Friday, July 1, 2011

Computer Cracks Code of Source Criticism

If you haven't already heard, a fascinating study by an Israeli research team (comprised of 2 computer scientists and a Bible scholar) suggests that the fine bits of circumstantial data used by Bible scholars to tease out the varying voices of biblical sources and authors can be run through a computer model as a way of separating the different strands of composition. The Pentateuch and the book of Isaiah are the most debated (probably) so the results on those sections will give us the most to talk about. Here are some quotes from the article at Ha'aretz.
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.
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.
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.
This is very interesting for my continued musings on the composition of the book of Isaiah. I'd always felt the "voice" in Isaiah had started to switch to "Deutero-Isaiah" (traditionally the writer of 40-55) a bit before the historical interlude in chapters 36-39 was (more or less) cut-and-pasted from 2 Kings 18-20, probably in chapters 34-35. I hadn't thought of chapter 33 as Deutero-Isaiah, though. Food for thought.

A copy of the paper from the conference where this research was presented can be accessed here.

HT: Agade