Tag Archives: Pentateuch

A Statistical Approach to the Composition of the Pentateuch

Yesterday, I came across a few articles by Israeli computer scientists Navot Akiva and Moshe Koppel, which take an empirical, statistical approach to examining the composition of multi-author works, like the Pentateuch. Their methodology is as follows:

They developed an algorithm to divide a multi-author text into the portions written by each individual. Then, they combined text from different, single-author, biblical works–Jeremiah and Ezekiel in one paper; Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah 1-33, Proverbs, and Job 3-41 in another–in order to test their algorithm (a process which sets their work apart from previous attempts at computer-based/statistical source analysis of the Pentateuch). Their algorithm performed quite well, correctly identifying the sources of each chunk of their artificial multi-author text.

Finally, they analyzed Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers with the same test process. They test for only two authors (that is, to test for a distinction between P and non-P), for which

We find that our split corresponds to the expert consensus regarding P and non-P for over 90% of the verses in the Pentateuch for which such consensus exists. We have thus been able to largely recapitulate several centuries of painstaking manual labor with our automated method. (Koppel at al. 2011: 1363).

Therefore, assuming that P and non-P are the two major sources of Genesis-Numbers–which they acknowledge as a limitation to their study–Akiva and Koppel have provided independent, empirical verification of the fruits of modern Pentateuchal source criticism.

Lastly, they note that “we offer those instances in which we disagree with the consensus for the consideration of scholars in the field” (Koppel at al. 2011: 1363), though I have not found a publication where these differences are given; I, for one, would be very interested to see their exact results.


Moshe Koppel, Navot Akiva, Idan Dershowitz, Nachum Dershowitz, “Unsupervised Decomposition of a Document into Authorial Components,” pages 1356-1364 in Proceedings of the 49th Annual Meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics: Human Language Technologies, vol. 1 (Stroudsburg, PA: Association for Computational Linguistics, 2011).

Navot Akiva and Moshe Koppel, “Identifying Distinct Components of a Multi-Author Document,” pages 205-209 in Proceedings of the Intelligence and Security Informatics Conference (EISIC) (Piscataway, NJ: IEEE, 2012).

Navot Akiva and Moshe Koppel, “A Generic Unsupervised Method for Decomposing Multi-Author Documents,” Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 64 (2013): 2256-2264.


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Redaction Criticism and Wikipedia

I’ve been thinking about redaction criticism lately. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the folly of assuming that a book of the Bible was composed by a single author simply because it has traditionally been attributed to a single author. For instance, the Pentateuch was most probably edited from several source documents over the course of a few centuries, rather than being written all at once by Moses (with Joshua adding a tag at the end). It is also highly likely that 1 and 2 Corinthians have at least a couple interpolations, from marginal notes being copied into the text. Interestingly, the sample problems are being explored in Homer scholarship, too — whether the Iliad and the Odyssey were written by Homer (who may not even have existed) or were composed over the course of a long period of time and only later attributed to Homer.

(As a sidebar, I do wonder if conservative Christians during the early 1900s rejected historical criticism not for the methodology so much as for the results, which they saw as an attack on their faith, and, rather than thinking through  the evidence, shooed it away and declared it anathema. But that’s another post for another day.)

Let’s take a contemporary example of redaction and interpolation: Wikipedia. We all know that no one single person is “the author” of Wikipedia. However, let’s imagine a time, maybe 1000 years in the future, where the original Wikipedia was lost to the ravages of the Internet, but someone had the foresight (or luck) to preserve a print copy of some of Wikipedia’s entries, which was then, through some miracle of history, meticulously copied and transmitted for 1000 years. Over the course of a millennium, a tradition has cropped up regarding Wikipedia, assigning a single author to each of the articles.

By this time, a group of Wikipedia scholars has cropped up. However, because the only remaining evidence of Wikipedia is the collection of articles, which have no authorship attached, but which also show clear signs of multiple authors, there is a lively debate in this niche of scholarship about Wikipedia’s authorship. On the one side, some scholars claim that, because each article is a unified source, each article must have been written by a single person. On the other side, other scholars claim that they have determined, through redaction and linguistic criticism, that the articles were, in fact, written by several people over the course of time. (Thankfully, scanners and photocopiers kept the number of textual variants to a minimum!)

We all know, of course, how silly it is to assert that a given Wikipedia article, especially one of the featured articles, has been written by a single author. But, assuming all we had was the text of major Wikipedia articles, would it be any more valid to say that Wikipedia articles are the work of a single author? Of course not.

The implications of this Wikipedia principle are, I would hope, very clear. In the case of a text like the Pentateuch, or the Iliad and the Odyssey, or even our hypothetical Wikipedia, multiple authorship is infinitely more likely than single authorship. It is invalid to perpetuate a tradition in the face of contrary evidence.

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