Thursday, June 30, 2011

Cool technology, also the nature of revelation....

This article reports a computer program that can do a textual analysis and identify passages that were written by different authors (or different passages that were written by the same author). It has all kinds of fun potential applications--identifying who wrote disputed Shakespeare plays (or which sections of the collaborative plays the Bard actually wrote),  identifying "anonymous" writers, identifying is a work is collaborative or not.

And people are using it to identify which sections of the Bible were written by different people.

The concept of teasing out the authors of a scriptural selection are very cool. This could tell us, down to the verse, what sections of the Book of Mormon are quotes from even ancienter texts and what are comments by the editors--Mormon and Moroni. Provided it is accurate.

And provided the people who use it have a solid understanding of scripture, revelation, and the nature of writing.

Which the researchers in the above article apparently did not.

They have an underlying assumption that some passages were written by men and others dictated directly from God, using his words.

The underlying assumption way eye-opening for me. I often don't realize how much we know!

I hardly know where to start on this one!

For one thing, understanding the transmission of the Bible is important. We have no original copies of the Bible. In fact, the individual sections of the Bible were copied and passed along numerous times before the book was even collected into the form we now know as the Bible.  Any time a piece of writing is copied, there are transmission errors--even when the copying is done by careful, intelligent scribes.  Further, the copies we do have are translations--translations into modern languages, or modern forms of ancient languages. For this program to give you any kind of valid data, you'd have to feed in texts that were the oldest, most accurate you could find, and the program would have to be able to "understand" the ancient language forms. Further, you'd have to be aware of your own transmission errors as you fed the data in!

While we believe the Bible to be the word of God, we don't believe the translation inconsistencies, transmission errors, and excisions that muddy the doctrine to be the word of God.  There is also the possibility (in fact, probability) that the Bible was actually "edited" along the way--sometimes by institutions who needed the Bible to support their doctrines, sometimes by people who were trying to make it more accessible (but without a complete knowledge of the meaning of the scripture, this simplification unintentionally changes doctrine--that's why I don't read Bibles that were translated from older English into more modern English--especially when the work was done by religious do-gooders or scriptural scholars, who would impose their doctrinal understanding on the translation, instead of prophets or linguists).

Any change to the text can potentially affect the results the computer gets, of course. And, in a translation, the computer might actually be identifying the translators linguistic marks as well as the author's.

Separate from the transmission of texts, the creation of texts in general and religious text in specific has to be considered.

For one thing, authors do develop over time. If a prophet were writing revelations down over the course of 50 years, their writing style might change and develop. My writing style has changed over the last 7 years as I studied writing. I know lots of people who put on a different "voice" when they write different things (like religious stuff they write in an affected voice, while day-to-day activities they write in a very casual voice, and blog entries they use a more formal voice). My fiction certainly doesn't sound like my journal entries. And even within a journal entry, if I'm describing a dream I had, I write it differently than when I am recounting a conversation, or giving a rundown of my day. Before I could fully trust the computer, I'd like to see that it could properly identify an author even if he or she were using different "voices".

The nature of revelation changes this whole discussion, too. For example, we know that God speaks to each people in their own language and tongue. If the goal is for us to understand His instructions, he's not going to answer my prayers in Hindi, or a Russian woman's prayers in German. Furthermore, He's not going to answer a 4 year old's prayers in a way that only a college professor could understand, although He is masterful at putting so many layers of meaning into an answer that it can mean something now and something later--but always in keeping with our capacity to understand. Sometimes it does require pondering, looking up words, etc, but it's always still within our capacity to get meaning out. God is not trying to confuse us. He's not trying to show off. He is trying to teach us and guide us, and what good is a guide who you can't understand, even when you try?

So--the nature of revelation.  Even if you have a scripture that is dictated directly from God, He is going to use language that both the receiver of the revelation (the prophet) and the intended audience can understand. We might, for example, find Isaiah completely baffling. But, according to Nephi, Isaiah's early readers who were in the culture that produced Isaiah found his writing to be abundantly clear and easy to understand.

Further, while sometimes God does dictate revelation to prophets, sometimes he sends them visual dreams and visions that they then have to find a way to relate using the words they know, in their language. This doesn't make it any more or less from God, but it might change the linguistic tags. Sometimes prophets are given information and understanding, but left to teach it using the language and inspiration they get at the moment and someone else writes it down, adding another layer of complexity (did the student taking notes actually take dictation, or paraphrase?).  Sometimes they grasp a truth and then teach it repeatedly in different ways, adding clarifications and details and examples as they go--and this gets written down as prophetic speech.  Sometimes prophets are merely telling the story of their own life experiences (Elijah and the widow with her cruse of oil comes to mind, as does the Book of Nephi).  Sometimes they are relating a story told to them (Luke's versions of the Annunciation and the birth of Christ come to mind).  Also, prophets tend to quote and paraphrase one another frequently (1 Nephi comes to mind--he tells his father's vision in chapter one, and quotes Isaiah extensively later on). And sometimes prophets are quoting other prophets and then interject editorial comments in the middle of the quotes (like many many sections of Moroni). Commandments of God are recorded different than the text of ordinances (like the prayer said at baptism or over the sacrament) and different than a prophet's experience, and different than a vision, and different than a sermon given to a real live group of people, and different than someone else's recounting a sermon they heard. And all of those can be written down by the very same person--but it might affect their linguistic tags. All of these circumstances change the way we view revelation from being a static, scholarly thing to being a living, active, flexible things, without altering their status as the word of God. And that changes how you view the texts, and what our understand of "God's word" is.

It is not any less God's word for being among the "Priestly" (as the article refers to them) writings versus direct transcription from dictation from God. Nor do the dictated segments accurately identify God's linguistic "voice" because He would have been speaking in the "tongue" of the prophet taking the dictation (or taking the tablets that were written by God's hand).  It's much more complex than teasing apart who wrote which sections of a business manual written by a committee.

I can almost guarantee, though, that someone is going to say, "See, it says Isaiah was written by two people! Proof that the Bible isn't true." Or "Clearly different authors for the Bible means it's not the word of God, or it would all have the same author!" It shows an immense lack of understanding of the nature of transmission of ancient texts, of the nature of revelation, of the nature of God.

Take the example they cite of Isaiah. Apparently, according to the computer program, the Book of Isaiah was written by two different people, with the division occurring at chapter 33 (although content-wise the division is really at chapter 36). I can think of multiple reasons the program might identify this, none of which is faith-destroying:

1. Perhaps someone at some point smashed together the Book of Isaiah and one of the books that we identify as "lost scripture" (scripture that is quoted by other prophets but we don't have the book anymore). Perhaps half of Isaiah is actually the book of Zenock? or Zenos? Loose, unbound manuscript pages are easily lost or combined with other manuscripts. This may have been an accidental excision or an intentional editing decision. Both happen. (Personally, I don't think this is the case unless it happened right after Isaiah was around because Nephi quotes freely from both halves of the Book of Isaiah, identifying the sections as written by Isaiah as early as 600 BC.)

2. The Book of Isaiah was not written at one sitting. Perhaps one half was written so many years apart from the other that Isaiah's writing style evolved, developed, changed.

3. The content is different. The last half of Isaiah is stories of actual events and poetic, song-like verses about Jesus, and prophecies about the far-distant future of Israel, and advice for the future generations. The intended audience appears to be latter-day Israel rather than early-day Israel, which would change the way God would speak, and also the way Isaiah would speak (you write a letter to your mother different than to your as-yet unborn great grandchildren).  The first half of Isaiah is written more from a first-person "I saw this" kind of approach and contains more revelations that were given to specific people who were contemporaries of Isaiah. Where the last half actually feels like a handful of  long revelations, the first half is obviously a series of many short revelations given to specific people or groups at the time Isaiah was alive. Personally, I find the last half easier to understand--mostly because the content is more applicable to me, personally.

4. Perhaps the two halves, as we have them, were translated and copied by two different people. Notice the division occurs exactly half-way through the book--even half-way through a specific revelation, which seems to span chapters 32-35. That is absolutely the logic of two people assigned to copy pages who simply divided the work--and not the logic of someone adding on to the text or smashing two different texts together and calling it one. The possible translators/copyists left their linguistic tags on their different sections, and the computer picked up on that.

5. Perhaps the first half was written down by Isaiah himself and the second half is actually transcripts of lectures or sermons he gave. We speak very differently than we write, using different tags and markers.

6. Perhaps the computer isn't as refined as it thinks it is.

As always, a computer here is a useful tool, but it is no replacement for a brain.

Ultimately, the truth of the Bible cannot be determined by scholarly research anyway. It can only be determined by going to the source (whether He was the author of the exact words or not) and asking Him if it is true. That is one of the greatest legacies of Joseph Smith--the knowledge that we can ask God ourselves, and He will answer us.

No comments: