Big Names in Biblical Studies: On Precise Ngrams and Search Engine Syntax

Categories: Biblical Studies, New Testament

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A couple weeks ago, Robert Myles responded to a few recent discussions about the next big thing in biblical studies with an Ngram looking at the relative popularity of recent scholars associated with Historical Jesus research:

Check out this very insightful N-Gram on the relative popularity of a number of historical Jesus scholars over the past few decades. To my surprise, some of the more conservative scholars who I thought would be leading the race (e.g. N.T. Wright) are trailing behind. Conversely, with John Dominic Crossan clearly in the lead, this is a definite win for (implicit) Marxism in New Testament studies and in fact proves that Marxism is not just a fad!

Historical Jesus Ngram 1


On first look, I thought it was odd that Ed Sanders was so low on the list, so I tinkered with the Google Ngram search myself and discovered that there was a problem with Myles’ search engine syntax that badly skewed the results of the Ngram. The problem is that although John Dominic Crossan is nearly always cited with his full name, the same is not true for those whose name includes an initial—especially those who go by their initials entirely, thanks to differences in whether or not a space is left between the initials. To the Ngram search parameters, “E.P. Sanders” is different from “E. P. Sanders”; the latter will not be included with the former unless specific operators are included to make that clear. Once that is taken into account, the results look rather different—and significantly less bullish with respect to Marxism in New Testament studies:


I left the initial references to E.P Sanders and N.T Wright (sans space) to show the difference a space can make when using Ngram searches. There is, in fact, a way to combine search terms on the graph using the “+” symbol, so the multiple names for one figure can theoretically be combined. Nevertheless, this episode should make all of us more cautious with how we use search engine data and Ngrams in our research…

HT: James McGrath

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2 Comments. Leave new

  • This is great, Jason! Excellent analysis.

  • I’m a data scientist. Never expected to see such an article on here. I loved it. Is the data/code open source anywhere? I’d love to have a look at it. Text analytics is my specialty.


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