“Your Word Is Truth”
Can Computers Aid Bible Scholars?
IN THIS modern age computers solve many problems in business and industry. Can they also solve problems for Bible scholars? That depends upon the nature of the problem.
Thus in the early 1950’s when the publishers of the Revised Standard Version wanted an exhaustive concordance of their new translation they commissioned Dr. Ellison to undertake the task. By using a computer he took only a few years, a mere fraction of the thirty years it took for Dr. Strong to produce his Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (King James Version) during the nineteenth century.
But not content with using the computer for such tasks, there are those who would use it to try to prove just who wrote what books of the Bible, on the basis of style. Back in 1963 a Scottish clergyman claimed that a computer proved that the apostle Paul wrote only five of the fourteen books usually attributed to him, and that the rest had been written by others.
Then more recently, in September 1969, a German scholar at the Fourth International Congress on New Testament Studies at Oxford, England, stated that with the help of a computer he was able to discern that the “woe” passages of the Gospels were addressed to Jesus’ opponents rather than to his friends and disciples. He also wrote a book in which he claimed to be able to tell with the aid of a computer just who wrote what. So, what about these claims?
In the first place let it be noted that it does not take a computer to be able to discern that the “woe” passages Jesus spoke were not addressed to his friends and disciples. How could he be speaking to them and yet use such words as, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”?—Matt. 23:13-33.
As for the claims of the Scottish and German scholars that by means of a computer they can demonstrate who wrote what on the basis of style, are their claims sound? No. Why not? Because as Dr. S. M. Lamb, professor of linguistics at Yale University, so well noted: “The computer is not intelligent at all; but very stupid indeed, and that, in fact, is one of its great values—its blind stupidity.” He termed the computer merely an “instruction following machine” that “has tremendous speed and accuracy, but that is all.”
Illustrating the “stupidity” of the computer is its inability to translate. What happened when a computer was given the job of translating into Russian, “Time flies like an arrow”? It came out as “Time flies like to eat arrows.” Why? Because words often have more than one meaning or shade of meaning, and exact equivalents in other languages are not always easy to come by. Then, too, one word may have various meanings in different lands. Thus a “billion” in the United States and France is a thousand million. But in England and Germany a billion is a million million. A computer would not be able to distinguish between the two kinds of billions.
Likewise, proverbial sayings lose much of their force if translated literally, which is the only way a computer can translate. Thus “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” would sound rather weak if translated literally into German. The Germans would say, “A sparrow in the hand is better than a pigeon on the roof.”
And so when it comes to the problem of identifying a writer by his style a computer faces similar insurmountable obstacles. True, a computer can save time in listing the lengths of sentences, the number of times a certain word occurs and how sentences begin and end. But a computer cannot deal with such characteristic literary matters as “how an author constructs his sentences, where he puts the verb, whether he supplies his nouns with significant or only decorative epithets, and whether he puts these epithets before or after the nouns, . . . what sort of metaphors he uses and how he unfolds them, from what spheres he takes his comparisons, whether and to what extent he uses sources, and how, if so, he remoulds them, etc., etc.”—The Journal of Theological Studies, October 1970.
But even if such characteristics as length of sentences and the frequency with which certain words occur can be determined by a computer, this still would not necessarily be of value in deciding who wrote the books of the Bible. Why not? Because there was no punctuation when the Bible was written and none is found in the earliest extant Bible manuscripts.
In fact, the weaknesses of the method used by the Scottish clergyman who questioned the writings of Paul were exposed by Dr. Ellison, the man who made sound use of the computer as regards the concordance. He showed that by such a method the very writings of the Scottish clergyman would appear to have been written by several different authors. Why, in various parts of just one article written by him patterns of style varied from moderate to wild. Dr. Ellison further stated that by such use of a computer he could ‘prove’ that five authors wrote James Joyce’ Ulysses and that none of these wrote his book A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
As has well been noted by another authority in the field of textual criticism, Dom B. Fischer, the mere fact that a project has been produced by a computer does not stamp its results as scientific nor its conclusions as correct; no more so than does the fact that an article is written on a typewriter rather than by pen or pencil make it more authoritative. What comes out all depends upon what is fed or programmed into the computer. It may or may not have any bearing on what someone is trying to prove. According to Dr. Ellison, trying to use a computer to determine authorship on the basis of style ‘was insupportable and an abuse of both computers and authorship’ and apparently was done “for the sake of notoriety.”
When it comes to using computers in determining the writership of Bible books, one is faced with a still more difficult problem. How so? In that Bible books were written under divine inspiration, and who is to judge as to how God’s holy spirit may affect a person at various times? For example, the style of writing of the apostle John as found in the book of Revelation is quite different from that found in his Gospel or letters.—2 Pet. 1:21.
Moreover, as regards the fourteen letters attributed to the apostle Paul, thirteen mention him as the writer from one to three times each. Apparently in an effort to contradict the Bible, the Scottish clergyman, and others who have labored with the same purpose, have sought in vain to do so by means of the computer. Their results stamp them as most unwise. It is even as it was foretold: “The wise ones have become ashamed. . . . Look! They have rejected the very word of Jehovah, and what wisdom do they have?”—Jer. 8:9.