Welcome to the fourth module of the Opencourseware “Bible and digital humanities” of the Catholic University of Louvain (Belgium), created thanks to a 2023 grant from the équipe Université numérique, UCLouvain. This module presents the current debates on the place of writing in digital culture. After an overview of the theological theme, it will present some of the steps and tools involved in digital word processing. As stated in the first introductory module, this Opencourseware is a starter for a wide audience, inviting everyone to pursue their own quest through the proposed readings.

1. The transformation of reading in digital culture

Before we consider what is happening to the Bible in digital culture, we need to take a step back from our own field and look first at what is happening in the wider culture about the status of books. We all appreciate discovering a “book box” along the way, with a few used books that we can borrow for our own personal reading. For some years now, the paper book, unconnected to the internet, has been seen as the ultimate place of freedom, preserving the intimate face-to-face relationship between the story and its reader.
Recent studies and statistics tell us that book sales are not declining, but holding steady or even increasing, depending on the year. This is the type of observation that can be made for French-speaking Belgium and France in particular. The United States is no exception: while 2012 saw a definite dip in paper book sales (591 million), 2021 saw record sales of 843 million, holding steady at 788 million, according to statistica.com. The paper book, enclosed, private and accessible, is gradually taking on a role of its own in digital culture, and seems set for a successful transformation. Paper Bibles will continue to be bought and sold.
But connected reading, for its part, has brought about changes that are still ongoing. This digital, different, through-reading is not without having attracted caveat on the very future of the use we make of our brains, as Maryanne Wolf's books have testified, notably Proust and the Squid (2007) and Redear Come Home! The Reading Brain in a Digital World (2018).
If the generations who grew up with paper books are warning, and rightly so, of the rapid transformation of reading, this new treasure chest has not waited to find its audience in the younger generations and create innovations. Witness the new cultural communication called “Booktubers”, short videos promoting... paper books! This is one of the most unexpected and effective combinations of print and digital culture. Written literature becomes literature read, performed, commented on and told. It rediscovers its link with the flesh, with the voices and faces of those who speak of it. These remarks will be at the heart of the last module of this Opencourseware, dedicated to the Bible in the “multimodal” text-image-sound culture.
This change in reading has not gone unnoticed by some theologians. It is appropriate here to pay a heartfelt tribute to the pioneering text published by the Reformed Churches of Switzerland in 2016, for the commemoration of the Reformation anniversary, which they deliberately entitled Sola Lectura and not Sola Scriptura, the adage born at the time of the Reformation.
Focusing on the moment of reading and what happens to the reader, this text affirms that “Christianity is not a religion of the book, but of reading”. Sola Lectura takes note of a certain “dissociation between the written word and the book” provoked by digital culture: “a new question arises today: that of the significance, for the concrete expression of the Christian faith, of the dissociation between the written word and the book (die Emanzipation der Schrift vom Buch), with its extension in the omnipresence of the written word in electronic media of all kinds” (p. 30). A few years on, the clear and pertinent questions posed by this text have not yet received the echo they deserve. They rightly raise the new gap that has emerged between the written word, its readings and performances, and the book.

2. The Transformation of the Writing in Digital Culture

If reading evolves with the pixels, so does the status of the text. In a bilingual book published in 2019, Écritures digitales. Digital writing, digital Scriptures, I sketched out the contours of this transformation in two chapters, accompanied by two other chapters describing the effects of this same transformation on our relationship to the biblical text. Here are some of the features of this book, which is available free of charge thanks to a grant from the Swiss National Science Foundation.
At the start of the 21st century, thinkers Roger Chartier and Umberto Eco described how they perceived the changing status of text in digital culture, even before the terms “digital humanities” or “humanités digitales” were coined. For Roger Chartier, “the world of the digital text is a world in which texts are deployed, taken up, rewritten, in which a writing is written in a writing that is already there, a world in which the reader intervenes not at the margins of the text but in the texts themselves, a world in which, as Foucault sometimes dreamed, where the ‘authorial function’ would disappear in a kind of textuality made up of layers of discourse, always taken up and linked to the permanent exchange between producers and readers - but readers, in turn, authors” (p. 16-17). This quotation clearly underlines how the transformation of reading also entails the transformation of the text.
As for Umberto Eco, he describes what he calls the disappearance of the concept of the original text: “Suppose I download [Kant's] Critique of Pure Reason onto my computer, start studying it, and write all my comments between the lines. Either I’m gifted with a strong philological mind and can recognize my comments, or, three years later, I won’t know what's mine and what’s Kant's. We’d be like those copyists of the Middle Ages who automatically corrected the text they were copying because it seemed normal to them. But here too, the risk for the young student is that he or she no longer realizes that he or she has manipulated the text. Scientific and academic circles remain the guarantors of this philological vigilance” (p. 227).
Twenty years on, these words expressing the fear of the humanities and social sciences in the face of the advent of digital technology seem to have been tempered. Let’s start by noting that, while the notion of the original text has flourished in print culture, no one can ultimately deny the auctoriality of the digital traces sown on the web, the electronic pebbles of Petit Poucet. Initiatives such as the Content Authenticity Initiative illustrate the emergence of new practices for verifying the origin of digital productions.
On the other hand, the birth of e-philology seems to temper the fear of philology going off the deep end and promotes the interaction of the humanities and social sciences to maintain the link between a statement and its author, through communities of users. This is what Elena Pierazzo positively describes in a fine book on digital editing: “It is a state of affairs that the real distinction between editorial work and editorial product has now been called into question, because the tools used by publishers in their editorial work are themselves being made accessible to users : this is what Gregory Crane defines as ‘e-philology’, in which the editorial function is shared by editors and users, and in which text is broken down, analyzed and produced by algorithms” (p. 16). It is in this collaborative, collective, more flexible, and fluctuating culture that our relationship to the biblical text is now nolens volens. So, what do theologians have to say?

3. Is the Bible becoming ‘liquid’ in the Digital Culture?

As we saw in the first module of this Opencourseware, it will have taken sixty years since the creation of the first biblical computer tool - the UNIVAC index created by Ellison in 1957 - to see the publication of the first monograph devoted to the evolution of the biblical text in digital culture. This will be followed by the publication of two other monographs, Peter Phillips’ in 2020, and my own in 2019. Although Siker is breaking new ground, he seems primarily to be writing to express an important caveat in the face of digital culture, which he believes could make the biblical Scriptures ‘liquid’ and endanger their very canonicity.
Siker considers that “the Bible unbound on screen does not lend itself to an immediate awareness of a particular form of the Bible, canonical or otherwise. From this point of view, flying over the Bible on screens would necessarily lead to an underestimation of the understanding of the Bible in its canonical framework” (p. 69), that Bible which is for him “the book of books” (p. 9). If Siker’s fears are understandable, and echo those already expressed by other authors before him in articles, they nevertheless lend themselves to a certain reconfiguration and weighting.
First, it brackets the notion of a reading or user community, which, as Pierazzo reminded us, is crucial to digital written expression. We have a clear example of this with the digital Bible application YouVersion, which is the most successful in terms of users now. Tim Hutchings’ analysis of this application contradicts our spontaneous apprehension of a flexible, even liquefying, digital culture for biblical interpretation.
Hutchings points out that YouVersion was founded by Life.Church, which is “not an independent online community, but the online ministry of a single church entity founded in the United States in 1997”. The application offers “carefully selected content, as are the user's options for browsing the library. Sometimes, as already noted, the digital product may even act against the user's independence, providing advice, chastising the entity, and using techniques of technological persuasion to train new habits of textual engagement [...]. My argument demonstrates that the funders, designers, and marketers of some digital Bibles are stubbornly trying to promote a traditional evangelical attitude towards the Bible, but further research will be needed to assess the consequences of widespread adoption of a digitized text in religious communities” (p. 215-216).
Hutchings’ analysis is a concrete reminder that there is never a neutral medium, but that any medium - digital included - can be used for the purpose of a communication strategy. Far from liquefying the biblical text, we are witnessing a digital framing of reading interpretations. This is the opposite of scholarly, academic reading, which will want to take advantage of digital possibilities. In the academic context, curiosity drives the desire to build open, wide-ranging collections, which are ultimately limited only by the resources and time available, as Sarah Mombert points out. She also underlines the “decanonization” effect at work in digital culture: “For non-canonical texts (e.g. documents that have not hitherto been deemed worthy of republication with critical apparatus and have been kept outside the traditional circuit of well-known books), [...] digital technology represents not only the opportunity to be saved from the ravages of time, but also signifies the end of a marginal editorial status”. (Kindle edition, l. 5128).
As Mombert points out, there is therefore a “decanonisation” effect for all literature in digital culture: marginal texts have the possibility of being brought to light on the web and of rapidly acquiring a visibility that the printed culture had never granted them. Siker's fears may have some resonance here, given that it's not just the Bible that is affected by this phenomenon, but any literary canon. At the same time, however, the Bible does not seem to be in danger of the digital “liquefaction” feared by Siker, since many of its readers spontaneously reproduce communities of users who preserve their lines of interpretation. This is the lesson to be learnt from the YouVersion application.
When it comes to scholarly reading and research in the biblical sciences, we’ll have to dare to take an interdisciplinary approach to this corpus, which has been studied so extensively up until now. Reading the Septuagint or the New Testament on the Thesaurus Linguae Graece, amid thousands of Greek texts, clearly does not lead to the same results as reading them on the Accordance Bible Software. It's up to scholarly biblical reading to dare a certain digital decanonization, as described by Mombert.
This is all the more important in view of the fact that, for the New Testament, there are tools clearly anchored in this discipline, and which were presented in Module 2: both the New Testament Virtual Manuscript Room (NTVMR, Münster) and the manuscript room of the Center for Studies of New Testament Manuscripts (CSNTM, Plano) ensure a clear delimitation of the raw material of this corpus, its manuscripts. Wooden, cardboard or leather covers have simply been replaced by databases, servers, and cables. This is a world relatively foreign to biblical scholars, but they are called upon to dialogue with its custodians, their IT colleagues. This is the key to the challenge we face with the advent of digital culture.

4. Digital text processing and manuscript collation: a changing world

In Module 3, Elisa Nury introduced you to detailed text encoding and the importance of choosing text tags. Once a manuscript has been read and transcribed into TEI/XML, the second stage, which is crucial to produce a critical edition, is to compare the manuscripts, or “collate” them, to use the term proper to critical editing. Digital tools open innovative perspectives in this field, which are now reflected in the existence of numerous tools. I'd like to start by mentioning an article on the history of research by Elisa Nury and Elena Spadini, which effectively presents the evolution of electronic collation (2020). I'd also like to thank Elisa Nury for pointing out some of the resources I'm presenting here.
From the 1960s to the 1990s, collation tools were produced based on programs that read texts from punched cards, then magnetic cards, then optical tapes, and finally floppy disks. As Gilbert reported in 1979, it was the Collate program that was used to produce a critical edition of medieval prose texts (1979,245-246). The CollateX program, https://collatex.net, is its heir and the basis for many applications. It already represents the second generation of tools highlighted by Nury and Spadini: it has a variant graph representation with modular visualization of variants.
This is the case with Stemmaweb, which can be used to create a critical edition with automated collation. Variants can be viewed in stemma form directly from TEI/XML files.
Stemmaweb was developed since 2010 to address the following issues in particular: o What constitutes a reading, in what context(s)? A lemma reading? A variant? o How should variants be classified? What implicit hierarchy, if any, does the editor’s classification scheme have and what are the implications? o How should the text be subdivided, and in what order(s) should these subdivisions be read? o What kind of information is carried within the text, and how can that be expressed?
Another effective example of a second-generation tool is ChrysoCollate, created by Professor Sébastien Moreau of UCLouvain. The tool has a collating mode and an editing mode; the collation can have different colors and automatically completes the end of the lessons. You can also use an annotation tool and create a critical apparatus based on the selected lessons. Finally, translation is also a feature and can be synchronized with editing.
ChrysoCollate is used in the multilingual online editions produced by Gregori, UCLouvain’s multilingual publishing platform for patristic texts, created in partnership with the publisher Peeters.
Other models of editorial tools have been developed based on manuscript images. This is the case, for example, of EVT, which makes it possible to link a critical edition and its notes to the image of the manuscript and, in its latest version, to juxtapose different editions of the text and/or its translations.
Regarding the New Testament, the New Testament Virtual Manuscript Room (NTVMR) is based on a collation program called VMRCRE, as we saw in Module 2.
As for the editorial decisions for the volumes of the Editio Ciritica Maior, they are made by the editorial team based on the data provided by the algorithms of the Coherence-Based Genealogical Method (CBGM), discussed in detail by Tommy Wasserman and Peter Gurry in a book published in 2017. A summary can be found online by Gerd Mink, whose central idea is as follows: « The Coherence-Based Genealogical Method is based on the following assumptions: In a textual tradition where all the copies have survived and where the source, or (in case of contamination) the sources, are also known, as well as the origin of every reading in every copy, the genealogical interrelationships between all the variants at any place of variation must appear in a global stemma of the witnesses as genealogical relationship between coherent fields of relationships between witnesses. »
Since the publication of the Editio Critica Maior of the Acts of the Apostles and of the Gospel of Mark, the Münster website has made available the program General Queries, which makes it possible to search all the material used for the publication of these two books. As we can see, digital culture allows us to participate fully in the editorial work.
These methods of collation and critical editing will seem quite complex to those discovering digital humanities through this online course. But there are simpler tools available. Would you like to be able to edit your TEI/XML-encoded texts quickly and attractively? Then TEI Publisher is the tool for you. The website shows some examples of edited texts that are interactive, effective, and aesthetically pleasing.
In the same spirit, LERA allows you to compare passages of text either with colored visualizations of the texts or with ‘word clouds’ that quickly highlight recurring themes in a passage. We hope these examples inspire you to explore the possibilities of digital textuality.
I would like to conclude this eTalk and this practical section by mentioning a new tool that is currently under development and that is highly innovative. Created by Patrick Andrist and his team at the University of Munich, it aims to explore and compare the materiality of codices, particularly biblical ones. This perspective makes it possible to highlight the relationships between form and content and could herald the start of a third generation of tools based on questions that are virtually absent from printed editorial techniques. As is often the case in the digital humanities, new research questions arise from the creation and use of IT tools. Reflections on the transformations of digital textuality have only just begun.
This final slide shows the list of the references quoted in this module 4.