Computer gives hints about who wrote the Bible

The software was developed by an Israeli team and it’s giving new insight into the multiple hands that wrote the scriptures.

Details:

The new software analyzes style and word choices to distinguish parts of a single text written by different authors, and when applied to the Bible its algorithm teased out distinct writerly voices in the holy book.

The program, part of a sub-field of artificial intelligence studies known as authorship attribution, has a range of potential applications – from helping law enforcement to developing new computer programs for writers. But the Bible provided a tempting test case for the algorithm’s creators.

For millions of Jews and Christians, it’s a tenet of their faith that God is the author of the core text of the Hebrew Bible – the Torah, also known as the Pentateuch or the Five Books of Moses. But since the advent of modern biblical scholarship, academic researchers have believed the text was written by a number of different authors whose work could be identified by seemingly different ideological agendas and linguistic styles and the different names they used for God.

Today, scholars generally split the text into two main strands. One is believed to have been written by a figure or group known as the “priestly” author, because of apparent connections to the temple priests in Jerusalem. The rest is “non-priestly.” Scholars have meticulously gone over the text to ascertain which parts belong to which strand.

When the new software was run on the Pentateuch, it found the same division, separating the “priestly” and “non-priestly.” It matched up with the traditional academic division at a rate of 90 percent – effectively recreating years of work by multiple scholars in minutes, said Moshe Koppel of Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv, the computer science professor who headed the research team.

“We have thus been able to largely recapitulate several centuries of painstaking manual labor with our automated method,” the Israeli team announced in a paper presented last week in Portland, Oregon, at the annual conference of the Association for Computational Linguistics. The team includes a computer science doctoral student, Navot Akiva, and a father-son duo: Nachum Dershowitz, a Tel Aviv University computer scientist, and his son, Idan Dershowitz, a Bible scholar at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

The places in which the program disagreed with accepted scholarship might prove interesting leads for scholars. The first chapter of Genesis, for example, is usually thought to have been written by the “priestly” author, but the software indicated it was not.

Similarly, the book of Isaiah is largely thought to have been written by two distinct authors, with the second author taking over after Chapter 39. The software’s results agreed that the book might have two authors, but suggested the second author’s section actually began six chapters earlier, in Chapter 33.

The differences “have the potential to generate fruitful discussion among scholars,” said Michael Segal of Hebrew University’s Bible Department, who was not involved in the project.

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Comments

  1. Deacon Norb says:

    Greg:

    It is really going to be interesting to see how this shakes out.

    The core framework for RC folk to do critical study of the Sacred Scriptures, as you already know, was Pius XII’s encyclical “Divino Afflante Spiritu” from way back in 1942.

    As early as 1975-78, when I was in formation, the multiple source theories of the Old Testament were widely taught. By 2000, a lot of scholars — including myself — were teaching about the oral roots of Sacred Scripture.

    This computer based analysis is going to add an even more insight here. I wish this technique had been in place earlier — it would have made my own doctoral research all that much easier.

  2. It’s Islam that claims God as direct and sole author of their holy book, not Judaism and Christianity.

    (Unless God uses a lot of pseudonyms that periodically make authorial claims, and you totally ignore every tradition about each book’s provenance in favor of pulling misconceptions out of your own reportorial butt, I suppose.)

    Honest to goodness, you’d think software just wrote itself for its own inscrutable reasons, and that absolutely no scholarship about Biblical authoring had existed before yesterday. (Of course, plenty of people these days seem to think the world started in the 19th or 20th century and that history doesn’t matter anyway, so this is par for the media course.)

    The software project sounds good, and the scholars interesting. The reporter and editor of this article should be sent back to elementary school.

  3. Fiergenholt says:

    Re: Maureen #2

    “It’s Islam that claims God as direct and sole author of their holy book”

    The term for that is “Stenographic Inspiration.” God dictates in a human language and the stenographer takes it down word-for-word.

    Islamic folks are not the only ones who believe that. Mormons believe that about the Book of Mormon as well. The same with a number of smaller obscure forms of Christianity; Fundamental Baptists come to mind. Try Googling “Sword of the Lord” and read over their statement of faith.

  4. Deacon Greg,

    So we’re seeing a computer verify the JEDP paradigm?

  5. Nothing really new in biblical criticisms. We already knew “P” source and also “Q” including a number of others.
    It doesn’t change the basis that the scripture is the inpspired work of God, true in all aspects of His Salvation message.

  6. This is really exciting. Not just for Scripture but so many other applications as well.

    But, it occurs to me that the programmers in writing their algorithms may have simply confirmed what they learned from their own scholarly studies. In other words, they used the same criteria developed over centuries and the program simply sped up the work of comparison. Have they really confirmed anything other than their own assumptions? Interesting stuff.

  7. That’s the exact question to ask momor. Most biblical scholars have axes to grind and programs do not program themselves, they get created by people using data they consider relevant. Can a computer program detect the work of the Holy Spirit?

  8. Deacon Norb says:

    Re: Gerald #4:

    I have had the opportunity to study directly under Jewish Scripture scholars twice now in my lifetime. During those periods, I also talked one-on-one with a number of them. They accept Christian teaching on the Jewish Scriptures as Christian teaching. They do insist — and I tend to follow this approach myself — that if we REALLY want to know about Jewish Scriptures, go to their scholars.

    “Verify the JEPD Paradigm” ? That is not their purpose.

    JEPD is a Christian — German/Lutheran — concept that we as RC folk have adopted as the most reasonable explanation of the human authorship/editorial-ship of the Sacred Scriptures under the historical circumstances involved. It would never be the purpose of Jewish scholarship to prove that.

    What IS one of their very important and very uniquely Jewish Biblical scholarly concepts is that of the “Oral Torah.” They have a very long oral tradition of studying and commenting on an “Oral Torah.” This data crunching is probably in support of that.

    That’s why I said in posting #1 — “It is really going to be interesting to see how this shakes out”

  9. Deacon Norb,
    I’m not sure what you mean by this:
    “They do insist — and I tend to follow this approach myself — that if we REALLY want to know about Jewish Scriptures, go to their scholars.”

    I am assuming, when it comes to the Pentateuch, you are referring to things other than the True meaning as fulfilled in Christ and enlightened by the Holy Spirit, correct?

    I once asked a rabbi, who was of course dismissive of the Trinity, about Gen 1:26 – Then God said: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness – and who he thought the “us” referred to. He said God was talking to the angels and in God’s kindness wanted to include the angels in the creation even though God didn’t need them. Their understanding of the Truth is like a young child reading the great philosophers or Aquinas. They don’t have the spiritual lights (or refuse the lights) by which to read.

  10. After reading scholars works and studying theology with scholars I totally and completely do not trust scholars. Yes, there are some orthodox scholars out there, but the majority of the biblical and theological scholarly world is dominated by people who no longer believe in anything the Church teaches as sacred; all the core beliefs of orthodox Christianity are questioned, dismissed and reinterpreted in a relativistic way. The most notable example is the Jesus seminar, but the school of higher criticism dominates seminars and theological schools.

  11. It was inspired by the Holy Spirit. What is in the Bible is there because the Holy Spirit wanted it in there.

    PS: I personally hate the “RC” usage. It reminds me of the Piskies. What’s wrong with saying the Roman Catholic Church if that’s what you mean?

  12. Deacon Norb says:

    In my second paragraph, I cited an encyclical of Pius XII. I did that for several reasons:

    Some RC folks still insist it was Vatican II that opened the scriptures to serious scholarship — some suggest serious abuse — by Roman Catholics. It really wasn’t. The Vatican II document “Dei Verbum” built on the teachings of one of the most orthodox popes of our century — Pius XII.

    HOWEVER, since 1942, almost 70 years ago, we Roman Catholics have learned more about the culture and context of those 2,000 years of human history than we ever did before “Divino Afflante Spiritu.”

    The best example is that of the Dead Sea Scrolls. In one of those caves an intact scroll of the Book of Isaiah — dating back at lest two centuries before Jesus — caused biblical editors to completely reorganize the the text of the Book of Isaiah as we had known it to that point. Every published edition of the Bible in America after 1953 — including Roman Catholic ones — now uses the text of Isaiah we found in that cave after World War II. The “truth” that we believed about the order of the text of Isaiah for many hundreds of years needed to be revised because of new scholarly evidence.

    Another very good example comes from the New Testament. I have seen and examined scrolls of the Gospel of John dated to around AD 1100 that did NOT include what we call today John Chapter Eight — “The Woman Caught in Adultery.” However, by AD 1200, that text was included at that point. That fairly well refutes the theory — which we taught as “truth” — that the text of the New Testament was intact and frozen at the time of the death of the last living member of the Twelve.

    Yes, academic scholarship has impacted our study of the Bible and it will no doubt continue to do so.

  13. Fiergenholt says:

    rudy #10:

    “The most notable example is the Jesus seminar, but the school of higher criticism dominates seminars and theological schools”

    Please do not equate all of higher criticism with “The Jesus Seminar.” They lost any respect with me and a lot of other folk because they refuse to consider the Gospel of John at all.

    That is probably the one place where we do get authentic words of Jesus because John — the son of Zebedee — was likely Jesus’ first cousin.

    Although — it is very hard to refute that we get Jesus’ authentic words at times in Mark — especially the Aramaic ones! Those have to be authentic.

  14. Deacon Norb,

    I was thoroughly educated in JEDP in the 80′s by now-Bishop Arthur Serratelli of Patterson.

    I have also consulted Orthodox Rabbis over the scriptures in the past, and while I believe that they offer a really great perspective, I am plagued by the gnawing doubt that their exegesis has been colored heavily by a 2,000 year tradition that rejects Jesus as Messiah. That rejection is a major game-changer.

    No?

  15. Deacon Norb says:

    Gerald

    Is the opposite also true? Isn’t our Roman Catholic exegesis also colored by a 2000 year history of living in the presence of the Risen Lord Jesus and doesn’t that also affect our understanding of the Jewish Scriptures? We know the power of the Resurrection but — for whatever reason — we love to look for prophetic precursors in the Jewish Scriptures and — in a previous era of our Church — loved to point out how ignorant the Jewish Rabbis really were because they never saw the connections!

    I really have to wonder whether the young Jesus knew that the passage from Isaiah — about that young maiden bearing a son and calling him “Emmanuel” — was really talking about himself.

  16. Seems to me that Jesus made it pretty clear that Judaism had already gone off the rails by the time He began his public ministry. And since rabbinical tradition comes from the Pharisees I think you might be a little more skeptical about their scholarly interpretation.

  17. Deacon Norb says:

    Re: Momor #16.

    I disagree with your two main premises:

    –In his time and era, Jesus would have been considered a devout Jew. He was circumcised; he had performed their first-century equivalent of a Bar Mitzvah (he would NEVER have been allowed to meet with the Rabbis –as described in Luke’s account of the “Finding in the Temple” — unless he had); he attended and honored the “High Holidays” at the Temple in Jerusalem on a regular basis; he was honored with a call to preach/minister at his home synagogue in Capernaum — as would any other local who had returned from a Pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

    –What he railed against was the hypocrisy of the Pharisee sub-culture. They professed the right idea; they just did not perform it. That’s what Matthew Chapter 23 is all about. Jesus was not condemning Judaism but certain lay-persons’ highly unorthodox teachings.

    –The Rabbinical tradition predates the Pharisees of the first century by several hundred years. Rabbis — and Synagogues where they ministered — came out of the Babylonian Exile. That was the “Structure-in-Exile” that helped pre-Christian Judaism survive not only the Babylonian Exile but also the Seleucid Occupation.

  18. Deacon Norb,

    First, my name is actually Gerard :-)

    As for your assertions, I’ve read many times Nolan’s “Jesus Before Christianity”, and I’ve come to appreciate over time the pitfalls in a combined Low Christology and Historical Critical Method, a la the German school.

    Taken together, they have crystalized all too often into a hermeneutic of doubt that guts the scriptures of all depth. What did Jesus know, and when did He know it? I go to John 15 when Jesus says, “I no longer speak of you as servants, for a servant does not know what his master is about. Instead, I call you friends, for I have made known to you all that I have heard from my Father in Heaven.”

    That’s powerful stuff right there.

    I look, too, to the angels who ministered to Him after His fast in the desert at the outset of His ministry, to the angels who ministered to Him in the Garden, to the Great Theophany at His birth, and again at His baptism. I also look at the Transfiguration, His walking on water, His raising people from the dead. His curing of the sick, and the loaves and fishes.

    Either these things happened, or they did not. If one posits that they did not, then we have the hermeneutic of doubt. But I suspect that these things indeed happened. I note your comment:

    “We know the power of the Resurrection but — for whatever reason — we love to look for prophetic precursors in the Jewish Scriptures and — in a previous era of our Church — loved to point out how ignorant the Jewish Rabbis really were because they never saw the connections!”

    That’s a suggestion that we are engaging in isegesis, and I believe that to be wrong. Actually, Matthew’s Gospel is one long apologia to the Jewish community. Matthew is constantly saying that Jesus said and did the things He said and did in order to fulfill the prophesies.

    We actually have the fullness or truth, or else we have a series of inventions, which is to say, nothing at all.

  19. If you walk in the solid ground of Orthodox Christianity things are solid and your feet well planted but as soon as you walk into the ground of Higher Criticism and the world of biblical scholars, you enter into quicksand where the ground gives way to uncertainty and the solid blocks of the Orthodox Doctrine sink in the mire of doubt and incredulity.

    If you study some of the scholars theories soon you are told that the evangelist really did not write the Gospels. You are told that the events on the gospels are “interpretations” made up by later writers to fit their doctrinal agenda. You are told that the Virgin Birth did not happen, that Jesus was not born in Bethlehem, that the massacre of the Innocents was made up, that the miracles were not real, and even the resurrection is put into doubt, etc., etc. Then the prophesies of Christ are said to be made up by the writers after the fact, since the assumption is that Jesus could not have predicted anything before it happened.

    One thing these scholars (not all of course) do really have contempt for is “popular” devotions. Their ideological worldview can’t accept the miracles, the intercession of Mary, the sacredness of the Word of God. It is for them in the end only the word of man full of bias and inaccuracies.

  20. Deacon Norb #15,
    “I really have to wonder whether the young Jesus knew that the passage from Isaiah — about that young maiden bearing a son and calling him “Emmanuel” — was really talking about himself.”

    You might want to check out this theologically orthodox site to answer your wondering (or is it wandering?).
    http://newtheologicalmovement.blogspot.com/

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