Israeli Algorithms and Biblical Authorship

Dear Reader,

I ran across this news article about how Israeli scholars have applied a computer algorithm to determine authorship to the text of the Old Testament. This interests me for two reasons: 1) I studied biblical Hebrew in college and grad school and 2) my cat is named Algorithm (that is a long story for another time).

I would like to state first of all that my cat had nothing to do with this. If you belive Moses wrote every word of the Pentateuch as it appears in your King James Bible, please do not come after my cat.

Beyond that, I have a few observations. It is not abundantly clear from the article I read, but it appears that the algorithm can separate out passages by different authors based on assumptions about their styles. But these assumptions have to come from somewhere. Those who write the computer program make assumptions about how people write. And there is no denying different people have different styles in terms of their word choice, how they use punctuation, etc. But there are still human assumptions at work behind the algorithm. And so we cannot count the computer’s results as hard scientific evidence in my mind. There is still a level of subjectivity behind it all.

Having said which, though I consider myself a pretty conservative Christian, I have never had too much of a problem with the idea of there being multiple sources in the Bible. We are talking here particularly about the Old Testament and even more particularly about the first five books known as the Pentateuch. These have by tradition been ascribed to Moses (with maybe a few final verses by Joshua) but modern biblical scholarship has said that they have at least four authors who are known by their styles and interests. I don’t know if I agree with everything the modern scholars say. The tend to pick things apart to a high degree when they get going. But in general, I have no problem with the idea that God inspired multiple people. I don’t see any reason God could not have inspired a few people as well as an editor or two who combined and refined their works. The key point to me is that the text we now have is His word and is what He wants us to have.

One big objection is that the Bible itself calls these books the books of Moses. Jesus says, quoting the Pentateuch, Moses told you such and such. So how can I say Moses may not be the author or at least the only author? My answer may not be completely satisfactory but it is that the Bible does not always use things as precisely as we do. We, for example, use numbers very precisely. But the biblical authors seem to often use them figuratively. So too when a work is said to be “of Moses” or “of David” (which is how it would be put in Hebrew), we read that and think “written entirely by Moses” or David. But it is not clear to me that this is always what the biblical text itself means. Maybe “of David” means “ascribed to” David. Maybe the “books of Moses” are books primarily about Moses. Or books in the tradition or style of Moses. We tend to be very concerned about intellectual copyrights and who wrote what, but I am not convinced we need to read all that back into the biblical text.

So I guess in the end, I do agree with the article cited above that ” there’s no reason why God could not write a book in different voices.” Not how I would have put it, but I think the basic sentiment is right. It has always amazed me that God did work through so many. Sure, Moses is big. God revealed a lot to him. But he was still just a shadow of Christ. And Jesus Himself wrote none of the Bible. In other religions, like Mormonism and Islam, the sacred text is sent to one individual and is sent more or less whole. And then it is carefully kept intact. The Koran cannot even officially be translated into other languages lest it be changed. But the Bible, no matter how you see it, is the work of many minds and hands. But behind them all is the Word of God. 

Nebby

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6 responses to this post.

  1. The most exciting thing for me that the Israeli team discovered is the use of ‘synonyms’. There are many writers but only one author. I can prove it but I need to find someone that can write an algorithm to develop the ‘repetitive’ aspect to the writings. It’s going to be an algorithm that reveals the divine mind behind the Bible! You might want to read: Missing Pieces of the Bible: Lost Books Fill-n the Blanks Revised Edition.

    Reply

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment, Dawn. It is very interesting research. I am not quite sure what you are getting at when you speak of “synonyms.” When they were mentioned in the original article, I think the point was that one author might use one word for somehting while another would use another and therefore we can use these differences to determine who wrote what (just as I say “water fountain” but when I lived in Wisconsin everyone said “bubbler”). This is not a new or radical concept. The new bit is just that they have a computer doing the work for them.

      I agree with you that God is the One ultimate author behind all these books though I do believe He worked through and with the human authors in such a way that their personalities were also at work. God is pretty amazing that way. It is like the “conflict” between God’s sovereignty and our free will–there really is no conflict; both are real. So God may be the author but so are Moses and Ezekiel and David and many, many others. And if David were from Wisconsin and was writing about water fountains (silly example, I know) then that would come through in the text because he would use the words that were natural for him. In general, scholarly study into authorship like this has led to scholars positing more and more authors rather than fewer.

      I am also a little confused about how your book relates to this. It seems to be about extra-biblical, what are called apocryphal or pseudepigraphical books. These can be helpful in helping us understand what the ancient Hebrews believed and how they used language but they are not inspired as the Bible is.

      Nebby

      Reply

      • I agree wholeheartedlyabout how you define “synonyms”. Here’s is an example (albeit a little long) about what I’m referring to:

        By: Dawn Robichaud-Wessel
        dmwessel@msn.com

        INTRODUCTION: The purpose of this paper is to show the repetitive/confirming rule in Bible writings and related Apocrypha, of which the use of synonyms is very prominent. Please note the different books from which repetitious verses are quoted (highlighted in grey on this first page only). For the sake of space I have only shown 2-3 examples of each topic word. Please note the progression from one verse to another.

        “And they departed from Rameses in the first month, on the fifteenth day of the first month; on the morrow after the passover the children of Israel went out with an high hand in the sight of all the Egyptians.” (Exodus 33:3)

        “And the children of Israel removed from Rameses, and pitched in Succoth.” (Numbers 33:5)

        “And the children of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand on foot that were men, beside children.” (Exodus 12:37)

        Synonyms: departed from/removed from/journeyed from

        “And they took their journey from Succoth, and encamped in Etham, in the edge of the wilderness.” (Exodus 13:20)

        “And they departed from Succoth, and pitched in Etham, which is in the edge of the wilderness.” (Numbers 33:6)

        Synonyms = Pitched in/ encamped in

        As shown, Etham was the area on both sides of the Red Sea:

        “And they removed from Etham, and turned again unto Pihahiroth, which is before Baalzephon: and they pitched before Migdol.” (Numbers 33:7)

        *The expression, they ‘turned again’ unto Pihahiroth seems to suggest that they had already been in Pihahiroth and went back to that place a second time!

        “Speak unto the children of Israel, that they turn and encamp before Pihahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, over against Baalzephon: before it shall ye encamp by the sea.” (Exodus 14:2)

        Pihahiroth (place where sedge grows) Blue Letter Bible.org :

        Baalzehon: Ba`al Tsephown, Baal Tsphon or Baal-zephon

        = “lord of the north”

        Blue Letter Bible.org:

        “But the Egyptians pursued after them, all the horses and chariots of Pharaoh, and his horsemen, and his army, and overtook them encamping by the sea, beside Pihahiroth, before Baalzephon.”(Numbers 14:9)

        *Pihahiroth and Baalsephon was where they crossed the red sea.

        “But lift thou up thy rod, and stretch out thine hand over the sea, and divide it: and the children of Israel shall go on dry ground through the midst of the sea. (Exodus 14:16)

        “And the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon the dry ground: and the waters were a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left.” (Exodus 14:22)

        “But the children of Israel walked upon dry land in the midst of the sea; and the waters were a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left.” (Exodus 14:29)

        “And the Egyptians pursued, and went in after them to the midst of the sea, even all Pharaoh’s horses, his chariots, and his horsemen.” (Exodus 14:23)

        “And they departed from before Pihahiroth, and passed through the midst of the sea into the wilderness, and went three days journey in the wilderness of Etham, and pitched in Marah.” (Numbers 33:8)

        “And when they came to Marah, they could not drink of the waters of Marah, for they were bitter: therefore the name of it was called Marah.” (Exodus 15:23)

        “So Moses brought Israel from the Red sea, and they went out into the wilderness of Shur; and they went three days in the wilderness, and found no water.” (Exodus 15:22)

        Synonyms – wilderness of Ethan/Wilderness of Shur

        “And they removed from Marah, and came unto Elim: and in Elim were twelve fountains of water, and threescore and ten palm trees; and they pitched there.” (Numbers 33:9)

        “And they came to Elim, where were twelve wells of water, and threescore and ten palm trees: and they encamped there by the waters.” (Exodus 15:27)

        “And they removed from Elim, and encamped by the Red sea.” (Numbers 33:10)

        “And they removed from the Red sea, and encamped in the wilderness of Sin.” (Numbers 33:11)

        “And they took their journey from Elim, and all the congregation of the children of Israel came unto the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after their departing out of the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 16:1)

        “And they took their journey out of the wilderness of Sin, and encamped in Dophkah.” (Numb. 33:12)

        Wilderness of Sin – see later “Wilderness of Zin”

        “And they departed from Dophkah, and encamped in Alush.” (Num.33:13)

        “And they removed from Alush, and encamped at Rephidim, where was no water for the people to drink.” (Num. 33:14)

        “And all the congregation of the children of Israel journeyed from the wilderness of Sin, after their journeys, according to the commandment of the LORD, and pitched in Rephidim: and there was no water for the people to drink.” (Exodus 17:1)

        “Then came Amalek, and fought with Israel in Rephidim.” (Exodus 17:8)
        “For they were departed from Rephidim, and were come to the desert of Sinai, and had pitched in the wilderness; and there Israel camped before the mount.” (Exodus 19:2)

        “And they departed from Rephidim, and pitched in the wilderness of Sinai.” (Num. 33:15)

        * ‘the desert of Sinai’ in one verse and ‘the wilderness of Sinai’: showing that wilderness and desert are synonyms.

        “In the third month, when the children of Israel were gone forth out of the land of Egypt, the same day came they into the wilderness of Sinai.” (Exodus 19:1)

        “And the LORD spake unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tabernacle of the congregation, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they were come out of the land of Egypt” (Num. 1:1)

        “And the LORD spake unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the first month of the second year after they were come out of the land of Egypt” (Num. 9:1)

        “And the children of Israel took their journeys out of the wilderness of Sinai; and the cloud rested in the wilderness of Paran.” (Num. 10:12)

        “These be the words which Moses spake unto all Israel on this side Jordan in the wilderness, in the plain over against the Red sea, between Paran, and Tophel, and Laban, and Hazeroth, and Dizahab.” (Deut.1:1)

        “And the people journeyed from Kibrothhattaavah unto Hazeroth; and abode at Hazeroth.” (Num. 11:35)

        a) “And he called the name of that place Kibrothhattaavah: because there they buried the people that lusted.” (Num. 11:34)

        *Gave their encampments Hebrews names.

        Blue Letter Bible.org:

        “And they departed from Kibrothhattaavah, and encamped at Hazeroth. (Num. 3317)

        Hazeroth matches the Hebrew חצרות (Chatserowth). = settlement:

        Blue Letter Bible.org:

        “And afterward the people removed from Hazeroth, and pitched in the wilderness of Paran.” (Num. 12:16)

        “And they departed from Hazeroth, and pitched in Rithmah.” (Num. 33:18)

        Blue Letter Bible.org:

        “And they departed from Rithmah, and pitched at Rimmonparez.” (Num. 33:19)

        Rimmon-parez = “pomegranate of the breach”

        “And they departed from Rimmonparez, and pitched in Libnah. (Num. 33:20)

        And they removed from Libnah, and pitched at Rissah. (Num. 33:21)

        And they journeyed from Rissah, and pitched in Kehelathah. (Num. 33:22)

        And they went from Kehelathah, and pitched in mount Shapher. (Num. 33:23)

        And they removed from mount Shapher, and encamped in Haradah. (Num.33:24)

        And they removed from Haradah, and pitched in Makheloth. (Num. 33:25)

        Makheloth = place of assembly

        And they removed from Makheloth, and encamped at Tahath. (Num. 33:26)

        And they departed from Tahath, and pitched at Tarah. (Num. 33:27)

        And they removed from Tarah, and pitched in Mithcah. (Num. 33:28)

        And they went from Mithcah, and pitched in Hashmonah. (Num. 33:29)

        Hashmonah = “fatness”

        And they departed from Hashmonah, and encamped at Moseroth. (Num. 33:30)

        Mosera or Moseroth = “bonds”
        1) a place near Mount Hor where Aaron died

        And they departed from Moseroth, and pitched in Benejaakan. (Num. 33:31)

        Bene-jaakan = “sons of twisting”
        1) an Israelite place of encampment in the wilderness (same as Strongs 0885)

        And they removed from Benejaakan, and encamped at Horhagidgad. (Num. 33:32)

        Hor-hagidgad = “cavern of Gidgad”

        And they went from Horhagidgad, and pitched in Jotbathah. (Num. 33:33)

        And they removed from Jotbathah, and encamped at Ebronah. (Num. 33:34)

        And they departed from Ebronah, and encamped at Eziongaber. (Num. 33:35)

        And they removed from Eziongaber, and pitched in the wilderness of Zin, which is Kadesh. (Num. 33:36)

        Kadesh = holy

        Wilderness of Zin (Sin) = “flat” – also desert of Zin (Num 27:14)
        1) name given to a portion of the desert tract between the Dead Sea and Arabah on the east in which Kadesh-barnea was located

        Then came the children of Israel, even the whole congregation, into the desert of Zin in the first month: and the people abode in Kadesh; and Miriam died there, and was buried there. (Num. 20:1)

        And the children of Israel, even the whole congregation, journeyed from Kadesh, and came unto mount Hor. (Num. 20:22)

        And they removed from Kadesh, and pitched in mount Hor, in the edge of the land of Edom. (Num. 33:37, see also 20:23)

        Hor = “mountain”
        1) the mountain on which Aaron died; situated on the eastern side of the valley of Arabah, the highest of the whole range of sandstone mountains in Edom; on the eastern side is the ancient city of Petra

        Take Aaron and Eleazar his son, and bring them up unto mount Hor (Num. 20:25)

        And Moses stripped Aaron of his garments, and put them upon Eleazar his son; and Aaron died there in the top of the mount: and Moses and Eleazar came down from the mount. (Num. 20:28)

        And they journeyed from mount Hor by the way of the Red sea, to compass the land of Edom: and the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way. (Num. 21:4)

        And they departed from mount Hor, and pitched in Zalmonah. (Num. 33:41)

        And they departed from Zalmonah, and pitched in Punon. (Num. 33:42)

        And they departed from Punon, and pitched in Oboth. (Num. 33:43)

        And the children of Israel set forward, and pitched in Oboth. (Num. 21:10)

        Oboth = “waterskins”

        And they journeyed from Oboth, and pitched at Ijeabarim, in the wilderness which is before Moab, toward the sunrising. (Num. 21:11)

        And they departed from Oboth, and pitched in Ijeabarim, in the border of Moab. (Num. 33:34)

        Ijeabarim-Ije-abarim = “ruins of Abarim” (also Iim):

        And they departed from Iim, and pitched in Dibongad. (Num. 33:45)

        Iim (same as Ijeabarim):

        Dibongad = Dibon = “wasting”

        And they removed from Dibongad, and encamped in Almondiblathaim. (Num. 33:46)

        And they removed from Almondiblathaim, and pitched in the mountains of Abarim, before Nebo. (Num. 33:47)

        Almon-diblathaim-Almondiblathaim:
        = “concealing the two cakes”

        And they departed from the mountains of Abarim, and pitched in the plains of Moab by Jordan near Jericho. (Num. 33:48)

        And the children of Israel set forward, and pitched in the plains of Moab on this side Jordan by Jericho. (Num. 22:1)

        And they brought the captives, and the prey, and the spoil, unto Moses, and Eleazar the priest, and unto the congregation of the children of Israel, unto the camp at the plains of Moab, which are by Jordan near Jericho. (Num. 33:12)

        And they pitched by Jordan, from Bethjesimoth even unto Abelshittim in the plains of Moab. (Num. 33:49)

        Beth-jesimoth = “house of the desolation”

        Abel Shittim = “meadow of acacias”

        And Moses and Eleazar the priest spake with them in the plains of Moab by Jordan near Jericho, saying, (Num. 26:3)

        These are they that were numbered by Moses and Eleazar the priest, who numbered the children of Israel in the plains of Moab by Jordan near Jericho. (Num. 26:63)

        These are the commandments and the judgments, which the LORD commanded by the hand of Moses unto the children of Israel in the plains of Moab by Jordan near Jericho. (Num. 36:13)

        Some of the Apocryphal books follow this same pattern and if you will notice in the book I mentioned, the quotes from the Apocryphal books match quotes of the Bible: the repetitious rule.

        And Moses went up from the plains of Moab unto the mountain of Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, that is over against Jericho. And the LORD showed him all the land of Gilead, unto Dan, (Deut. 34:1)

        Reply

  2. So I think we can agree that the Bible uses synonyms, ie more than one word for a particular thing. This doesn’t surprise me too much. Don’t we tell our kids to use a thesaurus and vary their word choice when they write something? I guess I just don’t get what this means. What is the significance of it? Can we use it to distinguish one author from another? And if so, what does THAT tell us? Or is there another point I am missing?

    Also, out of curiosity, do you work from the original languages or in translation bevause my experience is that English translations don’t always use words consistently so they may obscure where synonyms are being used (or not).

    Reply

    • The KJV is a very good translation, otherwise all the verses I quoted to you previously would not ‘sync’. Especially where there are synonyms involved; an inconsistent translation would not/could not yield the results that I have shown.

      The miracle is that the progression of information is not lost in repeated use and with synonyms. This speaks of something unusual. Here’s another example:

      “Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding.” Prov. 4:7

      “But where shall wisdom be found? and where is the place of understanding?” Job 28:12

      “…he gives wisdom unto the wise, and knowledge to them that know understanding” Dan. 2:21

      “And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spake.” Acts 6:10

      “No mention shall be made of coral, or of pearls: for the price of wisdom is above rubies.” Job 28:18

      “For wisdom is better than rubies; and all the things that may be desired are not to be compared to it.” Prov. 8:11

      “Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies.” Prov. 31:10

      wisdom is ‘better than rubies’
      the virtuous woman – her price is ‘far above rubies’

      synonyms: better than – far above

      The conclusion: wisdom is the virtuous woman of Proverbs 31

      Reply

      • Regarding which version of the Bible to use, I think you would still be best to learn the original languages for this type of study. But barring that, the most important criteria for your purposes is a very consistent rendering of each word. For example, Hebrew has a lot of words for “wisdom” or “understanding” (like Eskimo words for snow). But in order to do the sort of study you want, you need to know that every time the Hebrew word hokmah appears it is translated “wisdom” and every time another word appears it is always translated “understanding” and another might be “discretion” and so on and they can’t overlap at all or you will think you are looking at the same word when really the Hebrew uses two different words. Most translations are done by groups of people and I think it would be very hard to know for sure that the guy who translated Proverbs, say, made the same choices for each word as the guy who translated Psalms or some other book.

        This article, http://www.greatsite.com/timeline-english-bible-history/ , talks about the various English translations and why they were made. The KJV was done largely for political reasons. I would think the best translation for your purposes, if you have to use a translation, would be the ASV or NASV.

        The similarity you show between how wisdom and the Proverbs 31 woman are decsribed is very interesting. I really love finding that sort of thing. I woudl not, however, draw the conclusion that the Proverbs 31 woman is Wisdom. I would say that she is wise, but I don’t think she is just a stylized figure like Wisdom is earlier in the book of Proverbs. She is a very real woman, albeit more of a compilation than one specific woman, who does practical real things and had a husband and family. This is not how the personified Wisdom of earlier in the book is portrayed. She, for instance, is said to have been with God at creation which no woman with a husband and kids can say. So I do think the two are being likened, but I would not say they are the same.

        I do like your statement that “The miracle is that the progression of information is not lost in repeated use and with synonyms” because this is exactly how Hebrew poetry works. It uses parallelism (rather than rhyme or meter as we are used to) to convey the information and though it initially seems redundant to us, there is movement through the parallelism which advances the thought or action. I have done a lot of posts on Hebrew poetry (mostly Psalms) which you can look at for more on that.

        Reply

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