(The following project writeup I did back in October of last year, but it has not been published until now.)
At the BibleTech 2008 conference, James Tauber of MorphGNT identified the need for the wide array of scriptural data to share common references so that they could be integrated and mashed up. However, even if the data we have today shared common references, the ability to integrate this data would be out of reach for the general public. The Composite Gospel Index (CGI) at Semantic Bible, for example, identifies parallel pericopae in the gospels; it makes available XML data consisting of OSIS identifiers which identify and group parallel pericopae. The project includes a view of the data with the text of the RSV. If, however, an Arabic speaker wanted to view the parallel pericopae in an Arabic translation, they would be unable unless they did it by hand or had experience writing applications which parse XML and query a Bible web service (if one even exists for Arabic translations); moreover, if someone else desired to view the CGI in another translation, then the same work done with the Arabic translation would have to be done all over again. Open Scriptures seeks to provide both the unified data repository for serving scripture (such as a NT manuscript or an Arabic translation), the internationalized or language-independent derived scriptural data (such as the CGI), the API to query the data repository, and a hosted application framework which allows work done once for one translation to be immediately available for any other translation.
Open Scriptures is a repository for Biblical manuscripts and their translations, and a system for storing the differences between manuscripts and their relationships to versions expressed by semantic links: it seeks to represent the textual transmission of the Bible and, on top of this foundation:
- supply an Open interface for querying interlinked scriptural data,
- store derived data in an internationalized (i18n) and translation-neutral manner, and
- provide an application platform for mashing this data up into scriptural applications with a framework for discussion and collaboration.
The most fundamental application of Open Scriptures is the comparison between one manuscript and another, between manuscripts (MSS) and their translations, and between the translations themselves. This base application provides new ways to do textual criticism so that in addition to seeing the differences that exist, but to also discover and discuss why there are differences between MSS and translations. This is possible because the MSS are merged into a kind of “unified diff” and because the semantic units in each translation are linked to the semantic units in this unified MS diff from which they were translated. (These semantic-unit links are contributed by users who desire to have a translation added to the system.) At BibleTech 2008, Karl Hofmann set forth (MP3) a vision for just such a need in Bible software, to provide:
Not only what are the differences between texts, but why are there differences? We have to go back and find out the decisions that were made along the way. [...] Software must allow us to discuss the text, not just concepts.
How is it that we are going to be able to get these tools to come together and provide the ability to make distinctions and show where the disagreements lie at a textual level as opposed to at a conceptual level. So instead of talking from my presupposition to your presupposition, we’re actually going to be able to talk about the text.
A tool that allows us to recognize the distinctions that are already being made, the judgments that are already there, and instead of trying to change your mind from the judgment you’ve made to the judgment I’ve made, to go back and find out from what point, at what point was that judgment made. Where was the distinction made, on what basis was it made? Was it made because I have a presupposition about how the text was read at a particular time? [...] or is it made because of some semantic misunderstanding I have? All of the different ways that we can be judging can be brought to light and examined and at least I can make an informed decision…
Thus Open Scriptures seeks to present the texts of the Bible as a social media, and that the functionality provided will inspire collaborative interaction at the textual level.
A second fundamental benefit of having a unified manuscript and having each translation independently link to it is that any scriptural project undertaken using the text from one translation will automatically be available to any other translation that also has its semantic units source-linked. The plethora of Bible translations is causing a fragmentation and isolation of scriptural projects and resources. Countless word studies on any particular word have been independently undertaken, each time perhaps using a different translation or language. If such a word study were to be done on the Open Scriptures framework, multiple users may collaborate on a word study project using their own preferred translation and the results could be viewed in any translation; projects such as cross-references would also especially benefit from this. Scriptural projects become social media developed on a social web.
The applications that are possible on the Open Scriptures framework are exciting; it makes trivial the creation of bilingual editions, interlinear views, full-text searching and exhaustive concordances of words from multiple translations in a language, version-independent word studies and cross references with internationalized expositions.
Open Scriptures is part of the open source movement and will operate not-for-profit; it seeks to make the Scriptures available to the most number of people and provide them with the tools they need to study them and to freely share their findings. Open Scriptures will be built utilizing open web standards and best practices in web development to create an accessible RESTful web service. The state of the Web is such that all of the pieces are coming into place:
- Unicode is now ubiquitous and so the text of the Biblical languages can be easily processed and delivered.
- The Open Scriptural Information Standard (OSIS) provides the basic XML vocabulary necessary for encoding scriptural texts.
- New efforts to photograph and transcribe Biblical manuscripts in electronic format is providing the necessary foundational textual data (see Biblical Manuscripts Project, CSNTM, and The Codex Sinaiticus Project), aside from the numerous manuscripts and resources that are already freely available, such as MorphGNT.
- Web browsers are powerful applications which can handle complex web applications employing state-of-the-art technologies like Ajax, SVG, Canvas, and HTML 5.
- Cloud computing (as in Google AppEngine, Aptana Cloud, or Amazon EC2) is maturing and provides an architecture to power high-demand processing of complex data structures.
- Social media and the Social Web are instilling certain expectations with regard to how we interact on Web 2.0 (as with blogs, Facebook, and Wikipedia).
- Google has raised expectations on the capabilities of web applications, their openness, and how data on the web can be mashed up.
- Google and Wikipedia have accustomed us to having a central resource for finding information by bringing together diverse fragmented data into an integrated whole.
- The Internet is becoming increasingly global and people from every tribe, tongue, and nation are coming onto the Web; the nations need an internationalized service for studying the Scriptures.
- Mobile web devices are becoming increasingly popular due to the iPhone, so a web service accessible to mobile devices can satisfy the needs of a rapidly increasing number of mobile users.
Open Scriptures seeks to integrate all of these pieces. For thousands of years scribes copiously copied manuscripts by hand onto vellum or papyrus with a pen and ink. They took great care to ensure that the text was accurately and reverently transferred and made their manuscripts beautifully ornate works of art; they glorified God with the work of their hands. Now today, instead of pen and paper, we have Unicode and HTML; instead of scribes, we have software developers; instead of codices, we have websites. Open Scriptures seeks to apply the same level of skilled craftsmanship in web development as the scribes’ own skilled craftsmanship in the presentation of the Scriptures, all to the glory of God and the edification of His people.
As Zack Hubert said at the conference last year, “It’s a community effort. Any time anything good happens, is because a real cool team of people have come together around an idea.” Open Scriptures seeks to be such a community effort.