Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Digital Humanities and Mormon Studies

Well, researchers at Tel Aviv University have developed an algorithm to detect differences in writing style to detect different authorship, specifically in the Torah. I'm sure many of you have heard of the documentary hypothesis. In summary it is a theory that based on content and word choice, one can see four distinct "authors" or earlier sources which were compiled into the Torah. These have been sorted almost exclusively by content. This digital humanities approach will look at grammar sorted by the algorithm. From the press release:
[T]he software searches for and compares details that human scholars might have difficulty detecting, such as the frequency of the use of "function" words and synonyms. Such details have little bearing on the meaning of the text itself, but each author or source often has his own style. This could be as innocuous as an author's preference for using the word "said" versus "spoke."
To test the validity of their method, the researchers randomly mixed passages from the two Hebrew books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, and asked the computer to separate them. By searching for and categorizing chapters by synonym preference, and then looking at usage of common words, the computer program was able to separate the passages with 99 percent accuracy. The software was also able to distinguish between "priestly" materials -- those dealing with issues such as religious ritual -- and "non-priestly" material in the Torah, a categorization that is widely used by Bible scholars.
While the algorithm is not yet advanced enough to give the researchers a precise number of probable authors involved in the writing of the individual books of the Bible, Prof. Dershowitz says that it can help to identify transition points within the text where a source changes, potentially shedding new light on age-old debates.
I'm extremely excited to see what comes from the research. I'm also intrigued by the idea of applying such an algorithm on the Book of Mormon. It would also be quite interesting. The Book of Mormon itself claims that it was compiled by one editor from several sources. It would be interesting to see the similarities and differences, particularly to see how closely it matches the content/author changes. Is anyone in any Mormon Studies programs pursuing a digital humanities approach to Book of Mormon analysis?

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