I happened to stumble across this discussion from a web developer who wants to figure out how to present Bible text (not references) on a website. There are a lot of reasons why this is a lot harder than one might think at first glance. Most Blogos readers will already know all this, but i thought it might be helpful to summarize some of the issues here for the next person who stops to think and google.

  1. The Good Book comprises a number of different books, each with their own special requirements and challenges. One size doesn’t usually fit all.
  2. Chapter, paragraph, and verse boundaries don’t always line up, so while a neatly nested hierarchy is tempting, it doesn’t work out well in practice.
  3. There are a lot of special formatting challenges in Scripture: here’s a list that’s almost certainly incomplete.
    • Poetry
    • Dialogue (including quotes inside quotes, like Jesus repeating a proverb in Luke 4:23)
    • Chapter and verse numbers
    • Many Bible versions include headings like “the Beatitudes” for Matt 5:2-12. While they’re not part of the text, they are part of the version.
    • The convention of displaying the words of Christ in red (which presumes markup that distinguishes them)
    • Footnotes (common in many Bible versions)
    • The Psalms have some special requirements: there are actually five “books” (collections of Psalms) within the one Book of Psalms, and many of the Psalms have additional header material (e.g. Ps 73, which identifies Asaph as the psalm’s author)
    • Certain passages (John 7:53-8:11 is a good example) are usually distinguished typographically along with an explanatory note, since they’re not included in all manuscripts.
  4. No matter what you think the One True Markup Style might be, it doesn’t do you any good unless you actually have a Bible text in that format, and that takes a lot of hard work.

So what’s a web developer to do? While i can’t solve the problem for you, i can point to some existing standards. Of course, different desktop applications (like Logos Bible Software) have their own (typically proprietary) internal markup systems (disclaimer: even though i work for Logos, i couldn’t begin to explain all the intricacies of their markup!).

OSIS is a very thorough (hence fairly heavy-weight) XML standard for Scripture markup. While they’ve covered most all the bases and then some, i don’t know of any complete Bible versions that are freely available in OSIS format. On top of that, the OSIS group doesn’t seem all that active these days.

The ESV website provides a web service with a rich API that also illustrates a numbers of the issues mentioned above. While their format is not a “standard” (in the “committee-approved” sense), it’s certainly a well-thought-out approach, with the additional benefit that you can actually retrieve text that’s already formatted coherently, rather than formatting it yourself.

PS: notice the bibleref markup here? I’ll bet you didn’t, but someday a smart web spider might! I typed it in by hand, just for the experience (apparently WordPress lets you enter HTML as text that gets converted to markup when you save), though a plugin makes it even easier.