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The Bible's Buried Secrets

Classroom Activity

Activity Summary
Students explore how linguistic analysis can be used to help identify sources of a text as well as relative time periods in which the text was written.

Learning Objectives
Students will be able to:

  • analyze a written passage to determine if more than one source wrote it.

  • describe how changes in language over time can be used to help determine when a text may have been written.

Suggested Time
One class period


Multimedia Resources

Additional Materials

  • Deciphering the Past Student Handout (PDF)

  • assortment of colored highlighters or pencils

  • dictionary (optional)


Biblical archeologists use the methods of archeology—fieldwork, excavation, research, stratigraphy, and modern laboratory techniques such as radiocarbon dating—to try to decipher what can be learned about events, people, and teachings that appear in the Bible. Many of these efforts focus on the first five books of the Bible—Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy—which are known collectively as the Torah, the Pentateuch, the Five Books of Moses, or The Old Testament. These books tell the history of the Israelites from the creation of the universe through the exodus from Egypt, the revelation of the Ten Commandments, the outlining of the legal and religious structure of the Israelite society, and finally the entry into the Promised Land.

Another way of gaining understanding about the Bible, or about any historical text, is to apply linguistic tools and methods to the writing. One tool that scholars use is historical linguistics (also known as diachronic linguistics). While many linguists study a language as it existed at a given point in time, historical linguists examine how languages change through time, sometimes over centuries. Applying their knowledge about how languages have evolved and how they are related allows historical linguists to better understand the origins and meaning of documents.


Before the Lesson

  1. On student computers, bookmark the NOVA Program Clips page that includes the Tel Zayit Abecedary and Documentary Hypothesis video segments. The Tel Zayit Abecedary segment describes Ron Tappy's finding of the Tel Zayit abecedary and features Kyle McCarter discussing how biblical scholars work to determine the age of the text by looking at changes in words and syntax. The Documentary Hypothesis segment explores how biblical scholars concluded that more than one source wrote the first five books of the Bible.

  2. Make copies of the Deciphering the Past handout and collect an assortment of colored highlighters or pencils for each team.

The Lesson

  1. Have students view the Tel Zayit Abecedary video segment. Discuss Kyle McCarter's comments. How might knowing how language changed help scholars determine the age of the text?

  2. Inform students that they will be given a composite passage from Beowulf, the earliest known narrative poem in English, which tells the tale of a great sixth-century Scandinavian warrior. The passage contains Old English and several forms of modern English. Tell students they are being "hired" by university officials to serve as historical linguists and that their task is twofold: to try to determine how many authors may be represented in the passage, and to ascertain the relative age of the different parts of the text, from most ancient to most recent. Explain to students that one of the areas historical linguists investigate is how languages evolve and change over time.

  3. Group students into teams, and distribute the Deciphering the Past handout and highlighters or colored pencils to each student. Have students work together to analyze the passage. (You can choose to provide access to a dictionary for students who want to look up unfamiliar terms.) Team members should determine the sentences they think were written by different sources. When consensus is reached, teams should highlight the sentences using a different-color highlighter or pencil for each source. If students are having difficulty, direct them to look for unusual spellings such as wherefor; words not commonly used in modern English, such as byrnie or falchion; or how specific words might change, such as the dragon also being called worm, the shield referred to as a byrnie, or the sword being called a falchion.

  4. After students have finished identifying different sources, have them list as a team the passages of the text in order from most ancient to most recent. Ask students to explain the reasoning behind their chosen order.

  5. When students have completed their handout, review answers and discuss the activity with the class. Questions to consider include:

    • What clues did students use to identify the different sources?

    • What clues did students use to determine the order of the age of the different parts of the text?

    • How might resources such as the Tel Zayit abecedary help biblical scholars assign approximate dates to the writing of different parts of the Bible?

  6. After students have discussed the passage, show them the Documentary Hypothesis video segment. If there is no archeological evidence to confirm biblical narrative, what can scholars study? (They can study the biblical text itself.)

  7. As an extension, have students do the Changing Language activity that uses an Old English Beowulf passage to explore how English was written and spoken a thousand years ago. Includes audio file of passage.


Students will likely be able to pick out at least two of the four authors with ease, because the Old English writing is conspicuously different. Though three of the authors are writing in modern English, their distinctive writing styles help readers tell them apart (i.e., Dorothy Hosford clearly uses modern prose, Harry Morgan Ayres writes in a less modern form of English, and Benjamin Thorpe composes in poetic verse). In addition, some of the writers call the same objects by different names. And though students will probably be unable to identify it, the final sentence of the first paragraph is an Old English reading of the sentence just before. This kind of repetition also supports the idea that more than one author contributed to the passage. A key to the authors can be found below the passage.

  • [C: Scarce had he spoken when the worm came on against his foes a second time in his wrath and wreathed with flame, and Wiglaf's shield caught fire and burned to the rim and his byrnie was of no help at all, wherefor the young warrior got him behind the iron shield of Beowulf when his own was consumed.] [D: Again Beowulf remembered his deeds of glory and with a mighty blow drove his sword into the dragon's head, a blow made strong with hate. But the sword broke. The sword of Beowulf failed him in the strife; it was not given to him that the edge of steel might help him much in battle.] [B: The hand was too strong, which every falchion, as I have heard, by its stroke overpower'd, although he to the contest bore a weapon wondrously hard, yet 'twas naught for him the better.] [A: Ws so hond t strong s e mca gehwane mne gefrage swenge ofershte onne h t scce br wapen wundum heard ns him wihte sl.]

  • [D: Then for the third time the fiery dragon rushed on the hero. Its bitter fangs sank in his neck, and the waves of blood gushed over Beowulf's breast.] [A: ic t earfe gefrgn odcyninges andlongne eorl ellen can crft ond cnu sw him gecynde ws] [B: he heeded not the head, but the hand burn'd of the bold man, that he might his kinsman help; then he the hostile guest somewhat lower struck, the warrior in arms, so that the sword div'd blood-stain'd and ornate, so that the fire began afterwards to abate;] [C: And the king himself then, who was still in his senses, drew the knife, battle-sharp, he wore at his byrnie and hacked the worm a-two at his middle.] [D: Thus they killed the dragon, the two kinsmen together.]

(A) Old English: about 800 AD to 1000 AD
(B) Late Modern English: Benjamin Thorpe (1865)
(C) Late Modern English: Harry Morgan Ayres (1933)
(D) Late Modern English: Dorothy Hosford (1947)

Students may be able to infer how the language evolves by seeing how it becomes more readable to them (i.e., closer to the English they know) over time.

Use the following rubric to assess students' work.



Needs Improvement

Students are active participants in class discussions. They are able to determine how many sources are in the passage and to correctly rank the relative ages of all the passages.

Students participate in class discussions. They are able to determine most of the sources in the passage and their relative ages.

Students do not participate in class discussions, and they may have difficulty determining more than two sources or how old each passage is relative to the others.


The "Deciphering the Past" activity aligns with the following National Science Education Standards.

Grades 9-12
History and Nature of Science

  • Science as a human endeavor
  • Nature of scientific knowledge
  • Historical perspectives

Classroom Activity Author

Margy Kuntz has written and edited educational materials for more than 24 years. She has authored numerous educational supplements, basal text materials, and trade books on science, math, and computers.

Teacher's Guide
The Bible's Buried Secrets

VideoNOVA Program Clips QuickTime or Windows Media Video (2 segments, 5 minutes each)

Enlarge this image
map This map shows the locations of ancient Egypt, Canaan, and Mesopotamia. These boundaries changed over time as ruling empires were conquered and new settlements were established. Modern-day Israel and Palestine are located in the ancient Canaan region.

Koch Foundation
CPB The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations
Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund
Righteous Persons Foundation