Roles and Relations in Biblical Law: A Study of Participant Tracking, Semantic Roles, and Social Networks in Leviticus 17–26

Christian Canu Højgaard

Research output: PhD ThesisPhD-Thesis - Research and graduation internal

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The so-called Holiness Code (Lev 17–26) concerns itself with cultic and social legislation. Dealing with the ethics of ancient Israel, the law text makes reference to a broad range of participants, including YHWH, Moses, the addressees, the women, the priests, and a blasphemer, to name but a few. The participants constitute a community, and each participant has its own role within this community. This study offers a novel approach to the characterization of the participants by applying Social Network Analysis (SNA) to explore the community as well as to consider the network roles of the participants. SNA relies on two types of data, nodes (= participants) and edges (= interactions), both of which require in-depth linguistic analysis in order to glean the sufficient data from the Hebrew text. Firstly, the participants need to be tracked throughout the text in order to create a mapping of the participants and their linguistic references. This study explores a computational approach by analyzing an existing dataset on the text. A number of specific linguistic phenomena are discussed, including nominal clauses, anonymous participants, communication patterns, synonyms, and part-whole relationships in order to improve the computational analysis whenever possible and to account for tensions and abnormalities in the text. The second data type required for the SNA is the interactions among the participants. Above all, for the purpose of analyzing the social network of Lev 17–26, the interactions need to be quantifiable in order for different events to be compared. It is argued that the interactions can be quantified in terms of agency, that is, different interactions entail different semantic roles as well as degrees of agency invested in the event. In particular, it is argued that dynamicity (i.e., activities :: states) and causation are the two most significant verbal properties with respect to semantic role selection. While previous research has most often accounted for the correspondence by qualitative analysis, this study sets out to test quantitative methods, including collostructional analysis. With respect to causation, both morphological causatives (Hiphil and Piel) and lexical causatives are surveyed. To conceptualize the finer semantic distinctions between Piel and Hiphil, Role and Reference Grammar is employed. Ultimately, on the basis of both verbal, nominal, and clausal properties, a novel hierarchy of semantic roles is proposed so that each participant can be ranked according to agency invested. Finally, by incorporating the participant tracking data and semantic roles data surveyed, the Holiness Code is interpreted with Social Network Analysis. The structural properties of the social network are explored by applying classical and contemporary SNA methods, including the recently developed node2vec algorithm for feature-based role discovery. While SNA has previously been applied to the study of literature, the present approach diverges in important aspects. Firstly, it is the first attempt at exploring the social network of an ancient law text, and this task raises theoretical questions as to how the network roles of the participants relate to the meaning and purpose of the law. Secondly, given the quantification of events into degrees of agency, the SNA can include all kinds of interaction and not only a single type as commonly done in SNA. Finally, the methodology developed in this study implements the discourse structure of the text itself, and it is demonstrated that the network roles of the participants need to be related to the structural positions of the participants within the discourse. In light of the social network, the roles of selected participants in the Holiness Code are explained and discussed with regard to the values and expectations of the author.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
  • van Peursen, Willem, Supervisor
  • Winther-Nielsen, Nicolai, Co-supervisor, External person
  • Folmer, ML, Co-supervisor
Award date8 Jul 2021
Publication statusPublished - 8 Jul 2021


  • Leviticus
  • Holiness Code
  • participant tracking
  • Role and Reference Grammar
  • collostructional analysis
  • semantic roles
  • causation
  • agency
  • Social Network Analysis


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