Destruction and Reconstruction

One of the curiosities of textual criticism is its assumptionof continuous processes: It is usually assumed that a text, onceit started in a direction,just kept going in that direction. So the Alexandrian text justkept getting shorter, the Byzantine smoother, etc.

It should instantly be evident that this notion contradictsmost theories of the text. Those theories assume that most major variantsarose before the manuscript era. But if they predate the manuscriptera, then there was a change in process: The production of variantsstopped.

It is quite likely that the history of manuscripts is not acontinuous process, but rather a complex history of destructionand reconstruction -- of copies getting gradually worse witheach generation and then periodically being subjected to asystematic improvement.

Consider: It is universally agreed that the most commonvariant in copying a manuscript is haplography -- a loss of certainwords or individual letters. If this process continued unchecked,every late text would be short. Yes, manuscripts werecorrected after copying -- but correctors don't catch everything.Even if only half a dozen haplographies sneak through one copy,run such errors down a dozen generations and you get a short, badlycorrupt text.

And yet, our late manuscripts, whatever else they are, arenot short and show none of the errors of this sort ofrepeated bad copying (for a text that does show this sortof problem, look at I Samuel).

The logical conclusion is that Biblical texts have beensubjected to reconstruction -- that is, that the old copieshave been carefully examined and improved to correct thevarious losses.

The meaning of "destruction" is probably obvious.Scribes make haplographies. Pages may be lost from theirexemplars. (This is demonstrably true in manuscripts of Arian,but it may also explain the loss of Mark 3:28-4:4 in579.) A word or twomay be damaged by damp. Errors will naturally multiply.

Reconstruction is a more complicated matter, which getslittle attention. Critics admit two levels of attempts torepair texts: Correction and recension. Reconstruction isneither of these; it falls somewhere in between.

Correction is a relatively feeble process. At best,correction can only improve a text to the measure of thestandard against which the document is compared. That is,if Y is a copy of X, and after correction, Y is comparedagainst X, this process can only find places where Y deviatesfrom X. It cannot produce better readings than those found inX. And if Y is corrected against something other than X (callit Z), it still can't produce anything better than Z.

And chances are that Y won't be even as good as X, or Z,because the scribe making the corrections probably missedsome things.

We can see this in action, by looking at, for instance,Codex Claromontanus. This manuscript started with a"Western" text. It was corrected, repeatedly,against the Byzantine text. I examined the readings ofColossians (as found in the NT auf Papyrus.) Alltold, I found 121 places where D* went against the clearreading of the Byzantine text. 105 of these readings wereeventually corrected -- after two major and sundry minorcorrections of the manuscript. That still means that morethan one error in eight went uncorrected -- and the correctorsintroduced some few errors of their own. Plus, Claromontanuswas copied before the final correctors worked, and thescribe who copied it had difficulties with some ofthe correctors' notations. So Dabs, intendedto be a Byzantine manuscript, wound up with dozens ofdeviations from the Byzantine text -- most but not allof them in the direction of the "Western"text. Simple correction, no matter how many timesrepeated, cannot prevent destruction of the text.It merely slows the process. To give an analogy: Correctionalone is like giving transfusions to a man dying of bloodloss. It slows the death. But unless the wound is closed,the bleeding will continue until the victim dies.

Thus there is need for the rehabilitation of texts. Sometimesthis rehabilitation is the result of recension: The detailedcomparison of multiple texts to produce a full-blown new editionintended for widespread publication. We know that Alcuin andTheodulf produced recensions of theVulgate. It is also extremelyprobable that the Kr edition of the Greek Bible isthe result of recension.

But recension is a very major undertaking. It entails gatheringseveral sources, comparing them, producing a composite edition --and convincing others to adopt it. This takes both resources (accessto multiple copies, plus a good deal of time and material) andprestige (a recensional text produced by someone with no authorityisn't likely to be widely promulgated).

What's more, recension implies a very strong goal: To imposeone's corrected text. It's not likely that most scribes had suchlofty expectations. They just wanted a good text for their ownuse. For this purpose, they wouldn't go out and compare a dozenmanuscripts; instead, they would take what they already had,and compare it with perhaps one other, or go over their textand look up particularly troublesome passages.

This is where knowledge of items other than the Bible can help. Wehave very many instances of this phenomenon in other works. Take, forexample, the traditional song "Boney on the Isle of SaintHelena." This particular song, about the death of NapoleonBonaparte, is fascinating because -- although recent by folk musicstandards -- it has gone very badly to pieces. I've had occasion toexamine ten collected versions of this song, no two of which wereidentical. It happens that two of these were collected from the samesinger, eighteen years apart. The second collection differssubstantially from the first, notably in the inclusion of an additionalverse. It appears that, in the interim, the singer had listened toadditional versions of the song (very widespread in his area of NorthCarolina), and built up his own text. The result was the fullest text of"Saint Helena" known to me -- but also, based on the evidence,the best. It wasn't a recensional product -- but it was the result ofworking over other versions as the singer came across them.

We see something similar in certain Shakespeare plays. As anexample, consider Titus Andronicus. The editions of this play revealquite a bit. There was anearly printing (Q1) from 1594. This printing served as a basis fora printing in 1600 (Q2). However, the copy of Q1 used to set Q2was damaged, and the compositor of Q2 emended it conjecturally.Q2 was used as the basis of Q3 (1611). Q3 was used as the basis forthe First Folio (F1) printing. However, someone (perhaps even Hemingeor Condell, the actors who promoted the publication) seems to havenoted a missing scene. As a result, F1 contains, for the first time,a text of Act III, scene ii. In general, F1 has a late and inferiortext -- but it has been reconstructed at this point, and is superiorto all other witnesses for that scene.

That is not to claim that reconstructed texts are generallysuperior to unreconstructed texts. They are merely longer.Consider, for instance, the case of Codex Vercellensis (a)of the Old Latin. Here wecan literally see reconstruction taking place. The old text ofthe ending of Mark has been excised (with a knife!) and a newtext supplied. It is believed that a in its originalstate lacked Mark 16:9-20. So a vulgate text of these verseswas supplied. We note that the result has absolutely no criticalinterest or value (we have plenty of copies of Jerome's versionof Mark 16:9-20, and none of whatever text existed in a).But it shows a reader examining the text, being concerned, andattempting repairs. Multiply this by dozens of instances (fromthe careful work done on1739to the likely use of conjectural emendation onD/05) and you see whyNew Testament manuscripts, despite the general tendency fortexts to decay, managed to stay quite full until the very endof the manuscript era.

I can, as I write this, feel the fans of the Byzantine textlatching onto this description with glad cries and preparing touse it to condemn the Alexandrian text. It's not that simple.I am prepared to allow that the Alexandrian text is almostcertainly too short. That does not make it inferior.A crucial question is, when did reconstruction begin? Ifthe Byzantine text is reconstructed from the Alexandrian(which is possible), then in general the Alexandriantext is still superior. It's defective, but it has nothad the additional layer of bad reconstruction we find inthe Byzantine text. (In Hort's view, for instance, theByzantine text came about, in effect, by reconstructingthe Byzantine text using the "Western" text asa source of variants. Only if the Byzantine text is aresult of reconstruction beginning before the currentcondition of the Alexandrian text does it have independentvalue. And even then, it is merely independent value.

We should note that reconstruction is not really a singleprocess. Some manuscripts, like 1739, have been reconstructedby comparison with other texts. Others, especially early intheir history, were probably reconstructed by conjecturalemendation. Other forms of reconstruction might occur inspecial cases -- e.g. a one of the synoptic gospel might becompared against another gospel (one wonders if this mightnot explain some of the heavily harmonized "Caesarean"texts), or against the Diatessaron, or even against a versionin another language.

In the history of most ancient texts, including the NewTestament, there were several points at which reconstructionwas almost imperative: The times when new "features,"such as accents, breathing, punctuation, or word division,took place. In addition, there was the conversion from uncialto minuscule. When any such process is undertaken, the copyist mustexamine the text in detail, deciding where to put thefeatures. This will force removal of ambiguities. In some cases,the scribe will do it by reference to another copy, thoughthere will probably be instances of conjectural emendation also.Another possible inspiration to reconstruction might be thepreparation of commentary manuscripts: If the editor who insertedthe scholia observed that they differed from the text of themanuscript, he might adjust the manuscript. Or a scribe copyinga commentary manuscript might level the differences.

Commentary manuscripts offer another opportunity forreconstruction: The time when the commentary was added. Indeed,the addition of almost any sort of marginal equipment would encouragereconstruction. If a scribe is adding theEusebian apparatus, for instance,this encourages the scribe to look at the text to see just wherethe markings go in.

For a true commentary manuscript, with marginal scholia ofsome sort, the temptation must have been even stronger, and thereare suddenly two possible sources of variants: The text of themanuscript supplying the scholia and the scholia themselves. Thetendency to level would have been great -- and not necessarilyconfined to the text being modified. If the copyist found thatboth the text before him and the scholia assumed onereading, but the text of the original commentary manuscript readsomething else, might not the corrections go the other way?

If it be objected that we have no evidence of this latter process, I will admitthat this is true. But this process took place mostly in the"silent centuries": The sixth through seventh centuries,from which we have almost no substantial manuscripts. From thefifth century and earlier, we have a variety of full manuscripts,with at best intermittent reader helps, and a variety of text-types.When the dark age ends, with E and L and their followers, we havemanuscripts well endowed with the reader helps. We also have a muchmore Byzantine constellation of witnesses. Coincidence? Maybe.We have no way to tell.