ENTER THE BIBLIOBLOGGERS
St. Mary's College
University of St. Andrews
To be presented at the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting in Philadelphia at 9:00-11:00 am on 20 November 2005 in the CARG (Computer Assisted Research Group) session (S20-12; Room 411 & 412 - Marriott).
The rise of weblogs or "blogs" as a media and political force has been an important technological and cultural milestone in the last few years. (For anyone unfamiliar with the term, blogs are basically just web pages produced with software that facilitates frequent updates and allows links to individual posts.) Along with political pundits, hobbyists, diarists, etc., biblical scholars and those in related academic disciplines have been establishing a niche for themselves in the "Blogosphere." By common consent, or at least in resignation, biblical scholars who blog refer to themselves as "bibliobloggers," that is (more or less following Mark Goodacre), bloggers who have a primary or at least a significant focus on academic Biblical Studies. This term was coined by David Meadows, who runs the Rogue Classicism blog, which is devoted not to biblical studies but to Greek and Roman Classics. David's coinage was debated for some time. I had reservations about it because it seemed too easily confused with library and bibliographical blogging and others were not especially enthusiastic about it either, but no one has been able to come up with anything better and the name seems to have stuck.
For the last two and a half years (since March of 2003) I have operated a blog called PaleoJudaica, which focuses on news and Internet content on ancient Judaism and its historical, literary, and linguistic context. Much of the content involves biblical studies, so it is one of the oldest biblioblogs -- perhaps the oldest, depending on whether we regard AKMA's Random Thoughts as a biblioblog. A year after PaleoJudaica began there were eight or nine biblioblogs total. A year later, in March of 2005, another nineteen had appeared. Eight months later, today, more than thirty additional biblioblogs have been launched. I count here blogs by academic specialists in biblical studies or postgraduate students in the field. Most of these blogs, which now number more than fifty, are still active. This is an exponential increase or better, and I see no sign of it levelling off. I myself have long since reached the point where I cannot follow all of them. I hope this continued increase means that more and more biblical scholars are taking my advice (given in my SBL Forum article last April) to open a blog. In that article I referred to blogging as "an early and primitive manifestation of what will become the ubiquitous media presence of the individual" and I stand by that evaluation here. I expressed the hope at the same time that this process would lead to "a leaner, sharper, more cautious, and better informed press corps." Regrettably, this hope has yet to be vindicated.
What then, do bibliobloggers do, and why? First of all, most content-based blogs -- as opposed to diary or narrowly topical blogs (e.g., recipe blogs) -- come in a continuum between "filtering," that is, linking to subject-specific stories in the news media, with or without commentary, and "essay blogging," that is, the publication of blog posts that amount to shorter or longer essays on topics of interest to the blogger, sometimes inspired by a news story and sometimes not. Filtering blogs tend to have more, but briefer postings than essay blogs. PaleoJudaica is mainly a filtering blog, although often with a fair amount of commentary included. Tim Bulkeley's Sansblogue, Mark Goodacre's New Testament Gateway blog, Torrey Seland's Philo of Alexandria blog, and Jim West's Biblical Theology blog also fit best in this broad category, while Rick Brannan's Ricoblog leans in the direction of essays and Stephen Carlson's Hypotyposeis and Ed Cook's Ralph the Sacred River, also focus more on the essay format. A. K. M. Adam's blog, AKMA's Random Thoughts, combines both formats with that of a diary blog. These, of course, are generalizations and filterers sometimes produce essays and essayists sometimes comment on news stories.
To my mind, one of the most important contributions of biblioblogging is this last function -- to comment on and supplement media stories in our areas of expertise. A notable example is the extensive discussion in the Biblioblogosphere of an article last April in the British newspaper The Independent which reported some fairly dated information on the use of infrared technology to read the Oxyrhynchus papyri. This article in turn led to media attention on the variant reading "616" as the Number of the Beast in the book of Revelation. David Meadows (and here), Ed Cook, Mark Goodacre, Stephen Carlson, I, and others commented on the reports at some length, showing where they were inaccurate and inflated, and drawing out the implications of what was correct in them.
All too frequently, discussion of media and other public treatments of biblical studies requires the correction of serious errors. I have treated this theme at length in my earlier article, so I will not comment much on it here. Suffice to say, first, that the need for such corrections continues unabated, as, for example, the media continue to treat Neil Altman and David Crowder as respectable authorities on the Dead Sea Scrolls, despite the fact that their ridiculous notion that the Scrolls are medieval and contain Arabic numerals and Chinese symbols is rejected by all specialists, and despite their well-documented mendacity in quoting those specialists -- notably Jim VanderKam and Erik Heen. Second, such stories sometimes do have a happy ending. An example is a website posted by the Egyptian Government on the history of Jerusalem, which was rife with careless and tendentious errors. I pointed these out in detail in a blog post and some months later, when the Egyptian State Information Service site was redesigned, this particular page was quietly taken down. A coincidence? As I like to say, I blog, you decide.
Indeed, once in awhile blogging even takes us into truly serious territory, involving freedom of speech, human rights, and the freedom and well-being of actual people. I am including this anecdote, which also involves the Egyptian Government, as a late addition, since it has only just reached what we hope is a resolution. In late October an Egyptian blogger named Abdolkarim Nabil Seliman, a 21-year-old student, was arrested by the Egyptian police and held incommunicado, apparently for criticizing the Salafis in connection with Muslim riots in Alexandria over a DVD of a Christian play that they found offensive, and also for criticizing the Egyptian Government. I learned about his arrest in early November while doing a Google search for Coptic-language news. Although the mainstream media showed little interest in the case, several dozen bloggers, myself included, called publicly for Seliman's immediate release and we encouraged our readers to complain to the Egyptian Embassy and to sign an online petition. On November 14th Seliman reported on his blog that he had been freed and allowed to return home and his family his confirmed this via another blogger named Amr. Would he have been released without the unrelenting publicity from other bloggers? I blog, you decide.
Another important contribution of bibliobloggers is the sharing of our research in one way or another. All indicators are that blogging and serious publication are not by any means mutually exclusive or even significantly in tension. On this panel, Torrey Seland, Stephen Carlson, and I have recently published monographs largely written while we were bloggers, and Ed Cook has published a new edition of one of his books as well. And the quality of Mark Goodacre's research, and perhaps his blogging too, have led him to a position at Duke University.
Bibliobloggers often share their research in preliminary form, such as posting of conference papers that are later developed into book chapters or articles. We also post more preliminary thoughts on research that we intend eventually to publish. I note, for example, my lists of lost and fragmentary ancient biblical pseudepigrapha, inspired by a posting by Michael Pahl on his The Stuff of Earth blog, which are intended eventually to be part of the published volume of the St. Andrews More Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Project. We sometimes post advance summaries of work we intend to publish. We also sometimes post notes and essays that arise from our expertise, whether or not these end up being published in more formal venues. I think, for example, of Stephen Carlson's essays on forgery in antiquity (here, here, and here); Mark Goodacre's many comments on the Synoptic problem (e.g., here); Rick Brannan's ongoing commentary on the Apostolic Fathers (e.g., here); and many of Ed Cook's essays, including those on Garbini's treatment of the Tel Dan inscription (here, here, here, here, and here); on an Aramaism in Matthew 11:26//Luke 10:21; and on Arad Ostracon 18. (I hasten to add that I also thoroughly enjoy Ed's wider-ranging essays, such as his posting on the television series "Lost" as a "Godgame", that is as a game imposed on the participants and controlled by someone from outside.) Bibliobloggers often also post brief reviews and notes on books, articles, book reviews, websites, and software, with more or less commentary as the case merits. Torrey Seland's blog provides many examples of all of these. And both Torrey and Mark use their blogs to provide us with updates on their own "gateway" websites, Torrey's Resource Page for Biblical Studies and Mark's New Testament Gateway. Rubén Gómez's Bible Software Review Weblog keeps track of Bible-related software and Joe Weaks's Macintosh Biblioblog follows "all things Macintosh for biblical scholarship." We also post reports on conferences we have attended, increasingly frequently illustrated with digital photographs. And one even finds the occasional job advertisement, such as Rick Brannan's announcement in June of a position at Logos Bible Software.
Last spring I carried out an experiment that so far is unique in the Biblioblogosphere: I published a blog as part of a course I was teaching on the Dead Sea Scrolls at the University of St. Andrews. On this blog, whose name was Qumranica, I linked to online versions of my own lectures from the early part of the course and posted both abstracts of student seminar papers and summaries of each seminar discussion of the papers. I provided links relevant to the course both at its beginning and then throughout as seemed appropriate. I commented from time to time on popular articles on the Dead Sea Scrolls published online, including a feature I called the "cultural icon watch," which tracked mention of the scrolls in passing in popular articles etc. dealing with other matters. Occasionally I responded to Scrolls-related discussions in other online venues such as e-mail discussion lists. I took note of new journal issues as they came out and we had one online guest lecture by Dr. Maxine Grossman on contemporary literary criticism and the interpretation of the Scrolls. The course was even featured in a student song sung at the Divinity School's annual dinner.
Maintaining the Qumranica blog was both rewarding and exhausting. I had the good fortune to have a higher than expected enrolment in the class, but this multiplied the number of seminar papers to read give feedback on, and seminars to summarize, making it difficult at times for me to keep the blog up to date. The students reacted positively to the blog in the course evaluations, but I do not know that I will create another course-related blog unless I can find a way to reduce the work that goes with it. This was a primitive experiment in combining online electronic media with classroom teaching and as the media become more sophisticated, we shall be able to try out more and varied ways of enriching teaching with intranet and Internet technology. The fact that a postgraduate student in the course, Daniel Driver, was himself a biblioblogger who posted his own comments on the seminars and even placed his seminar paper for the course online, is perhaps the most telling harbinger of things to come. As I wrote on Qumranica, who will blog the bloggers? As more and more students take up blogging, we lecturers and professors will find our classes interacted with and evaluated in very public venues and, if we are smart, we will find ways to accommodate these rogue media in our courses.
I said above that the Qumranica blog was unique in our area, but this is not to imply that no one else has blogged consistently about their teaching. I note, for example, Christopher Heard's posts about his Religion 101 class on his blog Higgaion.
I have concentrated on the professional contributions of biblioblogging, but I do not mean to neglect the personal element or the benefits of putting a personal face on our scholarship from time to time. AKMA's Random Thoughts, the longest-running blog represented on this panel, tends to include much personal material. Many other biblioblogs, mine included, tend to focus less on the personal and more on strictly academic matters, but there are often exceptions. I think of Michael Homan's gripping account of his escape from New Orleans after the hurricane; Mark Goodacre's series of posts on his move to the United States; and Jim West's account of his visit to Copenhagen to participate in a seminar.
My comments here are meant as a brief orientation for those unfamiliar with blogging and as a summary of some of the things about blogging and biblioblogging which I have found most interesting and most important. I am quite aware that my overview in this paper is incomplete and very much reflects my own interests and biases. Others may emphasize very different things in the biblioblogs and may want to point to topics and issues that I have not mentioned here. Various ideas have already been suggested on some blogs about what we might want to talk about here (with late contributions from Mark Goodacre here, here, here, and here; eleventh-hour addition here), and we may wish to do so, but none of us need feel constrained if there are other issued and topics we wish to raise. So rather than attempting to set an agenda for the discussion, I will stop here and let us move on to Rick Brannan's most interesting paper. I look forward to it and to the panel's discussion afterward.