a whole new level.

by Dr. Mike Heiser, Academic Editor, Logos Bible Software

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What’s the Big Deal with Syntax?

Since the release of the new Logos Bible Software 3, we’ve heard this question many times. Answering it begins with a trip down memory lane and a conscious look at how you do Bible study with software right now. And if you’ve never heard of the word “syntax” before, relax. You know that having the older version of Logos was like having a personal research assistant. Having the new Logos 3 with its syntactical databases is like getting your own professor!

Remember when you first used Bible software? If you’re like most users, it took a while not only to learn what to click, but also how to understand the “logic” of what the software could do for you so you could take advantage of it. For example, whether you were working with an English Bible or Greek and Hebrew, you had to learn how to create searches to get at the information you wanted. Once you learned how to do searches and get into the dictionaries and books, your Bible study—especially word studies—took off in ways you’d never imagined.

But as amazing as Logos’ word study capabilities are, word study as it exists has limitations. Let me illustrate. Let’s say you’re studying John 3:16. You could right-click on the word “loved” and find all the occurrences of that word and similar words (“love”; “loves”; “loving”; etc.) in your English Bible. You could penetrate the English text, find the Greek word that’s translated “loved” in John 3:16, and then find all the occurrences of that Greek word in the New Testament. You could go from those results to the lexicons and you’re on your way to doing word study as you currently experience it. You could find all sorts of information about what that particular word means—in context, in the Gospel of John, in other writings of John, etc. But all this focuses on one particular word. You haven’t learned anything about what that word does in a sentence or phrase, how the word functions with respect to other words—essentially how it “gets along” with other words.

That’s what syntax tells you.

Continuing with our John 3:16 illustration, let’s say that now you know what the Greek word behind “loved” is and where else it occurs, you notice that God is the one who “loved” in the verse. That in turn makes you wonder who or what else God loves with that particular word.

With current searching capabilities, you could search for all the verses where the word “God” and “love” occur together in the New Testament to try and answer this question. In the ESV that search would yield 157 occurrences.

But a quick look at the hits that come back tells you right away that some of those verses have nothing to do with what you’re really looking for. Take, for example, the four verses shown in Figure 1. Only the last verse, 2 Corinthians 9:7, reveals some person or thing God loves.

Figure 1—Selected search results for God AND love.

The verses that don’t give you the information you were really after are “false hits” in searching lingo. With current technology, you’d have to scan through the whole list of 157 results to weed out the false hits and get to the information you really wanted. And that takes time. Sure, it’s faster than looking up both words in Strong’s Concordance and writing down which verses have each word, but it would still take a lot of time to weed out the false hits—and software is supposed to save you time and get you the information you want right away.

Why wasn’t the search more precise? Why did you get false hits? The simple answer is that Bible searching software can only retrieve words and information placed on individual words (e.g., part of speech or a verb’s tense). What you really wanted to find—whether you realized it or not—was how one word (the noun “God”) related to or “got along with” another word (the verb “love”).

That’s what “syntax searching” is—a search for word relationships.

If only you had a Bible software program that contained information on how every word in the Bible relates to all the other words around it in any given sentence or phrase! You’d be able to get precise results in seconds. No Bible software produced by any company can search for word relationships—UNTIL NOW. Every Bible software in the world suffered from this limitation—UNTIL NOW. Logos Bible Software 3 gives you this power. It opens the closed door. It takes the quantum leap. That’s the big deal.

The English Bible Student and Syntax Searching

When I explain what syntax is to people whose Bible study necessarily centers on the English Bible, follow-up questions are often something like, “I don’t know anything about how languages work—I’d never even heard of syntax until now! How will I ever be able to use the new information?”

We have good news for you—you’ll never have to construct your own syntax searches if you don’t want to. The Logos software does it for you with one click.

Logos Bible Software 3 includes a new report called Bible Word Study that works with the new ESV Reverse Interlinear Bibles to deliver the benefits of syntax searching to the English-only user!

Continuing with John 3:16, with the ESV NT Reverse Interlinear open, you would go to John 3:16, right-click on the word you want to study (in this case, “God” or “love”), then choose Bible Word Study from the menu that appears. Notice that there’s a Greek word next to the words Bible Word Study—the same Greek word under the English “loved”—but you don’t have to know any Greek to run the search! Just right-click on the English word loved and choose Bible Word Study. That's it.

Figure 2—Right click on the word loved and choose Bible Word Study.

When the Bible Word Study report appears, the syntax (word relationship) information is listed in the Grammatical Relationships section.

Figure 3—The results of a Bible Word Study on “loved” in John 3:16.

This portion of the Bible Word Study report generated all the subjects for the Greek verb (agapaō) translated “loved” in John 3:16. That is, it tells us who or what is “doing the loving.”

On the left we have the Greek (next to the hand pointer), and the English is to the right (circled in red). Clicking on the “+” sign above the hand pointer will produce a list of verses where God loves someone or something with that particular verb for “love” (agapaō).

The payoff, of course, is that you have now moved beyond yesterday’s word study method of looking up word meanings in a lexicon. Logos 3 takes you to the next level: examining word relationships! This tool enables you to detect what any given character in the Bible does or thinks, what is done to them or for them, to whom they do something, and more.

The Pastor and Syntax Searching

Pastors often lament the loss of language skills once they get out into the real world of ministry. The Logos 3 syntax databases won’t help you re-memorize your verb charts and vocabulary. They’ll do something even more valuable for your preaching—help your mind to recall the grammatical principles you learned way back when (or maybe not so long ago), principles that get you under the hood of the passage you’re preaching.

Most pastors remember what it was like to look at the Bible when they were in the midst of a Greek or Hebrew course. There was a new recognition that every word in the text was connected to another, and that those connections conveyed meaning or some intent of the writer—and all that was useful for exegesis, theology, and homiletical application. The Bible Word Study report will bring interesting relationships to the eye that you may not have realized existed.

In Figure 3 above, note that the last visible example has sinners as the subject of (agapaō). The verb "to love" (agapaō) is not uniquely performed by God—even sinners do that particular action with respect to something. Unless the pastor had come across this subject-verb relationship in a commentary or grammar, it may have gone undetected. Knowing that it’s in the text can be useful to illustrate a point or may even lead to a sermon in its own right.

The Scholar and Syntax Searching

Logos Bible Software’s syntactical databases are a dream come true for Hebrew and Greek scholars who wish to search for specific syntax structures in the Greek or Hebrew Bible and combine such structure searching with morphological searching. Syntactic searching and visualized syntactic structures are now available for the complete Hebrew Bible as a result of three decades of painstaking work by Francis I. Andersen and A. Dean Forbes. The Andersen-Forbes Analyzed Text of the Hebrew Bible enables users for the first time to search for complex syntactic structures and clause constituent relationships.1 For the New Testament, Logos Bible Software now offers two syntactical databases: The Syntactically Analyzed Greek New Testament2 and The Lexham Syntactic Greek New Testament.3

Scholars are acutely aware that searching for word relationships is much different than searching for words in proximity to each other, or for words in a sequence—the way Greek or Hebrew research was done with a computer before the release of Logos Bible Software 3. And the gap between yesterday’s methods and the new Logos 3 capabilities is made ever wider by the ability for the scholar to visualize word relationships.

For scholars who want to search for complex word relationships in Hebrew and Greek, and who currently would have to spend dozens, if not hundreds, of hours sorting the results of a morph-tagged search query, these new databases will be amazing time-savers.

By way of a specific illustration, if the user wanted to find all the clauses in the Hebrew Bible where the noun elohim ( אלהים ) is the subject of a third person plural verb, current morphological search technologies would be of little use. Though morphologically plural, the noun אלהים most often refers to the God of Israel. As such, it is the subject of a singular verb well over 2,000 times!

Finding the instances of this noun with a plural verb would be a daunting task. Current databases would only allow the user to find all the verses where אלהים and a plural verb occur in the same verse. This search yields 3,401 hits, but 99% of those would be false since search technology was incapable of asking for word relationships.

The Andersen-Forbes database, however, allows scholars to construct searches like the one shown in Figure 4, which asks for all occurrences where elohim ( אלהים ) functions as the subject of a plural predicator, with predicate-subject word order in mind.

Figure 4—Syntax search for elohim as the subject of third person plural verb.

Since scholars are often engaged in teaching the biblical languages, the syntax search dialogue can also be used to detect examples of specific structures for illustration in the classroom.

More on Syntax

1 Syntactical searching is also available through the work of E. Talstra and the Werkgroep Informatica at the Free University of Amsterdam. Their work, also the product of decades of effort, is available in the Logos platform with the purchase of the Stuttgart Electronic Study Bible (SESB).
2 Produced by Stanley E. Porter, Matthew Brook O'Donnell, Jeffrey T. Reed, and Randall K. Tan.
3 Produced by Albert Lukaszewski. The Lexham SGNT is a work in progress. The General Epistles, Revelation, and Romans are completed with the remaining books of the NT to follow in due course.