Thursday, June 30, 2011

Computer confirms documentary hypothesis

As you may already know, a team of Israelis programmed a computer to identify different "linguistic fingerprints" in the Bible. The software works by analyzing vocabulary, word patterns, diction and other clues to pull out the parts of a jumbled text that were written by different authors. For almost 200 years it has been the scholarly consensus that the Bible is just such a jumbled text, made up of many different narrative strands representing different times, places, styles, and agendas. According to the newspapermen, after applying its algorithm to the bible, the Israeli computer came to the same conclusion. Remarkably the textual divisions the computer created are nearly identical to the divisions previously suggested by scholars.

Believers answer by arguing that God might have dictated the bible in many voices, just as a human author might employ different synonyms, and different styles for different circumstances. For instance, when I write this blog, I use one style, when I write my shopping list I use a different style, and when I write a note to my kids school, I'll use a third style. A computer might conclude those items were written by three different people. And if a human author can express himself with such variety, why can't God?

I happen to accept this counterargument. It seems self-evident that God can do anything a human can do. However, I will point out that this counterargument leaves some problems unanswered. The issue isn't merely that the bible speaks in different voices, but that it speaks to different agendas. The focus shifts. The laws, occasionally, contradict themselves. Sometimes the bible seems like it was written for people living under one set of circumstances, but at times the presumed audience seems altogether different.  Even God changes. In Genesis He's depicted with human characteristics, but by Deuteronomy He's become  more abstract, and distant. Sometimes He can be approached directly, at other times an intermediary is required. The nature of the rituals and the theology also seem to change, and these changes, like the other differences mentioned in this paragraph, can all be assigned to different narrative strands.

Does the fact that its possible to carve the bible up into linguistically and theologically consistent sections prove anything? No, of course not. There are no proofs in interpretation, and ingenious explanations have already been provided by the ancient and medieval interpreters for nearly all of the shifts and contradictions identified by modern scholars, without resorting to the idea of multiple authorship.Their ability to solve such problems and smooth out such difficulties was the great achievement of the ancient and medieval interpreters. The achievement of the Documentary Hypothesis, on the other hand, is that it makes such ingenious explanations unnecessary.

No comments: