Viewing the Bible with a Mathematical Background

In my undergraduate degree, I studied mathematics. I enjoyed it, especially the elements related to patterns and solving puzzles. Mathematics was also where I got my first taste of doing research full-time. I discovered that I did research better when I could bounce my ideas off of others and that I couldn’t see myself doing mathematics for the rest of my life. I felt perhaps my being given this research position had been a waste when I realized that I no longer wanted to study mathematics further but my supervisor gave me the sense that discovering what I’d like to do further in mathematics (or not) was also part of the goal of the research. The gift of that research time – and the lessons I’ve learned from having studied mathematics have stayed with me. And every so often, I see glimpses of how my mathematical background affects how I approach biblical studies.

The following are a few examples:

  • Consistency is very important to me. As someone working with the data in the Werkgroep Informatica of the VU University (Vrije Universiteit), this has been a bit of a challenge. The Hebrew of the Massoretic Text doesn’t always follow exact rules, especially not poetry. And there’s a level of subjectivity in interpreting the semantics and syntax of words and phrases and clauses and sentences. This subjectivity only increases when you realize that a diverse number of people (with different perspectives) have worked on the dabase – and the database is too large for one person to be able to keep all of it in his/her head. It’s understandable that there’d be inconsistency, but it’s something that frustrates me a lot (and something I probably complain about the most).
  • The computer program that’s been designed to work with the data in the database has a few glitches. Most computer programs do, so it’s understandable. When I first started, the program crashed at least once a day (I guess I wanted to push it to its limits). It happens much rarer now – but even so, it’s much less frustrating. Either I’ve now learned how to work around the crash or I know how to reproduce the problem (crashing consistently at the same place for the same reason) so that it can be reported to our IT specialist and hopefully fixed.
  • I remain astonished by how frequently poor logic or bad statistics is present in biblical studies. The number of things I’ve read/seen that say that said “this” proves “that” based on faulty statistics or logic exasperates me. Although perhaps, from a logical or statistical perspective, I should be less astonished (although if that’s the case, that doesn’t say much positive for the area of biblical studies). See the footnote for examples of bad logic/statistics.
  • I’m in the process of changing my dissertation project so that it in essence becomes trying to solve the puzzle of how discourse in Ezekiel fits together. This then becomes a large study of different patterns in Ezekiel. As a friend of mine (who works in computer science) put it – such a project is what might expect from somebody with a mathematical background studies the biblical text.

I think, all in all, I am glad that my former training in mathematics affects my life and studies even now.

Footnote: An example of a poor use of statistics would be to say that since God is named five times in a certain chapter, his actions are obviously key to understanding the chapter. It is possible that God’s actions are an important element in the chapter but God’s name being used five times is not enough to prove that. Since God is often named in many chapters, there is nothing that would make five times be statistically significant. It is the use of the name of God 30+ times in Genesis 1 that is an example of something statistically significant/relevant (especially when you consider that since God is the only character/actor in the chapter, a pronoun could have easily been used in many of the cases where He is named).

An example of poor logic is when you argue that “this” is true because of “that” when in reality “that” is true because of “this.” [This is the difference between the mathematical \Rightarrow \!\, vs. ↔ or “if” vs. “iff” (if and only if)]. An example of this is: If a verb is a cohortative, it has an added ה at the end of it. However, the argument cannot be reversed – you cannot say that a verb having an extra ה at the end of it is then a cohortative. Certain verbs with this extra ה are actually just ‘long imperatives.’ The argument could only be reversed if you defined whether the verb is first, second, or third person.

This last example is actually taken from a glitch in Libronix where there are more than 250 examples of imperatives that have a very confusing cohortative mood label. I’m doing what I can to see if this can be changed.

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2 thoughts on “Viewing the Bible with a Mathematical Background

  1. The Hebrew of the Massoretic Text doesn’t always follow exact rules, especially not poetry.

    What linguistic framework is the Werkgroep database following? Some frameworks do better with the sort of computational issues that arise in building these kinds of linguistic databases.

    As for statistics. I’m completely with you. One of the best examples in Greek grammar studies is: The Word Order of the Gospel of Luke: Its Foregrounded Messages (Library of New Testament Studies). Let’s just say there’s a reason used copies sell for $22 rather than closer to the retail $192.

  2. Thanks for the feedback – and the example.

    As for the linguistic framework, the answer is that we use a complicated system. For basic morphology, we use classical hebrew grammar (basic being how to parse a verb or any other word). We follow the Baumgartner dictionary in terms of what part of speech different words are considered.

    As far as how things go together linguistically, our database is specifically set up to be experimental. When we reference people, the name of W. Schneider comes up, but at the same time we have chosen not to follow any system too rigidly. The goal of creating a database is not to force the text into a pre-conceived system but to allow a system to bubble up that actually fits the text. And it has shown a lot of things and raised a lot of questions – like how there are a lot of unfounded assumptions of who is speaking when and where – and that there is a lot of potentially unfounded poetical license in translating qtl verb forms in prophecy.

    At the same time, because we use a lot of intuition and play around with finding a system that can fit the text, the possibility of inconsistency is increased.

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