New Models for Old things: An Interview with Kristina Bush

Kristina Bush has created a new model for a language that precedes the coming of Christ: Syriac. But before we get ahead of ourselves, what is Syriac? According to Beth Marduto:

Syriac is a form of Aramaic, a language whose many dialects have been in continuous use since the 11th century BC. Originally the language of the Aramean people, Aramaic became the lingua franca of the Near East by the 6th century BC. It was the native tongue of the ancient Chaldeans, a second language to the Assyro-Babylonians, an official language of the Persian Achaemenians, and a common language of the Jews replacing Hebrew. Jesus and the Apostles spoke and preached in Aramaic.Syriac is the Aramaic dialect of Edessa (present-day Urfa in southeast Turkey), a center of early intellectual activity. It became an important literary language around the 2nd and 3rd centuries. The earliest dated Syriac inscription is from AD 6, and the earliest parchment, a deed of sale, is from 243. The earliest dated manuscript was produced in November 411, probably the earliest dated manuscript in any language.

Before now, the schools of thought have taught that there are two scripts of the Syriac language. However, according to Kristina’s model—The Bush model— it’s not so simple. Using a cataloguing tool developed by Michael Penn and Nick Howe, Kristina Bush has been able to dispute the former models of Syriac categorization. In this interview, we talk through the process of this discovery. How did she get this far? How did she find out there was a problem in the first place? What technology makes this kind of project even possible?


Sheila: I’ve been thinking about things that seemingly have a “sacred” nature. Specifically, I’ve been thinking less about the obviously sacred things, but more about things that are sacred by association (if I may say). For instance, the Bible & Syriac— because the Syriac language is the original language of the written bible. Does the Syriac text become sacred by association? Even though the Syriac text is not really the basis on which Christians base their belief, it is part of the identity of the entire scriptures; cuz it definitely also becomes this a sacred part of a Sacred whole. And because, unlike ordinary things, sacred things are supposed to stay ahistorical, (i.e unmoved or unaffected by time) any attempt to make new discoveries about the language itself affects its relationship to the sacred identity of Christianity. Do you ever think about that in your line of work?

Kristina: I wish that I did more. But honestly, I’ve been very removed from the context. There’s pretty much one section of the paper where I will be talking about genre. And that’s the only part where I will be asking about it in relation to the greater religious context. I think it’s a little sad because I’m actually interested in religion and I would love to be able to do that more.
S: Are you Christian?

K: No, I’m just really interested in religion

S: What made you interested in religion?

K: I don’t know…I was just always really interested in Roman, Greek and Norse mythology. I’ve always wanted to learn more about different belief systems. It was only in college that I got more involved and interested in the particular history of Christianity. Michael Penn (who is my advisor) got me really interested: He teaches this class called “What Didn’t Make it into the Bible,” which I took because someone who had been a medieval studies major told me it was really important to learn more about the medieval period. I needed to learn about how people thought at that point especially because the logic in that periods was so dominated by Christian thought, the Church and the Pope.

S: Can you say more about what you learned from that period? I ask because I worry that I read the bible more like a storybook than a historical document. I mean I have barely any knowledge about the reality of the non-mythical Biblical times. For instance, I read about AD and BC but I know I have no idea what kind of political or cultural environment separated the two times.

K: In the class, we talked about Pontius Pilate and about the first Christians. We talked about the actual historical of Jesus as well…which is really difficult because there is so much mythology and legend surrounding it. We only know a couple of facts really: his ethnicity, his birthday, and his location. We also talked about what was chosen to make it into Canon, we read all of the gospels and all of the Letters of Paul. Interestingly, we also talked about what the actual church would have looked like at that time which was more like a couple of houses. People would travel from house to house, and they would gather in points.

S: Funny enough, when you’re saying that, I remember reading about Jesus sending his disciples into various houses. But because I couldn’t imagine that the church was actually happening in houses, I turned the word “House” into a metaphor because the bible allows me to do that…to say that even if I don’t know the reality, I can turn it into something metaphorical that I can have a relationship with. Though it can seem quite romantic at times, how can we know what something is when it is always relative or metaphorical?

K: Yes, that’s always hard. And back then, the people couldn’t even show that their houses were churches because they could have been condemned by the Romans. The Romans saw Christianity as an offshoot of Judaism. And since the Romans hated the Jews, they hated the Christians as well.

S: But why did the Christians also not like the Jews?

K: Because the Christians saw Judaism as a corruption of Christianity.

S: But…Judaism came before Christianity.

K: I know. (laughs) The Christians believed the Jews had gone astray from God’s original message and that’s why Jesus came. The idea was that He came to give them the new message and the new way of life. And so the Jews who didn’t accept these new messages were shunned by the Christians

S: That’s really funny. I mean, how could they even do the shunning since they were the minority at the time?

K: (laughs) Right, but Christianity eventually grew

S: It definitely did. With Constantine right?

K: Yes, he was the first Roman emperor to establish Christianity as the religion of the empire

S: How did Christianity leave the empire and get to this area of the West (this meaning, North America, England etc) Because sometimes, I find it startling to remember Christianity actually started from the Middle East because Christianity was sold to me as a Western thing while Islam was supposed to be the (Middle) Eastern thing. Did you ever hear about the anthropological re-imagination of Jesus?

K: No, what happened?

S: A picture of Jesus- created from a forensic anthropological standpoint- was released, and a lot of people were not very happy (to say the least) because the image showed him with brown skin and curly hair


K: Were people upset about it?

S: Very much so. Many claimed that the artist/anthropologist was blasphemous. But what this event revealed to me was that majority of us (especially those who identify as Christians) separate the reality of the Middle East from the holiness of the bible. So much so that even physical landscapes mentioned in the bible don’t seem like the real Middle East that we know of

K: Yes, it’s almost like they are two very separate planes of existence

S: Right. But on the other hand, this intrigues me since some part of the appeal of Christian mythology is that Jesus did live on earth. Yet, the political reality around His real existence seems blasphemous. And before I get us both lost on this tangent, I’m going to bring the questions back to your project….how did Michael Penn’s class on the history of Jesus contribute to your pursuit of your project?

K: At first, I took it for the medieval major. But then I got interested in Christianity as it’s own topic. And then, I got interested in Michael’s project which was the “Modern Technology/Ancient Manuscripts Project” (which is also a 5CollDH funded project). After reading about his project in the Mount Holyoke Newsletter, I met up with him and told him I’d like to work with him- he hired me right there. It was awesome. That was when I started getting my training on learning Syriac and learning the different scripts, and doing letter identification

S: What has been the most surprising thing about this process that seems to be so slow?

K: It really is slow. But since we got the data all together, it has moved much more quickly. I actually spent two years, just gathering data. And now in this one year, I have put together this entire project that is challenging all of the Syriac scholarship up until this point

S: Which is crazy

K:(laughs) Which is crazy

S: I’m fascinated by the process, can you speak about the most surprising discovery you and your team have had within this long process?

K: One very specific example would be this one letter Gomal: We didnt realize that the Serto letter form (which is the later Syriac letter form) actually doesn’t even appear until the 13th century. So we had no idea that we should have even been looking for that letter (especially because our data doesn’t really go past the 13th century—we have maybe one or two manuscripts). So since we discovered that missing letter form, we have had to get some new manuscripts. Actually Michael is in Rome, looking for new manuscripts

S: Really?

K: Yeah! We were completely surprised to find that there’s this entire letter that we did not account for. The other thing that has been most surprising is that scholars missed a lot of this, up until now.

S: I know! Which leads me to my next question. Can you speak a little more about what past scholars formerly theorized about Syriac and then, how you managed to think outside that box?

K: Yes. So we have a database of about 95% of all the securely dated manuscripts from the 5th century through the 11th Century. I used Michael’s app to read and categorize those manuscripts which then built our letter database. Now we have letter samples from every single manuscript in that data set. And using those letters, we have been able to construct a chart that shows every letter; like a sample or average of every letter, from each manuscript through the 5th to 11th century. Within that time period there are two script styles: one is Estrangela, which was used throughout the entire time period but is less prevalent after the 8th century. Estrangela is also a more angular script than the second script style, Serto— the more cursive form. Scholars say that Serto developed during the 8th century. Basically, using this chart, made by Michael & funded by 5CollDH, we could see that Serto letter forms actually appear before the 8th century. And, we can see that Serto letter forms appear at the same time as Estrangela letter forms in singular manuscript by one scribe. We can see that the different Serto letter forms appear at different times. While some of them are apparent in the 5th century, others don’t develop until the 8th century. In fact, some of them don’t even develop until the 12th century. Those are most of the major problems that we found using our data set of securely dated manuscript and this chart that combines all the letters

S: I’m going to try and regurgitate what you just said.

K: (laughs) Okay go ahead

S: So there are two forms, the Estrangela and the Serto. And the idea is that the scholars thought there was a linear progression in the history of Syriac letter forms; that Estrangela came first and then Serto was created after.

K: Yes..

S: But what you are saying is that you discovered that there is no clear linear progression….that they both developed around the same times

K: Yes

S: Hmm, so why would people believe—so certainly—that there was a linear progression?

K: That is the real question. The biggest problem (I find) is that the most famous Syriac manuscript, which is the earliest of it’s type (securely dated to 411 CE), actually uses Serto letter forms. Which means Searto couldn’t have clearly or certainly come only after the 8th Century. Yet, it seems like scholars just ignored that fact over time.

S: Do you think it’s because they didn’t concentrate on the individual letters in the way that you did? Or, is it that they did not use enough of the original manuscripts?

K: Honestly, the facts are that I have the biggest database/set of resources that any scholar has ever had. And that has probably given me an edge over a lot of past scholarship

S: Wow. And how does that make you feel?

K: It’s definitely crazy and exciting at the same time.


S: It is actually special, that in this tiny town of South Hadley lies the biggest database of syriac manuscripts. Do you know how many you have access to?

K: We have around 200 securely dated manuscripts. And when you include the updated manuscripts..I can’t even guess but I know it will be way more than 200

S: Do you know why Mount Holyoke decided to invest so heavily in this acquisition of Syriac manuscripts

K: Because Michael Penn is awesome? (laughs) Actually I’m not sure. I think a lot of it must have come from grant money

S: I just think it’s really interesting that somehow, these Syriac manuscripts all found themselves in South Hadley. And especially because it feels like there are people, in this area, that believed the Syriac manuscripts had a value worth investing in

K: Honestly, I think that in the beginning of this, there wasn’t so much of a focus on it being/becoming about Syriac manuscripts per say- the grants were probably more interested in developing this technology developed by Michael Penn and Nick Howe, a professor at Smith. Michael and Nick worked together to make this technology that could take images of any language and build the database of whatever letters you use. And then, the program would be able to compare any manuscript that you put in together. It would have examples of any letter, and then it would have the date of that manuscript. So if you put in an undated manuscript, the program would inform you that the letter forms in this manuscript are most similar to the letter forms from 800 or 820CE

S: So actually, the technology came first, and then the subject focus came after?

K: Yes, that’s how it started. But then it kinda became about the Syriac manuscripts (laughs)

S: That is so interesting. Because it often seems that technology as a word stands as a pretty general and wide concept that’s only useful when it’s useful for everybody. For context; I once saw this tweet: “Apple just needs to accept that the apple watch has failed” I was a bit uncomfortable about accepting this. I spoke to a couple of people about it and we realized that people were probably comparing the sales of the Apple watch to the sales of the Iphone, which doesn’t actually make much sense. Because more people use the Iphone ,does not mean that the apple watch doesn’t do a lot for the people who do use that technology. Which is to say that sometimes, many of us expect technology to be huge (and somewhat dominating) to be successful and I think we might be missing a mark. I mean, if Michael and Nick didn’t come together to work on such a small specific issue, do you think it would have been possible to get your project done?

K: Maybe. It could have been possible. But, I don’t know how long it would have taken to get those resources or funding, to get those resources.

S: If you didn’t have that technology, how else do you think you could have come to this discovery?

K: I probably wouldn’t even be doing this project if the technology hadn’t happened. But I think at some point some scholar would have done it

S: I guess someone could have woken up one day and thought “By golly, I feel it in my spirit that the scholars are all wrong about Serto and Estrangelar letter forms” but it seems like it was in doing the work of putting in the letters that you found that there was a dissonance in what had been said, and what you were now seeing thanks to the fact that you had this tool that could catalogue these letter forms as some kind of inventory

K: I actually the think the reason we focused on the Syriac manuscripts as opposed to any other manuscript is because Michael has a deep interest in that area of knowledge


S: Hmmm. I actually think that’s important in a world where people think technology is so neutral. It’s not the technology that decides what the subject focus is, it’s the people making the technology that have interests and preferences, like Michael. Which is not bad, it’s just important to acknowledge. Also, I find that sometimes, with digital funding, it seems that people expect you to have a clear vision of what you need and where you want to go. But sometimes, especially in this field, you may not be able to know. For example, you have been doing this work for three whole years and it took you all those years to formulate the hypothesis that you have built. And now that I hear myself repeat “three years,” I have to ask: what was the most boring aspect of it?

K: (laughs) Oh God, it would either be dragging boxes around letters. Or, proofing the manuscripts.

S: What is proofing?

K: Okay, so in the manuscripts, some people would leave stray marks. And since it is a very sensitive software, it keeps any touches to the manuscripts on the software. For instance, if you click on the manuscript, it sticks onto the software as a mark. So, one of my jobs was to go through and delete out every single one of those marks.

S: What does the equipment you use look like?

K: It is actually pretty rudimentary: It’s a square browser box, and on the left side, you have your menus where you choose the manuscript. On that same side, you choose the letter, and then you choose the page that you’re working on

S: So the software is online?

K: It’s like a download. And then you have the manuscript image on the right side.

S: Oh, so these manuscripts are not physical manuscripts?

K: No, it’s all digital

S: Oh! so the process even started way before three years ago because there were people who had to digitize all those manuscripts before you could even have access to them

K: Yeah, I think the year before I joined the project, Michael and some students went to the British Library and photographed manuscripts

S: This is a long project

K: Yup, and it is not over yet. It is going to continue because I’m going to the British Library this summer to get more manuscripts for whoever is going to continue after I graduate. We are going to get some of those 13th century scrolls so we can see that Gomal

S: Clicking boxes have gotten you to England! I want that career (laughs)

K: (laughs)

S: It’s funny now, but I do think it’s really important for more people to realize that the bigger stuff cannot be done without all this little stuff. Especially since there’s this prevalent assumption that technology is somewhat “magic” and so people expect it to be magical, and happen without any close, slow, human labour.

K: Yeah, even with this project, you would think that a computer would take an image of the manuscripts and go “bam! your letter forms have all been compared” But no…it took all the many years worth of selecting letters and building the database

S: What is the biggest outcome that your discovery/thesis/project could probably have? I know this is probably unanswerable, but let’s try

K: (Laughs) A personal hope? or another one?

S: Let’s have all the hopes!

K: Okay so my personal greatest outcome is to have this published, but it has already been so great for me. I mean, I’m going to England. And then I got into all my grad schools and I’m going to UNC, which is the number one library school

S: Congratulations, that’s amazing

K: Thank you. So personally, this project has opened a lot of doors for me. This project means so much to me and I don’t know if it’s from watching it develop all these years

S: It sounds like it was a baby and now it’s all grown up, and even has siblings

K: Actually though. It is now about 4 different theses. Anyway, my hope for the wider outcome of the project is that this could really change how Syriac manuscripts are dated and it could really help scholars and other people figure out what time undated manuscripts are from and, I’m sure there are other amazing things that could come from that

S: It also gives us a reference for what it takes to excavate the problems underlying similar theoretical/scholarly issues. That it doesn’t just take a random person waking up and thinking of the issues; that it takes someone dedicating a lot of time to a particular language and particular letter forms. Through your project we could almost see the difference between wasting time and taking time

K: I like that

S: It is true. And it’s really important to understand because sometimes, you spend so much time on a thing. One of my friends was just explaining to me the distinctions between working vertically and working horizontally and this friend was explaining that for good work to happen, you need to work vertically. But that vertical work is often the deep work that’s usually slow and underground, so people can’t really see you at the surface. There’s not much excitement there. But you are digging for gold. And that slow stage is really hard to explain to people outside; How do you let them know that that downward dive is not a decline but really some kind of “downward progression”? And especially in the digital world, where people already have so many doubts about what counts as “work”

K: Exactly. I think another payoff of this project is that it shows how something can actually work in the Digital Humanities. I feel that this is something with a really strong payoff. The results here are very tangible

S: It is very tangible. Do you ever find people who don’t understand the impact of what you’re doing?

K: Yes (laughs)

S: What do they say?

K: They are usually like ” oh, so you’re just like looking at manuscripts? Okay…are they pretty?” (laughs) I say “No, it’s just words”…but that shouldn’t even matter; it’s not about what it looks like.

S: Exactly. So you’re going to grad school for library science, yes?

K: Yes

S: In the hope that I’m not digressing, I wonder what you think about the fact that sometimes, people compare the world of books to the world of the digital as if they are at war with each other…and one of them is real while the other is a distraction from the real?

K: Last semester I took this class called “Gutenberg to Google” and now I’m taking this course called “Be My Valentine” where we are building an Omeka exhibition using Ephemera. In the class, we have classical ephemera and digital ephemera as well which leads us to the question of if digital ephemera is really ephemera

S: Forgive me for my ignorance, but what is Ephemera?

K: Ephemera is basically anything you can pick up in your daily life that you would generally throw away. So this physical menu right in front of us could be ephemera.

S: OH! Does Ephemera share meaning with ephemerality?

K: Exactly. A ticket could also be ephemera… a flyer also. So, the idea of this class—”Be my Valentine”—is that we are taking 19th century ephemera from those past valentine’s days, and putting them online. And honestly, I feel like it’s not the same to look at a digital reproduction of these really old ephemera. But also, my entire thesis project on Syriac is with the digital so I do not think that digital things are not real. They are there and present and being used—in fact, they are just as useful as the actual physical object. I guess it might be about the aura

S: The idea of the word “real” is really tough. I think it confuses us to think of the world only as a singular dimension of being ourselves as humans where the idea of being real is being exactly what you want to seem/appear as in the world. In my line of work, we speak very often about the distinction between reproducing, replicating and rematerializing content/stories/experiences. But maybe people assume that the digital world always aims to be a replica of a non digital world

K: But maybe it is not

S: Before we leave I just want to say that I find your work really fascinating especially because it tackles something that sits in the world as somewhat impenetrable. Apart from the religious angle of your work, there’s also your quest to tackle language which is something that’s really hard to challenge. But because I don’t want the last word, I just want to ask: how would you say this 5ColldDH fellowship gave you a leverage? Or would you even say it did?

K: Yeah! I think that this fellowship has done a lot for me. Very concretely, the money from this fellowship got me to D.C, which was an amazing trip.

S: What happened in D.C?

K: I met with a Syriac professor at Catholic University. And, I also went to the Folger and met with a bunch of people involved in their digital humanities and paleology projects (which actually are entirely separate there). That trip really helped me see things in a different perspective; it helped me figure out things that I needed to do with my project, like how to look at my data differently, or how to organize my data differently. I found all those insights to be really helpful. My entire fourth chapter came from taking those considerations seriously

S: There’s something really good about the opportunity to meet experts in various fields. Some people have different language and others have different technologies needed for their very specific projects and it is nice to move around and absorb the diverse range of methodologies from these different people and their different projects

K: Exactly. The paleographers were able to compare Syriac paleology with Early Modern English paleology. And we were able to ask ourselves, “What does a script category mean when we call it a good script category?” That helped me in developing my own script model for Syriac, because I was able to ask myself questions that showed me when a script category was good or not that good.

S: It seems like you just learned paleography to be able to complete this project?

K: Kind of. I mean, I had taken a class at Amherst College called “The Medieval Manuscript” which gave me a little bit of training but not an insane amount. But now, I’ve learned a lot about paleography through doing this project. It’s really learning through doing as opposed to being taught.

S: Which means that you stumbled into the problems…like you couldn’t account for the problems before you ran into them. You just had to figure out how to get out of them after falling to them?

K: Yes

S: Ok so, apart from the tool that Michael Penn and Nick Hao built, what other tools were helpful for you in the process

K: The visualizations were all made using Tableau, which is a data analytics software tool. It has been really helpful. and I’ve used so much google sheets (laughs) We used Ginth as well for letter editing.

S: I’m really excited about this project. It’s interesting to think of how different our backgrounds are but how in your work, I find my life affected. Because I’m from a place where people stick to the word of the bible without thinking about the ontology or epistemology of the word. What language it was translated from and what it was translated into. I find it wild that many of the preachers back home probably have no clue that there was a language called Syriac that influenced the text of the bible. And I’m really grateful.

K: Thank you

S: Thank you


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