Friday, July 1, 2011

The Latest Computerized Trick Pony

Naturally, you can color me unimpressed by the latest and greatest scheme to validate a literary theory (in this case, the JEDP theory of the composition of the Pentateuch) with a computer program. There's more than a few things that need to be accounted for before it can be given more than a passing nod as a curiosity.

First, does it account for the fact that much of the Pentateuch originated in an oral society? All of Genesis, a good chunk of Exodus, and perhaps some of the rest of the Pentateuch as well, would have originated as chunks of oral tradition. To that extent, Moses would not have been so much an author, as we would know the term, but a compiler and a redactor. Does the program show varying authors? If the stories originated with various oral performers whose performances were rendered faithfully to any qualitative extent -- then the program will show multiple authors. But it'd be wrong, if that meant excluding someone as a compiler and redactor.

Second, does it account for the use of scribes? I'm being facetious, for of course it doesn't. The news accounts indicate that these guys are assuming it's either one person wrote it, or multiple people wrote it over time (JEDP). I don't see any consideration of an option that one honorary author coordinated the effort, in which scribes were part of the process.

Third, does it account for the fact that ancient Hebrew had only a few thousand words? I don't think a language with so few words can provide an adequate statistical sample.

Fourth, does it account for ancient literary production techniques? For example, writers would often allude to other works by imitating them. This is the sort of thing that would throw off a program designed to detect variations and label them as the work of a different author.

Fifth, who gave the programmers their criterion? The articles don't say, but I want to know if the parameters were given to the programmers by people looking to validate JEDP. if they were -- it's the old GIGO problem.

I suppose we'll wait and see if anything comes of this -- or if it's just another variation on the Bible Codes.

As might be expected, the Ticker will be off for the holiday Monday and will return Wednesday.

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