Hypertext Bible Commentary and Encyclopedia:

a New Zealand based international electronic publishing project

by Tim Bulkeley (post-printed from "Hypertext Bible Commentary and Encyclopaedia: a New Zealand-based international electronic publishing project", Stimulus, 2004, 12:3, 43–48)

This paper will describe a project, based in New Zealand, which aims to produce electronic resources for biblical study. An experimental prototype of such a resource, a commentary on the biblical book of Amos, has been created on the web (at http://www.bible.gen.nz). It has elicited many hundreds of suggestions, comments and responses from the thousands of users who visit the material each month. This feedback has helped shape the structure and presentation of the Amos commentary. Thus the experience of developing the concept and of discovering the limitations and possibilities of the medium has been an interplay of theory - both discussion of the nature of biblical commentary[1] and of the rhetoric and poetics of hypertext[2] – and practice. Over nearly a decade the concept has evolved considerably, and we are now planning a multi-author series using what has been learnt, these plans will be briefly described in this article. Each section will be introduced by a simpler “executive summary” in italics, followed by a fuller explanation, this format mimics in print some of the multi-level possibilities of the hypertext form of the project being described, and will allow readers to skim parts that rely on more technical terms.[3]

Amos online: shaping a new genre

This project began with a conversation in the Carey staff room in 1995. We had recently got World Wide Web access, and had begun exploring it, as well as the old text based Internet.[4] We were enthusing over the possibilities that the new medium offered. From that conversation, I developed the dream of a new kind of Bible commentary. At first it was the opportunity to use pictures and sounds as well as words that captured my imagination. Soon though, the opportunity that hyperlinks offer to allow a wider range of users to understand detailed commentary began to seem at least as radical.

I used a sabbatical in 1996 to begin preparing a prototype commentary on Amos. Technical issues of the format and software for the prototype were resolved first. Then a number of deeper lessons were quickly learned. The first was that the project was much larger and more complex than it appeared. For example if the hypertext was to be used by readers untrained in academic biblical studies many concepts and terms needed to be explained. In this way a sort of Bible encyclopaedia has begun to grow alongside the commentary. For the commentary itself the use of multi-level linked text changes the nature of what one can achieve. So this prototype has meant beginning to develop what amounts to a new genre, as different from the traditional print scholarly commentary as those are from the scholastic and rabbinic commentaries that preceded them.

In addition to learning a new form of writing, questions had to be faced about how users were to interact with the material and navigate from one part of it to another. Traditional print authors do not face such interface design questions.[5]

At the start of the development of the prototype, several file formats and the associated software to create and read texts were examined. Among these were Macromedia Director, which produces finely tuned and dramatic multimedia, but needs considerable skill and time to use, and Adobe PDF which produces very small files, and adds some hypertext features to wordprocessing documents, but is primarily an electronic paper substitute. It became quickly clear that HTML (the “language” of the web) had considerable advantages in ease of creation, and the wide spread of its reader technology (browsers like Netscape, or Internet Explorer, or now Mozilla). This format is also “platform independent”, it works on Windows, MacOS, Unix and other operating systems. It was designed to be flexible, so new possibilities have allowed the form of the material to adapt.

The prototype began by working on chapter five of Amos. At first the concept was somewhat vague, and it was intended to include foreground material as well as background information.[6] However, the rapidly expanding body of material relating to just few verses from chapter five, including discussions of topics like: the place of gates in ancient city culture, ancient building materials and other Bible dictionary material, as well as analysis of many of the Hebrew words, of the genre and form of the text, etc. meant that time would limit this prototype project to background comment.

The earliest files formed long scrolls, currently illustrated in the surviving material by the longer article on “genre”[7], these developed numerous links between them, often to locations interior to the files. This untidy rat’s nest of links risked making it difficult for readers to know where they were. Many of these early files have been broken up into component small lexia, and most of the more recent material was written as discrete small lexia. Writing in the smallest appropriate chunks facilitates the user’s sense of “location” and also helps the writer avoid presuming that the reader will have read any particular section prior to the current material. (In print one can safely presume that most readers of the sixth paragraph will have read paragraph four. In a hypertext environment, one can only assume this within a lexia that has no incoming links to material deep in the text, for readers following such links will NOT have read preceding material in that lexia.)

During this period the basic screen layout with two dominant windows, with one for the biblical text and another for secondary material, was established.[8] This is convenient for the user, unlike a print commentary where one must either keep the Bible open in a separate codex, or keep “flicking back” to the biblical text printed in the commentary. Presenting the text above, or in an earlier version of the two window design to the left, also illustrates visually the secondary nature of comment.

As the material expanded, the need for navigation tools (additional to the links built into the lexia themselves) became evident, first a system of chapter links for the biblical text and links to lists of dictionary articles and commentary were added. These were somewhat cumbersome and the present system for navigating the text and dictionary material was developed. This is not ideal, and clever programming might be able to improve it, for example it would be desirable that when one switches between English and Hebrew the same passage be visible without the user’s intervention.

As the prototype has developed, in its current (almost completed) form, it consists of:

All of this material is illustrated with colour photographs and maps, where these are available and appropriate. The biblical texts are also available as sound files, so can be heard as well as read, and most dictionary articles include the possibility of hearing the head word (i.e. the reader need not wonder how “apophthegma” sounds).

Plans for the future

The Amos commentary whose development has just been described was intended as a prototype. Therefore the project has begun to look forward to ways to extend this approach into a multi-author commentary and encyclopaedia, eventually to cover the whole Bible.

The file format for this will be different, by separating the form of presentation from the content, authoring will be open to all biblical scholars not just those who are willing to learn computer coding languages – like HTML which produces current webpages. The project board will soon be seeking the first such authors.

Electronic publication of scholarly resources on the web suffers from two major problems (themselves discussed in the next section) -  lack of quality assurance and the fluidity of the web. These will be addressed through a system of peer review, and the creation of stable editions.

Now that the prototype is nearly finished work has begun on how the project will develop. The goal is to produce a resource that covers the whole Bible. This will be a multi-author work, like a traditional commentary series. While comment is being written encyclopaedia articles will also be commissioned as they are needed.

The files will be produced in an XML (eXtensible Markup Language) format. XML is more flexible than HTML, allowing for future presentation needs, but can be converted into HTML for presentation in web browsers. A standard “dialect” of XML is being developed by a group sponsored by the Society for Biblical Literature and the American Bible Society. This encoding standard, called OSIS (the Open Standard for Scripture Information Systems), covers most if not all of the project’s current needs. Since XML means eXtensible Markup Language, by its nature this core can be extended if this is required. For example it will allow links to Bible texts, which take account of differing numbering systems in different Bibles (Joel 3:5 in the Hebrew text is translated as Joel 2:32 in English Bibles). Using OSIS encoding will mean that the materials produced can potentially work with other OSIS materials, Bibles, software etc..

Once the infrastructure is in place the project board will seek out and appoint suitable scholars to write comment and articles. This needed infrastructure includes software allowing authors to write OSIS documents, and to manage the documents created and present them to users in a web browser, as well as web hosting hardware. These authors will not need to understand the coding system (see next section), but they will have to learn new styles of composition. Therefore the style guide will include a manual, based on what has been learnt from producing the prototype, to assist the conversion of authors from traditional academic print forms to hypertext writing.

We aim to avoid two of the greatest problems of electronic publication identified below, quality assurance and stability for citation, through a two stage process. Firstly authors will be selected and approved by the editorial board. Secondly material will be published in two ways, initially an open and un-refereed presentation on the project website, then a second level of material that has been approved by a peer review process. All material formally approved in this way will be added to periodic stable citable editions.

So first level material on the project website may be changed or corrected by the author at any time. It will be accessible to anyone, and written by approved authors, but will still suffer from potential instability if cited. The periodic citable editions will be stable. So once the 2010 edition has been published it will not change (though, of course, the 2012 edition may be different, as with print editions). These editions will therefore be citable, since if I make reference to a particular part of the material from that edition, at any time you can refer to the same edition and find the identical material.

We hope that the Amos prototype will be finished early in 2005, and that writing of the new material can start later that year.

Advantages and problems of Internet publication

In the nineteen nineties the new world of electronic publication was hyped, its advantages were exaggerated, and wild predictions were made of the death of print, or at least of the book.[9] These predictions are dead as the dreams of the dot-com millionaires. However the Internet’s steady spread into our everyday lives suggests that projects like the one described will impact on publication in the area of Biblical study. This section will evaluate some of this impact.

Internet publication costs less than print, it is easy for anyone with a computer and Internet connection to access material from almost anywhere in the world and multimedia opens up possibilities that are expensive or impossible for print. However, these advantages come at a cost. Internet resources are of notoriously variable quality, and their addresses are often unstable. This means that they are not favoured for citation in academic circles. Added to this is the need for the writer (most often) to learn a whole new approach to crafting their ideas into words.

Email and other electronically mediated communication tools are revolutionizing communication between scholars, though on the whole they have not deeply affected the contents of these communications. Similarly, much current electronic publication is in the form of “e-books” – a sort of halfway stage between the print codex and electronic new media works – such hybrid works are less different from print than is a real hypertext.

A hypertext by contrast is a non-linear text that works by enabling the user to “jump” from one textual locus (lexia) to another. The “text” of these lexia themselves may be something other than a sequence of writing - pictures, sounds, video, etc. – may all form or be part of such electronic lexia. The form of hypertext most familiar today is the web. It is this form of hypertext, the html that we are familiar with on the web, that will contain (at least the first generation of) resources produced by the project described.

The advantages and problems of Internet publication are largely by now self evident. Major advantages include:

·         Cost – the material costs of Internet publication are small, an encyclopaedia’s worth of text, pictures, and even sound files, might cost only $200 per year yet be accessed by 1,000 people per day.

·         Speed – print materials must be obtained physically before they can be read - while electronic material arrives from the other side of the world almost instantly. Electronic materials are searchable and hyperlinked - while a reader of print must look up the reference in an index or table of contents, and then find the relevant page.

·         Ubiquity – a particular copy of a print work can only be in one place at a time, if the work is not in your library it requires the services of an inter-library loan department to transport it to you, a web site can be accessed from any Internet connected device and by many users at once.

·         Multimedia – while words are powerful and usually precise, their capacity to describe is limited. Often a good picture can shortcut such descriptions, sound also shortcuts descriptive efforts that may be inaccurate if words alone are used. Readers who are not fluent, can more easily follow discussion of the sound play or the echoing that occurs in many biblical texts when they can hear what is said in the original Hebrew or Greek.

Major problems include:

·         Cost – very few web-based publications succeed in producing an income that covers their real costs. Only a few sites (mainly search engines and major portals) make significant income from advertising. Few obtain substantial donations. Only the largest providers can operate a subscription model effectively. Until recently the only profitable genre on the web was pornography.

·         Quality assurance – much of the material available on the Internet currently is of poor or dubious quality, this happens because Internet publication is easy and cheap, and because there are (almost) no controls on who may publish what. The cost of print at least ensures that a publisher will consider the quality and usefulness of material they publish.

·         Stability – the ease with which an electronic file may be updated, by comparison with the impossibility of correcting the text of a print work short of the costs involved in a new edition, while it may assist keeping material up-to-date and accurate also means that a reader referred to a URL may find different material from that seen by the person making the reference. This makes electronic sources notoriously unreliable as scholarly citations, despite the use of “date accessed” as a sort of disclaimer of responsibility by the person making the citation.

·         Learning new forms of writing – writing for screen suggests, or even requires, dramatically different styles of writing that reverse many of the conventions of scholarly rhetoric.[10] I have argued in other papers that such differences include: writing in ways that do not assume the reader has followed any particular path to the current material (requiring small tightly focused “chunks”);[11] reversing the order (beginning with the main point and then presenting the reasons and explanations); ensuring text is scannable and concise (though this requirement may be in part an artifact of screen quality it seems also to be influenced by the nature of interlinked lexia).[12]

Possibilities of the Electronic Hypertext medium

Despite the problems listed above, the advantages make this medium an exciting one for publishing resources for biblical study. The Amos commentary already counts over 900 readers each day. The hypertext form means that scholars, students and theologically untrained but nevertheless interested people can all find material that is relevant to their interests and needs.

The electronic medium permits low cost publication, of material that is widely available, and may be enriched with media other than merely print text. The hypertext form of writing in this medium offers another range of possibilities:

Writing in code

As noted above most biblical scholars do not want to learn to encode text for a computer. So the project will develop ways in which they can produce encoded text without themselves doing the coding.

Biblical scholars who are the potential authors for the project, come in two varieties with respect to producing encoded text of the sort we envisage. Many are not highly technically minded, and would not enjoy having to learn another language (OSIS-XML) in order to write. Others – many of whom have course and other websites – enjoy the technology and would be tempted to adjust the encoding “manually”. As far as possible we aim to make the technology for the project “transparent”. So, all text will be authored in a wordprocessor, using macros and personalized toolbars to facilitate the production of XML encoded text. Technically minded authors will be discouraged from tampering with the code that the software produces – which would risk making the material less easy to adapt for new uses. Technophobic authors will be working in a way which is as similar as possible to their familiar writing environment.

The material produced in this way will have various items tagged so that they can work as links. Bible references using the standard OSIS encoding can be converted into links to that text in the user’s current version. References to articles in the encyclopaedia will also be identified in a similar way. In addition authors will be able to link to files that they write themselves, it is likely that these links will be distinguished into at least two visibly different types: explanations – links to material provided to explain some complex or specialized idea; and justifications – links to material that presents the evidence upon which and opinion or claim was based. These will be distinguished so that different sorts of users can more easily follow different links.

The XML files produced by the wordprocessor will be converted initially into HTML for display in browsers. However, the XML files will be retained for future editing or correcting, and can in the future be converted for display in other forms and formats.

The bottom line

For the project to advance from a commentary on one Bible book to a series covering the whole Bible will require the board to find and appoint authors, both for full commentaries and for shorter Bible dictionary articles. The systems to support these authors also need to be completed and tested. There will be other costs, such as proofreading.

Very few web-based publications yet break even. However, the project has plans that could make it self-sustaining once the set up phase is complete. So funding is being sought to assist with these set up costs.

For this project to progress beyond the Amos prototype, potential authors will need to be found and appointed. Authors are needed for both the extensive work of commentary (the equivalent of a traditional book) and for shorter articles (the encyclopaedia entries). It is likely that many potential authors will “try their hand” on an article, or several, before undertaking the more extensive writing. Thus they can become familiar with the medium before committing to a large project.

When the Amos commentary is complete (after peer refereeing) it will be “published” as well as offering a stable edition to libraries and others, copies will be sent to journals for review. It is hoped that these reviews may stimulate more interest from potential authors. By ensuring a full and proper refereeing process, together with reviews in journals and marketing to libraries, authors should obtain academic credit for their work as with print writing, but are likely also to get more responses from their readers which can both, stimulate further research and reflection, and provides its own reward.

As noted above, very few web-based publications have succeeded in breaking even financially. The most appealing model for informative sites requires users to make a very small payment (perhaps a few cents) for each page viewed (micro-payments). For such a payment system to work a good proportion of users would need to be registered, no micro-payment system yet shows any sign of succeeding.[14]

Beyond the setup phase, since neither of the media likely to be used (web server or CD/DVD) is expensive, the time required for editing and proofreading will be the major costs of the project. The project is seeking funding for this in the setup phase. The editor and an administrative assistant are envisaged, both working for one or two days per week on the project. Some travel costs will also be needed in this setup phase for example to meet face-to-face with authors. The software will be produced by adapting existing open source material and so will create only small costs. It is expected that once several biblical books have been completed the project will become self-sustaining in financial terms, primarily through income from the sale of stable editions. [15]


The aims of the Hypertext Bible Commentary and Encyclopedia project are ambitious.  On the one hand the goal is to provide a detailed and scholarly resource available freely or low cost to the widest range of readers. The project also aims to provide the scholarly community with citable peer reviewed materials, and to assist authors in obtaining academic credit for their work.  Technically electronic media offer the means to achieve these goals in ways that print cannot begin to match. The Amos commentary has demonstrated both that such materials can be produced, and that they fulfill the perceived needs of a large community of users. However, difficulties with “business models” for electronic publication mean that for the project to succeed significant seed funding will still be needed.

Bio Note:

Tim Bulkeley, Old Testament lecturer at Carey Baptist College since 1993, is editor of the Hypertext Bible Commentary and Encyclopaedia project. His other main research interest is the coherence of prophetic texts. Through Carey Tim also teaches in the University of Auckland School of Theology. 

[1] Notably in the Society for Biblical Literature’s “Hebrew Bible Commentary Section” and in a small number of articles: C.H.J. Van der Merwe, “Bible Commentaries as Hypertext,” Old Testament Essays 13 (2000): 119-128; Tim Bulkeley, “Commentary beyond the Codex: Hypertext and the Art of Biblical Commentary” in Bible and Computer (ed. Johann Cook; Leiden: Brill, 2002), 641-651.

[2] Tim Bulkeley, “Form, Medium and Function: The Rhetorics and Poetics of Text and Hypertext in Humanities Publishing,” International Journal of the Book 1 (2003): 317-328.

[3] This approach was suggested by Alan Harkness, to whom I am grateful for other useful comments on a draft of the article during his recent time as visitor at Carey.

[4] In the early days the Internet was entirely text based, the world wide web as we know it was born in 1990 when Tim Berners-Lee developed the first browser capable of both hypertext links and pictures See Tim Berners-Lee “What were the first WWW browsers?”  http://www.w3.org/People/Berners-Lee/FAQ.html#browser [downloaded 31 May 2004]; in 1993 there were only 600 WWW sites, the next year (the 25th anniversary of the creation of the original ARPANET) the number reached 10,000 and the WWW began to impact popular culture. Dave Marsh, “History of the Internet” http://www.netvalley.com/archives/mirrors/davemarsh-timeline-1.htm [downloaded 31 May 2004].

[5] Though they are faced to some extent by the designers and editors of complex print reference works.

[6] By background I understand material that describes or explains the text in its functioning in some ancient context. By foreground I mean material that leads the reader from the ancient text towards the modern world.

[7] Tim Bulkeley, “Genre: Kinds of Literature” Amos: Postmodern Bible http://www.bible.gen.nz/amos/literary/genre.htm [Accessed 2 March 2004]

[8] This is described and justified in Tim Bulkeley, “Commentary beyond the Codex”

[9] For example Raymond Kurzweil, “The Future of Libraries,” in CyberReader, ed. V. J. Vitanza, (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1999), 291, “the printed book, like any other technology, will not live forever”.

[10] See also Kirsten Abbott, “Wrestling texts: hypertext and biblical studies” elsewhere in this issue of Stimulus.

[11] Tim Bulkeley, “Form, Medium and Function” especially 322-324.

[12] Tim Bulkeley, “Commentary beyond the Codex” especially 644-646; Tim Bulkeley, “The medium and the message: Hypertext and publication in biblical studies” SBL Forum http://sbl-site.org published 10 May 2004.

[13] Bulkeley, (2003), 325-6; and (2004).

[14] Jakob Neilsen, “User Payments: Predictions for 2001 Revisited” Alertbox (December 23, 2001) http://www.useit.com/alertbox/20011223.html [Accessed 14 May 2004]; and compare Scott McCloud, "Misunderstanding Micropayments: BitPass, Shirky and The Good Idea that Refuses to Die" http://www.scottmccloud.com/home/essays/2003-09-micros/micros.html [Accessed 14 May 2004] with Clay Shirky, "Fame vs Fortune: Micropayments and Free Content" http://www.shirky.com/writings/fame_vs_fortune.html [Accessed 14th May 2004]; recent news suggests that in practice micropayments are still a long way from becoming accepted Ernst Poulsen, "Will Micropayments Ever Succeed?" E-Media Tidbits http://www.poynter.org/column.asp?id=31&aid=60332 [Accessed 14th May 2004].

[15] Traditional publishing places the costs entirely on the reader. Thus print scholarship (with often small print runs) is expensive to access. An interesting reversal of roles of is seen in the open scholarship projects that are beginning to use an “author pays” model of funding scholarly publication see several of the contributions to the “specially commissioned insights and analysis from leading scientists, librarians, publishers and other stakeholders” in Nature http://www.nature.com.ezproxy.auckland.ac.nz/nature/focus/accessdebate/archive.html  in particular Daniel Greenstein, “Not so quiet on a Western front” http://www.nature.com/nature/focus/accessdebate/23.html  [downloaded 1 June 2004]. The current funding model for the project is a hybrid. In seeking grant funding for the setup costs we are using something like the author pays model, yet by seeking subscriptions from libraries we are also using a more traditional “user pays” approach. It is hoped that such a hybrid can maximize access and minimize costs.