Posted by: chuckbumgardner | May 10, 2014

Digital Humanities in Biblical, Early Jewish and Early Christian Studies

Claire Clivaz, Andrew Gregory, and David Hamidović, eds. Digital Humanities in Biblical, Early Jewish and Early Christian Studies. Scholarly Communication 2. Leiden: Brill, 2014.

This fascinating volume won points with me as soon as I opened it. Directly following the table of contents and list of contributors is a collection of abstracts covering all the essays in the volume. Read eight pages, and you’ve got a good idea of what the entire volume is about. May the editors’ tribe increase!

In this collection of essays, one finds

  • an update on the preservation of the DSS at a methodological level, explaining how the latest technologies allow greater assessment, monitoring, collaboration, and access vis-a-vis these valuable documents;
  • a proposal for using CAD software to compare the scribal scripts of the DSS in order to match the fragments more accurately, as well as to evaluate already reconstructed texts;
  • an overview of the use of digital tools for the transcription and markup of biblical manuscripts;
  • a description of the strategies, tools, and techniques of a project aimed at identifying different families of Arabic translations of the Gospels;
  • an exploration of how the use of the Internet and a digital framework encourages collaborative research in the Arabic traditions of the NT;
  • new dimensions in producing critical editions of texts, focusing on the literature of Ethiopian Jews as preserved in a particular manuscript;
  • an overview of digital approaches to various areas of LXX research: lexicography, translation technique, and textual criticism;
  • a proposal for the use of wiki-based collaboration to handle the enormous amount of data connected with the study of ancient monotheism;
  • a discussion and evaluation of online collaborative tools, particularly as used in NT textual criticism;
  • a presentation of new ways of searching and engaging biblical quotations in early Christian literature, with significant implications for reception historical studies;
  • a proposal of a new lexicographical tool for the study of the biblical Greek lexicon, allowing more semantic flexibility in searching;
  • a discussion of new developments in commercial academic publishing, specifically those using digital platforms in contrast to print media;
  • an argument for more open source/open access tools in the field of biblical studies.

While a particular object of study might not be of special interest to the reader, the importance of this volume lies in the exploration of game-changing methodologies that exploit technologies previously unavailable. Again and again, the contributors are exploring not just how digital tools can help scholars do the same work better, but how it can help them to do their work differently; not just making it more efficient, but effectively transforming it. To engage an overused Kuhnism, the book’s larger agenda is to explore and promote a paradigm shift in biblical studies and related fields made possible by the engagement of digital culture:

Our concern here is . . . to draw attention to the emergence of the conscious recognition of something new in the way that we study ancient texts, a shift that would not be possible were it not for digital technology, and that will almost certainly affect the way in which our disciplines will develop. Thus we hope that this volume will contribute to the conscious and explicit recognition of an emerging phenomenon that is more than the sum of its parts, and will offer critical reflections on how this development transforms our fields of study. (xvii)

The scholars contributing to the volume all “share a common interest in trying to understand changes in the ways in which we read and write in a setting where more and more information and data is being made available at increasingly faster rates” and who “are actively engaged with wider questions about how digital technology may reshape, enlarge or otherwise affect not only the specific disciplines in which they are trained, but also the whole spectrum of the humanities and social sciences” (1).

Some takeaways I gleaned from the volume:

  • Juan Garcés highlights the third century AD, when “one regime of book production and storage supplanted another” (97). Specifically, the “‘basic form of the book was in a state of flux,'” with papyrus yielding to parchment and (more importantly) the scroll yielding to the codex. Origen’s Hexapla seems to have innovated a new layout (six columns of text that were meant to be compared across two pages, rather than read straight through, one column after another), with significant implications for textual criticism of the OT. Similarly, one of Garcés’s larger points is to explore “what methodologically innovative approaches are facilitated by the refashioning of the LXX as digital data” (99).
  • Beyond the medium of data presentation, however, Garcés also suggests that the digital turn also necessitates a new academic culture, which emphasizes collaboration much more than individual scholarship: “existing ways of collaborating among scholars need to be extended and transformed in order to succeed in the new digital environment” (137). One transformation involves the scholarly posture toward resources: instead of tight editorial control and proprietary rights, he suggests that the new “research culture” tied to the digital research environment involves an “overall attitude . . . of sharing and exchange at the earliest convenient moment” (137). Tied with this is the use of other people’s material: instead of “standing on the shoulders” of previous works in a sort of seriatim collaboration, the digital turn encourages “exchange [which] is more immediate, or more precisely: at much shorter intervals and interactive” (137).
  • I’m quite interested in the ongoing Biblindex project at http://www.biblindex.mom.fr/, which is working toward new ways of searching for Scripture references in subsequent works and manipulating the resulting data; this has clear implications for reception history, textual criticism, and so forth.
  • Andrew Gregory asks some excellent questions about the book-like nature of electronic publishing, e.g., “whether books that are published digitally will continue to display their contents in ways that developed in the context of print” (257). He references such printed-book-shaped electronic publications as “electronic incunabula” in that “they retain the characteristics of an earlier form of written text, but do not make full use of the possibilities that new technology allows (257; “incunabula” are “the earliest western printed books, which retained much of the character of earlier manuscripts” [255]). He points out that the generation which has grown up with digital access to information thinks of the dissemination of that information in different ways than a book-like form and challenges the reader by noting that “it remains to be seen how printed and digital books will co-exist in the new and coming world when those who grew up with only the former have given way to their digital-native successors” (258).
  • Further, Gregory interacts with the notion of what a book is. This was stimulating; he engaged Cope and Phillips (“Introduction,” in The Future of the Book in the Digital Age) who argue that “a book . . is less a physical object, than a textual form,” and that it “should no longer be defined as an object, but by what it does” (239). “A book is not a product. It is an information architecture,” they contend (240). But Gregory responds that “this definition overlooks . . . the nature of the different media that allow books not only to shape but also to communicate the information that is inscribed in them as written text,” pointing out that digital publishing doesn’t merely transfer “text from one medium to another with added ease in searching and indexing” (240). Instead, it “increases and extends the functionality of the book, and allow[s] discrete texts to be read as constituent parts of a much greater body of text and the content it conveys” (240).
  • Gregory highlights a growing body of literature that addresses the sorts of questions about digital publishing that he raises, including van der Weel, Changing Our Textual Minds; Shillingsburg, From Gutenberg to Google: Electronic Representations of Literary Texts; Thompson, Books in the Digital Age: The Transformation of Academic and Higher Education Publishing in Britain and the United States.
  • In arguing for open source online resources, Russel Hobson points out that the discipline of biblical studies is actually behind the much smaller field of Assyriology: “Ultimately, we purchase expensive, feature lade commercial products to do research tasks in Biblical studies that we can do in Assyriology without cost by using openly accessible online resources” (265).
  • Further, Hobson points out, when data is controlled using the proprietary model and a closed system, “databases become stagnant pools that are superseded or fall out of use unless continual sources of funding can be found to keep them alive” and “the survival of the data depends entirely on the survival of the project” (267).

The volume was thought-provoking as it engages a variety of questions about new ways of manipulating, publishing, and archiving information (text especially, but other data as well) in the realm of biblical studies and related disciplines. Certainly, the digital turn has brought a new era in biblical studies. The sort of questions that are raised as a consequence connect with McLuhan’s maxim that “the medium is the message” and challenge me to think about the implications of newer forms of information handling for my discipline.

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