27 October 2023

Stylometricality (1)

 A few days ago, one of the Catholic papers had a brief article by Dr Anthony Kenny. I found this interesting because of who Kenny is; and because of a book of his own to which he referred. 

Kenny is a lapsed Catholic priest, regarded as one of England's finest philosophical minds. He was Master of Balliol College Oxford, when one of our daughters was an undergraduate there. He chaired a memorable debate between the Archbishop of Canterbury and Dr Dawkins. Unlike many of those who leave the Church or her ministry, he has no hostility towards the Church or the Christian tradition. 

The book he published in 1986, A Stylometric Study of the New Testament, employed modern computer-generated methods to investigate whether certain of the books of the New Testament really are by their ostensible or claimed authors. 

There is background here.

We all, in whatever language we express ourselves, have a certain 'linguistic fingerprint' which can be discerned whatever the subject, content and direction is in the things we write. Elements such as sentence length and structure and the sort of words we use ... and how we use them ... can be analysed. This study is called Stylometry.

In 1966, a writer called A Q Morton had argued on stylometric grounds that most of the so-called letters of S Paul were not written by him. The broader thrust of this assertion implied that certain letters upon which Protestantism is (although erroneously) based are the authentic core of S Paul's teaching; others, more markedly 'Catholic' such as Colossians and Ephesians and the 'Pastoral Epistles', are inauthentic, and might come from as many as six different hands. (Such an approach, of course, fails to take account of those letters which describe themselves as written by S Paul in conjunction with colleagues ... or the influence of secretaries whose own style might have had an effect upon what S Paul dictated to them ... etc.etc..)

Kenny's Study, on the other hand, claimed to show that, despite Morton, "There is no support given ... to the idea that a single group of Epistles (say the four major Tuebingen Epistles) stand out as uniquely comfortable with one another; or that a single group (such as the Pastoral Epistles) stand out as uniquely diverse from the surrounding context. 2 Timothy, one of the commonly rejected Pastoral Epistles, is as near the centre of the constellation as 2 Corinthians, which belongs to the group most widely accepted as authentic ... on the basis of the evidence ... for my part I see no reason to reject the hypothesis that twelve of the Pauline Epistles are the work of a single, unusually versatile author."

Kenny's brief recent article in the popular Catholic press is mainly about the Acts of the Apostles; in it, he accepts that its authorship is the same as that of the Gospel according to S Luke. 

And he includes in his evidence for this assertion 'Stylometric evidence'.

Kenny is now 92 years old; it is interesting and significant that he still is willing to appear in print as the author of the arguments he deployed in the 1980s.

To be concluded. 

1 comment:

william arthurs said...

I have just been reading about the subject of the dating and authorship of St Paul's letters and am now used to the idea of stylometric evidence being deployed alongside other conventional (possibly circular) criteria for dating Christian writings, including the evolution of a high Christology, and the rise of Gnosticism. As for the latter, Margaret Barker said to me "A gnostic may be simply a Christian writer whose repertoire of metaphors we have not yet fully understood."

I was intrigued about twenty years ago to find a book about stylometric analysis in the linguistics section of the library. The author was keen to point out that this technique must be legit because it has been accepted as forensic evidence. I decided to fire up my computer and test it out for myself on two essays by a well-known writer who also writes under a well-known pseudonym. I was somewhat disconcerted to discover that the analysis had "proved" that this writer and his pseudonym were different people. Will it prove that the bogus "Letter to the Laodiceans", attributed to St Paul by someone whose motives we can only speculate about, is actually by him?