In a past blog I talked about how an AI-enabled Internet was bound to bring a new Reformation to the church. In this blog, I want to talk about how AI can revolutionize the academic study of Scriptures. Just like the printing press brought the Bible to homes, AI-enabled technologies can bring advanced study tools to the individual. This change in itself can change the face of Christianity for decades to come.
The Challenges of Biblical Scholarship
First, it is important to define what Biblical scholarship is. For those of you not familiar with it, this field is probably one of the oldest academic disciplines in Western academia. The study of Scripture was one of the primary goals for the creation of Universities in the Middle Ages and hence boasts an arsenal of literature unparalleled by most other academic endeavors. Keep in mind this is not your average Bible study you may find in a church. Becoming a Bible scholar is an arduous and long journey. Students desiring to enter the field must learn at least three ancient languages (Hebrew, Greek and usually Aramaic or Akkadian), German, English (for non-native speakers) and usually a third modern language. It takes about 10 years of Graduate level work to get started. To top that off, those who are able to complete these initial requirements face dismal career options as both seminaries and research interest in the Bible have declined in the last decades. Needless to say, if you know a Bible Scholar pat him in the back and thank them. The work they do is very important not only for the church but also for society in general as the Bible has deeply influenced other fields of knowledge like Philosophy, Law, Ethics and History.
Because of the barriers of entry described above, it is not surprising that many who considered this path as an option (including the writer of this blog) have opted for alternative paths. You may be wondering what that has to do with AI. The reality is that while the supply of Bible scholars is dwindling, the demand for work is increasing. The Bible is by far the most copied text in Antiquity. Just the New Testament alone has a collection of over 5,000 manuscripts found in different geographies and time periods. Many were discovered in the last 50 years. On top of that, because the field has been around for centuries, there are countless commentaries and other works interpreting, disputing, dissecting and adding to the original texts. Needless to say, this looks like a great candidate for machine-enhanced human work. No human being could possibly research, analyze and distill all this information effectively.
AI to the Rescue
As you may know, computers do not see the world in pictures or words. Instead all they see is numbers (0s and 1s to be more exact). Natural Language Processing is the technique that translates words into numbers so the computer can understand it. One simple way to do that is to count all the times each word shows up in a text and list them in a table. This simple word count exercise can already shed light into what the text is about. More advanced techniques will not only account for word incidence but also how close they are from each other by meaning. I could go on but for now suffice it to say that NLP starts “telling the story” of a text albeit in a numeric form to the computer.
What I describe above is already present in leading Bible softwares where one can study word counts till Kingdom come (no pun intended). Yet, this is only the first step in enabling computers to start mining the text for meaning and insight. When you add AI to NLP, that is when things start getting interesting. Think more of a Watson type of algorithm that you can ask a question and it can find the answer in the text. Now one can analyze sentiment, genre, text structure to name a few in a more efficient way. With AI, computers are now able to make connections between text that was only possible previously by the human mind. Except that they can do it a lot faster and, when well-trained, with greater precision.
One example is sentiment analysis where the algorithm is not looking for the text itself but more subjective notions of tone expressed in a text. For example, this technique is currently used to analyze customer reviews in order to understand whether a review is positive or negative. I manually attempted this for a Old Testament class assignment in which I mapped out the “sentiment” of Isaiah. I basically categorized each verse with a color to indicate whether it was positive (blessing or worship) or negative (condemnation or lament). I then zoomed out to see how the book’s sentiment oscillated throughout the chapters. This laborious analysis made me look at the book in a whole different lens. As AI applications become more common, these analysis and visuals could be created in a matter of seconds.
A Future for Biblical Scholarship
Now, by showing these examples I don’t mean to say that AI will replace Scholars. Algorithms still need to be trained by humans who understand the text’s original languages and its intricacies. Yet, I do see a future where Biblical scholarship will not be hampered by the current barriers of entry I described above. Imagine a future where scholars collaborate with data scientists to uncover new meaning in an ancient text. I also see an opportunity for professionals that know enough about Biblical studies and technology becoming valuable additions to research teams. (Are you listening Fuller Seminary? How about a new MA in Biblical Studies and Text Mining?). The hope is that with these tools, more people can be involved in the process and collaboration between researchers can increase. The task of Biblical research is too large to be limited to a select group highly educated scholars. Instead, AI can facilitate the crowdsourcing of the work to analyze and make meaning of the countless text currently available.
With all that said, it is difficult imagine a time where the Bible is just a book to be analyzed. Instead it is to be experienced, wrestled with and discussed. New technologies will not supplant that. Yet, could they open new avenues of meaning until now never conceived by the human mind. What if AI-enabled Biblical Scholarship could not just uncover new knowledge but also facilitate revelation?