JERUSALEM — Software developed by an Israeli team is giving intriguing new hints about what researchers believe to be the multiple hands that wrote the Bible.
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 subfield 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.
Since the advent of modern biblical scholarship, academic researchers have believed that the text was written by different authors whose work could be identified by seemingly different ideological agendas, linguistic styles and the 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 “nonpriestly.” 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 “nonpriestly.” It matched up with the traditional academic division at a rate of 90 percent — effectively recreating years of work by scholars in minutes, said Moshe Koppel of Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv, the computer science professor who headed the research team.
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 indicates 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 agree 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.
In the past decade, computer programs increasingly have been assisting Bible scholars in searching and comparing texts, but the novelty of the new software seems to be in its ability to take criteria developed by scholars and apply them through a technological tool more powerful in many respects than the human mind, Mr. Segal said.
Before applying the software to the Pentateuch and other books of the Bible, the researchers first needed a more objective test to prove that the algorithm could correctly distinguish one author from another.
So they randomly jumbled the Hebrew Bible’s books of Ezekiel and Jeremiah into one text and ran the software. It sorted the mixed-up text into its component parts “almost perfectly,” the researchers announced.
The program recognizes repeated word selections, like uses of the Hebrew equivalents of “if,” “and” and “but,” and notices synonyms: In some places, for example, the Bible gives the word for “staff” as “makel,” while in others it uses “mateh” for the same object. The program then separates the text into strands it believes to be the work of different people.
However, what the program won’t determine, say the researchers who created it, is whether the Bible is human or divine.
Three of the four scholars, including Mr. Koppel, are religious Jews who subscribe in some form to the belief that the Torah was dictated to Moses in its entirety by a single author: God.
“Those for whom it is a matter of faith that the Pentateuch is not a composition of multiple writers can view the distinction investigated here as that of multiple styles,” they said.
In other words, there’s no reason why God could not write a book in different voices.
“No amount of research is going to resolve that issue,” Mr. Koppel said.
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