Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Story About Great Treasures (Q&A Interview)

Alison Freeland interviewed Peter Coad in mid-2010, to get the story about Great Treasures. This is her article, developed from that interview.

Where did the original idea for the Great Treasures website come from?

Originally, I wanted to learn New Testament Greek in order to better understand
the Scriptures and to see exactly what the passages are saying. Among other
places, I studied at Houston Baptist University and began a Masters of Arts in
Theological Studies there.

Early in September 2003, I was studying with David Capes and Joe Blair in the
School of Theology. I realized I would be learning hundreds of words in Greek in
a short period of time, and I talked about finding a way to illustrate the words to
make them easier to learn. I have a background in building software, and one
day Dr. Capes asked, “When are you going to build software for this?” I gave
him a rather puzzled look.

The studies continued. I was troubled by existing Bible software packages and
the effort required to use them--slowly working word by word, having to put
verbs and nouns and other parts of speech in place, recognizing and decoding
them and then looking up the meaning of the Greek words involved. There was
too much time spent just doing the clerical work so that seeing larger chunks of
the Scriptures was often never attained—that is seeing phrases, verses and
passages in their context leading to understanding the whole Scriptures. All this
took time that could be better spent in the Scriptures themselves.

Translating the Scriptures can be an act of worship and love for God. I began to
wonder if we could develop software that would do the clerical “heavy lifting”
and let people spend more time simply considering what the Scriptures are

What was your business model?

I wanted to build software that would provide simple Bible tools that focus on
the Scriptures, and I was interested in free. As a business builder who has
worked with software development teams for many years, I thought, there are
places to make money, but why not make this freely available? I want the
Scriptures to speak, not to sell materials about the Scriptures. I knew that Bible
software could easily cost as much as $700 and I thought, in the church, that’s a
lot of money. What if we could actually develop software and make it freely
available, and have the user experience be simple, clean and effective and one
that encourages good Bible study practice?

Who is the team working on the site?
It sounds like a mix of programmers and

In 1995, I was working with a German software firm, building on programming
innovations I had envisioned and written about. Through that experience, I was
introduced to a group of talented programmers in St. Petersburg, Russia. In an
early visit, I met Mikhail F, and have worked closely with him ever since.

Mikhail was able to introduce me to colleagues who have an unusual mix of
skills, being both talented programmers and linguists. So, providing the
intersection of these two disciplines, St. Petersburg was the ideal place to start
building the Bible software I had in mind.

I have found that people everywhere long for meaningful work; work with a
purpose. With this project, we are working on things that will last far beyond our
lifetimes. Alex and another Mikhail, Mikhail Z, joined in June 2004. Alex is a
delightful Christian man with a keen sense of mission who is responsible for the
user interface. Mikhail is an experienced linguist, with Greek being the seventh
language he’s worked with in an in-depth way. Together we have been seeking
to understand building blocks of New Testament Greek. Mikhail has cataloged
every prepositional phrase and noun word group in the Pauline epistles
(Romans to Philemon). Overall we are working on inventions that can lower the
entry barrier to reading New Testament Greek Scriptures. A year later, Arseny
joined the team and has led the overall architecture of the software. Over the past
four years, we’ve been working to preserve the Latin original and produce a
corresponding English edition of a five-volume lexicon of the Septuagint (Old
Testament Greek). Alexey, Sophia and Julia, all linguists, are working on that
project. Al watches over our systems. Alexandra proofreads and corrects
language-based content. Such an amazing team (so much heavy lifting by so

How many versions of the Bible and how many different languages are
available in Great Treasures?

We’re now able to offer 82 versions of the Bible, with versions in 44 languages.
More to come! Every day, more people are joining the site from countries around
the world than from the United States. Global outreach.

What about other languages of the Bible such as Hebrew?

We will add Hebrew resources and perhaps one day take on resources for other
languages such as Syriac or Aramaic.

How did you develop the user interface?

I was encouraged to look at the work of a man named Edward Tufte. He is
known in the software field for understanding how to organize visual
information when dealing with a lot of content. It was a fascinating experience.
Tufte is all about taking complex information and presenting it in a way that
people can understand. I realized that in our work, advanced members would
benefit from seeing it all, intermediate members would benefit from seeing all
that is needed at that level, and beginners would benefit from seeing side-by-side
versions with notes. I realized that people would approach our website from
different backgrounds and degrees of interest, and we have endeavored to serve
up the information according to an individual’s interest and skill levels. Over
sixteen months, we developed a new user interface based on Tufte’s idea that
people can absorb a vast amount of information if it is well organized. We came
up with the approach of three sections--beginner, intermediate, advanced—all
three working together in a coordinated, in-sync way. Rather than doing Bible
software written from a programmer’s perspective, it’s designed by those
wanting to encourage good practice in considering the Scriptures.

You seem very interested in encouraging people to read with context in mind.

A Bible student must continually remember the God-given context of what is
being read. We have tried to encourage this with the way the software works.
Our website encourages the Bible student to stay within the flow of what he or
she is reading, stopping briefly to check on the specific points of grammar and

What is the Facebook app connected to Great Treasures?

When Facebook announced its programming interfaces, we produced an app
called Bible and went online with it in 2008. The Bible app is a subset of what we
do at Great Treasures. It’s a place to come and read the Word and share the
Word with each other. Over 100,000 people have added the app at this point. Its
50,000+ “fans” are mostly middle school and high school Christians.
You talk about Great Treasures being a “theologically neutral safe haven.”
What does this mean?

I’ve heard that it was Martin Luther who had the idea that in every congregation
it would be good to have a couple of people reading along in Greek to safeguard
the Scriptures. I heard this again recently, the idea of learning New Testament
Greek so you can be watchful. Sometimes a well-intended person wants to run
with his or her own ideas, but if there is someone reading along in the Greek,
you can’t go too far.

Sometimes English versions of the Bible will flavor a word, push it in a certain
direction, more than what the word in Greek conveys. The idea is to understand
what the Scriptures say, not more and not less, not adding oomph or negativity,
but the same weight. We have some very effective and thoughtful translations
that we owe a real debt to for those who invested years of their lives to translate.
Reading in the Greek provides another cross check to help keep doctrinally pure
and to stay on track with what the Scriptures are saying.

Maybe we’ll get a few people in the back of every church reading along in Greek.
The real focus of Great Treasures is on lots and lots of Word and a few helps. The
Scriptures are strong enough and can speak loudly on their own behalf. The
problems we face in the Christian church are issues that might take many
decades to address. The answers come from the reading of the Scriptures
themselves and carefully considering them in context. It’s the reading of the
Scriptures that will make the difference--not around the Scriptures, but the
Scriptures themselves.

Our site is not promoting a denomination or group, but is for reading and
sharing notes and considering the Scriptures together.

How should one approach the site for the first time?

When a prospect comes to the site, there is help in reading the Scriptures. If
you’re interested in spiritual growth, it’s the Scriptures that will make the
difference. We show testimonials of how the site has helped other people. We
show a background of what the site looks like and then we have people sign in.
This provides a small bit of participation, and then they can use the site freely.

What’s next?

From my experience in building businesses, I know entrepreneurs conduct lots
and lots of experiments. I don’t know where this will lead, but I am deeply
interested in language learning. Looking ahead, one thing I ask myself is how
can we help people begin to read and think in New Testament Greek? We have
catalogued every prepositional phrase in the Pauline epistles and we’ve also
catalogued all the noun phrases. We can use chunks of real language to relate to
meaning. Perhaps one could greet a brother or sister in Greek or pray simple
prayers--begin to relate to meaningful chunks of Scriptures in the Word. So, we
continue to look for ways to lower the barriers of entry in considering the

What is the basic timeline of the site’s development?

2003 I began taking courses in New Testament Greek

2004 Saw potential for innovations for Greek students. Experimented with
color-coding different parts of speech. A small team--chief programmer,
chief linguist and I—began working together.

2005 Chief architect joined us.

2006 We presented an initial website with four versions of the Bible and a
chapter at a time displayed in different versions in side-by-side columns.
We gave people the ability to add notes. Also added work related to the

2007 We added the New American Standard Version. We added long
definitions from Thayer and then Strong’s numbers. We scanned
Bullinger’s lexicon and converted it to be by Greek word instead of by
English word, so Bullinger’s short definitions were added. Provided
ability to mouse over a word and see many resources automatically.

2008 Released “Bible” on Facebook. Added Greek New Testament audio
and lessons online. Added syllable breaks in the Greek words. Added a
vocabulary builder and reading levels.

2009 Developed a new user interface: beginner, intermediate, advanced
(launched at the start of 2010).

2010 Re-named the site “Great Treasures” and offered 82 versions in 44
languages. Team has 3 linguists fluent in Latin and British English
preserving the Latin original of a five-volume lexicon of the Septuagint
(Old Testament Greek) and producing an English edition slated for completion
in 2011.


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