Computer scientists say humans wrote Hebrew Bible

Computer programs outpace biblical scholars. Photo: AISPIX
Computer programs outpace biblical scholars. Photo: AISPIX
Published July 8, 2011

For many devout Jews and Christians, the Hebrew Bible (known as the Torah, the Pentateuch and the Five Books of Moses) was written by God. But for years, biblical scholars analyzing distinct differences in style and language in different places have said that these Holy Scriptures were written by multiple human hands.

Now Israeli computer scientists are lending cyber support to these researchers’ views. The Tel Aviv research team developed new software that analyzes different styles and word choices (such as the words for God, staff, if and but) to discern which parts of a text might have been written by different authors. When applied to the Bible, the program’s algorithm quickly teased out distinct writerly voices.

Scholars generally split the Torah into two main authorship strands. One is a figure (or group) known as the “priestly” author because of apparent connections to the temple priests in Jerusalem. The other part is considered “non-priestly.” Over the centuries, scholars have meticulously gone over the text assigning parts to either strand.

Run on the Pentateuch, the new software found the same division between the “priestly” and “non-priestly” strands, matching up texts along the traditional academic division with 90 per cent accuracy and duplicating centuries of work by multiple scholars in minutes, said Moshe Koppel, the Bar Ilan University 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 in June in Portland, Ore., at the annual conference of the Association for Computational Linguistics.

Over the past decade, computer programs have assisted Biblical scholars-and other scholars such as Shakespearian-in analyzing and comparing texts, but the advantage of the Israeli software is its ability to apply scholarly criteria to texts through a technological tool more powerful in many respects and certainly faster than the human mind.

In deference to the devout, the researchers left the door open to a deliberate choice by God to write the Torah in different voices and styles. “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 stated. Added Koppel, “No amount of research is going to resolve that issue.”


  • Diana Swift

    Diana Swift is an award-winning writer and editor with 30 years’ experience in newspaper and magazine editing and production. In January 2011, she joined the Anglican Journal as a contributing editor.

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