How Ancient Religious Texts Went Digital

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Illustration: Elena Scotti (Gizmodo)

In the 1940s, as the Italian Jesuit priest Father Roberto Busa studied “the verbal system” of Thomas Aquinas, he wondered if, perhaps, there was “any gadget” that could help him develop a concordance—an alphabetical listing of all words written by the 13th century philosopher saint, complete with conjunctions, prepositions, pronouns, and their citations.

In 1949, he traveled to the United States to convince a university to help him with his ambitious project. At a time when computers were painfully slow and the internet was decades away, this impressive feat became a vital resource for scholars to navigate their way around an extensive religious text.

After meeting with the founder of an IT company in New York, Busa recalled, “I knew, the day I was to meet Thomas J. Watson, Sr., that he had on his desk a report which said IBM machines could never do what I wanted.”


IBM owned graduate engineer Herman Hollerith’s patents, which were instrumental in Father Busa’s project. Hollerith’s patents laid the groundwork for the punch card industry, which involves punching holes into a card that can then be transferred as data into machines. Hollerith was inspired by the techniques of the player piano and the Jacquard weaving room. And it was assistance with this type of mechanical manipulation Father Busa needed in order to complete his vision.

Busa and his team had to both punch holes into cards which corresponded with certain codes as well as print sentences onto lithographic master plates, the latter of which included the context of certain word-cards. “I still remember how difficult it was to calibrate the lines between the punched holes, as the paper plate stretched progressively during operation,” Busa wrote. “I still have a file of 800000 such cards.”


“I had seen in the waiting room a small poster imprinted with the words, ‘The difficult we do right away; the impossible takes a little longer,’” Busa observed ahead of his meeting with Watson. He then reportedly brought this poster into the office with him, telling Watson, “It is not right to say ‘no’ before you have tried.’” Watson agreed to work with Busa on his concordance project so long as he didn’t “change IBM into International Busa Machines.”

It was this agreement that solidified what has come to be a hugely impactful development in the digital humanities. The 56-volume index took more than three decades to finish, but it’s what Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Loyola Marymount University Jeffrey S. Siker characterized as one of the earliest known instances in which religious text was effectively digitized, describing Busa as “the first known person to intentionally use the IBM computer in its very early form for studying a religious text.”


But Siker also acknowledges that this question—what is the first known instance in which a religious text was digitized?—is one that can be answered a number of ways. It’s a big question, and it reveals the layers and nuances of what it means to be “digitized” as well as spotlights the breadth of religious texts available and still being unearthed.

“You went basically from punch cards originally to digital tape on massive computers then to floppy discs and then to hard drives and it just kept on going,” Siker told Gizmodo. He said that he remembers, pre-Internet days, having floppy discs that held very little data. “They’re wonderfully frustrating and slow.” From there, information was accessible on hard floppy discs and then CD-Roms, and then came the internet. Siker pointed out that when the Web came along in 1990, when information started to become more accessible and democratized, some of the first content that was uploaded was biblical texts.


Brent A. Strawn, Professor of Old Testament in the Candler School of Theology at Emory, traced back what he described as “arguably the most important archaeological find” pertaining to Christianity and Judaism in the 20th century—the discovery and subsequent publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls.


The scrolls were discovered in a series of caves near the Dead Sea between 1947 and 1965 by Bedouin shepherds. In 1953, a small group of scholars was granted permission by the Jordanian government—who at that point had ownership over them—to study, translate, and publish them.

“What we found there was in many cases the earliest copy of the biblical books ever found and in some cases these predated other copies by centuries if not more,” Strawn told Gizmodo. “It was a blockbuster discovery.”


This small group of scholars appointed with what Strawn called a “Herculean job” of translating, editing, and publishing these scrolls held onto the manuscripts for decades. There were thousands of them. But Strawn said that the Huntington Library in California found a copy of all of the photographs of these manuscripts in one of its closets and wanted to make them publicly available online. At the time the library announced it was going to make the scrolls available, the scholars had only completed a third of the translation over 40 years. This was in September 1991. To democratize that knowledge—to expand it beyond this insular circle of scholars—was huge, and contentious.

William A. Moffett, director of the San Marino library, told the Los Angeles Times in 1991 that the Huntington Library’s move to make the scrolls widely available was “like bringing down the Berlin wall or releasing hostages in Lebanon.”


Digitizing sacred texts, while sometimes viewed as a scandalous endeavor, is one that expands information beyond just an inner circle of scholars and the faithful. Justin Parrott, a research fellow at Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research, just finished his masters of research in Islamic studies last year using the search engines to analyze a particular idea across a whole genre of Islamic texts. Parrott suggested looking into the history of Maktabat Shamela, an Islamic encyclopedia launched in 2005. “Most scholars of Islamic digital humanities use the Shamela data in their work, so I assume it was one of the first (maybe not the first) major digitization of Islamic texts,” Parrott told Gizmodo in an email. “It’s an interesting topic and might involve complicated digital forensic search techniques in the internet archive.”

Parrott also pointed to radio as one of the earlier illustrations of religious text adapting to more modern mediums in the Middle East. In 1949, King of Saudi Arabia Ibn Saud introduced radio stations to the country, with a recitation of the Holy Qur’an as the first broadcast to hit airwaves. And while this was certainly one of the more historic and far-reaching instances of modernizing religious text, King Saud had intermixed religion and technology nearly 25 years prior.


In 1925, in order to sway religious opponents of technology, Saud showcased how it could be used to amplify the faithful’s messages. He wanted to bring telephony and telegraphy to the country, but “in the eyes of some influential and religiously minded individuals, the only rational explanation for electromagnetic communication was Satan,” Eli Goldston Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School Deepak Malhotra wrote in his book about negotiation. So Saud gathered religious leaders at his palace. He had one leader hold a microphone while the other read into it a passage of the Quran. He argued, according to Malhotra, that “if this machine were the work of the devil, how could it possibly carry the words of the Quran?”

As for the significance of digitizing sacred texts, Parrott pointed out conflicts in Arab-speaking parts of the world, such as Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. “Their libraries are being destroyed and their cultural heritage is being destroyed,” Parrott said, “and a lot of them don’t have access to books, so putting these things online is giving them access” and preserving that information for future generations.


Digitizing religious texts has a number of obvious advantages aside from the historic significance of archiving. It affords searchability (as we saw with the early efforts of Busa), accessibility (as we saw with the Huntington Library’s Dead Sea Scrolls), and mobility (as we’ve seen with the influx of religious mobile apps). It also allows individuals in environments unkind to certain types of religion—or religion at all—to safely and discreetly practice and/or research different faiths, giving them online tools rather than the necessity to carry around heavy volumes of text.

There are also downsides to modern mediums of sacred texts. Strawn compared Bible apps to something similar to “a notification from Instagram or an ad from Zappos or something like that, so that it’s hard to differentiate in the environment of my phone.” He compared that to the tangible, “it’s leather bound and it has gilded edges and a special ribbon, these sort of paratextual elements often designate sacred literature as special and of course that sort of stuff is gone in the digital environment.”


But it’s still important to recognize the tireless efforts of the faithful and future-minded of the not-so-distant past. Hundreds of thousands of punched cards diligently prepared is a feat impressive in and of itself, and one that paved the way in the field of the digital humanities. And while subsequent breakthroughs helped to streamline these painstaking processes, and while these religious texts have become more readily accessible, there still exists a need for careful human consideration when lifting words from these holy pages.

“That is the reason why the use of computers in linguistics demands a lot of dedication and hard work,” Father Busa wrote in 1980. “Without them, computers would only produce ‘in real time’ monuments of waste.”