Monday, 3. May 2004

the Holy Bibel as Placeless Content

Today we hype about blogs and are crazy about hyperlinks, URIs and the web. We quote content of others using hyperlinks. Messages spread through hyperlinks. If a cool blog has some content, it will spread.
Christian Bible usage has some interesting similarities to Semantic Web stuff. The Holy Bible can be seen as a small Semantic Web itself. Some social and cultural practice around the Bible are similar to Semantic Web practice.

Protestant Way

From protestant view only the Bible itself gives authorative information about the faith. Secondary literature is not authorative, it can only enlighten and go deeper about stuff that is already written in the bible. If you want to know the real stuff, you have to use a real bible. (not a Firebible).

So knowledge of the bible is a pre-condition to know and live the faith the protestant way.

Biblical Authority

For a protestant, the meaning of biblical terms can only be defined by the bible itself and the few information we have from secondary literature that is from the biblical age. And of course, by the personal experience of the Holy Ghost, but I will exclude Him from this essay.
William Barclay used all historic sources he could get to write his Bible Commentary, but in the religious world, the Bible is always seen as more trusted then other texts from the ancient world. This may be good or not, I will not discuss this, you sure have your own faith about it.
But certain tools are build to make it easier for Bible-enthusiasts to live their christian faith.
  • Normative Identifiers (aka Uris)
  • Cross References (aka Hyperlinks)
  • Blogging
  • Indices (aka Search Engines)
  • Chain Systems (aka Link Collections)
  • Excessive Quoting (aka blogrolling)
I will now show what these points mean for a practicing christian and how they are related to current hypertext systems.

Normative Identifiers

Some wise people had the idea to give all books in the Bible names and use them to identify the books. The books are called "John, Luke, Psalms, Revelation" etc. If there are two books with the same name, they get a unique integer id prefix, ordered by publishing date. Thats where "1Moses, 2Moses, 1Joh, 2Joh" come from. First the Latin and Greece names where good, today we can map them to all languages.
Inside a book, a destinction into chapters was made. So we have John 1,2,3,4,5 ... 21. In each chapter the verses where numbered. The verse number is written after the chapter number, normally like: "John 3,15". And voilá, we can identify bible passages in all languages and cultures and over the last 1000 years with this system. Great, isn't it, if you read age-old books about the bible, they use the same URIs as we do, where do you find this persistency anymore ? If I go to the St. Stephen's Cathedral in the Center of Vienna, there are stones from the 15th century there quoting bible passages, using the same identifiers as I am using here to quote Joh 3,15 (this is in german). So referencing works in all Bible Translations in all languages and cultures. Great.

Cross References

The nifty thing about Bible reading is, that when you don't get it, you switch to another passage about it. They quote all the time. Even Jesus does. And they quote passages that have been age old even in their time. When I as a reader do not understand a passage or want to know more about it, I can usually find these neat references at the border of my bible. In the online bible, they are at the end of a chapter and foot-noted.
Sometimes people quote well known parts of the old testament, for the modern reader the references to these parts are given. For example in Acts 7 Stephanus gives a talk about the bad things that happened to the prophets before. After the passage you find many cross references. (Sadly the audience did not listen and killed him). In a paper Bible you would be very fast in finding the referenced passages. Win a Bible Quiz. Some online Bibles are slower than paper based systems....


As we see, Bible content is not really structured by topic. Most of the books are a collection of stories written by different people. Most are about what these people did, like a diary, or what they heard that other people did, like a newspaper. The newer articles in the bible often quote the older articles. In the new testament, the four gospels and the Acts form a blogosphere of four people. (Acts is writte by Luke, we assume).
A blogosphere is the bible? Sure. They all write down what happened, from their point of view or as they heard it. They quote the historical persons or each other. They write chronological. Some Bible witty guys assume that some apostels had the wise idea of taking small notes while things happened and later wrote the gospels. Isn't this enough to state that the fourl gospels are blogs? At least they are heavily linked in the letters and in literature.


If you don't know where to start your Bible study about "Wine", you can rely on a Bible index. The idea of an index is to have an alphabetical list of all relevant words in the Bible and then have a list of all links to passages where this word appears. My own paper based index book has the advantage that it only quotes the most relevant passages and it has the context around the word, to know what the passage is about. So when I search for "Wine" I see part of the sentences containing the term, that helps much. Hm, don't modern search engines do this also???

There are different types of indizes, from Full Blown Bible Blasters with all words in every sentence to smaller slightly slimmer scriptures, that fit in your pocket. Anyway, indizes that also list a little context are great in Christian and in Semantic Web world. Like in google, the often referenced passages have a higher chance to be placed in a selective index.

Chain System

My Scofield Bible is organised in a fascinating way. Additional to the use of Cross References (hyperlinks), it has so-called "chains". A chain is a connection of several bible passages about the same topic. For example, there is a chain about "grace". It starts at Joh 1,4 and ends at Revelation 22,21.
There are 72 selected Terms in my Bible, like "Antichrist", "Christ", "Sabbat" etc.
Surely these Chains are selected by a not-divine author and therefore there is more than one chain system. It reminds me very strong to Vannevar Bush's idea of "trails" in the memex article.
Doing trails is ok, when you write your own ideas about a certain topic, you get heavily flamed in the christian world: Scofield Conspirancy Theory.

Excessive Quoting - Blogrolling

If a christian teacher or preacher writes some text and publishes it, she or he has to cross link the text to the Bible. You won't find a text that isn't filled with "I tell you this and that, as it is said in Luke X.Y". If christian content is discussed, there will always be bible references. This is a good practice, as it allows the recipient of the content to integrate the new information in her or his existing knowledge about faith. Like anchors the refernces allow us to put the new, contemporary content to historic places we know. If someone talks about God's grace he has to quote some of the famous Bible passages that mention grace.
This reminds me of us modern researchers, if you don't do one reference every five lines of text, you aren't considered cool and worthy reviewing. But in Semantic Web times, you have to link to related popular articles to get yourself a good place in the search results.


So what its got all to do with current discussion on RDF-IG and #rdfig? Well, hyperlinks and URIs are a very old stuff and we can be happy that we use them. The Holy Bible has been around for about 1900 years and people using it have invented some cool tools and social practice. There is a globally agreed identification system, aka Bible references. Protestant belief denies the authority of non-biblical material, so the only way to really know what the Bible says about Love is to read all the Bible passages about it. This is a healthy view of objectivity: You have to read all cross-linked related material to get a view.

Heavy quoting and cross-hyperlinking is good, it helps the reader of the Bible to find passages that are related to passages in current context. Index system and full text indices are in the arsenal of witty Bible-Proof christians for the last thousand years. That's why they always find these Bible quotes so amazingly fast.

In contemporary christian literature, hyperlinking to the Bible is used to Semantically annotate the new content and thereby classify it. Related material can be found by searching for other work that cites the Bible passages.

A single web document alone us not authorative. Only all related material together gives a good impression what people think about a topic. Link-collecations, cross linking and quoting help us to find this related material. "Famous and historical" resources form some kind of Anchor for us - like Biblical passages do for contemporary christian literature.

To a savvy Christian, all this Semantic Web stuff is thousand years old and we relax by quoting Salomo (Ecc 1, 10):
"What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun. "

and thanks to Michael Zeltner for bugging me to blog this crazy idea.
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