Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Could Computer Analysis Help Date the Gospels?

JOHN FARRELL: COULD COMPUTER ANALYSIS HELP DATE THE GOSPELS? This with reference to the recent claims that a computer algorithm can do biblical source criticism (and note today's update to the post). Farrell ties in Maurice Casey's attempts to retrovert translated first-century Aramaic from the Greek of the Synoptic Gospels and asks:
The discovery of the scrolls, Casey argued, essentially changed the game. Scholars now have the majority of words that they need extant in Aramaic from the right period to ‘reconstruct’ a large chunk of Mark’s Aramaic foundation.

Back to Koppel and his team. Might their mode of computer analysis be able to shed more light on this?

For example, comparing a carefully retro-translated Aramaic Mark with the larger sample of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

What might such an analysis reveal? Would it suggest more than one author?

Or might it falsify the whole proposition, in spite of Casey’s thesis?

Assuming not, might it also help to more accurately date the composition of the source material? Enough, for example, for scholars to ascertain what decade the text was written.

Casey argued in his book that Mark was written no later than 40 CE. Well within the decade of Jesus’ death and reported resurrection. Could Koppel’s or another group show it might have been even earlier?

Fascinating to think about.
I have commented on Casey's retroversion attempts here. Bottom line: at best Casey has produced one of many possible retroversions of the Aramaic, but it is very unlikely that it consistently represents the Aramaic traditions that Mark had before him with any precision. Casey also often has to draw on later Aramaic and Syriac, when the relevant vocabulary does not survive in our very limited resources from the first century, and this adds yet another level of speculation to his reconstructions.

Given these limitations to Casey's work, I am confident in answering that, no, application of the computer algorithm would not be able to help us detect multiple authors in the reconstructed Aramaic sources or to date them to within a decade or to falsify Casey's work. None of these things will happen unless, first, we recover a lot more actual Aramaic from the first century and, second, we develop retroversion techniques that are far more sophisticated than the ones Casey uses. I wouldn't count on either happening any time soon, if ever.

UPDATE: Reader Jesse Abelman points me to a nonspecialist-friendly blog post about that computer algorithm at the Sephorim blog, written by one of the developers of the algorithm and the software, Professor Moshe Koppel: Attribution and Misattribution: On Computational Linguistics, Heresy and Journalism.