October 16, 2011, Updated September 11, 2012

While religious belief points to Moses as the author of the Torah – the first five books of the Bible – researchers at Tel Aviv University say a new computer algorithm shows that multiple writers had a hand in composing the text.

Prof. Nachum Dershowitz of Tel Aviv University’s Blavatnik School of Computer Science, who worked in collaboration with his son, Bible scholar Idan Dershowitz of Hebrew University, and Prof. Moshe Koppel and Ph.D. student Navot Akiva of Bar-Ilan University, says that their computer algorithm recognizes linguistic cues, such as word preference, to divide texts into probable author groupings.

Dershowitz’s software searches for and compares details human scholars might have difficulty detecting, such as the frequency of the use of “function” words and synonyms with little bearing on the meaning of the text but which can classify the style of an author, reported a TAU press release

The difference could be as innocuous as an author’s preference for using the word “said” versus “spoke,” the researchers said.

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 cannot yet give researchers a precise number of possible authors involved in the writing of the individual books of the Bible, Prof. Dershowitz says that it can help to identify transition points where a source changes, potentially providing clues in age-old debates.

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