Artificial Intelligence reveals the secrets of origins of the Bible
The Bible is an unusual book, as it is not only the most controversial but also the best-selling book ever written. Now, a ground-breaking digital analysis has revealed how many writers have penned it. The research and innovative technology behind it stand to teach us about the origins of the Bible itself.
“It’s well understood that the Bible was not composed in real time but was probably written and edited later,” Arie Shaus, a mathematician at Tel Aviv University told Gizmodo. “The question is, when exactly?”
By making use of machine learning tools to find out how many people were literate in ancient times; Shaus is one of the many mathematicians and archaeologists trying to raise that question in a radical manner. Their first major analysis, which appears in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, puts forward that the ability to read and write was extensive throughout the Kingdom of Judah, setting the stage for the compilation of Biblical texts.
Most people in the Kingdom of Judah used ceramic pottery shards to communicate with words scratched into them, called ostraca, to give each other notes. “These texts are very mundane in nature,” Shaus said, citing mundane day-to-day things like military orders, supply requisitions, and other minutiae as some of the more popular topics of discussion. They are examples of both ancient Hebrew and distinct handwriting.
However, there is also another layer of information that we can extract from ostraca, which is how many people knew how to write. Shaus and his colleagues examined a group of 16 well-preserved ceramic shards from a remote military fortress located near the southern border of Judah. Most of these ostraca date to around 600 BCE, almost the eve of the kingdom’s fall.
The first step of this analysis involved the researchers using novel image processing tools to restore characters that had been partially rubbed away. In order to recognize statistically distinct handwritings, they then designed machine learning algorithms that could equate and contrast the shape of the ancient Hebrew characters. In other words, this is similar to the algorithms tech companies use for digital signature detection.
“Handwriting analysis is a big area that’s seen a lot of research in recent years,” Shaus said. “Nevertheless, we had to develop our own tools and this was quite challenging. The medium is very deteriorated and so is the writing.”
The researchers at Tel Aviv University eventually designed the Artificial intelligence to both restore rubbed-away letters and to look for signs of specific handwriting on the ancient inscriptions. The results disclosed that even the modest water-hauler in the Kingdom of Judah’s army knew how to write, and to a fairly complex level. Coming to think about it, armies thrive on communication, so literacy would have been as important as sword and shield. Still, it would imply that it wasn’t just an elite class of teachers and scholars who could have created the books of the Bible. It could have been, quite literally, some dude hauling water who thought it was a good idea to write this religion stuff down.
“This was an extremely surprising result,” said Shaus.
It’s a result that the researchers say points to a “proliferation of literacy” throughout Judahite society by 600 BCE, hinting that the educational infrastructure to support Bible writing almost certainly existed.
However, not everyone is not happy with all facets of this conclusion.
“This is a highly innovative and important study,” Christopher Rollston, an expert on archaeology and Bible studies at George Washington University told Gizmodo, noting that there’s ample archaeological evidence portions of the Bible were written as early as 800 BCE. But who was really able to write at that time?
“I think that literacy was confined to elites, basically scribes, high military officials, and priests,” Rollston said, adding that by the late First Temple Period, it’s possible reading and writing had spread to more of this upper class.
Maybe the most important aspect of Shaus’ work is the introduction of tools for analyzing handwriting work for the study of ancient texts. The Tel Aviv research group is keen to share their tools for reconstructing letters and deciphering handwriting with other archaeologists, so that they can run other ancient texts through them and look for similarities. By applying these methods more generally, we will be able to determine who inscribed it, when, and where was the history’s most enduring book first written down.
“We’re bringing new evidence to the game,” Shaus said. “Now, we’ll see what else comes out.”
This new technology will probably give historians a lot of new data to work with, and possibly lay bare some seemingly unsolvable historical mysteries.