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Human culture is responding to dramatic changes in communications technology. Biblical scholars, like the rest of society, must adapt to these new possibilities. Our disciplines should equip us to understand such change. We know that oral cultures and writing cultures operated differently. In an oral world, tradition and custom seem absolute. The unspoken refrain of oral cultures, "the ancestors did not do things that way," all too often baffles progress. Yet, precisely because tradition is remembered rather than recorded on paper, it is also malleable. Past and present interact more directly in an oral society. Thus the "past'' is shaped more by the present in such cultures. Biblical scholarship is increasingly aware of this revolution of culture in the ancient world.

However, we are traversing a similar cultural divide, as electronic media increasingly dominate our communications, replacing paper-based media. A few generations back all communication was either oral (face-to-face and rich in non-verbal signifiers) or written (transportable and stable, but largely restricted to verbal signifiers). Increasingly communication is electronic: telegraph, radio, telephone, TV, and TXT.

Popular communication about the Bible in churches and synagogues is gradually responding to these changes in communication styles. Homiletics classes in the twenty-first century are strikingly different from those of the mid-twentieth century. Styles of scholarly communication have been slower to adapt. Scholarly audiences have retained the literary and logical processing skills needed to both understand and interact with lengthy print communication. We regret a certain lack of such skills in our students, but make efforts to inculcate these, as well as other techniques and mysteries of our craft. Despite being a genre in crisis largely for economic reasons, the monograph is still unequalled as a marker of academic status.

Yet the changes that the electronic revolution is producing in the way humans communicate ideas do not end with the world of the sound-bite and the TV documentary. The Internet introduces another dimension to the media of communication-the non-sequential or rather the pluri-sequential text. [1] While the changes in communication wrought by telegraph, radio, telephone, TV, and TXT are profound, they are all changes to the way in which sequential text is presented and consumed. They provide a change of platform analogous to the move from scroll to codex. The move from sequential "text" to "hypertext," with its potential for each reading to follow a different sequence and examine different material, like the move from orality to literacy, is a change of medium. Video presentations discussing the interpretation of biblical texts are a valuable new genre. Yet the production of video documentaries highlighting discussion of "Jesus, Mary and DaVinci," or even Susanne Scholz's creative approach described in "MTV and the Prophets" does not even begin to address the hypertext revolution, for such videos are still sequential texts.

Text and Hypertext

Hypertext lacks an author-defined sequence or, to put it positively, the reader of a hypertext is empowered to define his or her own sequence to the material. Thus they can explore some paths and ignore others. As a consequence this medium becomes almost the antithesis of conventional academic text. In a (sequential) text the author is expected to present a coherent argument leading to some conclusion, or to present an organized array of such arguments. In a hypertext such an ordered presentation is only possible by subverting the nature of the medium. This produces an inverted style of presentation, possible conclusions lead to descriptions of the evidence that might justify or negate them. It is easier to allow the reader to "reach their own conclusions" and more difficult to favor the author's preferred argument. (At least such obvious "bias" would need to be signaled overtly in the media, while in print such favoring is inherent in the rhetoric of academic text.) However, while the hypertext form disadvantages some rhetorical moves traditional in academic writing styles, it allows other possibilities that are not convenient in print.

Links permit a text to address a wider audience. On one hand explanations of technical terms and ideas can permit a lay reader uninitiated into the mysteries of the guild to understand material addressed to the guild. While, from the same textual fragment, a scholar could follow links to discussion of the evidence upon which a statement or conclusion is based. The interlinked character of hypertexts also makes easier and more natural the "parallel" exploration of different approaches, perhaps by different authors. These can be "parallel" in ways that are difficult for print typography to mimic, since their order and position are among the primary features the reader notices.

Multimedia elements are inherent in an electronic hypertext. Full color images and video can more easily be included in an electronic medium, while print makes even static color images expensive and inconvenient (since they need four-color printing they are often located in a separate section of the work rather than alongside the text to which they relate). Although the cliché "a picture is worth a thousand words" is by no means always applicable, in many cases (such as when discussing objects or locations) pictures can be very expressive and informative. Sound files can aid comprehension of discussion of significant features of a biblical text (since most, if not all, of these texts were written to be read aloud, or as records of oral renderings). These oral features can be presented only with some difficulty in a simply textual format.

My experiments with the hypertext forms of communication in biblical studies have centered on the genre of commentary. This genre, with its goal of explaining or interpreting a prior text, has features that are inherently hypertextual.

Traditional and modern commentary

Biblical commentary operates in a community of discourse, whether the community of reference comprises the "masters" of the past (as for example when medieval Christian writers engaged with the thought of Augustine) or consists of the members of the contemporary scholarly guild. This intertextual engagement had already become overtly hypertextual in the Rabbinic Bibles, when generations of textual comment were gathered around the biblical text and its Targums on each (large) double page.

Modern Bible commentaries have likewise adapted the print medium in various (often creative) ways to cope with the referential and self-referential nature of the genre. As the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, the International Critical Commentary used section headings, varied typography, extensive footnotes and reference systems to interlink and to separate different sections of text, and to refer the reader to other information sources.

The Forms of Old Testament Literature series takes one step closer to hypertext by including an extensive glossary at the back of certain volumes. The new commentary series from Smith & Helwys goes further, claiming to be a hypertext in print. Indeed the volumes have extensive sidebars, referenced by markers (hyperlinks) in the body text. However, the limitations of convenient use of print restrict the value of these features. Many of these sidebars, like some links in an electronic hypertext, act simply as extended footnotes relating only to one locus in the body text. Others potentially relate to the commentary more widely, but are only referenced from the nearby locus. Thus in the Jeremiah volume, a sidebar explaining the language of "Cutting a Covenant'" is linked only from 34:18-20 (p. 490). In a true hypertext this box would have been the target of links from many parts of the commentary (beginning, for example, with the reference to covenant-making in 11:10).

While a natural medium for text, a codex is not a convenient medium for hypertext.

The difference in hypertext commentary

The nearly complete Amos commentary online ( has served for the last several years as a testbed to explore how the move from text to hypertext medium impacts on the nature of biblical commentary. The goal of the Amos material has been to prepare for a full-scale multi-author hypertext commentary series, by learning what this medium can and cannot achieve in this genre. [2] Certain differences produced or enabled by the hypertext medium are already evident.

One advantage of electronic media is ease of access. Thus, during the last week in February 2004, the Amos material was visited by over 900 users per day, producing nearly 30,000 page requests or some 50,000 hits in the week.

The possibility offered by hyperlinks to address different levels of reader has been exploited in the Amos material. So, to allow access to the material by any uninitiated but educated person, explanations can be offered that the technical reader does not need. So for example:

  • technical terms are explained (see the presentation of "genre" with both a short glossary entry and a longer article)
  • historical events are described (see the entry on "exile")
  • the significance of geography can be explained (see the explanation of the importance of water supply in a dry climate)

For other readers the justification behind certain decisions can also be presented for those who wish to view this more technical material (see the discussion of translation issues in Am 7:2).

That these possibilities do in fact allow a wide range of readers to use the commentary is demonstrated by the range of people who email comments to the author. In a typical month they include those with only partial secondary education as well as university teachers.

Hypertext is:

  • more reader driven than plain text and
  • the medium allows multiple explanations

These factors combine to allow users with a wide range of religious affiliations to access the same comment. So in one busy month small group Bible studies among both Brazilian Catholics and Southern Baptists were focused on Amos. Many local groups referred to the online commentary, and a number from both communities expressed their appreciation for the material.

Multimedia elements can also enrich the reader's experience and understanding. Pictures, like those of different types of altar, are often more useful to readers than wordy descriptions alone. Sounds too can be useful for novice readers. Many people would welcome help with reading a word like apophthegma! Word and sound play in the text means little to a user who cannot read Hebrew; sound files (linked from the Hebrew expressions) can enrich the commentator's explanation.

Two sorts of hypertext commentary

In this article I have focused on one approach to the question of the nature of commentary when text becomes hypertext. The experience of preparing the Amos commentary shows that this approach makes biblical studies much more widely accessible, both physically (via the Internet) and intellectually (using links to explain or justify).

However, another approach is possible. There is some dissatisfaction with the role of commentary in a time of information explosion. David Penchansky's remark is typical of many:

I have long questioned whether the literary genre known as "the Bible commentary" has any future in the field of biblical criticism. The days are over when a single book purports to be an objective treatment of the whole of available information on a given text. [3]

One dream of the early hypertext pioneers was of a textual world where everything potentially connected to everything else. This dream, if made reality, could address these concerns. Some biblical scholars have also dreamed this dream (most extensively Christo van der Merwe), [4] and the makers of Bible software programs have worked to make it attainable.

Contemporary copyright law and licensing schemes make the realization of such dreams, whether by Logos or by Bibleworks, either limited or expensive. Many of the works included are old or of limited scholarship. Yet the potential even of the resources these tools currently offer has extended our reach and capacity more than most of us have really understood.


Biblical scholars live and work at a cusp in history, and electronic media are changing our communication habits in many areas. Yet, the ubiquity of many electronic media has to date had little impact on our professional writing (telegraph, radio, telephone and TXT have made few changes to the writing in a monograph or JBL article, though TV and video have added new genres to the repertoire). These media have changed our personal communications patterns hugely, but they are unlikely to have more than minor impact on our scholarly forms. By contrast the gradual move from text to hypertext introduces huge potential changes.

The broad hypertext universes of Libronix and other Memex-like systems will enable a new and potentially more comprehensive context for writing and reading as links to reference works and journal articles become more than footnoted appendages that the reader requires significant commitment to follow. In doing this these systems mitigate, but do not solve the problem of exponentially increasing information.

On the other hand the accessible hypertext of the Amos commentary, and the Hypertext Bible Commentary & Encyclopaedia project springing from it, offer a new way for the guild to address and interact with our wider public, and also suggest new forms for the ways we present our ideas to each other. In biblical studies our ancestors developed a sophisticated and appropriate collection of genres and repertoire of rhetorical techniques that served the discipline well in the age of text. The challenge today is to build on their work and to develop an additional new rhetoric for the age of hypertext.

Tim Bulkeley is Old Testament Lecturer, Carey Baptist College, and Honorary Lecturer in Theology, University of Auckland.

[1] Ted Nelson's classic use of "non-sequential" in his definition of hypertext should be replaced by "pluri-sequential" since for each reader there is a sequence to the text even if for each reading that sequence is different. See 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.

[2] 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.

[3] David Penchansky, "Review of 1 & 2 Kings by Walter Brueggemann" Theological Studies 63 (2002): 841.

[4] Most recently in C. H. J. Van der Merwe "Bible Commentaries as Hypertext," Old Testament Essays 13 (2000): 119-128.

Citation: Tim Bulkeley, " Hypertext and Publication in Biblical Studies," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited May 2004]. Online:


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