Gospel Popularity: Ngram Analysis

As promised, above is an example of using more than one phrase/word in Google’s Ngram Viewer to analyze a religious issue: the popularity of the gospels. It only took me only one simple search to get this data which tells us much more than my post “The Gospels’ Popularity” where I spent much time searching and graphing. Ah the benefits of technology!  The graph shows frequency (percent of mentions) per number of printed words for that year in Google Book’s present data bank — 20 million books as of May 2012 !

Fortunately, both methods confirm that the Gospel of John is and always has been the favorite Christian gospel by a long run. Remember, John’s gospel is the last gospel and by then Jesus has morphed into a full-blown all-knowing, all-powerful bragging deity. No wonder John’s Gospel is more popular.

Challenges for Readers:

  1. What are the spikes?  Are those American Christian revivals? (anyone up on American religious history?)
  2. Use Ngram Viewer to explore some interesting religious concept using two or more phrases/words.  Describe your conclusion in the comments and link to your ngram.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

14 responses to “Gospel Popularity: Ngram Analysis

  1. That’s a very good point about John’s gospel. It has occurred to me that perhaps part of why it is so enduringly popular also consists in its ‘mystical’ (i.e. mystifying) language. I’ve always found John’s gospel to be disturbingly easy to read things into.

  2. What does the vertical axis represent?

  3. I searched these four statements:
    God exists
    There is a God
    God does not exist
    There is no God

    The results are very conflicting. It would seem belief in the existence of God is on the rise, but belief in a God is not. This shows me that wording is important. And, as noted, results are case-sensitive. Big differences arise not only with upper- and lower-case G, but in upper- and lower-case T (there and There).
    Here is my ngram.

  4. @ James: Excellent points !

    @ Mark: Thanks for the question. I labeled the graph and put an explanation in the post. Hope it helps. What does the data say to you?

    @ Paul: Very nice! So given the caveats, what do the results of your search tell you? Are you trying to say something? Interestingly, in the TED talk they did a graph of “God is not dead” which has a spiked after Nietzsche declared that “Gott ist tot” in the 1800s. But remember, just because a phrase is found in a book, does not mean someone believes it — they may be arguing against it.

  5. I just noticed that there’s a James, Mark and Paul commenting on John’s Gospel – made me laugh!🙂

  6. @ James,
    LOL — and only Paul is probably not a pseudonym and so the irony goes deeper.

  7. Note: also of interest is that the Gospel of Thomas, though not in competition with John, is giving the other Gospels a run for their money. Any Toms willing to comment? 🙂

  8. These stats seem interesting and valuable. But they could use some refinements.

    For example: any way to distinguish between positive and negative mentions of John? A great number of mentions, COULD indicate … he was being widely attacked, for instance. Which seems increasingly true in academic studies of this, non-“synoptic” gospel.

    By the way? One of the most popular quotes from John is his most atypical: John 3.16. Where Jesus temporarily abandons his “hate” for the “world.” And instead for once, “loves the world.”

  9. @ Bretton,
    Yeah, there are lots of problems with this data. But I’d wager that if a tweeking method existed, the data would reveal a similar pattern. But you are right — a mention could be an attack and not affection. You thoughts about Jesus Hating vs Loving the world were good points. Thanx.

  10. Hmmm. The Synoptic Gospels have a lot of overlap, whereas the Gospel of John has more original content. Maybe it’s more popular because it has a more unique message compared to the other three?

    Also, the Gospel of John has more theological speculation (“logos” and all that), which might make it appealing at times of religious revival or social upheaval.

  11. Oh that Gospel of John. It has long been my contention that everyone reads the rest of the Gospels assuming John. Mark’s Christology and the synoptic chronology much different. I still find some value in John, but as epic fan-boy love poetry, not historical. Scholar Elaine Pagels hypothesizes that John is a theological riff in response to the Gnostics and specifically the Gospel of Thomas. Ahab’s “Theological speculation” is a good phrase to use.

    The spikes are indeed revivals. The first peak is the Second Great Awakening. Then you see the slow decline with a few spikes and then the little bump of the “Golden age of the Mainlines” circa 1940 (where John and the Synoptics are the closest together). Then you see from 1970s on being the big Evangelical Push (aka rise of the Christian Right) which we’re currently in and it’s no surprise John is leading the way there too.

  12. @ Luke,
    Thanks for the info on the spikes — great history stuff.

  13. TWF

    I didn’t know about Ngram either. Cool beans!

    Relative to what little I recently learned about the “Golden Age of Freethought,” it seems to correspond to a trend in decreasing in the late 1800’s, which is followed by a revival around 1910. I wonder what sparked that off.

    It’s also interesting that after World War II was brought to a close is when the trend starts to increase again, especially for John. Perhaps defeating the “evil” of Hitler revived the black and white dualistic perspective? It’s also pretty neat to see the effect of the internet on the tail end of the curves. I know I mention those Gospels a lot. 🙂

  14. @ TWF
    I added “freethought” to the Ngram and I think I see what you mean.
    I don’t think “blogs” are counted 😉

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