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Biblical textual criticism doesn't exist as a field of study, at least not according to the seminaries, divinity schools, and departments of theology and religion in this country, none of which offer courses in it. Many schools offer classes in textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible, or in New Testament textual criticism, but the two are usually treated as completely unrelated topics.
So starting a journal in that non-field was perhaps a bold move.
Fortunately, my position as manager of the Information Technology department at Scholars Press (an academic publisher that specializes in religion, classics, and Mediterranean archaeology) gave me the opportunity to create a forum in which both Hebrew Bible and New Testament textual critics could share ideas: an electronic journal. Although few models for electronic journals in the field of religious studies existed when I began working on this project in late 1994, I was able to draw on the example of the Journal of Buddhist Ethics, edited by Charles Prebish of Pennsylvania State University, from which I borrowed many ideas. In mid-1995 I began recruiting some of the most respected textual critics in the world for my editorial board. The editors had quite a bit of enthusiasm for the project, though most knew little or nothing about electronic publishing. The journal promised to be an adventure for all of us.
Partly in an effort to generate interest in the journal, and partly just because I thought it would be an interesting thing to try, in November 1995 I also started an e-mail discussion list, the tc-list (information about it is on the TC Web site), devoted to the same topic as the journal. By the time the first articles appeared in TC in May 1996, the list had been operational for about six months. (To subscribe to tc-list, send a message to email@example.com; archives are available at [formerly http://rosetta.atla-certr.org/cgi-bin/lyris.pl?visit=tc-list] and on TELA [formerly http://scholar.cc.emory.edu/scripts/TC/archives/tc-list/tc-list.html].)
Real and Imagined Advantages of an Online Journal
Online journals have several characteristics that make them preferable to print journals in many instances. In the case of TC, economic realities played an important role in the decision to go electronic. The potential readership of a journal on biblical textual criticism probably numbers only in the hundreds, and the number of articles published in any given year on the topic in the traditional print journals is easily less than two dozen, and in some years a lot less. (By contrast, in our first year of operation we published four articles and eight reviews.)
The costs of producing a print journal (probably only one issue per year) that would target such a small audience would make the subscription price prohibitive, and it is extremely unlikely that such a journal could be self-sustaining.
Another advantage that an online journal has over its print counterpart is improved access. An indication of that increased accessibility is in the access statistics from our Web site. Each of the four articles in the first year (1996) was accessed more than 200 times. The journal's front page recorded an average of 145 hits a day from May through December. Although a single hit does not imply that someone read an article all the way through, neither does picking up a paper journal imply that it was read. I believe that our articles were read by more people than most articles in traditional print journals dealing with biblical textual criticism.
Authors appreciate the increased access to their work and the shorter production cycle. In TC, all communication between the author, editor, and reviewers is done electronically, usually by e-mail, but sometimes via the Web or occasionally by fax. Electronic communication not only eliminates the delay of postal service (aptly called "snail mail"), it also allows the editor (me) to interact more with both authors and reviewers. As a result, questions about an author's arguments or about a reviewer's comments can be answered quickly. The dialogue among author, editor, and reviewers allows us to create a better article, particularly with younger, less experienced authors who have good insights but can use help in expressing themselves clearly and convincingly. The interval between receiving a typical TC article and its publication is between two and three months, depending largely on the time it takes the author to incorporate revisions suggested in the peer-review process. That turnaround time is aided by the journal's policy of publishing articles as soon as they are ready, avoiding the restrictions of a print journal's periodic publishing schedule. By contrast, the typical print journal in the field has a normal production cycle of more than a year, and sometimes two or three years. Authors who expect feedback or critique of their ideas have a long wait, and it is not uncommon for an author whose ideas are just appearing in print to have already modified his or her viewpoint somewhat upon further reflection, especially when a preliminary form of the article has already been presented at a scholarly congress.
"The idea of hyperlinks is an old one; the Talmud contains rabbinic commentaries in the margins of each page."
The short publication cycle possible with an online journal is especially important in book reviews. Acquisitions librarians use book reviews as guides in ordering new volumes, and scholars anxious to keep abreast of developments in their fields of study rely on reviews to keep them up to date. Book reviews should follow as closely as possible on the heels of publication. A brief perusal of the review section of a typical print journal reveals delays of two, three, or even four years before the review sees the light of day. In TC we make every effort to publish reviews of books within a few months of their publication, and in no case do we publish reviews of books that are more than two years old. We hope that by providing timely book reviews we are providing a valuable service to our readers, as well as to the authors and publishers. TC's e-mail discussion list, although it has yielded few article authors so far, has been a valuable source of book reviewers.
An incident associated with one of our reviews illustrates another nice aspect of the online journal: flexibility. On one occasion a reviewer, in an otherwise good review, misstated one of the author's points. When the author pointed that out, I had her write a short response, and we linked it to the review. In a print journal the correction would have been published one or more issues later, and readers of the original review would never have been aware of the problem.
Perhaps the most important difference between online and print journals is in the technology. The most obvious technological feature is the hypertext link. Although the idea of hyperlinks is an old one (e.g., the Talmud [formerly http://www.fontworld.com/talproj4.html] contains rabbinic commentaries in the margins of each page), printed hyperlinks such as footnotes, index entries, and tables of contents do not have the same power electronic hyperlinks do. We use hyperlinks extensively in TC for footnotes, bibliographic entries, and references within the text itself. Since there are no page numbers in our articles (a page is a print concept), we number every paragraph so that the article itself, or future articles, can link directly to a relevant place in the text. Since our articles deal intensively with the biblical text, we also use hyperlinks to allow readers to click on any biblical reference mentioned in the text and see the passage in English, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, or Syriac. Non-Roman characters are transliterated. We have also used hyperlinks to graphic images to illustrate the presentation of parallel Syriac translations of the New Testament (Kiraz 1996).
Another potential use of technology in an online journal is a link to a computer program that simulates the process of scribal copying, complete with random transmission errors and the destruction of random manuscripts. One of our technical editors, Tim Finney, contributed a program that does that [formerly ftp://scholar.cc.emory.edu/pub/TC/simmss.c]. Even something as simple as the use of color to highlight the passage in a manuscript that is being discussed is something that online journals allow but that is not possible in typical black and white print journal. (See the illustration at the beginning of Mynatt 1996).
Problems and Perils of Implementing an Online Journal
Despite the promises that technology offers to authors, editors, and publishers alike, significant difficulties also confront the electronic journal.
Perhaps the major obstacle that I have faced in trying to get TC off the ground is the skepticism from established scholars. While many in academia welcomed this new venture with enthusiasm, many others, including some who are among the most respected leaders in the field, viewed an electronic journal as hardly worthy of serious consideration. On several occasions I personally invited one leading textual scholar, a prolific writer, to contribute an article to our journal. Each time he smiled, shook his head, and said that it just couldn't be serious scholarship if it's not in print. His attitude is not unique.
I can understand some of the reasons for concern. First, many people question the permanence of online material. Veteran Web surfers are aware of the ephemeral nature of much of the material on the Web, here one day and gone the next.
"Only consistent quality should be rewarded with the mantle of universal recognition, and electronic journals have yet to prove themselves."
Many scholars also suggest that the quality of scholarship is not as high as in traditional print journals. At present that may be a valid criticism: electronic journals attract contributors who are computer literate, and they tend to be younger, less-experienced scholars and students. Furthermore, electronic journals themselves are younger — especially in the field of religious studies. Only consistent quality should be rewarded with the mantle of universal recognition, and electronic journals have yet to prove themselves. However, the same can be said of the numerous new print journals. Electronic journals are in no way inferior to print journals simply by virtue of being online. (The argument that is often heard, "There is just so much junk on the Web, so Web journals can't be very valuable," is a non sequitur. There is more "junk" in print than online, and no one would argue that print journals are worthless on that basis.)
To help electronic journals develop a reputation for scholarship, their editors should insist, first, that articles submitted to their journals go through the same rigorous peer-review process as articles submitted to print journals. Editors of electronic journals need to recruit a top-notch editorial board before the journal is ever launched. For TC, I sought some of the leading textual scholars in the world for my editorial board, and most of the people I contacted accepted the invitation to participate. In addition to reviewing prospective articles, the editorial board has provided me with invaluable advice along the way, as well as continued moral support. Second, editors must invite the leading scholars in their field to contribute articles. If an established, well-respected scholar writes for the journal, many will view the journal as a quality publication. (That is a technique that I have tried for TC, so far without a lot of luck. Several well-regarded scholars have promised articles or promised to consider submitting articles, but so far my efforts at soliciting material from targeted leaders in the field have not been successful.)
Closely related to the question of quality is the issue of value. To increase the value of a journal, the articles should be abstracted in some of the major abstracting journals in the field. That promotes the visibility of the articles, and thus of the journal itself. TC articles are currently abstracted in two journals, Religious and Theological Abstracts and "Elenchus Bibliographicus" of Ephemerides Theologicae Lovaniensis (beginning with the 1998 issue of "Elenchus"). I plan to contact other abstracting journals as well concerning TC articles.
Another way to add value to an online journal is to select an encoding standard that allows key pieces of information, such as author and title, to be found easily in a Web search. TC makes extensive use of <META> tags in each article, identifying, in addition to author and title, the date of publication, URL of the article, and the name and volume number of the journal. We are considering upgrading the encoding of our articles from HTML to either SGML or XML, both of which will allow information in the article itself to be marked for special significance (e.g., foreign words or titles of books and articles mentioned in the article can be tagged).
A third step that boosts the value of a journal is to provide articles in a variety of formats. All TC articles are available in both HTML and text formats (the latter from our FTP site [formerly ftp://rosetta.atla-certr.org/uploads/TC/]). Other formats that editors might want to consider include Postscript (for printing), PDF (for use with Adobe Acrobat), RTF (Rich Text Format), and various word processing formats (especially Word and WordPerfect).
One big problem electronic journals have to overcome is the trap of thinking in "print time" rather than "electronic time. Like the vaunted difference between "dog years" and "people years," the difference between "real years" and "Web years" is widely recognized. Web years are shorter than real years because Web technology changes so rapidly.
"Some of our articles use three or four different languages, not just two."
The biggest technical problem that TC has faced has been that of displaying multilingual texts. HTML was not designed with multilingual documents in mind, and though the situation is much improved now, HTML remains an inferior method of encoding multilingual documents. The simplest aspect of the problem involves the display of foreign characters, such as Greek, in the midst of an English article. How can the characters be displayed? Numerous solutions are possible, each of which has advantages and disadvantages.
Foreign characters can be transliterated and perhaps italicized. That works in some cases, although problems still remain: many characters used in normal print transliterations are not available in HTML (e.g., macrons over vowels, dots under consonants, special characters such as the raised right half-circle); and, for journals with large amounts of textual material, transliteration is unpopular because it is more difficult to read than the original script. Nevertheless, readers with text-only browsers, or those who have access only to text versions of articles, appreciate the availability of readable versions of the articles. TC provides versions of its articles that use transliteration according to a set of transliteration schemes adapted from standards developed for rendering Greek and Hebrew.
Images can be used to render foreign characters. That solution works for a small number of characters, but it quickly becomes cumbersome, and the document containing the images quickly grows too large for convenient downloading. TC uses small gif images of characters to represent the standard abbreviated names of manuscripts in some of its articles.
The entire article can be rendered as an image, perhaps in PDF (Adobe Acrobat) format. That is a popular way of handling the foreign-character problem (and others), but after experimenting with the format we determined that, although the articles print very nicely out of PDF, the on-screen quality of the display leaves much to be desired. I think of the PDF solution as an electronic fix based on a print mentality.
Providing RTF (Rich Text Format) versions of an article, then having the reader either download the article for viewing later with Word or WordPerfect or viewing the article immediately on the screen with an appropriate word processor installed as a helper application is a similar approach to PDF. However, that solution, in addition to being clunky, requires the use of proprietary software and is thus not a viable solution in many cases.
Public-domain fonts that have normal ASCII characters in the lower 128 bytes and characters of a non-Roman script (e.g., Hebrew) in the upper 128 characters offer another solution. That solution works in bilingual documents, and in fact standards exist for encoding Hebrew, Greek, Cyrillic, and other character sets alongside ASCII. The problem for a journal like TC is that some of our articles use three or four different languages, not just two, and this solution solves only the two-alphabet problem. Moreover, it requires the user to switch the default fonts manually, a procedure that is not particularly difficult but which requires an extra step. Furthermore, by using those "schizophrenic" fonts, the user loses the capability of displaying such special characters as é, ß, and ü.
An alternative way to display two languages in one document is to designate the proportionally spaced font as a normal ASCII/Latin 1 font and to use the monospaced font for a different character set. The special HTML characters are regained in this approach, but the use of the monospaced font is lost for other purposes, and the document can still display words in only two character sets.
The best solution, to my mind, is one developed in mid-1996 when Netscape and Microsoft created the <FONT FACE> tag. Technically, FACE is an attribute of the <FONT> tag that allows the encoder to specify which font should be used to display a particular set of characters. Although the solution was originally proprietary, it has been adopted by the HTML 3.2 standard, so it will soon be extended to that small percentage of people who use browsers other than Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer. Since the encoder is able to specify the font to be used to render the text, all the journal editor has to do is adopt or create a set of standard fonts that will be used in the journal and make them available to the public. TC uses the public domain Scholars Press fonts, which currently include Hebrew, Greek, Syriac, Coptic, and transliteration fonts (see Washburn, 1996a); those fonts have also been adopted by the Journal of Hebrew Scriptures and by others in the field of biblical studies.
One drawback of this solution is that users have to download and install the fonts on their local computer in order to view the documents properly. However, the most recent version of Netscape Communicator allows the encoder to embed fonts in a document and have the Web server (rather than the Web browser) serve the fonts to the user. That technology, TrueDoc, builds on the previous solution. Using TrueDoc, articles containing the <FONT FACE> tag no longer require the user to download the font in order to see the foreign characters. Instead, the server sends the font to the browser, which properly displays the characters. That solution will ultimately supplant the current technology, since it is transparent to the user. Unfortunately, at the time this article is being written, a bug in the Windows 95 version of Communicator prevents the FONT FACE tag from working as it did previously without embedded fonts. (The Macintosh version works properly.)
Developments in displaying multilingual documents have been rapid, but one problem remains: the problem of bidirectionality. Unlike English and other Indo-European languages, most Semitic languages, including Hebrew, Arabic, and Syriac, are written from right to left. When right-to-left text is embedded in a predominantly left-to-right document, the characters must be encoded backwards. Furthermore, if more than one word in a right-to-left language is used, artificial contrivances such as nonbreaking spaces ( ) or preformatted text tags (<PRE>) must be added to prevent inappropriate line breaks that would destroy the integrity of the phrase or sentence. There is currently no solution to this problem that is widely available, but the probable future solution is already extant. Unicode is a 16-bit encoding scheme designed to replace the currently universal 8-bit ASCII/Latin 1 scheme. Where an 8-bit scheme can represent 256 characters, a 16-bit scheme can handle 65,536, more than enough to represent the characters in the vast majority of modern alphabetic scripts (Unicode also handles thousands of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean characters). In addition to allowing multiple scripts to coexist in a single encoding scheme, the Unicode standard specifies the proper handling of right-to-left text so that a Unicode-compliant Web browser could handle the word-wrap problem. Windows NT already accepts Unicode, as do many applications available for Windows 95, Macintosh, and UNIX operating systems. When all the major operating systems adopt Unicode as a substitute for ASCII/Latin 1, Web browsers, word processors, and other applications will have a superior means of dealing with multilingual texts.
"Those of us intimately involved with online journals are in uncharted waters, making the best guesses we can, trying and failing and trying again."
One final problem that editors of electronic journals face is the wide variety of Web browsers in use on different systems. The wise editor will use only standard HTML tags, and will test the Web pages with different configurations of hardware and software, particularly whenever an innovation is introduced (e.g., FONT FACE tags, frames, Java applets). We test TC pages on Macintosh, Windows 95, Windows NT, and UNIX boxes using Netscape Navigator, Microsoft Internet Explorer, America Online, and lynx (a text-only browser).
Concluding Remarks Taking TC from an idea to a thriving electronic journal has been an exhausting, at times exasperating, but always exciting adventure. I was initially surprised by the interest shown by most of the respected textual critics that I talked to about the project, and the enthusiasm of scholars and students of the discipline has been immense. Indeed, the expectations of some of our more foresighted readers have sometimes surpassed my abilities (or the capacity of the current technology) to keep up. Nevertheless, I believe that the journal has achieved a number of important accomplishments:
it has forged a virtual, international community of text critics, aficionados of both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, providing a forum for dialogue between two obviously related disciplines;
it has set a high standard for quality and presentation by which future e-journals in the field of biblical studies will be measured;
it has taken advantage of the latest technological advances to arrive at solutions to the thorny problem of multilingual text processing;
it has utilized many of the potentials of electronic publications, including hyperlinks, cgi-bin scripts, and full-color images;
it has sped up the production cycle of both articles and book reviews, so that the turnaround time for submissions may be measured in months rather than years;
it has challenged authors, editors, reviewers, and readers alike to "think electronic" rather than "think print."
With such sage visionaries as Scott Adams (and his avatar, Dilbert) forecasting trends of our society, I hesitate to try my hand at prognostication. Nevertheless, I foresee several ways in which TC will develop over the next few years. First, it will continue to take advantage of the latest technological trends — including Unicode, XML, and Java — in order to create a better product for the reader. Second, as more people frequent the Internet, it will attract more contributors and readers to its pages. Third, along with other leading-edge online journals, it will promote the cause of electronic journals in the humanities, so that they achieve recognition equal to that of their print counterparts. Fourth, it will become a resource to which everyone in the field of biblical textual criticism, including current skeptics, will turn.
Electronic journals like TC are here to stay, and their role will only grow with the passage of time. Being associated with one of these journals is an exciting, sometimes harrowing, adventure, perhaps akin in some ways to the voyages of early navigators intent on finding new ways to get from here to there (and with less risk of scurvy!). Like all pioneers, those of us intimately involved with online journals are in uncharted waters, making the best guesses we can, trying and failing and trying again, all in an attempt to create a product that we can be proud of and that will be of lasting benefit to others in our respective fields of study.
James R. Adair, Jr., a native of San Antonio, received his B.S. in Computer and Information Sciences from Trinity University in 1980. After stints as a computer programmer with Datapoint Corp. of San Antonio and as a private consultant, he went back to school, earning two degrees each from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, and from the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa. His graduate degrees are in the fields of theology and ancient Near Eastern studies.
Currently serving as Manager of the Information Technology Services department of Scholars Press in Atlanta, he is also co-editor of the Offline column in Religious Studies News and the general editor of TC: A Journal of Biblical Textual Criticism, an electronic journal he founded in 1996. In addition to these electronic publishing projects, he is also involved with the SELA Electronic Journals Project, a joint effort of Scholars Press and the Emory University libraries, and he is the managing editor of TELA, the Scholars Press WWW site. He has had several articles and reviews published in various journals, mostly in the field of biblical textual criticism.
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