Sunday, March 17, 2013

Textual criticism of the New Testament and a multitextual approach

A multitext approach is particularly important in the case of the Homeric epics, as we have argued a number of times in various publications (for just two examples, see this and this), because it more accurately represents the oral, traditional nature of the poetry. Yet that is not to say that a multitextual approach would not also benefit the textual criticism of other texts, and in ways appropriate to those texts, the state of their extant witnesses, and the history of their criticism. In a recent article, which can be read in its entirety here under a Creative Commons License, the New Testament scholar Claire Clivaz (University of Lausanne in Switzerland) examines the state of textual criticism on the New Testament and argues “that a decisive shift is taking place at this very moment in the editing of the Greek NT, a shift that can be expressed, on the one hand, as an ‘institutional deregulation’ of the scholarly critical edition, but also, on the other hand, as an opportunity to reconsider the way this text should be edited.”

It is, on one level, self-serving to link to this article, because it cites the Homer Multitext as a positive model for reconsidering ways in which the text should be edited. But I do so also because it is instructive for me to understand the state of textual criticism in another field as we continue to think through and construct our digital edition. In her discussion of the history of textual criticism of the NT, Clivaz also points out the factors influencing the ascendency of the relative recent idea of a “one, true text” that seems in our discipline of Classics to have always been the case. Such an understanding of the history of another long-standing discipline and how things have changed over time alerts us to the fallacy that there is only one method of textual criticism that has always been practiced and is therefore the only possible correct way. Such a realization frees us to be more open to the possibilities that digital tools and access to the primary sources allows. 

3rd century papyrus of the New Testament, now housed at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia,
available on line here:

As optimistic as the decisive moment that Clivaz identifies in her field may seem, though, I was particularly attentive to her warning that a new on-line edition of the NT offered by the Society for Biblical Literature actually represents a step backwards in the textual criticism of the NT, because it “implies overall a return to the 19th edition of Westcott & Hort (1881; 2007) wherein all of the information provided by the papyri, for example, is omitted… and with the chief purpose of conveying the impression that scholars have finally achieved a stable, unified, and simplified Greek text of the NT.” This situation in New Testament Studies is a good reminder that just because an edition is digital and on-line, it is not necessarily progressive in its textual criticism.

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