Saturday, August 15, 2009
I was asked in a tutorial this week about resources for students who want to explore the background to Bible passages.

In the class we talked particularly about two sorts of tool Dictionaries and Commentaries. In this post I will focus first on the sorts of task for which different tools are useful, then in a later post I'll describe different sorts of tool found under the each of the two headings: Dictionaries and Commentaries.
Photo by fmckinlay

Different tools for different tasks

For preference one does not dig a trench with a fork, but equally if one is breaking up clods a fork is more effective than a spade.

Bible dictionaries (a catch all term for encyclopedic works that relate to the Bible - not actually dictionaries at all) are really useful to get a quick fix on a person, place, object, activity, custom etc. in the context of Ancient Israel or the world of the Eastern Mediterranean under the Romans. That is if you have a term that needs explaining they are great to give you a quick fix of "background" information.
An example of a "Bible Dictionary"

So, if you are reading Ezekiel 26 you probably realise that Tyre is a place rather than a round rubber tube, but you may want to know more... Likewise in Ruth there is mention a few times that Boaz is a "kinsman" (your translation may vary) and in chapter three Boaz explains that there is "another kinsman more closely related than [he]" (Ruth 3:12). This clearly is more than a matter of "what sort of cousin are you?" it is important to the book. To read Ruth sensibly you need to know more. Bible dictionaries exist to serve such needs.

[In the Ruth example you will meet a frustration known to dictionary aficionados as "hide and seek", most Bible dictionaries will not have a convenient entry headed "Kinsman", this case is particularly hard, and to find the information you were after you may need to spot that older translations speak of him as a "redeemer". Looking up that word may finally enable you to strike gold!]
An example of a commentary
Commentaries work differently they are not organised (like a dictionary) by terms, but follow through the Bible text in order. In a commentary you look up the passage you are studying and all the information provided is conveniently presented together in one place. A commentary will also, usually, conveniently discuss not only things that get entries in Bible dictionaries, but also the wording and literary working of the passage. This convenience, however, comes at a price :( Commentaries are organised around the commentator's idea of what the passage means. They are like railways, if you wanrt to get where they are going they are fast and convenient. Like railways they are less useful if you have a different destination in view ;)

So on the whole avoid consulting commentaries as long as you can. The more you work at a text before reading one the more chance you have of arriving at a destination determined by the text that is different from the one the commentator recommends ;)

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Saturday, May 02, 2009
  Carnival 41
James McGrath has produced another copious Biblical Studies Carnival, the fourthy first! As usual there are lots of posts to notice that one failed to notice. I had not seen at the time The Floppy Hat's interesting post On Literacy in Ancient Israel, in case you missed it my own ראשׁ as headland? got a mention. Life has still been too busy for me to convince myself one way or the other on the question, so if you have thoughts on whether  רֹאשׁ הַכַּרְמֶל is a "crest" or a "headland" do add your comments so I can ponder them!

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Thursday, April 02, 2009
  ראשׁ as headland?
Carmel ridge from south.
One of the delights of writing a commentary, at least one that is published publicly (here I intend to imply, rudely, that print publication seeks to privatise works, while electronic publication actually publishes them ;) though that is not the purpose of this post), is that readers write back. Today I had an email from such a reader.
...reading your commentary, I am not happy with the "dried crest of Carmel", for the crest of every mountain is dry, naturally, even without Adonai roaring, and the crest ist scarcely a pasture.

How about taking ro'sh not in the partitive sense (top of mountain), but in the metaphorical (huge rock rising from the plain), as in the european languages "Cape", from Latin caput head? Head of Carmel would then be a poetical version of the prosaic "Mount Carmel" and we can easily imagine meadows in the lower parts.

I want to propose this idea to you as an experienced scientist, while I am quite new in Hebrew.
from Carmel north-east
This is an interesting suggestion. Certainly in English not only "cape" but also "headland" and "head" itself (as in Bream Head) would seem to be direct uses of "head" metaphorically of just such a geographical feature. However, I can find (on a quick look - life is hectic at present, selling our home and B having medical tests etc.) no evidence for this usage in biblical Hebrew.

Does anybody know either of such Hebrew usage, or of such an expression in a related language? If so please let me know!

I am not as convinced by the argument that this makes better sense of the verse in Amos, because (at least in modern times) the Carmel Ridge is quite forested and green. But again does anyone know if this is from modern irrigation or whether it would likely have been green in the Iron Age?

The mention in the commentary is at Amos 1:2.

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Saturday, May 03, 2008
  Commentaries and Open Publication
Alan Lenzi has a couple of provocative posts, in the more recent he discusses why biblical scholars write commentaries (he counted and Dove list over 80 on Job alone):
  1. Commentary writing appeals to our strengths and training...
  2. Commentary writing is a recognized genre within the guild ... All the great scholars write commentaries...
  3. Commentary writing is relatively straight-forward...
  4. Commentary writing can be an act of piety...
  5. Commentaries sell so publishers keep asking scholars to write them...
  6. Commentary writing reflects and contributes to advances in the field, presenting the latest research in a convenient location...
Just a few days earlier he wrote about The Open Access Monograph Series That Almost Was and dropped frustrating hints about a newer and better project. So, before he (or someone else) announces that project, I'll reiterate a call for contributors. Any established scholar who wants to write a commentary on a biblical book, and who is interested in getting your work seen and used more widely than print can achieve, take a look at the Hypertext Bible Commentary project, and then contact me for more details.

The Amos "volume" has already (in its peer reviewed stable form) been consulted by thousands of readers each month since its publication in late 2005. The changeable experimental version also gets a huge number of visitors.

If you don't want to spend the time to write a commentary, or you are not yet an "established" scholar then, offer a dictionary article these too will get larger than print readership, these also will be peer reviewed before publication, and so should "count" as publications, but most of all you will contribute to making solid information available to everyone who is interested. And unlike most scholarly writing your article will get read and considered and used!

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Sunday, April 13, 2008
  Writing differently
Writing online needs to be different from writing destined for print publication. (Unless it intends merely to use its online existence as a delivery medium, being printed out once the reader has downloaded the text. For the purposes of this discussion I do not count such hybrid publication as "online".) This is no less true of academic and "literary" writing than of the more commercial writing in which the online world abounds! Two thinking bloggers have addressed this topic recently. Since it is one that I've been thinking and experimenting with since the 90s I'll add my 2c here and hope to garner some interesting discussion.

Sebastian Mary begins a post "on writing less" with the famous Pascal quote:
Je n'ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parceque je n'ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte." Pascal, Lettres provinciales, 16, Dec.14,1656.
It is a cliche among preachers too that 'less is more', to speak shorter takes more preparation but is usually more effective. There is a virtue in brevity.

It is, however, a virtue that belles lettres and scholarship have largely ignored or deliberately flouted. Among scholars (particularly in the German and [hence?] American traditions) it has become the norm to act as if to write incomprehensibly is a sign of profundity. It has also often been assumed that length is equivalent to quality - as if one bought ideas by weight, like potatoes!

In the scan and click mental world which most of us inhabit online prolixity is hardly productive. Numerous studies have shown that in an online hypertext environment writing less - if one can do it while still saying the same things - is more effective. SM attributes this, in part at least, to readers unwillingness to scroll "below the fold". Yet that web folklore idea (which SM cites unthinkingly) has been shown to be untrue. If they are interested readers will scroll.

The problem is that if the writing is verbose, readers are not interested. They click elsewhere. To retain readers' interest in this environment one must write differently and firstly one must write more briefly and simply. This is not the same as saying one must "write down" to the audience. The audience of Sansblogue (at least judging by the audience I know through comments and links) is highly educated and articulate. To write down would be to loose readers. What is required is to write, discussing complex and interesting ideas, simply and briefly. That's harder. One does not always - or even ever - hit the target, but such a goal is necessary in academic writing online.

The second "problem" with academic writing online is that coherent sustained argument is not easily conducted in this medium. (As I have argued in my "Form, Medium and Function: The Rhetorics and Poetics of Text and Hypertext in Humanities Publishing", International Journal of the Book 1, 2003, 317-327.) Ian Bogost, more recently and more clearly expresses much the same points in his "Reading Online Sucks: Reflections on scholarly writing on the web". In the paper I argued that coherent sustained argument (such as the monograph form) probably "works" better in print than in a hypertext environment.

I would like to qualify that somewhat, in the light of experience. In the Amos commentary I had some points that I wanted to argue that would more usually be presented in a monograph style publication. Sure enough most readers have failed to spot these arguments. They have mined the commentary for the information they needed, and moved on. But one academic reviewer spotted and commented on these arguments. The difference was (I think) not that he was an academic reviewer, but that he is preparing to write a commentary on Amos himself. For him my theories about the book's construction and about the place of the Day of the Lord in its composition were not extra, unneeded details, but rather the reason he was reading this work!

Here the differently that one must write is not to dispose of large ideas or sweeping arguments, but rather that one must write so that readers who are not interested in these particular big ideas need not be troubled by them, while readers for whom the ideas are significant can follow the thread that allows you to sustain the argument. Again the hypertext environment requires writing differently. Sadly most writing online (except that which sells) is shovelware. Even when written for the web, the author has not troubled to adapt to the new medium.

Writing differently, according to rules that are as yet only half-baked is difficult and requires experimentation. It is great to see that at last some of the "traditional" print publishers have begun sponsoring such play. The Penguin Books We Tell Stories site is a prime example.

See also: my Writing for screen: Time to rethink? from August 2007.

PS: Judy has now posted the response she mentions below "Writing for the web vs writing for print".

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Friday, April 11, 2008
  How might scholarship and community interact online
Bob Stein on if:book asks stimulating questions about the interaction of scholarship and (online) community:
  • what are new graphical and information design paradigms for orienting
    readers and enabling them to navigate within a multi-layered,
    multi-modal work?
  • how do you distinguish between the reading space and the work space? how porous is the boundary between them?
  • what do readers expect of authors in the context of a "networked" book?
  • what new authorial skill sets need to be cultivated?
  • what range of mechanisms for reader participation and author/reader
    interaction should we explore? (i.e. blog-style commenting, social
    filtering, rating mechanisms, annotation tools, social
    bookmarking/curating, personalized collection-building, tagging, etc.)
  • how do readers become "trusted" within an open community? what are
    the social protocols required for a successful community-based project:
    terms of participation, quality control/vetting procedures, delegation
    of roles etc.
  • what does "community" mean in the context of a specific scholarly work?
  • how will scholars and students cite the contents of dynamic, evolving
    works that are not "stable" like printed pages? how does the project
    get archived? how do you deal with versioning?
  • if asynchronous online conversation becomes a powerful new mode of
    developing scholarship, how do we visualize these conversations and
    make them navigable, readable, and enjoyable?
He raises these issues in his post "where minds meet: new architectures for the study of history and music" as part of the planning for two colloquia that they are organising around "multi-layered, multi-modal digital publications" so it is no surprise that they are facing many of the same issues that we must address in envisaging the future of the Hypertext Bible Commentary and Dictionary.

Their projects include a repurposing of music commentary CDs:
and a networked version of a history text:
How I'd love to be part of their conversations! I wonder if the colloquia will themselves have a networked/virtual component?

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007
  Books I want to own: part one?
The Commentator's Bible: The Jps Miqra'ot Gedolot: ExodusSomehow I missed this when it was published. But I want one. The Commentator's Bible: The Jps Miqra'ot Gedolot: Exodus is apparently a translation into English of the Rabbinic Bible, and has translations of Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Nahmanides, Rashbam, and other medieval Jewish commentators alongside the Bible text. Just for Abraham Ibn Ezra's sensible and often insightful remarks alone it would be worth the US$75 asking price, it has to be a steal at Amazon's discount...

Or is it?

Berel Lerner (Western Galilee College, Israel) commenting on the Amazon page writes:

Just by checking the sample page available on the JPS website, I immediately saw that much of Ibn Ezra was missing.

So, if anyone has seen the volume, is Berel right, or is this a volume I want to own?

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