17 January 2022

Order in chaos

But the path of the just is as the shining light,
that shineth more and more unto the perfect day.

— King Solomon (Proverbs 4:18)

Have you ever started reading the number one bestseller of the world? I mean here the Bible, which, according to several sources (see this, for example) has been sold in more than 5 billion copies in the world. And did you find some order in that book? Some parts of it – for example, the Gospels – are quite simple to read: they communicate a very clear message, but at the same time they deliver a deep knowledge.

The Bible is a collection of several books. The first part, the Old Testament, is a canonical collection of Hebrew scriptures, but the second part (the New Testament) was written by Christians, followers of Jesus. Christians claim that Jesus was the promised Messiah sent by God. In fact, a great part of the New Testament seem to prove this doctrine, by using many ways: mostly by telling stories about Jesus from his supernatural birth through his life until his death (and his resurrection!), and the supernatural deeds of his mortal followers. An important method of verificating Jesus' identity is to quote texts from the Old Testament and explain that they have a direct connection with the happenings in the New Testament including doctrinal questions too.

All this means that quotations play an important role in the New Testament. The Jewish culture and theology also rely on quoting the Old Testament and explaining it. As a result, the text of the Old Testament is handled very carefully by Christians and Jews. At the end of the day, it is considered as God's revelation, and therefore perfect and complete.

In the following blog entries, I am going to demonstrate how the connection between the Old and New Testament can be explained by quotations appearing in the New Testament, by using mechanical tools. I consider it important to use mechanical methods to avoid personal preconceptions as much as possible.

In fact, comparison of two texts is much simpler if they are in the same language. In our case, the Old Testament is written in Hebrew, but the New Testament was written in Greek. The oldest manuscript of the Hebrew Old Testament is the Leningrad Codex, dated back to 1008 CE. For the New Testament, the oldest manuscripts are the Codex Vaticanus and the Codex Sinaiticus, both of them can be traced back to the 4th century. Both of these old manuscripts contain a Greek translation of the Old Testament; however, some parts of the texts are lost. Being familiar with later manuscripts we can have a guess how the original texts looked like.

The translation process from Hebrew into Greek began in the 3rd and finished in the 2nd century BCE. It was initiated by King Ptolemy the Great, and the result was called Septuagint. In the ancient world, more than a hundred years before the arrival of Jesus, it was already possible to read the Old Testament in lingua franca, the common language: Greek. In the New Testament we also read about a kind of internationalization process of the Jewish theology, by moving the focus from the Jews to other nations.

We use a digital tool embedded in this web page that is able to compare Greek texts: the Greek translation of the Hebrew original of the Old Testament to the Greek text of the New Testament. Some readers who have roots in the Jewish tradition may disagree and say that this is not a good idea: the original Hebrew text should be read in Hebrew, right? There are actually some slight differences between the original text and the translation. Also, some parts cannot even be translated perfectly (see, for example, Psalm 119 which is an acrostic poem). But, in fact, there are important arguments for using the Greek translation of the Hebrew text in a research project:
  1. The Greek translation was widely used in the ancient times, even in the New Testament there is ample evidence of this.
  2. Important people who had Jewish roots like the Apostle Paul preferred using the Greek text in many situations instead of the original Hebrew.
  3. The internationalization process is mentioned several times in the New Testament, predicting the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE.
Let us have a look at the digital tool this web page provides! There is a command line interface to bibref below that allows the user to use a digitalized version of the Septuagint (called LXX), and the Greek New Testament (called SBLGNT).

Our research question is the following: Did the authors of the New Testament quote the texts from the Old Testament accurately? This is a very substantial fundamental question if we want to take the Bible seriously. I would like to answer this question unbiased, by using mechanical methods as much as possible.

To get a first impression I have already prepared a command line for you: just click in the pink input box and press ENTER to have a try. First, we will get a verse of the English Bible (KJV), from the Book of Isaiah, to approach the topic a bit. This is, of course, written in English, so we may want to see the Greek text instead, to get a closer look. Please try the command lookup LXX Isaiah 7:14 either by editing the input by hand and pressing ENTER again, or by using copy-paste. Do not worry if you don't speak Greek: we will be working with the texts just mechanically. Let us try to fetch a quotation of this verse from the New Testament: please type (or copy-paste) lookup SBLGNT Matthew 1:23. You can confirm that some matches should indeed appear in the two texts. By issuing lookup KJV Matthew 1:23 you can read the English translation as well.

Now we will compare these two Greek texts. The English translation suggests that we may want to skip the introductory part of Isaiah and the ending part of Matthew. We can store the relevant part of Isaiah by using the command text1 ιδου η παρθενος εν γαστρι εξει και τεξεται υιον και καλεσεις το ονομα αυτου εμμανουηλ. This will put the text on clipboard 1. On the other hand, to store the second text on clipboard 2 you need to type text2 Ιδου η παρθενος εν γαστρι εξει και τεξεται υιον, και καλεσουσιν το ονομα αυτου Εμμανουηλ. To compare them mechanically you have two options. You can either use the Jaccard distance for the two texts by issuing the command jaccard12 or use an optional comparison with the command compare12. Both will give you a number near 0.08 – this simply means that these two texts substantially match, since they differ in 8%.

More on mechanization

Of course, one needs to know these two relevant parts of the Bible in advance, to verify the assumption that these texts match. If one knows only the first text from LXX, there is already a tool that helps find the matching part from SBLGNT. This is how it works: one needs to type getrefs SBLGNT LXX Isaiah 7:14. By pressing ENTER, your browser may process for a couple of seconds – here the whole Bible must be checked, so be patient.

The result is somewhat more complicated. The program gives line by line which texts from the New Testament have a partial but literal match with the text from Isaiah. Some lines may be just accidental, but the last ones are often correct matches. Here we mention two of them: The meaning of these lines is the following: The end of Isaiah 7:14 (starting after the 85. position) matches to Matthew 1:23 (starting after the 52. position and ending 34 positions before the end of the verse) on a length of 21 characters. Also, the middle part of Isaiah 7:14 (starting after the 35. position) matches to the start of Matthew 1:23 (ending 60 positions before the end of the verse) on a length of 47 characters. These are literal matches, but they are two instead of just one: the long text is separated in two shorter ones. The reason why the long text was split into two parts is a word between them: καλεσεις (“you shall call”) is used in LXX and καλεσουσιν (“they will call”) in SBLGNT. See Bible Hub's Interlinear translation for Isaiah 7 and for Matthew 1:23 to have a deeper understanding on the meaning of the Greek words. Such minor differences (they are present in several quotations) make the identification of the quotations algorithmically quite challenging. But anyway, Matthew himself states that here a prophecy was fulfilled: Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet (see Matthew 1:22).

Another option to perform a mechanical check is to put the two long texts in the clipboards by explicitly defining their starts and ends. This is how it works: lookup1 LXX Isaiah 7:14+35 7:14 and lookup2 SBLGNT Matthew 1:23 1:23-34. Finally, the command jaccard12 will compute the Jaccard distance for the two texts in the clipboards.

How the texts are stored

You may have learned that the program internally converts Greek characters into Latin letters: this aims at helping researchers who are unfamiliar with the Greek language. Also, spaces, commas, periods and capitalized letters are completely ignored. This is intentional: the manuscripts from the 4th century CE do not have any punctuations. Here are two examples, taken from the freely available databases for the Codex Vaticanus and the Codex Sinaiticus. In fact, chapters and verses for the Bible were introduced in the 13rd century (by Stephen Langton) and widely accepted just in the 16th century.

This first picture is a snapshot from Codex Sinaiticus, in the passage near Isaiah 7:14. The second picture below is from Codex Vaticanus, in the passage near Matthew 1:23 (on page 1236, if you want to search for it on your own).

Can you find the word Immanuel in both texts?

Acknowledgment. My friend László Gyöngyösi kindly helped me improve the first version of this blog entry.

Continue reading…

See also a filtered list of the entries on topics GeoGebra, technical developments or internal references in the Bible.

Zoltán Kovács
Linzer Zentrum für Mathematik Didaktik
Johannes Kepler Universität
Altenberger Strasse 54
A-4040 Linz