By Beth Vickers
As a PhD student at Cambridge University, Cody is using computer analysis to uncover previously unknown verb patterns in biblical Hebrew.
How did you become a reader at Tyndale House?
I’m here studying for a PhD in Hebrew, researching the use of computational analysis to discover the meaning of Hebrew verbs. I first got the bug for biblical Hebrew as an undergraduate. I just fell in love with having that direct connection to Scripture — no translation, no filter. When I decided to do a PhD, Tyndale House was a big reason that I was drawn to Cambridge. Having a community of brilliant Hebrew scholars right next to you in the library is invaluable.
Your PhD “applies computational linguistic and statistical methods to the debate over tense and aspect in the Biblical Hebrew verbal system”. Can you translate that for non-academics?
If you take a few Bible versions, open them up to the Psalms, pick a verb, and look at which English tense has been chosen to translate it, the different versions will go different ways. Partly that’s because context is really important for interpreting verbs, and translators differ in what they think the context is saying. But it also doesn’t help that we often don’t really know what’s going on with the Hebrew verbal system, especially with poems. Poetry does weird things with verbs.
Counter-intuitively, computers can help us understand more about how the early readers of the Old Testament could have understood the verbs. Instead of looking at the verbs themselves, I am focusing on so-called “time adverbials” — words that explicitly indicate time. A well-known example of this would be “In the beginning”, in Genesis 1:1. The computational stuff comes in to find statistical patterns between time adverbials and the verbs they’re used with, which could help us understand what is going on in the verbal system more generally.
In 2018 you presented at the Society of Biblical Literature’s Annual Meeting on the 200 most frequent nouns in the Hebrew Bible — what is so important about these nouns?
The aim of that research was to find a more objective way to measure what words mean. I took the top 200 nouns, and I looked to see when each word occurs as a subject or an object in a sentence, and what kind of verb it occurs with. Then I could compare that with other words that also occur with those verbs in those roles. So something like Elohim, the Hebrew word for God, matches very closely to the word for Yahweh. Statistically they’re very close.
When we study syntax (the arrangement of words in sentences), the way we sort words into categories (such as concrete or abstract nouns) can be quite subjective. The computational approach tries to categorise nouns more objectively, based on their distribution in the text.
Does your research change the way you read the Bible personally?
I think it has, in the sense that it has made me want to read the Bible in the original languages, with everything turned off, just me and the text. Some of this work can be a bit cold, you’re running numbers and looking at patterns, whereas the Bible is a beautiful piece of art, and was made for us to grow in our knowledge of God and our knowledge of ourselves. It’s made to be read by humans, so there are techniques the Old Testament writers used that latch on to a human reader and influence the ways they make connections, and these connections can only really come naturally. I am still interested in mimicking it with a computer, but also recognising how accessing data and having knowledge are not the same thing, and being able to read the Bible competently is totally different from being able to map it completely.