Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Gospels, the Tao, and the Analects: Comparison

There are many reasons we might want to compare two documents to see how much they cover the same material. We have looked at the Biblical gospels in comparison to each other, and to one of Paul's letters. We have compared the combined gospels to the Torah. We have looked at how the Biblical gospels compare to a Gnostic Gospel. Here we take it to the next step: What do we see when we compare the gospels to the texts of other religions?

While I eventually want to analyze far more texts than these, I started by comparing two Biblical gospels (Mark and John) to two eastern texts (the Tao Te Ching and the Analects of Confucius). Full disclosure: I'm fond of both the Tao and the Analects, and am starting here because I am glad for a chance to re-read them and review them again. I considered writing up the comparisons separately for the Analects and the Tao, but there is more that comes to light when the comparisons are reviewed side-by-side.

Summary of Results 

First, comparisons of two Gospels and the Tao
Gospel of Mark and the Tao: 7% shared emphasis (or 10% if "teachers" and "sages" are matched)
Gospel of John and the Tao: 9%

Next, comparisons of two Gospels and the Analects
Gospel of Mark and the Analects: 22% shared emphasis
Gospel of John and the Analects: 18% shared emphasis

For those interested, comparison of the Tao with the Analects:
16% shared emphasis, or 20% if "Master" and "sages" are matched.


The Gospels and the Tao have so low a match that it barely registers. The match between Mark and the Tao is the result of only 5/48 words from Mark's keywords list: people, teachers, things, called, and heaven. Again, the match between John and the Tao is the result of only 5/44 words from John's keywords list: world, life, things, people, called. We may know that both are on the general topic of teaching people about life, the world, and heaven -- a very high-level, summarized type of common ground.

The Analects, on the other hand, have a noticeably higher match. For Mark and the Analects, there are 9/48 words matched: man, asked, people, replied, things, heard, called, heaven, others. For John and the Analects, there are 9/44 words matched: man, asked, love, replied, heard, things, people, speak, called.

So the reason the Analects is more similar to the Biblical gospels is mainly from the basic framework of the documents: the Analects, like the gospels, narrate someone's teachings through their conversations with others. I would wonder whether there would be a similar patten found for any writings that record dialogue-style conversations, especially teachings.

For "called", it should be mentioned that a word may have more than one meaning, and a next-generation version of this tool would eventually need to take that into account. A disciple may be "called" by Jesus, and an act may be "called" virtuous, without "called" really meaning the same thing. That is to say, this version of the tool may slightly miss its estimate since it does not have that kind of precision yet.

For a little more perspective, when we compare the Tao to the Analects, we find 8/50 keywords matched: people, virtue, called, things, heaven, wish, state, words. If we consider "sages" and "Master" as a match -- which is debatable -- that would be 9/50 keywords matched.

The Tao and Analects share some things with each other that they do not share with Mark or John. To take one example, they share an emphasis on "virtue". Anyone who has read the gospels knows that human "virtue" is found under different words; it is not necessarily easy to say which is the closest match. Do we compare the call to be "righteous" or "perfect" or "holy"? Or do we note that the gospels take a different approach from discussing the hypothetical man of virtue? These are not questions I will pretend to answer in a mathematical analysis of word frequencies. There are some kinds of questions that the mathematical analysis may answer; for others, it simply brings to our attention other areas that deserve a look.

The Tao and the Analects were written in different languages than the Biblical gospels; the comparisons have all been done from English translations. (Beyond that, they also came from different cultures and were speaking to different contexts.) I don't apologize for comparing them in English since eventually we have to find a common platform on which to compare them. Part of the job will be to keep that common platform from distorting the picture, no matter which common platform is chosen. The original languages and cultures will need to remain part of the picture.

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