Visualising structures in ancient texts

David Musgrave, Amridge University


Gordon Rugg, Keele University


Ancient texts made widespread use of a range of rhetorical structures. A simple example is the division of a text into thematic sections. A more sophisticated example is the use of inclusio, also known as bracketing, where a theme is located between two mentions of another theme that acts as marker for the beginning and end of the main theme.

Identifying such structures can encounter various problems, such as keeping track of a particular theme in long texts. In this article, we show how the identification of themes is made easier by displaying the locations of relevant keywords visually. The example below shows this principle applied to mentions of boats and of hire in the Code of Hammurapi. The illustration was produced using the Search Visualizer software.

The Code of Hammurapi (also transliterated as Hammurabi) dates from about 1770 BCE. It is one of the earliest known sets of written laws, consisting of 282 laws on various themes.

The illustration above shows where the codes mention boats (shown as red squares) and hire (shown as green squares). Each square in the illustration represents a word in the Code.

We see that most of the mentions of boats occur about halfway through the Code, with two more mentions near the end; mentions of hire all occur in the second half of the Code. The two themes overlap in the second half of the “boat” segment, where the Code deals with hire of boats; the last two mentions of “boat” are in laws about hiring boatmen.

Similar structuring by theme can be seen in Genesis. The image below shows occurrences of “woman” (in red) and of “Eve” (in green) in the King James Version.

The word “woman” occurs only in the first half of the text; the word “Eve” occurs only once, very early in the text.

There are mentions of particular women throughout the text, such as Noah’s wife, but the word “woman” occurs only in the first half.

Another example of limited distributions involves a possible case of inclusio within Genesis.

Two key themes in Genesis are life and death – the creation of life is the theme of the opening verses, and the arrival of death is a key theme in the biblical story of the Fall.

The locations of the words “life” and “death” within Genesis show a pattern. Death is mentioned only in the middle section of the text. There are numerous mentions of people dying throughout the text, but the word “death” occurs only in the middle. Life is mentioned in a layer of frequent mentions at the beginning, and another layer of frequent mentions at the end, and in a looser cluster around the middle, where it is interspersed among the mentions of death.

This looks like a large-scale example of inclusio, where the theme of death in the middle section is bracketed by the mentions of life in the opening and closing sections.

The illustration below shows the location of mentions of “life” (in red) and of “death” (in green).

Similar structures are visible in the gospels.

The example below shows where the word “blessed” (in red) occurs in the gospels of Matthew and John.

The red layer near the start of Matthew is where the Sermon on the Mount occurs, with its regular mentions of the word “blessed” being mirrored in the regular occurrences of the red squares across the image.

The illustration below shows the near-absence of a theme. In Matthew, there are numerous mentions both of Scribes (red) and Pharisees (green). In John, Pharisees are mentioned about as often as they are in Matthew, but Scribes are mentioned only once, about a third of the way down.

These examples show how displaying positions of keywords visually can show thematic and rhetorical structures within texts.

The Search Visualizer software can be used to gain other insights into texts, as shown by other articles on this blog site:

We hope this approach will be useful to other researchers.

This article describes topics covered in our presentation at ASOR 2012 – the annual meeting of the Association of Schools of Oriental Research, in Chicago.


Contact details:

Gordon Rugg is a Senior Lecturer at Keele University: g.rugg (at)

If you are interested in obtaining a departmental license for Search Visualizer, please contact Gerry Brennan: gerry (at)

Technical details:

The images above were made using the Search Visualizer:

The illustration of the Code of Hammurapi was made using the Sacred Texts online edition, at:

You can search texts on a specified site using the “Single site” option of Search Visualizer. This option is located on the the menu linked to the “Entire Web” option toward the left of the SV screen.

The biblical illustrations were made using the Project Gutenberg text of the King James Version, located at:

The Search Visualizer site contains the texts of the Pentateuch and of the Gospels from the Project Gutenberg text, in the “Sample texts” section of the SV site. You can reach this section of the site using the menu linked to the “Entire Web” option.

The texts are under the terms and conditions of the Project Gutenberg copyright, whose details are available in the “Texts & Resources” section of the site. That section can be reached via the “Texts & Resources” tab at the top of the site homepage.


About searchvisualizer

We welcome debate and disagreement, but not abuse, trolling or thread derailment. We reserve the time-honoured right of blog owners and moderators to be arbitrary, capricious and autocratic in our wielding of the ban hammer. Gordon Rugg is a former timberyard worker, archaeologist and English lecturer who ended up in computer science via psychology. He’s the same Gordon Rugg who did the Voynich Manuscript work, and the books with Marian Petre about research. He’s co-inventor of the Search Visualizer.
This entry was posted in textual analysis and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Visualising structures in ancient texts

  1. Damon says:

    In terms of textual structures existent in Genesis, there are two known types of structures. There are chiastic structures throughout Genesis (see one of which is evident in Genesis 1-3 (see but which seems to be relatively unknown compared to the ones in the rest of the text. Chiasm are commonly recognized in 1:1 to 2:3 ( and in 2:18 to 3:24 ( but rarely over the whole of the first three chapters.

    In addition, there are alleged “colophons” which seem to parallel ones found on ancient clay tablets discovered at Ebla and Nuzi. ( These colophons seem to indicate that the actual source material for Genesis might have once been written on a series of clay tablets instead of on a scroll.

  2. Pingback: ‘Genesis Death Sandwich’ Discovered in Bible | Florida State Tribune

  3. Pingback: ‘Genesis Death Sandwich’ Discovered in Bible | Stock Market News - Business & Tech News

  4. I don’t know whether it’s just me or if everyone else experiencing issues with your blog.
    It seems like some of the written text within your posts are running off the screen.
    Can somebody else please comment and let me know if this is happening to them too?
    This might be a problem with my browser because I’ve had this happen previously. Thank you

  5. I love what you guys tend to be up too. This sort of clever work
    and coverage! Keep up the awesome works guys I’ve added you guys to our blogroll.

  6. pinterest says:

    Make your images, videos, and infographics easy
    to pin by placing them on the page rather than displayed as
    a background. Founded in March 2010, Pinterest has become the fastest-growing social media site on the web, gaining 145% more users since January 2012 alone.
    I make boards of animals, quotes, or color combinations.

  7. Pingback: Does Genesis contain a “death sandwich”? | CL-UAT

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s