What Does Data Visualization Have to Do With Bible Study?
We don’t normally associate the term “data” with holy texts. We see the Bible as a collection of stories. We see data as a collection of facts and figures. Therefore, data analysis concepts don’t come to mind when we set out to study a passage. Despite this modern mindset, data visualization is well suited to enhance our understanding of biblical stories.
Printed Bibles have included various types of data visualizations for centuries. In 1611, the King James Version was printed with detailed genealogical charts going from Adam to Jesus.
More than just a fancy illustration, it visualizes the relationships described across several passages, linking them in a way that makes disjointed, sleep-inducing passages easier to comprehend as a whole. Charts like this engage readers by conveying information in a more easily digestible format. My own experience visualizing Jesus’ ancestry bears out this conclusion. Given how people see genealogies as a snooze-fest, I was surprised when “Mapping God’s Bloodline” became the most widely popular visualization I have made.
Maps are by far the most common example of data visualization we see in Bibles today. Nearly every one of them has at least one map of the Holy Land and maps of Paul’s missionary journeys. Maps belong in this category because they are essentially a visual representation of biblical descriptions linked with numbers – points of latitude and longitude. Adding paths to the map conveys the element of time by indicating some sequence with arrows or annotations. Modern mapping tools can extend beyond the limitations of printed pages, enabling 3-D tours as we see in newer Bible software or animated maps giving a better sense of events through time.
Timelines aren’t something we normally see in the back of Bibles but they do appear elsewhere in the history of Christian scholarship. Adam’s Synchronological Chart is a classic example from 1871. Its size and detail might explain why you wouldn’t see it or anything like it in a mere appendix. Laying out the genealogies above on a time scale is how we arrive at most dates for events prior to Abraham. This is yet another way that data visualization aids our comprehension and study across many chapters and books.
Pastors and commentators have developed a tendency to point out how many times words or phrases are used in some passage to argue a point of emphasis. This exercise is essentially quantitative, lending itself to a range of other data visualizations. Simple bar charts would represent the word frequency in comparison to others. This makes it easier to see just how much that word is emphasized over others or convey a broader theme with a full list of frequently used words.
Now, connect this idea back to the things above. We can easily combine counts of mentions with place marks, points in time, or people and their ancestors. With interactive digital elements we can narrow down the study to selected topics of interest to keep each in a broader context. I envision inspiring students of scripture with images that engage their minds and lead to deeper study. In that vein, data visualizations should not be there to serve up easy answers – they should lead viewers to more interesting questions.