The New Testament is full of difficult readings. There are probably hundreds ofplaces where one scholar or another has argued that the text simply cannot be construed.Westcott and Hort, for instance, marked some five dozen passages with an asterisk asperhaps containing a primitive error. (A list of these passages is foundin note 2 on page 184 of the second/third edition of Bruce M. Metzger's TheText of the New Textament.) Not all of these are nonsense, but all are difficultin some way.
In classical textual criticism, the response tosuch "nonsense" readings is usually conjectural emendation -- the attemptto imagine what the author actually wrote. Such an emendation, to be successful, mustof course fit the author's style and the context. It should also, ideally, explain howthe "impossible" reading arose.
The use of conjectural emendation in the classics -- especially those whichsurvive only in single manuscripts -- can hardly be questioned. Even if we assumethat there is no editorial activity, scribal error is always present. Thus, forinstance, in Howell D. Chickering, Jr.'s edition of Beowulf, wefind over two hundred conjectures in the text, and a roughly equal number ofplaces where other sorts of restoration has been called for or where Chickeringhas rejected common emendations. All this in the space of 3180 lines,usually of six to ten words!
Even quite recent compositions can need this sort of work. A Gest of Robyn Hodewas composed probably some time in the fifteenth century, and we have one completeprinted copy fromabout 1506 and an incomplete copy of a second edition from about this period, yet at leastthree lines of the 1800+ in the original manuscript have been lost, and my personal guessis that the number is closer to a dozen, plus there are a great many smaller defects. Wehave only two choices in this case: To emend or to print a lacuna.
True, it is hard to know when to trust a manuscript and when not to. As James Willis wrote of Macrobius (James Willis, Latin Textual Criticism, University of Illinois Press, 1972, pp. 7-8), "[O]ne may protest against this proceeding as illogical. 'Our sole knowledge,' it can be said, 'of what Macrobius wrote comes from these manuscripts. How then are you justified in here accepting and there rejecting their testimony?' The answer is in fact fairly simple. Our knowledge of Macrobius wrote does indeed come solely from the manuscripts in the sense that, if they had perished, we should not know what he had written. But in a different sense, our knowledge of what Macrobius wrote at this particular point is not entirely drawn from what the manuscripts say at this particular point."
In the New Testament the situation is different. There is one (badly burned)manuscript of Beowulf. The major works of Tacitus survives in severalmanuscripts, but they do not overlap, and while there are four manuscripts ofthe Agricola, it appears that three of them are descended from the fourth.Polybius and Livy, too, survive only in part. Asser'sLife of Alfred and The Battle of Maldon and the Finnsburg Fragmentexist only in printed transcripts. But for theNew Testament, every passage survives in at least two hundred witnesses (excludingthe versions), and outside the Apocalypse the number of witnesses rises into thethousands.
So how does this wealth of copies affect the tradition? In one sense it is an immense boon;it means that we can see our way around the peculiarities of any particularcopy. Does this mean that there is no need for conjectural emendation?
Various scholars have answered this differently. Most contend that there shouldbe no need for conjectural emendation. Others, such as Zuntz and Holmes, allowfor the possibility; Holmes writes, "That there is considerably less needfor emendation of the NT text than that of comparable documents is indeed true,but we must not confuse less need with no need." (Michael W.Holmes, "Reasoned Eclecticism in New Testament Textual Criticism,"printed in Bart D. Ehrman & Michael W. Holmes, The Text of theNew Testament in Contemporary Research, 1995, page 348. This section,pp. 346-349, is probably the best brief summary of the need for a more"classical" style of criticism.) And Kenneth Sisam comments ofthe difference between printing an attested and an unattested reading, "Tosupport a bad manuscript reading is in no way more meritorious than to supporta bad conjecture, and so far from being safer, it is more insidious as a sourceof error. For, in good practice, a conjecture is printed with some distinguishingmark which attracts doubt; but a bad manuscript reading, if it is defended, lookslike solid ground for the defence of other readings." (Kenneth Sisam,"The Authority of Old English Poetical Manuscripts," now availablein Studies in the History of Old English Literature, p. 39. This volume,despite its title, is largely devoted to textual questions, and much of theadvice, including the above, is capable of application outside the context ofAnglo-Saxon.)
Of the theoretical possibilities for conjectural emendation there canbe no question. It is likely that there are several New Testament books where allextant copies are derived from an ancestor more recent than the autograph. In thecase of Paul, most copies are probably derived from the original compilationof the letters rather than the originals themselves. In each of these cases,errors in the remote archetype will be preservedin all copies. As a result, we see editors sometimes mark certain readingsas corrupt (such as the aforementioned "primitive errors"obelized by Westcott and Hort).
But how does one detect these errors? Simply by looking for "nonsense"readings? But one scholar's nonsense is another's subtlety. In any case, can it beshown that all nonsense readings derive from copyists? I hardly think so. Much ofthe New Testament was taken from dictation. Can we be certain that even the originalscribe had it right? And what proof is there that the original author was alwaysgrammatical and accurate? I have yet to see an author who never made anerror in writing. It is demonstrable that autographs sometimes contain nonsense --the official, engraved original of William Blake's Book of Thel gives as itsfirst line
The daughters of Mne Seraphim led round their sunny flocks
And, yes, you read that right, it says "Mne." Which is not a word. Sothe original text is nonsense. Should it be corrected? Is nonsense inthe original actually an error?And even if you think you've found an error, as Westcott andHort did, how do you reliably correct it?
Take a concrete example, in 1 Corinthians 6:5. The Greek text readsδιακριναι ανα μεσον του αδελφου αυτου,"to judge between his brother." Zuntz, would emend toδιακριναι ανα μεσον του αδελφου και του αδελφου αυτου,"to judge between the brother andhis brother." (The Text of the Epistles, p. 15). This is technicallynot pure conjecture, since it has some slight versional support, but Zuntzthinks, probably rightly, that these are conjectures by the translators; heis just adopting their conjecture.
Now it's likely enough that Zuntz has the sense of this passage correct.But does that mean it is actually the autograph wording? People do leavewords out sometimes. And there is at least one other possibility for emendation:instead of adding και του αδελφου, we might emendανα μεσον -- i.e. to read something like "to pass judgment uponhis brother" instead of"to pass judgment between his brother." Observe that, even ifwe are sure we need to emend (and we aren't), we are not certain how to emend.That's the heart of the problem.
With all these factors in mind, it is worth noting that conjectural emendationis not entirely dead; the UBS text prints a conjecture in Acts 16:12 (the readingis supported by codices Colbertinus Theodulfianus of the Vulgate, as well as bythe Old Church Slavonic, but these are clearly variants peculiar to the versionrather than their underlying text). But it should be frowned upon; we notethat, when selecting a reading from among variants, one generally chosesthe one which best explains the others. But when adopting a conjecturalemendation, one should only accept a reading which completely explainsthe others. This happens so rarely that we can almost ignore it -- particularly sincesuch corrections can still be wrong. An example comes from Langland'sVision of Piers Plowman. In the editio princeps, which for a longtime was the only text available, the very first line read
In a somer seson whan set was the sonne
("In a summer season, when set was the sun")
"Set" is perhaps meaningful, but does not scan. Therefore attemptswere made to correct it. The most popular emendation was "hotte," "hot."
The correct reading, as now known from many manuscripts, is "softe,""soft." Thus the proposed emendation, although perfectly sensibleand meeting all the desired criteria, in fact gives a meaning exactly oppositethe true reading.
Or there is a reading in the 1645 Milton's Comus, lines 633-634,
Bore a bright golden flowre, but not in this soyl:
Unknown, and like esteem'd, and the dull swayn
At least three emendations were proposed for these lines -- but, when Milton's manuscript came to light, it was found that this was actually the reading of the autograph.
Or we might illustrate an example from Beowulf, where we do notknow the correct reading. Line 62, as found in the manuscript, reads (inOld English and translation):
Which doesn't make any more sense in Old than Modern English. There is amissing noun. The context isa list of the children of Healfdene; we are told there are four, and three havebeen listed (Heorogar, Hrothgar, and Halga); we expect the name of a fourth.Old English word order would allow the name to appear in the next line -- butit doesn't. And this line is defective, missing a stress and an alliteration.
What's more, there is no known King Ela for this unnamed girl to marry. Thissuggests an easy emendation: "ela" is short for "Onela." Ifwe insert this likely emendation and the verb was, as well as expandingthe abbreviation þfor that, we get
Now we need a name. It must be feminine, it must complete the alliteration, itmust fill out the line.
The moment I saw this, without a moment's hesitation, without even knowingOld English, I suggested the emendation "Elan," which meets everyrequirement. And it would explain how the error came about: A haplographyelan1...elan2. In other words, our line would become
This conjecture has been proposed before -- and rejected because there isno evidence that Onela had a wife Elan. (Of course, there is also no evidencethat he didn't -- if we had good evidence about this period, we very wellmight have another copy of Beowulf, and the whole discussion wouldbe moot.)
As a result, at least two other conjectures were offered for the name. One suggested the nameYrse (Grundtvig, Bugge, Clarke). This, too, faces the problem of being apoorly-attested name. So a third suggestion was "Signi" (or similar).This is on the basis that the "real" Signi was the sister and bedmateof Sigismund, and our unnamed wife of Onela is also accused of incest. Theproblem is that, if we wish to preserve the alliteration, this forces furtheremendations to the line, changing (On)elato "Saevil" or some such.
Still others propose to leave the line as it is and emend in a halfline below this. (Though it appears that no such emendation really works).A fifth proposal is to emend the line to omit any name of the woman andjust read "a prince," or some equivalent non-name, for Onela.
I happen to have eight complete editions of Beowulf (mostly in translation,but some in Old English), plus an essay by NormanE. Eliason on this very subject (Norman E. Eliason, "Healfdene'sDaughter," pp. 3-13 in Lewis E. Nicholson and Dolores WarwickFrese, editors, Anglo-Saxon Poetry: Essays in Appreciation. Thevarious solutions they adopt are as follows (first the name of the girl,then the name of the man who married her):
So here is the situation: We have an obvious error, and an obviousemendation, and no one accepts the obvious emendation, and we seetwo different alternate conjectures, two other conjectures for the formof the line, two different primitive errors marked, and one editor whorefuses to admit that nonsense is nonsense. It's not the most impressiveperformance.
For these reasons, with all duerespect to Zuntz et al, who correctly point out that conjectural emendation maybe needed to restore the original text, we must always be cautious of going toofar. As Duplacy remarks (quoted in Vaganay & Amphoux, An Introduction toNew Testament Textual Criticism, English translation, p. 84), "Thesupreme victory of internal criticism is... conjectural emendation, especiallywhen it is the original text itself which is emended." Unless we arecertain we are not making that mistake, conjectural emendation should be avoided.
To give a concrete New Testament example, consider the third part of Matthew's genealogy,Matt. 1:12-16 (the portion of the genealogy after the exile, where we haveno other sources to compare against).Matthew 1:17 implies that there should be fourteen names here, butthere are only thirteen. It may be that Matthew goofed (in fact, it's quite clearthat this genealogy cannot be complete -- thirteen names spread across 570+years is 45+ years per generation, which is simply not possible). But it isalso reasonable to assume that one name was lost from the genealogy at a veryearly date -- in other words, there is a primitive error here. But can wecorrect it? The answer is simply no. We may think a name is missing, butwe have no grounds whatsoever for determining what it might be or where it islacking. Although we see the need for emendation, we have no tools for correctlyperforming it.