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The Bible and the Internet

Michael J. Chan, Ph.D.

Networked digital technology is changing how people read, study, and interpret the Bible1. Not unlike the printing press, the digital age is fundamentally redefining and reconfiguring how readers with access to digital technology interact with biblical texts. Readers are no longer bound to a physical page when they want to read a book. The entire Bible, however one defines it, is available on devices that are thinner than a printed version of the Pentateuch. We are clearly in the midst of an information and reading revolution. The Internet, as Barry W. Cull notes, is “an achievement of literacy.”2 It is a revolution created by and largely in service of the world's literate population. How this revolution will change interpretive practices with respect to biblical literature remains to be seen. The goal of this essay is to discuss how these changes are affecting access to the Bible, reading of the Bible, and interpretation of the Bible. I am keenly aware that this essay is a reflection on the Bible from within the digital age. The world is changing and this essay assesses one aspect of that revolution, even while it is still in progress.

This brief essay, however, is not the first publication to explore how networked technology is affecting readers of the Bible. A recently published volume titled Digital Humanities in Biblical, Early Jewish and Early Christian Studies (Brill 2013) contains a number of essays that reflect on how the “Digital Humanities”3 movement is affecting the scholarly study of the Bible, early Judaism and early Christianity.4 The volume emerged from a work group of the Society of Biblical Literature. Following the lead of these scholars, the present essays explores a number of critical, practical, and theoretical issues and questions related to the Bible and networked technology, albeit with a greater focus on popular readers.

Due to the rapidly expanding nature of networked technology, this brief essay cannot be comprehensive. A simple Google search on “Bible” results in tens of millions of hits, and one can only assume that this number will climb. Similarly numerous results emerge from keywords such as “Jewish,” “Christian,” “Jesus,”Scripture,” etc. And so when specific websites are mentioned below, these should be viewed as examples that are representative of larger trends in the world of networked technology.

Finally, it should be noted that biblical literature is significant to many different people for many different reasons. Primarily, biblical literature is sacred Scripture for Jews and Christians, but it also attracts the attention of a variety of other readers, some of whom have little to no connection to faith communities. From scholars to social commentators, from devout believers to staunch atheists, many people show an interest in biblical literature, both for its own sake and for its impact on the world. Biblical texts are never interpreted from a neutral position; interests are always at play. And in recognition of this fact, an attempt will be made to signal the particular angles, interests, and assumptions taken by the various digital media discussed below. The goal here is not to grant greater legitimation to any particular interpretive approach, but rather to help digital media consumers recognize that the Bible is a highly contested social symbol, surrounded by overlapping discourses and competing claims.

Reading the Bible in a New World

Let's begin with a basic observation about how networked technology has changed reading habits: readers with Internet access are now capable of engaging the Bible on a flat field of manipulable pixels rather than a physical page made of processed trees. The text itself might be part of a local application (e.g., a program downloaded onto an iPad or Android tablet) or it might exist on the Internet “cloud” itself. One can typically interact with the text either through a touch-screen interface or through a mouse. Apart from the potential economic and environmental impacts of this sea change in media, does it matter for readers' experience of the Bible? Yes, and in several ways.

Among other things, digital media represent quick access to information. Not surprisingly, there is evidence that the quick-access capabilities of digital media encourage reading habits that tend to erode more traditional habits of reading, by focusing on skimming and keyword reading.5 Although I am unaware of any studies that have studied this “path of least resistance”6 approach to information gathering, one can assume that digital readers of biblical literature are (or will be) affected by these reading trends.

“Search” functions are one way in which readers can gain rapid access to the desired information. It is now standard practice to include a “search” function on any digital reading, and digital Bibles are no exception. Many faith-based Bible apps (such as YouVersion, Bible +1, Olive Tree) and websites (such as www.esvbible.org, www.kingjamesbibleonline.org, bible.oremus.org) allow for keyword, verse, and sometimes topic searches (see, e.g., the Bible +1 app). One no longer needs to rely on the limitations of a static index, an unwieldy concordance, or one's memory; one can simply enter the term(s) or topic(s) of interest into the search engine and gain instant access to the desired information. Accordance and BibleWorks are two of the most common digital programs utilized by biblical scholars, and they also feature highly complex search functions that allow users to conduct highly complex searches of texts in their original languages.7 These programs even allow one to gain easy access to digitized, searchable manuscript collections like the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The idea behind keyword of topic searches is not at all new, but our ability to customize such searches, limiting their scope to particular books and even verses, and to acquire rapid results certainly is. Search functions, in other words, serve as dynamic, personalized indexes, allowing the reader to study where and how a term or topic it is used across an entire selection of texts.

Reading the Bible on the Internet or in an app can also result in some surprising juxtapositions. For instance, it is not unusual to encounter advertisements, feeds, or Facebook notices while reading biblical texts in a digital environment. The digital page is an increasingly crowded space, due to a proliferation of “marginal distractions”8 that supplement, and sometimes interrupt, the reading experience. If one navigates, for instance, to www.chabad.org (a site for religious information on Judaism, with many resources on the Bible) or www.biblegateway.com (a Christian website with multiple translation and study tools), one will encounter numerous advertisements for religiously themed products, services, travel opportunities, and publications. Web-based advertisements, moreover, are becoming increasingly personalized, with the result that a product one might view, say, on Amazon or EBay, appears on a website dedicated to the Bible. The pages of the Bible are no longer static two-dimensional planes of text, waiting passively for the reader to engage them; in the digital environment, the pages of the Bible have themselves become a discursive confluence of text, video, image, and sound. One's reading of the text can be instantly interrupted by pop-up ads, eye-catching advertisements, sound bytes, or endless customization features, all of which stand alongside the biblical texts, and in some ways are in competition with it.

Related to this last point, the digital environment also allows one to juxtapose texts, images, videos, and audio with remarkable creativity and variety. To be sure, including pictures on the pages of Bibles is a very old phenomenon (see, for example, the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages and the illustrated Bibles of Martin Luther),9 but unprecedented is the fact that sound, image, and text can come to reader simultaneously and in a single media package. Traditional print media almost always has the potential to include images on a page of text, but the Internet increases that potential exponentially, to allow not only images but also video and audio.

Digital Bible reading has had a profound impact on how disabled persons access the Bible. For instance, someone with diminished vision or physical strength can, with the help of voice detection technology like Apple's Siri, easily access free audio versions of the Bible (such as Bible Gateway and Faith Comes by Hearing), often made available by faith-based organizations. One can even listen to large portions of the Bible in their original languages— Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek at Academy of Ancient Languages, a website created by Gary D. Martin of the University of Washington in Seattle. In the past, one would be forced to pay for a CD or MP3 download of audio Bibles, but many audio versions are now available without cost to anyone with internet access, and they can even be uploaded to MP3 devices smaller than a cell phone, making the Bible all the more accessible.

On a related point, most digital devices allow a person to enlarge the font, often with the simple push of a button or swipe of the fingers. Reading glasses or “large print” Bibles become less relevant in the digital age, since font size can be changed according to one's needs or desires. It seems likely that we have seen only the first fruits of innovation with regard to making the Bible and related literature accessible to the disabled.

Networked digital technologies have also made reading more interactive. Apart from some children's Bible apps (see, e.g., the intuitive and visually appealing “Bible for Kids” app by LifeChurch.tv), however, most digital Bibles simply replicate in pixels what is available on the page. The incredible potential for interactivity remains largely unexplored territory. I speak here not simply of pop-up boxes with interesting translational notes (for this kind of function, see the New English Translation, which has extensive translational notes). I'm talking about a multi-dimensional, multimedial, manipulable text that allows a reader not only to read the words she is looking at, but quite literally to manipulate the text itself, gaining access to various layers of content (text, audio, images, videos, etc.) and textual configurations at the swipe of a finger.

The award-winning digital magazine, Katachi Magazine, has shown its innovative edge by developing a highly interactive, multi-medial digital platform that pushes the limits of touch-screen technology. Traditional print magazines offer only static images and texts, but the pages of Katachi come alive at the touch of the screen, rewarding readers with dazzling and insightful displays of color, image, and text. Swiping a finger or interacting with an image often distorts the page in unexpected ways. In some cases, interacting with the screen will even open a portal to additional layers of text. Readers of Katachi are invited through design to create their own reading experience by interacting with manipulable features on the page. Magazines like Katachi reward the curious reader by allowing them to explore the text on multiple levels. In such media, the reader's agency blends with the media in profound ways. Features such as these may foreshadow a new age in biblical reading.

Interpreting the Bible Digitally

Networked digital technology has also changed the face of biblical interpretation. Because of the relatively easy access to uncensored Internet content and content-generating services, almost anyone with Internet access can express herself through powerful social media tools such as YouTube, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. This easy-access-digital environment in which we live has “democratized” biblical interpretation in a way nothing else could. Quite literally, anyone with minimal access to technology can become an international public interpreter of the Bible, broadcasting almost without hindrance through free media outlets owned by some of the most powerful companies in the world. Never before have so many interpreters had at their disposal such a powerful platform.

The social aspects of these media platforms are also significant. Most Internet-based media today allows the audience to interact with what the author or artist has created. It is often the case, then, that posting or publishing content is only the beginning of much larger conversations that can take place between the author and audience. One thing is certain: commentary on commentary on commentary is the new norm in networked digital media.

Academic biblical scholars have also been hard at work utilizing networked digital media to bring critical biblical interpretation into the public sphere. One example is Bible Odyssey, a website created by the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), the world's largest academic society for scholars of the Bible and related literature. The website is freely available to the public and is funded in large part by the National Endowment for the Humanities. According to the SBL, the Bible holds an iconic status throughout the world and especially in Western civilization, making it deserving of close study. And yet, the site claims, the Bible's iconic status does not necessarily translate into high levels of knowledge about the Bible, to say nothing about critical approaches. Bible Odyssey seeks to address both problems through learned articles, video interviews, and even interactive games, designed by a team of academic biblical scholars.

A second website, www.thetorah.com, is both similar to and different from Bible Odyssey. TheTorah.com seeks to “energize the Jewish people by integrating the study of Torah with the disciplines and findings of academic biblical scholarship.” The website goes on further to state that it hopes to help realize a vision of “an observant and knowledgeable Jewish community empowered by an understanding of Torah integrated with scientific approaches and scholarly knowledge.”10 The website is largely text-based, containing articles, blogs, and even “Ask a Rabbi” and “Ask a Bible Scholar” features. It remains to be seen what kind of impact this website will have on its target community. Whatever the impact, it is clear that the designers of the website are hoping to use digital media to change the religious reading habits of their audience by serving as a digital bridge between the academy and the synagogue.

The Digital Humanities movement is also having a profound effect on how scholars interact with ancient texts. The major technological force driving this change is digitization—the imaging, publication, and indexing of texts. One thinks, for instance of the digitization of the Dead Sea Scrolls11 or of the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative, both of which make high quality images available to anyone, free of charge. Digitization of ancient texts also opens up new modes of study, especially when one can attach said texts to sophisticated search engines. The digitization of ancient texts promises to affect numerous fields in the study of the Bible, including but not limited to textual criticism, Septuagintal studies,12 reception history, lexicography, and translation.

Many other religious and non-religious organizations and individuals interested in the Bible now have a voice on the web. They are concerned with everything from heresies to history, racism to redaction criticism, ancient Near Eastern background to adult education within synagogues and churches. The Internet reflects the whole range of biblical interpretation, and if the recent past tells us anything about the present, biblical interpretation in digital spaces will only multiply.

The Future of the Bible and Networked Technology

What the revolution in networked technology will mean ultimately for how people interact with the Bible is unclear. Reading the Bible in 10, 20, or 30 years may only loosely resemble what we consider reading today. As noted above, there is mounting evidence that networked digital technology is changing how we read texts in the digital environment, but will these changes also affect how we read traditional print media? Will we take our digital reading habits—good and bad—into the tradition print world, and if so, what will the net societal effect be? Will such a move make us better or worse readers? It is, moreover, unclear how the ongoing revolution will affect notions of canonicity, normativity, and interpretation. Will the concepts of Sacred Scripture somehow undergo a transformation because of the digital revolution? Will the Bible eventually leave the two-dimensional environments of flat screens and paper, and enter perhaps into three dimension interactive environments? What will happen if humans are able to interface with the web through implanted devices, making the Internet, quite literally, an extension of our own intelligence? In such a scenario, our physical eyes might play less of a role in processing texts. What might all of this mean for biblical literacy? In such a scenario, could we even distinguish our biological intellectual and mnemonic capacities from the storage capacities of the cloud? However we answer these questions, one thing is clear: The digital revolution will continue to play a profound role in defining how we read the Bible in the coming century.

Notes

1“The Bible” is placed in quotation marks to signal the highly flexible nature of the term. What one means by the term, “Bible,” depends on numerous factors, chief of which is the community in which one is reading it. When Jews, for instance, refer to “the Bible” (Tanakh), they are generally referring to Genesis-Chronicles—what Christians often refer to as the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible. When Christians refer to “the Bible” they typically have in mind both the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. This essay will attempt to avoid the term, “the Bible,” in favor of “biblical literature,” but for the sake of convenience “the Bible” may be used, in full recognition of its deficiencies.

2See his, “Reading Revolutions: Online Digital Text and Implications for Reading in Academe,” n.p. [cited 7 November 2014]. Online: http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3340/2985

3There is no single, agreed-upon definition of “Digital Humanities.” One helpful attempt defines Digital Humanities as follows: “The present volume puts itself forward in support of a Digital Humanities that asks what it means to be a human being in the networked information age and to participate in fluid communities of practice, asking and answering research questions that cannot be reduced to a single genre, medium, discipline, or institution. Digital Humanities represents a major expansion of the purview of the humanities, precisely because it brings the values, representational and interpretive practices, meaning-making strategies, complexities, and ambiguities of being human into every realm of experience and knowledge of the world.” Anne Burdick et al, Digital_Humanities (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012), vii.

4Claire Clivaz, Andrew Gregory, and David Hamidovi?, ed., Digital Humanities in Biblical, Early Jewish and early Christian Studies (Scholarly Communication 2; Leiden: Brill, 2014).

5See Barry W. Cull, “Reading Revolutions: Online Digital Text and Implications for Reading in Academe,” n.p. [cited 7 November 2014]. Online: http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3340/2985; Alan Liu, “A New Metaphor for Reading,” n.p. [accessted 7 November 2014]. Online: http://roomfordebate.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/10/14/does-the-brain-like-e-books/?_r=0; idem, “The End of the End of the Book: Dead Books, Lively Margins, and Social Computing.” Michigan Quarterly Review, 48 (2009): 499–520; Michael Rosenwald, “Serious Reading Takes a Hite from Online Scanning and Skimming, Researchers Say,” n.p. [cited 7 November 2014]. Online: http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/serious-reading-takes-a-hit-from-online-scanning-and-skimming-researchers-say/2014/04/06/088028d2-b5d2-11e3-b899-20667de76985_story.html.

6This is Cull's terminology. See his, “Reading Revolutions: Online Digital Text and Implications for Reading in Academe,” n.p. [cited 7 November 2014]. Online: http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3340/2985.

7Both of these programs, while focused on scholarly linguistic study of the Bible, also have clear faith commitments. For instance, Accordance and BibleWorks contain Christian devotional literature that includes everything from daily readings to brief commentaries on biblical texts. And BibleWorks makes the Christian faith of its owners explicit: “The purpose of BibleWorks, LLC is to provide pastors, teachers, students, and missionaries with the tools they need to "rightly divide the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15) . . . because everything that we do reflects on our real employer, the Lord Jesus Christ, it is our desire to provide a professionally executed and supported software package, while at the same time compensating employees with reasonable salaries that are competitive with the rest of the software industry” http://www.bibleworks.com/about.html

8See Alan Liu, “A New Metaphor for Reading,” n.p. [cited 7 November 2014]. Online: http://roomfordebate.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/10/14/does-the-brain-like-e-books/?_r=0.

9See, e.g., P. van der Coelen, “Pictures for the People? Bible Illustrations and Their Audience,” in Lay Bibles in Europe 1450–1800 (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2006), 188.

10http://thetorah.com/about/

11 Pnina Shor, “The Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library. The Digitization Project of the Dead Sea Scrolls,” in Digital Humanities in Biblical, Early Jewish and Early Christian Studies, 11–20.

12 For a discussion of digital Septuagintal research, see Juan Garcés, “The Seventy and Their 21st-Century Heirs. The Prospects for Digital Septuagint Research,” in Digital Humanities in Biblical, Early Jewish and Early Christian Studies, 95–144.

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