Bible Study: Software May Uncover Torah's Ghostwriters
Computers are now helping distinguish the ghostwriters of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, scientists revealed.
Although Moses is considered the author of the Torah in both Jewish and Christian traditions, scholars have evidence that multiple writers had a hand in composing its text as well as other books of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. However, telling apart these authors in composite works can be "difficult, if not impossible," said computer scientist Nachum Dershowitz of Tel Aviv University in Israel.
Now researchers have developed software to help unravel the different sources that contributed to the Bible with high accuracy. It recognizes linguistic cues such as word preference to divide these composite texts by probable authors.
Computer programs such as this one are part of a new field called "digital humanities" developed to give more insight into historical sources. For instance, software already exists to help attribute previously anonymous texts to well-known authors by looking at writing style or suggesting the gender of a text's author. However, the Bible presents a unique challenge, as there are no independently attributed works with which to compare its books.
The computer algorithm searches for and compares details that human scholars might have difficulty spotting for instance, the frequency of the use of prepositions such as "on" or their choice of synonyms. Such details have little bearing on the meaning of the text itself, but the sources often all have their own style. This could be as innocuous as an author's preference for using the word "said" instead of "spoke."
"The computer is actually helping us learn more about linguistic subtleties in the Bible," Dershowitz told InnovationNewsDaily. "Computer algorithms can help scholars in new and unexpected ways."
On this project, Dershowitz not only worked with colleagues Moshe Koppel and Navot Akiva at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, but also his son, Bible scholar Idan Dershowitz of Hebrew University.
To test their method, the researchers randomly mixed passages from the two Hebrew books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel and asked the software to separate them. By searching for and categorizing chapters by synonym preference and then looking at usage of common words, the program was able to separate the passages with 99 percent accuracy. The software was also able to distinguish between "priestly" materials those dealing with issues such as religious ritual and "non-priestly" material in the Torah, a categorization widely used by Bible scholars.
"If the computer can find features that Bible scholars haven't noticed before, it adds new dimensions to their scholarship," Dershowitz said. "That would be gratifying in and of itself."
Although the algorithm is not yet advanced enough to give the researchers a precise number of probable authors involved in writing the individual books of the Bible, Dershowitz said it could help to identify points within the text where a source changes, potentially shedding new light on age-old debates.
"There are many problems in biblical scholarship that are still debated," said Bible scholar Alexander Rofé at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who did not take part in this research. "For instance, when it comes to the second part of the Book of Isaiah, from Isaiah 40 to 66, is it all from one prophet, or is more than one in there?"
"This could help confirm findings already established by Bible scholarship and also reveal new findings," Rofé said.
The researchers do caution that this algorithm is not designed to replace scholarly judgment or theological debate. Still, in addition to helping scholars investigate the Bible, "there may be other texts, religious and secular, of undetermined or controversial composition that are amenable to the methods we have developed," Dershowitz suggested.
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