This post is the first of a series on ‘Data & the Bible Online’. Some posts in the series will be from scholars summarising their research, and others, like this one, will be in an interview format.
Dr David Instone-Brewer is Research Fellow and Technical Officer of Tyndale House, Cambridge. Throughout his career he has developed digital tools for biblical scholarship, and most recently, he has been involved with STEP Bible, which many users will encounter as a Bible web app. Thanks to Dr Instone-Brewer for his willingness to answer a few questions.
1. Would you summarise your project(s) related to digital biblical studies in general, as well as STEP Bible in particular?
I’ve often been forced to create electronic tools for my own scholarly work. In order to print my PhD I had to create a word processor add-on to let me write Hebrew right-to-left alongside English. When PCs caught up with this functionality I created keyboards to allow touch-typed pointed Hebrew and accented Greek (see www.tyndale.cam.ac.uk/fonts). My rabbinic studies needed easier access to halakhic documents so I created www.RabbinicTraditions.com and when I got frustrated with slow electronic lexicons I made www.2LetterLookup.com.
My current project at www.STEPBible.org is much bigger than anything previous, and requires co-operation with others who have greater competence in programming and Biblical languages, as well volunteers to help with the huge workload. It already lets people study the Bible in 280 languages, with menus and instructions in about 60 languages, and lets anyone investigate the underlying Greek & Hebrew without expertise.
The big push at present is to add full scholarly lexicons, variant information in an easily understandable form, transcriptions of all the important manuscripts, and Hebrew/Greek tagging word by word for every Bible. And we want to add Bibles in more languages.
2. Do you feel that STEP Bible’s functionality is approaching that of proprietary scholarly software? What is its place amongst today’s software choices?
I’d still recommend scholars to use a commercial product because the non-commercial datasets STEPBible has to rely on are still inferior. But we are working on leap-frogging them. Hopefully, of course, the commercial firms are employing developers to work in similar areas, so that they can stay ahead. That’s what’s so good about competition.
3. What has motivated you to exploit new technologies for use in biblical studies?
I was concerned about the Disadvantaged world – those who couldn’t afford commercial Bible software. Many free alternatives are well-meaning but deeply flawed. Tyndale House in Cambridge (where I work) is interested in disseminating reliable and free Bible expertise in a non-denominational form with academic credibility, and STEPBible manages to do this in a way that is accessible to normal Bible readers.
4. What are the more promising aspects of recent developments in technology as it relates to the Bible and/or biblical literacy?
Co-operation has transformed the Christian world of software. Teams that previously worked separately and sometimes in apparent competition, are now sharing results of their work. There’s a new urgency to spread knowledge of the Bible without watering down the information. And now that every third-world trader needs a smart phone to know if market prices make it worth driving his ox-cart to town, electronic Bibles are accessible to everyone.
5. What concerns do you have about technological developments as it relates to the Bible and/or biblical literacy?
Giving access to complex information can lead to misunderstandings. For example, if you show people variants, they can worry that the text isn’t secure. Our solution is total transparency: we aim to show all the variants with their resultant translations, so anyone can see that there is nothing to worry about, because the meaning is rarely different and the theology hasn’t changed.
6. What has most surprised you in working on these projects?
I’ve been amazed by the willingness of people to help. Some retired people have found that working on STEPBible gives them a new purpose and use for the skills they have accumulated. And others who are working full-time manage to find a few hours per week for STEP, which they reportedly look forward to. We could do with more volunteers – especially for jobs that don’t need Bible expertise. We have a lot of editorial checking to do, and we need some people who work well on social media, because like any bunch of software and Bible nerds, we tend to lack communication skills.
(See also the second post in the series, an interview with John Dyer).