Apocalypse goes digital

Interview with Lutz Doering and Florian Neitmann about the digital edition and intertextual analysis of the Fourth Book of Ezra

Florian Neitmann and Prof. Dr. Lutz Doering
© Michael Möller

“The digital apocalypse” – this is not another doomsday scenario, but the aim of a project on the book of Fourth Ezra, an ancient Jewish apocalyptic text. Since it is available in many different language versions, the project is developing a digital edition that provides the greatest possible access to this complex text. In order then to analyze how the text is interwoven with various ancient cultures, researchers will make the digital edition into an annotation platform for the global research community to discuss and exchange ideas.

What does your DH project at the Cluster of Excellence study, and what question does it aim to answer using DH methods?

The title of our project is “Transcultural entanglement and disentanglement in Jewish apocalypticism”. The Jewish apocalypse that we are focusing on initially is the Fourth Book of Ezra, which has been handed down not in the original, but only in various Christian translations – for example, in Latin, Syriac and Old Ethiopic; in seven languages in total (with a triple translation in Arabic). The first task of our project is therefore to create an edition where the different versions can be clearly juxtaposed and compared, which can only be done sensibly in a digital edition. Once this has been done, we can then focus on the second task: namely, to situate the Book within a transcultural environment. The key aim here is to explore the relationships that the Book has to other apocalypses, as well as beyond the Jewish context to various cultural traditions. We are tackling this question with a database for annotating texts.

What do the DH methods actually look like when you use them in your project?

For the first task, the digital edition, we have to convert the different versions of the Book, including a German translation, into the appropriate file format. In order to put these versions side by side in such a way that the same section is always visible, this file format must preserve chapter and verse numbers and be able to make them available. This is possible in the XML format. As there are also variants between the manuscripts in the different versions, these must also be flagged out, which the XML format can also do. The next step is to convert the database with these XML files into a clear graphic interface on a website where the different versions, including the translation, can be shown and hidden in tabs, and where the variants from different manuscripts can be opened via hyperlinks in pop-up windows.

For the second task, transcultural comparative research, we will then expand the database so that individual words and passages can be annotated, i.e. marked, labelled with keywords, commented on, and linked to other sources. If something is annotated in the front end, then further information (tags) is added to the XML file in the back end. To structure the resulting information and make it accessible, the annotation database also contains a semantic web component that categorizes the various elements that have been annotated (terms, themes, motifs, passages, grammatical structures, and intertextual references) and relates them to each other. Scholars can then use the search function (query) to search the growing knowledge database according to their individual interests and queries.

How are or were these methods developed: wholly or partly for your project?

The structuring of texts in XML format has been advanced since the 1980s, primarily by the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI). There are also different XML sub-formats such as USX (Unified Scripture XML) that other initiatives such as the Bible Translation Community have developed. Some XML files of the texts that we are working with are provided by the German Bible Society.

As to the annotation software, there are several program[MOU1] s that have helped us to develop the necessary skills in practice: in particular, the Catma program. However, since this cannot be fully adapted to all the requirements of the project, it is necessary to programme a new annotation environment.

What results are already available, and what results do you expect? What would the same work look like without DH methods?

We already have the Latin text of the Fourth Book of Ezra in USX format, and we have produced a new German translation of the Latin version, as well as a new edition of the Ethiopic version (including a translation into German).

Many annotations for the Book have already been created using the Catma program mentioned. In addition, the project has also recorded many observations in other formats that can be transferred to the annotation environment to be created. It would be more or less impossible to produce a clear or useable edition of the various versions of the Book without DH methods, let alone an edition that can be customized to suit a scholar’s own interests and knowledge.

There are several advantages to making observations in an annotation database rather than in individual notes that may sometimes appear in essays and books. An annotation database can be structured more flexibly than any mind map or card index, it is easier to search, and it can be expanded dynamically. It also allows researchers from around the world to work with one another.

Finally, there is a very practical aspect: The combination of edition and commentary, comprising the various versions (nine in total!), and where necessary their translations into German or English, would be far more sizable than any printed book.

What is the current social relevance of this research, and the value of DH methods?

In times of war and climate change, the word “apocalyptic” is on everyone’s lips. At the same time, we are time and again challenged – not least by globalization – to understand cultural relationships and to find new terms and models for these relationships. Both aspects suggest that it is worthwhile to look at ancient apocalyptic writings which were also written in an environment characterized by crises and upheavals but also by diverse cultural exchange. The digital edition and annotation of these texts will enable the widest possible circle of interested parties to engage with them. The digital edition of different versions is also a form of cultural preservation that highlights the textual tradition, for example, in Syriac, Ethiopic, Georgian, Armenian, and Arabic.