3 Stages of Biblical Technology

A few years ago, I noticed that the way I think about and interact with the Bible changed. It started when, as a youth pastor, I purchased a Pocket PC with Bible software on it so I could always search and find verses if students asked me a question.

It turns out junior highers don’t really ask seminary question, but later I found that there have been three major stages of Bible technologies, and I was swimming in the third.

1. The Oral Bible: Context

Public Reading of Scripture From the time Moses starting writing Scripture in 1500 B.C., Scripture was most often heard, not read. Every Sabbath, the Scriptures would be read aloud in the gathering of faith.

There were no chapter or verse divisions, believers simply memorized what they heard and referred to Scripture by author (e.g., Acts 2:16-17; Acts 2:25). When a short passages was quoted, the minds of the hearers would think of the surrounding context since they had heard it read many times.

Today, we have the same experience when we refer to famous speeches we’ve heard. When we say, “Martin Luther King, Jr. said, ‘I have a dream,’” we don’t have a chapter or verse number, but we all know the context of the words in history and their significance.

2. The Print Bible: Precision

bible-verses The advent of the printed Bible allowed much greater access to the Scriptures for individual believers. However, it also changed the way people interacted with the Bible because print enables totally new uses of language.

First, a person can have a “quiet time” of personal Bible study apart from a community, and second a reader can skip around and find passages rather than waiting for it to be read. To facilitate this skipping around, chapter and verse divisions were added so that readers could quickly and precisely find passages.

One of the results of this precision was that many believers only know and memorize individual verses instead of passages in context, occasionally missing the actual meaning of the passage. Consider Habakkuk 1:5 -  it sounds wonderful in isolation, but horrific in context. The modern equivalent of isolating verses would be if we said something like, “People have important dreams (King, Jr. 5:12)”.

3. The Digital Bible: Search

Bible Search, funny, eh?The digitized Bible now brings another new way of looking at the Bible. We can find read multiple versions in parallel, look up Greek and Hebrew definitions, cross references, and commentaries with great ease.

But again, as with print there are some downsides to this kind of “searching the Scriptures.” For example, I know that Abraham grew up in a pagan family, but I can’t seem to remember the reference for this. What I do remember is that I can search for “Abraham and father” to find that Abraham’s dad’s name was “Terah” (Gen 11:27), then search for “Terah” to find Joshua 24:2. My mind won’t seem to let me memorize it, probably because I always have a computer around, and I already know what to search for to find it.

Referring to Martin Luther King, Jr. again, we might find ourselves saying silly things like, “I wanted to find out about dreams, so I searched and found all these great quotes like King, Jr. 5:12 which says, ‘I have a dream.’”

Some Recommendations

The printed Bible and the digital Bible are amazing testaments to human ingenuity, and I am 100% glad we have them. However, we would still do well to recognize that these technologies influence us, and sometimes we need to work against their influence to be better Christians. Here are two simple suggestions:

  • Rather than always reading our printed Bible in isolation, we should read the Scripture aloud in context and in groups.
  • If we notice ourselves searching for the same passages multiple times, we should engage in the ancient discipline of memorization.

Published by

John Dyer

In my day job, I work at Dallas Theological Seminary, and at night I write Bible software for countries whose leaders could be called "overlords." This one time, I wrote a book about technology and Christian faith. You can find out more about what I'm up to at http://j.hn/.

14 thoughts on “3 Stages of Biblical Technology”

  1. Thanks so much for another good post. We can never remind ourselves enough that the way we live our faith has been changed by technology from the very beginning. Perhaps the privatism of modern Christianity has a lot to do with the self-sufficiency enabled by the printed Bible. For me, the web might actually bring us back to a more ancient future in forcing the emphasis to be on relational discipleship …

  2. Memorization? What is this, 1989?

    I would love to hear long passages of Scripture read among fellow believers. Unfortunately, when it happens at a worship service, it’s usually read at such a dreadful tone that no one but the speaker (if even the speaker) is motivated to pay attention.

    Everyone seems to “respect” the word, but few (often including myself) seem to love it even as much as Harry Potter.

  3. This is a great post. Most Christians have no idea how much the technology surrounding the Word of God affects their understandings of it. I believe that much of modernism is the result of a print-based society which tends to draw clear lines and demand close scrutiny of texts to find errors.

    Have you read Eisestein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change?

    1. Charles, sorry for the late response! No, I have not ready Eisestein’s book. It looks rather monumental though and probably would be required reading if I do more graduate work in this area. Thanks for sending it along!

  4. Fine post, which neatly encapsulates the ways the technology of communication impacts Bible reading. As a part way step towards your reading aloud in groups suggestion we already have PodBible (http://podbible.com) which allows people to hear the Scripture read aloud (by 300 volunteers) the next stage is to encourage people who take the podcast to talk about it with others. We have tried a Facebook group, but have not cracked how to make that work, and are looking at some form of group blog… but for now you can at least HEAR a chapter a day, or if you choose more so that you get the whole Bible in a year…

  5. [i]Thy word have I hid in my hear that I might not sin against thee! Ps 119:11.[/i] How did he hide it? [b]By muttering (speaking) it to himsellf out loud and repeatedly! [/b]

    We do need more public and audible reading of scripture! I remember growing up in Kingston, Jamaica: by age 6 most of us (regardless of religion) would be reciting at least 5-10 scriptures as a part of language-arts studies/literature.

    [b]The Holy Bible has shaped so much of Western Culture that we dare not exclude leave it[/b]. The effects of barring it from our schools are blatantly and readily observable. [b]That invasive and diabolic act was meant as a direct death-blow to God’s influence on the culture and minds of the nations.[/b] As individuals and families we do have a recourse!

    As parents in the USA (I’m Canadian now) you can [b]keep choosing your 1st amendment right to freely exercise your convistion of faith (not preference, I said[i] CONVICTION![/i])
    [/b]
    My proposition to parents and teachers (especially of literature, history, anthropology and sociology) is to [b]make it required reading in large chunks![/b] And to reward memorization as much as possible for our children. We started when our eldes could speak by hiding bits of Psalm into her little heart. [i](tip: start with Proverbs)[/i]

    Marc

  6. John,
    I’m thinking the digital bible does another significant thing beyond search: it reincorporates context in a new way.

    As I read my digital bible, I can glance at several other versions scrolling at the same time. I can click on any word at discover its deeper meaning, even in greek, even in a translator’s dictionary. I can instantly see there are 19 words for “crying” and which was used in “Jesus wept”, or be amazed that there’s no Greek word for “husband” or “wife.”

    The word has come to life in these days like never before.

    1. Pete, today’s study tools are pretty amazing, huh?

      There is a progression in the availability of Bible study resources – first the printing press made books more available, and now computers make even more available and also make it easier and faster.

      The catch is that both print and digital are tools used by individuals, so we still need to be spending time in community study. Also, when things get easier, sometimes we become weaker, so we still need to practice the disciplines of memorization and meditation.

  7. Yes, the Word has definitely become digital. As we are swamped by an abundance of ‘information’, it’s good to impress the Word on our memories. Join a global community of believers at Memverse.com and memorize the bible. It’s totally free and 100% online.

    1. I am a Memverse.com user and can assure you that it is helping me memorize 500 verses for the National Bible Bee! I am very grateful for this resource. Go check it out and start hiding the timeless Word in your heart in a digital, 21st century way!

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