Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 10 (2010) - Review

Naef, Thomas, Holy Bits: A Guide for Using Computers in Biblical Scholarship (Bible in Technology 3; Piscataway, N.J.: Gorgias Press, 2009). Pp. xvii + 140, Hardcover. $104.00. ISBN 978-1-60724-327-4.

Contemporary biblical scholars must use computers in the practice of their profession. Email applications and word processors spring to mind most readily as electronic aids that have revolutionized the academic workspace since their introduction. Even so, a much broader range of computerized tools typically lies dormant or underutilized in the work of academicians. Addressing this problem, Thomas Naef's Holy Bits introduces the employment of computers in a manner tailored to the specific needs of biblical studies professionals.

Naef writes in a conversational style, which tempers the intimidation that a novice naturally feels when confronting such a broad, complex, and inherently technical subject. The range of topics he addresses in the book is impressive, including hardware, operating systems, software, standards, security, online texts and journals, bibliographies, and websites. Several categories of software programs receive chapter-length treatment, including word processors, presentation software, bibliographic tools, and Bible software.

The book generally sets an agreeable pace for newcomers to computer-enhanced scholarship. A representative sample of Naef's beginner-friendly discussion leads with, “A computer consists of a hard disk, memory, a screen/monitor, and a keyboard, mouse, or other input device” (p. 5). Yet despite explanations that remain mostly mindful of an audience of novices, some discussions require a higher degree of technical aptitude from the book's readership. For example, instruction on the use of non-Roman letter fonts (such as for Hebrew text) leaps directly to the installation of “keyboards,” which bypasses font selection through on-screen menus (pp. 18–9). Using the keyboard-switching method of text entry indeed commends itself to the writer for several reasons, but an introductory audience may not grasp those reasons intuitively. Furthermore, unnecessary and distracting depth of detail occasionally appears in the text, as in the discussion of how overhead projectors can rarely distinguish “a dark turquoise (hexadecimal code: 00CED1) from a light sea-green (hexadecimal code: 20B2AA)” (p. 49). Also, while only a vanishingly small percentage of biblical scholars will realistically use text editors since they require learning XML coding, text editors receive twice the length of treatment afforded word processors in general, and the academically-focused Nota Bene word processor escapes mention completely.

Naef's review of specialized Bible software packages like Accordance, Bibleworks, and Logos concentrates upon morphologically-based research but does not explore the dawning potential of syntactical searching, available for several years in Logos and reportedly incorporated into the 2010 release of Accordance. In addition, given the vast performance gap separating free Bible software packages on one hand and Accordance, Bibleworks, and Logos on the other, an acknowledgement of this disparity would have been helpful to the reader.

Every printed book discussing computers risks a brief shelf life due to the inexorable and accelerating advance of technology. Therefore Holy Bits inevitably exposes itself to critique for neglecting to profile this or that resource, or conversely for focusing too minutely upon a contemporary aspect of computing that soon falls into obscurity. However, the book maintains enduring value for at least three reasons.

First, a companion website promises to mitigate the book's loss of currency by updating significant web links and other time-sensitive information subject to rapid change. Second, Naef consistently profiles free, open-source software alongside commercial packages. Directing attention toward free resources addresses the needs of scholars in cash-strapped institutions everywhere, especially in the developing world. Finally, Naef's philosophical discourses on how scholars use computers should prompt re-evaluation of usage practices. As anyone who has attended professional meetings can attest, poor computer employment skills can depreciate even the most scintillating presentations.

If Holy Bits appears again in a second edition, an additional chapter should explore the burgeoning fields of collaborative and mobile computing. Currently the book assumes that a scholar will run software programs and store documents on an individual desktop or notebook computer. However, services such as Google Docs enable the sharing of information such that multiple users can work together in real time, free from hardware and software compatibility issues. Online data processing and storage reduce the required level of sophistication of the individual user's device, thus facilitating meaningful interaction via mobile platforms.

Despite points of critique offered above and an excessive retail price that will keep Holy Bits out of the hands of many who stand to gain from its guidance, the book still rewards two to three hours of careful reading and subsequent reference. Anyone interested in enhancing his or her biblical scholarship through the use of modern technology should reflect upon its content.

Scott N. Callaham