Thinking Tech

Can computers solve mystery of bible's 'ghostwriters'

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Researchers have developed an algorithm that they claim can help determine who really wrote the Torah.

Scientists have created a computer program that may help solve one of modern history's greatest mysteries.

While Christian and Jewish tradition credits the first five books of the old testament known as "The Torah" to Moses, the general consensus among religious scholars is that it was written by multiple writers. They observed that there are, for instance, passages referencing Moses in the third person and mentions of Edomite kings that lived after Moses died. But if entire sections of the world's most influential books was in fact a collaborative work, then the question remains: who were these ghost writers? And who wrote what?

Now researchers at Tel Aviv University have developed an algorithm that they claim can delineate between the different contributors within individual books of the Bible. The program does this by detecting noted differences in writing styles and dividing the texts into probable author groupings. Its designed to distinguish between certain linguistic patterns, such as word preferences.

Their research was presented at the 49th Annual Conference of the Association for Computational Linguistics in Portland.

Applying technological methods to investigate historical sources have given birth to a new field called "digital humanities." The advantage of computer algorithms is that the technology provides an quantitative approach to assessing works whereas previous attempts at analysis have long been debatable. For instance, the software searches for and compares details, such as the frequency of the use of "function" words and synonyms. One example might be an author's preference for using the word "said" versus "spoke."

Previously, the researchers tested the effectiveness of this method by having the computer separate randomly mixed passages from the two Hebrew books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel. By searching for and categorizing chapters by synonym preference, and then looking at usage of common words, the computer 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 that is widely used by Bible scholars.

While the algorithm is not yet advanced enough to give the researchers a precise number of probable authors involved in the writing of the individual books of the Bible, Prof. Dershowitz says that it can help to identify transition points within the text where a source changes, potentially shedding new light on age-old debates.

"If the computer can find features that Bible scholars haven't noticed before, it adds new dimensions to their scholarship. That would be gratifying in and of itself," says Prof. Dershowitz.

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Tuan Nguyen

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Tuan C. Nguyen is a freelance science journalist based in New York City. He has written for the U.S. News and World Report, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC News, AOL, Yahoo! News and LiveScience. Formerly, he was reporter and producer for the technology section of ABCNews.com. He holds degrees from the University of California Los Angeles and the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure