Conjectures and Conjectural Emendation

The New Testament is full of difficult readings. There are probably hundreds of places 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 as perhaps containing a primitive error. (A list of these passages is found in note 2 on page 184 of the second/third edition of Bruce M. Metzger's The Text of the New Textament.) Not all of these are nonsense, but all are difficult in some way.

In classical textual criticism, the response to such "nonsense" readings is usually conjectural emendation -- the attempt to imagine what the author actually wrote. In other words, instead of a reading found in one or another manuscript, they print their guess at what the author originally wrote. The emendation really is a guess, although presumably an educated one. Such an emendation, to be successful, must of course fit the author's style and the context. It should also, ideally, explain how the "impossible" reading arose.

The use of conjectural emendation in the classics -- especially those which survive only in single manuscripts -- can hardly be questioned. Even if we assume that there is no editorial activity, scribal error is always present. Thus, for instance, in Howell D. Chickering, Jr.'s edition of Beowulf, we find over two hundred conjectures in the text, and a roughly equal number of places where other sorts of restoration has been called for or where Chickering has 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 Hode was composed probably some time in the fifteenth century, and we have one complete printed copy from about 1506 and an incomplete copy of a second edition from about this period, yet at least three lines of the 1800+ in the original manuscript have been lost, and my personal guess is that the number is closer to a dozen, plus there are a great many smaller defects. We have 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."

There is, indeed, an increasing tendency, even in classical works, to edit as little as possible; as E. Talbot Donaldson remarked about the tendency of editors not to edit, "One sometimes wonder whether the editor might not acquire the highest possible praise by refraining from doing anything at all, which would surely insure him against doing anything wrong" (E. Talbot Donaldson, "The Psychology of Editors," reprinted in Speaking of Chaucer, The Athlone Press, University of London, 1970, p. 105). Thus we see, for instance, the Variorum Chaucer printing just the text of a single manuscript, with a critical apparatus but no critical text, and similarly with other editions, even though the printed text is surely full of defects.

In the New Testament the situation is different. There is one (badly burned) manuscript of Beowulf. The major works of Tacitus survives in several manuscripts, but they do not overlap, and while there are four manuscripts of the Agricola, it appears that three of them are descended from the fourth. Polybius and Livy, too, survive only in part. Asser's Life of Alfred and The Battle of Maldon and the Finnsburg Fragment exist only in printed transcripts. But for the New Testament, every passage survives in at least two hundred witnesses (excluding the versions), and outside the Apocalypse the number of witnesses rises into the thousands.

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 particular copy. Does this mean that there is no need for conjectural emendation?

Various scholars have answered this differently. Most contend that there should be no need for conjectural emendation. Others, such as Zuntz and Holmes, allow for the possibility; Holmes writes, "That there is considerably less need for 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 the New 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 of the difference between printing an attested and an unattested reading, "To support a bad manuscript reading is in no way more meritorious than to support a bad conjecture, and so far from being safer, it is more insidious as a source of error. For, in good practice, a conjecture is printed with some distinguishing mark which attracts doubt; but a bad manuscript reading, if it is defended, looks like solid ground for the defence of other readings." (Kenneth Sisam, "The Authority of Old English Poetical Manuscripts," now available in Studies in the History of Old English Literature, p. 39. This volume, despite its title, is largely devoted to textual questions, and much of the advice, including the above, is capable of application outside the context of Anglo-Saxon.)

Of the theoretical possibilities for conjectural emendation there can be no question. It is likely that there are several New Testament books where all extant copies are derived from an ancestor more recent than the autograph. In the case of Paul, most copies are probably derived from the original compilation of the letters rather than the originals themselves. In each of these cases, errors in the remote archetype will be preserved in all copies. As a result, we see editors sometimes mark certain readings as 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 be shown that all nonsense readings derive from copyists? I hardly think so. Much of the New Testament was taken from dictation. Can we be certain that even the original scribe had it right? And what proof is there that the original author was always grammatical and accurate? I have yet to see an author who never made an error in writing. It is demonstrable that autographs sometimes contain nonsense -- the official, engraved original of William Blake's Book of Thel gives as its first 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. So the original text is nonsense. Should it be corrected? Is nonsense in the original actually an error? And even if you think you've found an error, as Westcott and Hort did, how do you reliably correct it?

Take a concrete example, in 1 Corinthians 6:5. The Greek text reads διακριναι ανα μεσον του αδελφου αυτου, "to judge between his brother." Zuntz would emend to διακριναι ανα μεσον του αδελφου και του αδελφου αυτου, "to judge between the brother and his brother." (The Text of the Epistles, p. 15). This is technically not pure conjecture, since it has some slight versional support, but Zuntz thinks, probably rightly, that these are conjectures by the translators; he is 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 leave words out sometimes. And there is at least one other possibility for emendation: instead of adding και του αδελφου, we might emend ανα μεσον -- i.e. to read something like "to pass judgment upon his brother" instead of "to pass judgment between his brother." Observe that, even if we are sure we need to emend (and we aren't), we are not certain how to emend. That's the heart of the problem.

And yet, there is a sense that conjectures are somehow "worse" when applied to the New Testament than when applied to other works. But consider. There are some 3000 New Testament manuscripts -- but who ever uses more than a few dozen of them? And they all come from centuries after the event. Compare this to the manuscripts of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. For any particular tale, there are typically between 50 and 65 witnesses. One of these witnesses (Hengwrt) is believed to have been written immediately upon Chaucer's death. Two (Hengwrt and Ellesmere) are believed, based on extremely persuasive evidence, to have been written by Chaucer's very own scribe Adam. All of them, with minor exceptions, were written within a century of Chaucer's death. How many New Testament manuscripts do we have written by the original amanuensis? None. How many do we have from within a century of the death of Paul or John or Luke? Perhaps a few, but all just fragments. Which tradition is closer to the original? Chaucer's. Which tradition is likely to be richer? Chaucer's. Which tradition was likely to have been better understood by the scribes? Chaucer's. What does the New Testament have that Chaucer doesn't? The Kx recension? Let's be serious. And yet... editors readily concede the need to emend Chaucer, even if they don't agree upon where and how.

With all these factors in mind, it is worth noting that conjectural emendation is not entirely dead in New Testament studies; the UBS text prints a conjecture in Acts 16:12 (the reading is supported by codices Colbertinus Theodulfianus of the Vulgate, as well as by the Old Church Slavonic, but these are clearly variants peculiar to the version rather than their underlying text). But it should be frowned upon; we note that, when selecting a reading from among variants, one generally choses the one which best explains the others. But when adopting a conjectural emendation, one should only accept a reading which completely explains the others. This happens so rarely that we can almost ignore it -- particularly since such corrections can still be wrong. An example comes from Langland's Vision of Piers Plowman. In the editio princeps, which for a long time 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 attempts were 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 sensible and meeting all the desired criteria, in fact gives a meaning exactly opposite the 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 not know the correct reading. Line 62, as found in the manuscript, reads (in Old English and translation):

hyrdeicþ elancwen

Which doesn't make any more sense in Old than Modern English. There is a missing noun. The context is a list of the children of Healfdene; we are told there are four, and three have been 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 -- but it 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. This suggests an easy emendation: "ela" is short for "Onela," an attested king. If we insert this likely emendation and the verb was, as well as expanding the abbreviation þ for that, we get

hyrdeic þæt wæsOnelancwen

Now we need a name. It must be feminine, it must complete the alliteration, it must fill out the line.

The moment I saw this, without a moment's hesitation, without even knowing Old English, I suggested the emendation "Elan," which meets every requirement. And it would explain how the error came about: A haplography elan1...elan2. In other words, our line would become

hyrdeic þæt ElanwæsOnelancwen

This conjecture has been proposed before -- and rejected because there is no evidence that Onela had a wife Elan. (Of course, there is also no evidence that he didn't -- if we had good evidence about this period, we very well might have another copy of Beowulf, and the whole discussion would be moot.)

As a result, at least two other conjectures were offered for the name. One suggested the name Yrse (Grundtvig, Bugge, Clarke). This, too, faces the problem of being a poorly-attested name. So a third suggestion was "Signi" (or similar). This is on the basis that the "real" Signi was the sister and bedmate of Sigismund, and our unnamed wife of Onela is also accused of incest. The problem is that, if we wish to preserve the alliteration, this forces further emendations to the line, changing (On)ela to "Saevil" or some such.

Still others propose to leave the line as it is and emend in a half line 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 and just 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 Norman E. Eliason on this very subject (Norman E. Eliason, "Healfdene's Daughter," pp. 3-13 in Lewis E. Nicholson and Dolores Warwick Frese, editors, Anglo-Saxon Poetry: Essays in Appreciation. The various 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 obvious emendation, and no one accepts the obvious emendation, and we see two different alternate conjectures, two other conjectures for the form of the line, two different primitive errors marked, and one editor who refuses to admit that nonsense is nonsense. It's not the most impressive performance.

For these reasons, with all due respect to Zuntz et al, who correctly point out that conjectural emendation may be needed to restore the original text, we must always be cautious of going too far. As Duplacy remarks (quoted in Vaganay & Amphoux, An Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism, English translation, p. 84), "The supreme victory of internal criticism is... conjectural emendation, especially when it is the original text itself which is emended." Unless we are certain 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 have no other sources to compare against). Matthew 1:17 implies that there should be fourteen names here, but there are only thirteen. It may be that Matthew goofed (in fact, it's quite clear that this genealogy cannot be complete -- thirteen names spread across 570+ years is 45+ years per generation, which is simply not possible). But it is also reasonable to assume that one name was lost from the genealogy at a very early date -- in other words, there is a primitive error here. But can we correct it? The answer is simply no. We may think a name is missing, but we have no grounds whatsoever for determining what it might be or where it is lacking. Although we see the need for emendation, we have no tools for correctly performing it.


Although most conjectures are labelled in the critical apparatus, in classical textual criticism as well as NT criticism, there is a class of emendations known as "silent emendations." These are places where the text is emended without specific note. Typically the introduction to an edition will list the places where it has engaged in silent emendation. An exception, oddly enough, is Biblical editions, particularly in the use of names. Take, for instance, the name David. This is spelled in many ways in different manuscripts -- as an abbreviation δαδ, or δαυιδ, δαυειδ, δαβιδ, δαβειδ, δαυβιδ, etc. But the Nestle-Aland edition of Matthew 1:1, for instance, uses Δαυιδ without any variant noted in the apparatus. A silent emendation? At least arguably so....

Also, although "conjecture" and "emendation" are used as synonyms in New Testament criticism, this is not always so in other contexts. If an editor creates an edition based on a copy text, and makes a change from the reading of the copy text, this is often called an emendation even though it may be supported by some (or even all) of the other witnesses.