Mining and Mapping Apocalyptic Texts, Part 2

As I explained in my last blog post, my dissertation will compare several statements about the final fate of humankind in Paul to similar statements in apocalyptic texts. In that post, I described how text-mining could help with the interpretation of the texts which stand at the center of my dissertation. In this post, I will discuss how geographic information systems (GIS) can help to visualize geographic relationships among texts. My ideas here, as in my first blog post, are the result of conversations with other staff members here at the Scholars’ Lab. The question that I pose and answer in this blog post is, What does geography have to do with the analysis of biblical texts? The short answer is, “Much, in every way.” But I can’t just assert that, I need to show it.

Historical-critical study of the Bible has understood for the last two hundred years that the historical circumstances of any person or group profoundly affect the literature that that person or group produces. And scholars understand geographical location to be an integral part of any author’s historical circumstances. I was always dubious about the ability of GIS to help me with my research into the Apostle Paul. After all, scholars have no more evidence for Paul’s geographic location than he gives in his letters, and scholars have already thoroughly discussed this evidence. Another basic tenet of historical-criticism, however, is that we understand an author’s history better when we put it in relationship to the histories of other authors. This goes for geography as well. That means that I should put Paul in geographical relationship with the apocalyptic texts I will study.

But this process will be more than simply plotting each work’s points of origin on a map. Since GIS is driven by databases, one can query the databases and display the results geographically. For instance, I may find that certain texts assert that the Messiah will descend with angels before the final judgment. If I have geographical data for these texts, I can tell GIS to show the place of origin of all texts that meet these criteria. I could then discover that all of these texts come from a certain area or that they all fall along a certain trade route. I might also discover that they have no apparent geographical similarity. And that is the beauty of GIS. I can follow leads quickly enough that pursuing a red herring no longer requires wasted hours or days. I can check out multiple leads in the time it would take to follow one lead manually.

The ultimate question, however, is how this technology could help my research. One scenario will make its usefulness apparent. I will consider dozens of apocalyptic texts. If I find that a Paul shares some textual characteristic with only 2 of these texts, I would be hard pressed to show that these three sources by themselves demonstrate an historical pattern. But, if I could show that all three of these texts originated in approximately the same area at approximately the same time, I would show that the texts share more than just textual characteristics. This demonstration would relate the texts more closely to one another and thus strengthen my argument that the textual similarity represents a geographically specific historical pattern. Once such a pattern is recognized, I could interpret these three texts together to reach a fuller understanding of the textual characteristic that is partially represented in each text. And with GIS, one is not limited to analyzing one relationship at a time. One can also assign different symbols to texts depending on which characteristics they have. In this way, one can produce a graphical representation of textual features that may suggest relationships that otherwise would not have been clear. In the end, GIS technologies make it easier to analyze and visualize geographical relationships among texts. As a result, my interpretation of Paul would be based more firmly in Paul’s own historical circumstances.

A former SLab Fellow, Matt is currently currently the Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter at the Göttingen Center for Digital Humanities, DARIAH Arbeitspaket 2, Forschung und Lehre.

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