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Digital Approaches to Sacred Texts - Research Team

This Research Team deepens its research by applying cutting-edge innovation to the study of the Hebrew Bible. They use technological solutions like co-reference resolution, Neural Networks and Machine Learning. Besides that the team broadens its scope by including other languages (Sanskrit, Arabic, Syriac, Greek) and religious text corpora.

The biblical scholarship is centered about the richly annotated linguistic database of the ETCBC (Eep Talstra Centre of Bible and Computer) and explores how this database can be used in new directions of biblical research, including discourse analysis, Machine Learning, statistical analysis and computational linguistics. This Team builds on a long and successful tradition of applying digital approaches to studying Hebrew texts since the start of the Werkgroep Informatica Vrije Universiteit (WIVU) in the 1970s. Examples include the recently awarded e-Science Center project “Morphological Parser for Inflectional Languages Using Deep Learning” and the CLARIAH project “PaTraCoSy: Patterns in Translation: Using Colibri Core for the Syriac Bible”. The digital approach takes place in a constant conversation with other approaches that are not necessarily digital, including biblical theology, the study of the ancient versions of the Bible, and Hebrew and Aramaic linguistics.

The inclusion of other texts and traditions investigates the specific needs of research into other linguistic texts, ranging from the vast amount of Hindu and Buddhist literature to patterns on contemporary Christian worship songs, from Aramaic incantation bowls to a network analysis of commentators on the Quran. An example is a project Dhammapada latine, which concerns a Text-Fabric presentation of the Dhammapada, one of the most important texts of Buddhism, and its Latin translation by V. Fausböll.

This not only facilitates the research into these religious sources, but also enkindles a deep methodological discussion as to what all computational approaches have in common. Regardless of language and corpora, how do these relate to the complex interaction of computational calculation and textual interpretation. The basis for this broadening scope was laid in the workshop “Processing Ancient Text Corpora” at the Lorentz Center (February 2020, follow-up meeting February 2021), in which data scientists, computer scientists and scholars from various humanities disciplines came together to discuss common challenges and cooperation opportunities.

Research Team - Digital Approaches to Sacred Texts

  • Mission

    The research group deepens its research by applying cutting-edge innovation to the study of the Hebrew Bible (co-reference resolution, Neural Networks, Machine Learning), and it broadens its scope to include other languages (Sanskrit, Arabic, Syriac, Greek) and religious text corpora.

  • Team

  • Possible thesis topics

    • Text-syntax and discourse analysis. E.g.: the syntactic text-hierarchical structure of Genesis in relation to the toledoth structure. (Van Peursen)
    • Participant identification and participant reference, e.g.: what is the function of “oracles against the nations” (Van Peursen
    • Hebrew and Syriac linguistics (morphology, syntax) (Van Peursen)
    • Bible translation: Notorious issues in Bible translations explored from an exegetical point of view (e.g. Gen. 1:1-3 (the first sentence of the Bible), Gen 12:2-3 (the blessing of Abram), ‘leprosy’ in the Bible, the translation of ‘sarx’ in the Pauline letters (De Jong)
    • Cultural interpretation and Bible translation: discerning and respecting the “otherness” of the text; evaluation of current bible translations (De Jong)
    • Social network analysis of Arabic/Islamic biographical dictionaries (ṭabaqāt) (Coppens)
    • The digital Tafsir corpus and Text Reuse Method (Coppens)
    • Theological questions concerning community, religion and identity in the post-exilic period, especially in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah (Dubbink)
    • The book of Jeremiah (Dubbink)
    • Old Aramaic or Persian period Aramaic (Folmer)
    • The books of Daniel and Ezra (Folmer)
    • Qumran studies (Qumran Aramaic in particular) (Folmer)
    • Ancient translations of the Old Testament (Staalduine)
    • Christian and Jewish exegesis (Staalduine)
    • Psalms in pastoral care (Staalduine)
    • Buddhist Philologies, e.g.: The text and reception history of the Pāli Kālāma Sutta AN 3.65   (Scherer)
    • Pre-Islamic Religious Contact in South and Central Asia: e.g.: The notion of wisdom in Khotanese Buddhist Texts (Scherer)
    • Scripture(s) and Canon(s) of Modernist Buddhisms, e.g.: The use of scriptural exegesis in the writings of Pema Chödron (Sherer)
  • Possible PhD Topics

    [First supervisor: Prof. Willem van Peursen]

    • Text-syntax and discourse analysis, to address questions such as:
      • How does the syntactic text-hierarchical structure of Genesis relate to the toledoth structure and thematic divisions of the text?
    • Participant identification and participant reference
      • With a more computational focus (anaphora resolution, co-occurrence analysis), e.g. participants in the Books of Jeremiah or Ezekiel
      • With a more exegetical focus, e.g. what is the function of “oracles against the nations”?
    • Hebrew and Syriac linguistics (morphology, syntax)
    • Text-clustering. Application of computational methods to address questions such as:
      • can we discern a Deuteronomistic redaction in the book of Jeremiah?
      • How should we evaluate the traditions classification of psalms in hymns, laments, royal psalms etc.?
    • Application of Machine Learning for linguistic encoding or analysis of Hebrew and Syriac texts.
    • Application of topic modelling to discern relations among biblical texts.
    • Application of Social Network Analysis in Biblical narratives.
    • Syriac Apocalypses of the 7th century.

    [First supervisor: Prof. Matthijs de Jong]

    • Text-syntax and discourse analysis meets Bible translation  
    • Recent views on Paul (e.g. new perspective) as reflected in current Bible translations  
    • Inclusivity in Bible Translation

    [First supervisor: Prof. Eveline van Staalduine-Sulman]

    • The ancient versions of the Bible, especially the Targums
    • Jewish exegesis and hermeneutics
    • The book of Samuel
    • Evangelical reception of the Bible

    [First supervisor: Dr. Margaretha Folmer]

    • Old Aramaic
    • Elephantine studies
    • Persian period Aramaic
    • The books of Daniel and Ezra (Biblical Aramaic)
    • Targumic studies (Jewish Aramaic)
    • Qumran studies (Qumran Aramaic in particular)
    • Aramaic Magic  Bowls from Late Antiquity
    • Ancient Jewish Magic

    [First supervisor: Prof. Joep Dubbink]

    • Theological questions concerning community, religion and identity in the post-exilic period, especially in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah
    • The book of Zechariah

    [First supervisor: Prof. Dr. Bee Scherer]

    • Buddhist Philologies (Indic: Sanskrit, Middle Indic incl. Pāli, Gāndhārī, Apabhraṃśa : Non-Indic: Tibetan; Khotanese, Tokharian, Sogdian, Old Uyghur, Chinese, Japanese)
      • Translingual approaches to Buddhist authoritative texts; e.g. suttas and āgamas (Pāli-Chinese etc.)
        • E.g. The text and reception history of the Kālāma Sutta AN 3.65/ MĀ 16
        • E.g. Early Buddhist Apocrypha? Computational Approaches to mono-lingually transmitted discourses
      • Mapping translingual Buddhist doctrinal, poetical, and narratorial topoi and tropes
        • E.g. Imagery and tropes in the ‘Exalted Sayings’ genre
        • E.g. Translingual and -cultural imagery of nature (e.g. plant & animal tropes)
        • Metaphors of realisation: translingual shifts in enlightenment imagery
        • E.g. Mindfulness in the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras
    • Pre-Islamic Religious Contact in South and Central Asia (Buddhism, Hellenism, Zoroastrianism, Nestorianism, Gnosis, Manichaeism)
      • Computational linguistical, iconographical and philological approaches
        • E.g. Constructing the Indo-Greek identity in Early Buddhist texts, inscriptions and art
        • E.g. Conceptualising Mani, Jesus and the Buddha at the Silk Road
        • E.g. Gendered imagery of liberation in religious contact on the Silk Road
        • E.g. The notion of wisdom in multireligious contact texts on the Silk Route
        • E.g. Mapping the multiple Lotus Sūtras on the Silk Route
    • Scripture(s) and Canon(s) of Modernist Buddhisms
      • Computational and philological approaches to scriptural-doctrinal normativisation in contemporary / transnational / modernist Buddhist movements
        • E.g. Scriptures and authority in the works of …
          • Thich Nhat Hanh
          • The 14th Dalai Lama
          • Secular Buddhisms
        • E.g. Scriptural hermeneutics in Humanistic Buddhist traditions
        • E.g. Buddhist Hermeneutics of Social Justice (Metaethics; Sex & Gender; Sexualities; Dis/Abilities; Race & Ethnicity; Class; Socio-Economic status; Religious diversity)

    [First supervisor Dr. Pieter Coppens]

    • social network analysis of Arabic/Islamic biographical dictionaries (ṭabaqāt)
    • the digital Tafsir corpus and Text Reuse Method
  • Connection with education

    In addition to the contribution the members of the research group to education in the Hebrew Bible and the sacred texts of other traditions as well as the languages of these texts, there are specialized courses in Digital Humanities, including the BA course “Bible Translation and Digital Humanities” which is part of the Minor Bible Translation in the Digital Age and the courses “Analytical Tools and the Study of the Bible” and “Digital Hermeneutics and the Reception of the Bible”, which are part of the MA specialization Biblical Studies and Digital Humanities (both as specialization as part of the MA programme “Exploring a Discipline” and as a Research MA track). The research group offers possibilities for internships and thesis supervision (BA, MA, PhD). The DH project “DaDEL: Data-driven E-learning” is used in the language courses for Biblical Hebrew and Greek offered by the Faculty as part of its BA programmes.

  • Connection with centers/ institutes

    The Research Group is closely related to the Eep Talstra Centre for Bible and Computer (ETCBC; founded in 1977; formerly known as the Werkgroep Informatica Vrije Universiteit). The ETCBC develops and maintains an advanced syntactic database of the Hebrew Bible, in which linguistic information is encoded hierarchically at the word, phrase, clause, and text levels. The activities of the ETCBC include encoding new texts (data creation) and utilising already encoded texts for linguistic research.

  • Research Agenda 2022-2023

    The research group Digital Approaches to Sacred Texts (DAST) is rooted in decades of experience of the computational analysis of the Hebrew Bible. At its start in 2021 this group formulated two aims:

    • Further development of digital textual analysis with state-of-the-art methods such as machine learning.

    This has been realized, among others, in the projects Morphological Parser for Inflectional Languages Using Deep Learning and PaTraCoSy: Patterns in Translation: Using Colibri Core for the Syriac Bible. We are also in the process of extending the linguistic analysis to verbal valence and participant tracking.

    • Expanding the field of research to other languages, texts and traditions.

    A first step has been taken in the Dhammapada latine project, which concerns the digitization of the Dhammpada in Pali and its 19-cent. Latin translation by M. Viggo Fausbøll.

    We are determined to take further steps in these areas and to start at least one follow-up project in both directions. Further, we want to broaden and strengthen the sound philological analysis of sacred texts combined with theological and hermeneutical depth. In 2022–2023 there are some promising conditions:

    1. Prof. Matthijs de Jong has recently joined our team. He holds the endowed chair Bible Translation of the Dutch Bible Society. This strengthens the research at the intersection of Biblical studies and Translation studies.
    2. Prof. Eveline van Staalduine and Dr. Margaretha Folmer are the conveners of the Congress of the International Organization of Targum Studies (Salzburg, 18–20 July 2022), which will give a strong impetus to the philological and literary study of this important source.
    3. Dr. Pieter Coppens has been awarded a research fellowship at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIAS) for his project “Who Determines what the Qur'an Means: Hermeneutical Authority in Premodern and Modern Islam.”

    Currently, about twenty PhD students are affiliated to the DAST research group. This leaves little room for new PhD students, but exceptions can be made for promising candidates with topics directly related to the expertise of the supervisor in the field of Computational Hebrew linguistics (Van Peursen), Buddhist texts (Scherer), Quran commentaries and digital text reuse analysis (Coppens), Bible Translation (De Jong) and Biblical Theology (Dubbink). For further details see the list given above under Possible PhD-topics.