I Made a Bible Bot: How and Why?

I’ve long been fascinated by Twitter bots — those seemingly-autonomous bits of
programming that retweet, follow, compose and respond to messages, etc. Truth be told, I’ve always wanted a bot, but since I have little to no knowledge of coding/programming language, I always assumed that creating my own was just a pipe dream. Turns out I was wrong.

In this post I’d like to first introduce you to my bot and then I’ll tell you how I made it.

After experimenting with a few different iterations over the weekend, I launched a “Bible bot” that is currently alive and well in cyberspace, tweeting its little digital heart out and gathering followers (an impressive amount so far, actually). What is it tweeting, you ask? For the most part, just gibberish that it puts together at random from the text of the King James Bible. But occasionally it comes up with something that (unbeknownst to it, of course) is really pretty clever. Here are a few examples:

I’m not sure what, if anything, I will do to hone or improve the bot in the future. It is currently doing exactly what it was designed to do, namely, amuse people in general and me in particular. It’s only been live for a few days now, so I suppose we shall see what the future holds for it.

So how did I set it up?

From start to finish, the process was actually much easier than I thought it would be, mostly because I found someone else who had already done the “heavy lifting.” That someone is Zach Whalen, an Associate Professor of English, Linguistics, and Communication at the University of Mary Washington.

Thanks to a push in the right direction from another of my Twitter pals, I stumbled upon a helpful post on Zach’s blog where he walks you through creating a Twitter bot using a Google spreadsheet that he designed. (Note that this sheet will only allow you to create a bot that posts; if you are interested in building a bot that can retweet, respond to tweets, or follow accounts, you will need to look elsewhere.) Zach’s post is remarkably clear and detailed, so I will refrain from reproducing a step-by-step here (if I can follow it, then trust me, so can you). All you need to get started is a Twitter account for your bot and a Google account for the spreadsheet.

After the initial linking up of the spreadsheet with Twitter (which can be a tad tricky, but stick with it), there are only a couple of parameters to set: frequency of posting and “data sheet.” Frequency is straightforward: how often do you want your bot to post? Every hour? Twice per hour? Once per day? Etc. “Data sheet” refers, essentially, to how you want your bot to compose its tweets.

lfmU5E0pThere are a few different options in this data sheet category, all of which are useful depending on your goals. I chose the “markov” option, meaning that my bot uses an algorithm to generate random text from a supplied body of text. The supplied body of text can be anything. The spreadsheet comes with the full text of Sense and Sensibility so that you can experiment before copying and pasting in your own text.

The text you supply the markov algorithm can be pretty much anything (I think). Because my bot is a Bible bot, my text is the Bible — King James translation. I chose King James for two reasons: 1) because I thought (rightly) that it would be funnier; and 2) because I found the King James Bible in spreadsheet form online, which meant that I could copy and paste the whole thing in about twenty minutes. Win.

With all of the text inputted, I set my bot to post a new tweet every thirty minutes (every fifteen minutes strikes me as excessive, and I got impatient having to wait an hour to see new content) and hit “start.” The results so far have been quite amusing.

And that’s why and how I made a Bible Twitter bot! Follow (or just observe) it on Twitter by clicking here.

And follow me by clicking here!

The Experience that All Researchers Share

There are few things more depressing than thinking of a great idea for a book, doing enough research to be sure that no one has written a book like it in 100 years, and then discovering a book that you didn’t see before that looks to be more or less the same as the book you want to write.

Your heart sinks, and you convince yourself that you’ll find your original idea someday.

But THEN, when you read the introduction to the book you just found, you see on the first page the words “secret brotherhood” and “Jesus.”

That’s when you know that you have discovered a book written by a crazy person.

That’s when you get back to work on your own book.

Recapping SBL 2013

This post is tardy, as I returned home from the SBL meeting in Baltimore a week ago. But with the Thanksgiving holiday beginning right after I got back, this is the first time I’ve had a chance to sit and organize my thoughts!

As usual, the conference was a healthy combination of exhilarating and exhausting: papers to see, a paper to give, friends to catch up with, crab cakes to eat (we were in Baltimore, after all), and books to buy. And speaking of books…

The book room is always one of the highlights of SBL. My approach to the spread has changed over the years. When I first started attending, I would buy anything that looked interesting to me. Then, as I began to approach the dissertation stage, I restricted myself to books that were only directly related to my dissertation research. Now, as I troll the aisles, I’m on the lookout for books that might inspire future research projects as well as resources that may be valuable in the classroom. This year I found myself talking with several publishers about their products, sharing with them what I liked and what I wished they did better. All of them, I think, were happy to listen to feedback.

Last year I left with five books and a pamphlet. This year I came away with the following:

  1. From the Accordance booth, I picked up the Charlesworth Old Testament Pseudepigrapha module. It was a total splurge, and slightly superfluous; the OTP aren’t really on my current research radar, but I do hope that they will be in the future. I have been really impressed with the collection so far. Like all Accordance modules, it is well done.
  2. From InterVarsity Press, I picked up Andrew Louth’s Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology. Definitely not related to my research, at least not directly. This was a purchase for the classroom. I have realized lately that I have an inadequate understanding of nearly all things Orthodox, so this past weekend I was in search of a resource that would help me fix this.
  3. From Wipf & Stock, whose products I am drawn to more and more every year, I picked up two books: Margaret Ramey’s The Quest for the Fictional Jesus and Steven Walker’s Illuminating Humor of the BibleThe first is intended to inform one of my assignments for next semester, a book review of a fictional “Jesus novel.” And the second is meant to feed my interest in biblical humor, an interest that I attribute to a paper of Bruce Longenecker’s at SBL a few years ago.
  4. The award for the publisher who drew the majority of my attention goes to Eerdmans. Seriously, I spent an hour at their booth and I left wanting more. I ended up picking up Tony Burke’s Secret Scriptures Revealeda new introduction to Christian Apocrypha; Vernon Robbins’s Who Do People Say I Am?another book on Christian apocrypha that is somewhat similar in aim to my own research; Francis Watson’s Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective, because I’ve heard good things; and Andrew T. Lincoln’s Born of a Virgin?because I just can’t help myself.

One of my biggest regrets is that my list of purchases from Eerdmans does not include Richard Bauckham’s much-anticipated Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: More Noncanonical ScripturesI have been looking at pre-publication proofs of this book for what seems like two years. For some reason, it has taken a long time to complete. And for what seems like the past two years, every time I’ve seen a copy of the proofs I’ve said to myself, “The minute I can buy this book, I will.” Well, that didn’t happen, but not because it’s a bad book. To the contrary, seeing the completed product makes me want one even more. No, the problem last weekend was the size of the book — I had a terrible backache for the bulk of the conference, and I simply could not imagine adding this massive tome to my bag and trucking it through the airport. Amazon to the rescue, I suppose.

Next year in San Diego!

Walter Kasper on Demythologization

Bultmannians and anti-Bultmannians alike, take note!

“Whatever detailed criticism may have to be made of these attempts to demythologize faith in Christ, we must always remember that demythologization is not unjustifiable in its critical or in its positive aspects. There is a time and a place for demythologization. It is undeniable that in generally current ideas of Christianity, Jesus Christ is often thought of more or less as a god descending to earth whose humanity is basically only a kind of clothing behind which God himself speaks and acts. Extreme notions of that kind see God dressed as a Father Christmas, or slipping into human nature like someone putting on dungarees in order to repair the world after a breakdown. The biblical and church doctrine that Jesus was a true and complete man with a human intellect and human freedom, does not seem to prevail in the average Christian head. Therefore demythologization is not only permissible but necessary; precisely in order to disclose the authentic meaning of belief in Christ”

From Walter Kasper’s Jesus the Christ (New York: Paulist, 1976), 46.

Search Strings in 2012

As this year draws to a close, I thought it might be fun to see how and why people make their way to this blog. Below are the top ten search strings from the past year, followed by what are arguably some of the more unusual.

  1. “ron swanson pyramid of greatness” — without a doubt, the single most popular post on this blog is (almost) entirely non-theological. Nearly a quarter of all visitors arrive seeking the path that will lead them “from boys to men, from men to gladiators, and from gladiators in Swansons.” Namaste.
  2. “easter cartoons” — A collection of delightful images.
  3. “roller coaster” — I once compared dissertation-writing to the riding of roller coasters…not sure if this is what you were seeking.
  4. “shadow of the galilean summary” — This search string seems to be popular right around mid-term time. I can’t help but think that desperate undergraduates are in search of Cliff’s Notes for this fantastic book.
  5. “how to write a paper proposal” — I’m glad to see that this post is still getting some mileage.
  6. “petaus” — A post that (surprisingly!) became a small section in the dissertation! Win!
  7. “enchiridion biblicum” — A fantastic collection of works related to study of the Bible from a Catholic perspective.
  8. “the shadow of the galilean” — Yep, on here twice.
  9. “harold camping” — A throwback to a meme that has thankfully died out.
  10. “noah’s ark” — Apparently the Dutch recreation of the Ark has in fact sailed?

And now, for the humorous and the downright strange:

  1. “nuhun gemisi” — “Noah’s Ark” in Turkish. See 10, above.
  2. “my family has left me” — I’m terribly sorry. Let me know if I can help.
  3. “bogojavljenje” — “Epiphany” in Serbian, in search of this (I think?).
  4. “creepy moustache meme” — No idea.
  5. “naked gardening” — Probably a reference to this post, although I’m not entirely sure they were searching for this.
  6. “cosmic jewish zombie” — Looking for Jesus? Aren’t we all.

Thanks to everyone who reads, and have a blessed 2013.

Ulrich Luz on Jesus’ Burial Shroud

Ulrich Luz’ commentary on Matthew (Hermeneia) is wonderful for many reasons. Not least of these is his ability to be tastefully cavalier. Today I stumbled upon this gem, in which he comments on Jesus’ burial shroud (σινδών), with passing reference at the end to the famed Shroud of Turin:

Why is it that wrapping the corpse of Jesus is so important for the tradition? Although this question is easily answered for the Johannine portrayal, since the cloths lying in the tomb on Easter morning amaze Peter (John 20:5–7), for the Synoptic texts it is difficult to arrive at an answer. Is it to negate Jesus’ nakedness, which was regarded as shameful? I do not know.

The most famous “influence” of our passage (and of John 19:40, which speaks of “binding”) is the Shroud of Turin about which there is today an extensive scholarly literature; indeed, there is a separate scholarly discipline called “sindonology.” As an exegete I can only say, with great relief, that based on the New Testament I have nothing to contribute to this discipline. Here the experts in ancient textiles, chemists, psychologists of religion, and students of the history of piety may have their say.

Well said, Prof. Luz!

What Child is This?


What child is this, who, laid to rest,
On Mary’s lap is sleeping,
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet
While shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
Haste, haste to bring Him laud,
The babe, the son of Mary!

Why lies He in such mean estate
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christian, fear: for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.
Nails, spear shall pierce him through,
The Cross be borne for me, for you;
Hail, hail the Word Made Flesh,
The babe, the son of Mary!

So bring Him incense, gold, and myrrh;
Come, peasant, king, to own Him!
The King of Kings salvation brings;
Let loving hearts enthrone Him!
Raise, raise the song on high!
The virgin sings her lullaby.
Joy! joy! for Christ is born,
The babe, the son of Mary!

Nestled at the center of this hymn are several lines that are routinely excised from hymnals (check yours next time you’re in church): “Nails, spear shall pierce him through, the Cross be borne for me, for you.” The image of an executed person, it would seem, is simply too much for us to bear at Christmas. We prefer the cleaner image of the sleeping baby.

The inclusion of the cross at the nativity is not unique to this hymn. Neither is it novel. One could argue, as Michael Goulder does, that Luke’s image of Mary wrapping her baby in strips of cloth prefigures her preparation of his body for burial. We might also note Simeon’s words to Mary as she presents the infant Jesus in the temple: “this child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed … and a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:34-35). From the moment of his birth, this Messiah is destined to suffer.

Today, as the Church celebrates God’s entrance into human history, let us remember that God did not arrive as a warlord, but as an infant, peaceful and innocent. As we contemplate the profundity of this image, let us also bear in mind that God did not take on human flesh out of boredom or curiosity; God took on human flesh in order to redeem it. Moreover, let us not forget that God does not redeem humanity by violence, but by becoming a victim.

In a world that continues to fall prey to the allure of violence, be it in the form of assault rifles, concealed handguns, racism, or apathy, let us remember that today God enters into our midst in order to offer and make possible a more excellent way: peace.

Books at SBL

The book room at the SBL is always a highlight of the conference. For the past couple of years, I have attempted to restrict my purchases to those books that are directly related to my dissertation. Last year, I failed miserably. This year, I was more successful. Here’s what I came home with:

From the Wipf & Stock booth:

Reidar Aasgaard’s The Childhood of Jesus: Decoding the Apocryphal Infancy Gospel of Thomas — As I am writing about an infancy gospel (arguably the best infancy gospel), this one was a must have. I had encountered it a few times in the early stages of my research, and after I heard it referenced a few times in the course of a single session, I decided I should pick up my own copy.

John H. Hayes’ If You Don’t Like the Possum, Enjoy the Sweet Potatoes: Some Principles for Travel Along the Road of Life — John Hayes was an OT professor at Emory while I was in seminary there. He has since retired (I believe). This, in short, is a sort of memoir: a collection of short essays covering a variety of topics. It offers, as the subtitle implies, “some principles for travel along the road of life.” One of the chapters is entitled, “Give People Enough Rope and They Will Hang You.” Obviously, not dissertation related.

D. Mark Davis’ Left Behind and Loving It: A Cheeky Look at the End Times — I have absolutely no idea what to expect from this book. It was an impulse buy. But, it was situated right next to what is perhaps my favorite work of theological humor, Tripp York’s The Devil Wears Nada. We shall see if Davis measures up. Also, not dissertation related.

From Baker Academic:

François Bovon’s New Testament and Christian Apocrypha — I have used this book countless times, but I have never been able to own it, as it was published previously by Mohr Siebeck. Now that it is available through Baker, I have my own copy!

From Baylor University Press:

Richard B. Hays and Stefan Alkier’s Revelation and the Politics of Apocalyptic Interpretation — I walked by this book at the Baylor Press booth probably 15 times before I pulled the trigger. I had seen an announcement about its release somewhere, and it certainly seemed interesting. I was hesitant to purchase it, however, because although I find Revelation interesting, I have never had any real impulse to do any work in it. Then, I attended a session on Monday afternoon during which this book was reviewed. The conversation that ensued in the session brought up many points that are related to the methodology I’m developing in my dissertation, so I was convinced to add this little tome to my stash. I read pieces of it on the train ride home, and I’m now very thankful that I decided to pick it up.

From Mohr Siebeck:

A small pamphlet with details about Christoph Markschies and Jens Schröter’s Antike christliche Apokryphen in deutscher Übersetzung — An exciting revision and expansion of the long-acclaimed Hennecke-Schneemelcher Neutestamentliche Apokryphen. I had a chance to peruse one of the volumes, and it looks fantastic. Unfortunately, because it is a Mohr Siebeck publication, the pamphlet is all I can afford (it was free). Hoping that the Marquette Library will be quick to add this to its collection.

The Illusive Reader

Six months ago, if you would have asked me about the topic of my dissertation, I would have told you that it was a study of the Protevangelium of James. My answer today would be largely the same. If you would have asked me (six months ago) to describe for you the identity of the reader in my study of Prot. Jas., however, I would have looked at you like you were insane: I am the reader, right? Wrong.

To be sure, the question of the reader has always been in the back of my mind: interpretation of ancient texts demands an ancient perspective, after all. If one approaches Prot. Jas. (or the Bible) in terms of one’s modern sensibilities, the result is likely anachronism, at least from a historical-critical point of view. This is of course not to say that modern readers cannot rightly interpret ancient texts. Rather, it is to say that modern readers must make judgments about what an ancient text can and cannot say on its own terms. Recently, however, the issue has become fuzzier (at least in the context of my project).

Without going into too much detail, my project involves the ways in which Prot. Jas. affects the imaginations and hermeneutical sensibilities of its readers. This involves discernment of various echoes in the text, as well as the new meaning engendered by those echoes. In short, my project focuses on what is going on between Prot. Jas. and, say, the Gospel of Luke.

The specific identity of the reader in the context of this project has proven to be quite important, and increasingly more complicated. Namely, to claim that there is an echo in this or that text implies the presence of a reader who is able to hear said echo without recourse to a lexicon or electronic database of ancient texts…clearly, I am not that reader.

I have several options with respect to how I’m going to frame what I mean by reader:

  1. Implied Reader (Wolfgang Iser)
  2. Informed Reader (Stanley Fish)
  3. Intended Reader (Erwin Wolff)
  4. Model Reader (Umberto Eco)
  5. Super Reader (Michael Riffaterre)
  6. Authorial Audience (Wayne Booth)

My task is to figure out what the differences are between these different readers, many of whom do not exist and never have existed in any objective sense, as well as why those differences actually matter to my project. As this project continues to unfold, I’m hoping to dedicate some posts in the near future to each of these readers. We shall see.

Stigmata and Christian Apocryphal Literature

I spent the majority of yesterday composing a written statement for a fellowship application. Part of this process involved reflecting on the past 10 years of my life – where I’ve been, what I’ve done, what I’ve studied, and how all of those things have contributed to my present research interests. Self-reflection can be fun, and it forces you to remember things that you’ve long since forgotten.

As I was trying to come up with an answer regarding why I chose to study Christian apocryphal literature, I decided it might be helpful to think about the first time I even heard about Christian apocryphal literature. The answer, which I did not include in my written statement (because it’s stupid), made me chuckle.

During my senior year of high school, I watched a movie called Stigmata. It had just been released. The movie tells the story of a young woman who becomes possessed by the spirit of a dead stigmatic priest. The young woman receives the stigmata, speaks in foreign tongues, and leads an investigator from the Vatican on a wild goose chase to find a lost gospel that the Church was attempting to suppress. The “lost gospel” in Stigmata is none other than the Gospel of Thomas, discovered at Nag Hammadi in 1945. At one point in the movie, a priest describes it as “an Aramaic scroll from the 1st century, discovered near the cave of the dead sea scrolls outside Jerusalem. Alameida [the dead stigmatic priest] and I concluded that it is a gospel of Jesus Christ. In his own words: Aramaic.” At the end of the movie, the following text pops up: “In 1945 a scroll was discovered in Nag Hammadi, which is described as ‘the secret sayings of the living Jesus.’ This scroll, the Gospel of St. Thomas, has been claimed by scholars around the world to be the closest record we have of the words of the historical Jesus.”

In retrospect, it’s not a good movie, but my young mind was absolutely enthralled at the time. I remember talking with a friend of mine afterward about how something needs to be done about the Church’s attempts to suppress truth like this…we were both really concerned.

I chuckled to myself as I recalled this experience, as it truly is the first time I became aware that there were “gospels” outside of the New Testament. Like many uninformed viewers of the movie, I assumed in my ignorance that what Stigmata claimed about the Gospel of Thomas was true, and I continued to assume that it was true until I heard otherwise (and I seem to recall embarrassing myself in an undergraduate NT course). Of course, there is little truth in what Stigmata claims about Thomas: it is a codex, not a scroll; it is written in Coptic, not Aramaic; it is from the second century, not the first; it was not found near the Dead Sea (Nag Hammadi is over 200 miles removed); some scholars (you know who you are) consider it to be “the closest record we have of the words of the historical Jesus,” but they are a minority. What’s more, the Dead Sea Scrolls were not isolated to one cave, but were spread out among among eleven!

I suppose this memory is useful, if only to remind us about how much garbage there is floating around about the “lost gospels.”

Anyway, hope you enjoyed my rant for the day.