I just read an article by Bonifatius Fischer on the use of computers in New Testament studies. What makes it interesting is that it was written in 1970. Here are a couple of points that stood out to me. I especially liked this quote near the beginning:
It is strange in general that the use of a computer is taken in the public mind as a proof of scholarly thoroughness. Why does the same not hold for the use of a fountain-pen or a typewriter, especially an electric one?Fischer does not think computers hold much promise for questions of authorship. But he is enthusiastic about their use for textual criticism.
After so much pessimism we come at last to a field where the computer is of great importance to the student of the New Testament, indeed where it opens up a new dimension and makes possible what hitherto the scholar had not even dared to dream of: that is, in textual criticism.He distinguishes between manuscripts “with all their peculiarities” and the “purely abstract sequence of readings” that can be fed into computers.
In textual criticism a strict distinction must be made between the logical, abstract, order and the concrete, historical, order: one might say, between the abstract textual criticism of variants and the concrete study of the tradition which is rooted in the historical environment. The various manuscripts with all their peculiarities and casual errors belong to the concrete, historical, order, and with them the whole indirect tradition in quotations, translations, etc. In the logical order there corresponds to every manuscript a particular series or combination of readings, which are quite abstracted from space and time, from the question of what is true or false, original or derived, given or received. This is not the current distinction between the manuscript and the text it transmits: the text itself is here a purely abstract sequence of readings, not a historical object. So in the logical order we have only sequences of readings, not real but only nominal manuscripts. But these and all their mutual relationships can be represented in quantitative, mathematical, terms in set-theory by means of Venn diagrams. The same holds good for all the groups or sub-groups of these ‘nominal’ manuscripts. And since they can be mathematically represented, they can also be grasped and processed by a computer.Especially interesting is that near the end of the article he anticipates the basic procedure both of the CBGM and Stephen Carlson’s use of cladistic software for Galatians: the computer provides the basic structure of the textual forms and the human editor gives it direction by making judgments about the “truth or falsity of the readings.” In hindsight, it may seem fairly obvious, but this was 1970 and computers were using punch-cards.
Two stages must be distinguished. In the first the relations between the manuscripts and the texts are defined on the basis of all their readings, irrespective of whether these readings are true or false: this stage is a purely mathematical process which can be done by a computer—indeed in so complicated a case as the New Testament it should be done by a computer. Then follows the second stage, the proper task of the textual critic, the judgement of the truth or falsity of the readings, the recension of the original text and perhaps also of its more important subsequent forms, and the reconstruction of the history of its transmission. This is a task that only a man can perform: it is beyond the capacities of a computer. But it rests on the firm basis that the computer supplies.Source: Fischer, Bonifatius. “The Use of Computers in New Testament Studies, with Special Reference to Textual Criticism.” JTS 21.2 (1970): 297–308.