June 2, 1996

The Word and the Web. When the Benedictine monks at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, in New Mexico, created a Web site on the Internet, they claimed to be reviving a tradition that began when monastic scribes created the first illuminated manuscripts.

One of the monks told a reporter for The New York Times that their work "goes back to the ancient tradition of the scribes, taking information and making it beautiful, into art."

But the relation between modern Web sites and medieval scriptoria, or writing rooms, is even closer than these monks may have guessed. The technology that connects all the millions of pages on the World Wide Web derives ultimately from techniques invented by the scribes and scholars who copied out the Bible more than a thousand years ago.

The pages of the Web are connected by a system of hyperlinks -- words, phrases or pictures that, when you click on one with a mouse, will summon up another page to your computer screen, perhaps a page on a computer thousands of miles away. Medieval manuscripts of the Bible were the first books to be interconnected by a system of cross-references -- marginal notes that directed a reader from one biblical passage to another, perhaps to a passage written at a distance of hundreds of years from the first. The marginal references to the Bible and the hyperlinks of the World Wide Web may be the only two systems ever invented that give concrete expression to the idea that everything in the world holds together, that every event, every fact, every datum is connected to every other. Where the two systems differ drastically is in what their connections mean.

A 10th-century monk reading a manuscript of the Book of Exodus might find a line under the verse "And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way." A note in the margin would refer him to a verse in another manuscript that included Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians: "Our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; and were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea." This gives a new meaning to the verse from Exodus, but also gives new meaning to verses in the Gospels about baptism, verses that the monk could find by tracing further cross-references in the margin of Paul's letters.

The system of hyperlinks connecting the pages of the World Wide Web suggests a world where connections are everywhere but are mostly meaningless, transient, fragile and unstable. A would-be monk in the 20th century who visits the Web page of the Monastery of Christ in the Desert will find the exhortation "Don't miss our Thanks page." A few clicks, and he arrives at an image by a local artist, which will be replaced on screen automatically and randomly in a few seconds by another, and then another. You can create a link between your own Web page -- the "home page" that acts as a table of contents for all the pages linked to it -- and someone else's home page, but you have no assurance that the other person's page will display the same content from one day to the next.

In a world without tangible bodies or enduring memories, no one can keep promises. No one can even remember why they might be worth keeping. In the Bible, the connections between early and later books signify covenants that a personal God has already kept and promises that will be kept in the future. The connections between pages on the World Wide Web exist independently of space or time. The World Wide Web is touted by its evangelists as a force that will transform society in ways that no political revolution could ever accomplish. Until now the Web's main social achievement has been to provide a cure for spare time.

Another claim for the Web is that it is uniquely non-hierarchical, that it has no beginning and no end, no top or bottom, that it can be entered anywhere and traveled in any direction. In a strictly technical sense, all this is true, but in all practical and social senses, the Web dutifully reproduces all the hierarchies and inequalities of the world outside. Thousands of links point toward Web sites backed by fame, money and power. Far fewer scattered links point toward sites posted by the obscure and impoverished. A thousand students can insert in their home pages a link to the page dedicated to a rock group like Sonic Youth, but Sonic Youth's home page contains no link to any of the students' pages.

Biblical cross-references, unlike most of the links on the World Wide Web, always point in both directions. A link from the Old Testament to the New is mirrored by a link from the New to the Old. Some parts of the Bible are more densely cross-referenced than others -- the margins of the dietary laws in Leviticus are mostly blank -- but the annotators of the Bible believed that every word was equally inspired, that it was their own fault if they had not yet found all the connections that the Bible contained. Some passages of the Bible were more difficult than others, but all were available to be read and studied. The Web, on the other hand, has secret pages accessible only to those who know a password, and others accessible only to those willing to pay.

The vision of coherence and connectedness that gave rise to biblical cross-references can plausibly be credited with one of the greatest social transformations of all time: the 19th-century abolition of slavery. The movement to ban first the slave trade and then slavery itself in the British Empire came from Quakers and other religious-minded men and women who understood the link between Exodus and Corinthians to mean that they were morally obliged to repeat the work of Moses as long as any individual people were enslaved, that every individual -- not only one or another group of people -- had been promised liberation by God. The slaves themselves, in their campaign for freedom, found in this connection both a promise of deliverance and an unanswerable rebuke to the slaveholders, who so manifestly failed to practice the religion they professed. To accept slavery was to sign up with Pharaoh. To fight against it was to obey the same imperatives that Moses obeyed.

The annotators who marked biblical cross-references in medieval manuscripts and early printed editions were more interested in the text of the Bible than in their marginal commentary on it. No scholar has studied the history of the references. No one seems to have given much thought to them as a form or a medium. The one notably eccentric exception was the Rev. C. I. Scofield, who announced on the title page of his Scofield Reference Bible, first published in 1909, that he had included "a new system of connected topical references to all the greater themes of Scripture," and then devoted much of his introduction to the merits of his new system.

The World Wide Web, from the start, has been obsessed with the visual display and invisible technology of its hyperlinks, and the heaviest traffic on the Web seems to consist of computer users in search of new versions of their favorite navigation software. As Kierkegaard wrote in 1839: "It is characteristic of the present time always to be conscious of the medium. It is almost bound to end in madness, like a man who whenever he looked at the sun and the stars was conscious of the world going round."

But the greatest difference between the cross-references in the Bible and the links on the World Wide Web is the difference between words written on parchment or paper in books that were meant to last forever and words written on the transient phosphorescence of a computer screen, where they will soon be effaced by others. This may or may not be the same contrast, written down 1,900 years ago, between the wise man who built his house upon rock and the foolish man who built his house upon sand.

Edward Mendelson is a professor of English at Columbia University and a contributing editor at PC Magazine. This article appeared in the June 2, 1996 issue of The New York Times Book Review.

Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company