Correctors and Corrections

Contents: Introduction * Noteworthy Corrected Manuscripts * The Significance of Corrections


Ancient scribes were at least as aware of scribal errors as moderns. Since all manuscripts were copied individually, each needed to be individually checked for errors. This process eventually came to be standardized.

We don't know how or whether early manuscripts were systematically corrected at the time of copying. In a scriptorium, however, it was the practice to employ a manuscript διορθωτης (literally "one who straightens," which we might loosely render as "guy supposed to make this thing right"). The diorthotes was often a scribe specially trained to find and rectify mistakes, though we often find a scribe acting as his own diorthotes.

Once a manuscript had been corrected, the diorthotes was often expected to mark it finished. So a manuscript might be marked δι or αντιβληθη to show that it had been checked over. This notation seems to be rare in New Testament manuscripts, however.

The diorthotes was often the last scribe to work on a manuscript. (This is particularly true of Byzantine manuscripts.) But manuscripts represented a lot of expense and work; an owner might be reluctant to discard a manuscript simply because its text did not meet the tastes of the times. So we see many manuscripts, including Sinaiticus and Bezae, repeatedly corrected to bring them more in line with the Byzantine text.

Where a manuscript has been corrected, it is customary to refer to the original reading with an asterisk. Thus D* in a critical apparatus indicates that this reading is supported by the original hand of D.

Conventions for the correctors have varied. The simplest is to use additional asterisks to refer to the correctors. Thus, if D* refers to the original hand of D, D** refers to the first corrector, D*** to the second, etc.

The problems with this notation are obvious. If a manuscript has many correctors, simply reading the apparatus is a chore. (Quick! Which corrector is D*******?) In addition, there is an æsthetic difficulty -- D**, despite the presence of two asterisks, refers to the first corrector.

The solution was to use superscripts. So, instead of D**, one would write Dc.

This is, of course, all very well where one corrector is involved. But suppose there are two or three, or even more (as sometimes happened)? In this case, the superscripts were retained, but different symbols used.

In the past, correctors were often referred to by a superscript letter. So ℵa referred to a reading from the first corrector of Sinaiticus, while ℵb would refer to the second. It is now more normal to refer to correctors by number, making ℵ1 the first corrector, ℵ2 the second, etc. If a manuscript had only a single corrector, of course, the simple c notation is retained.

Unfortunately, this system is not always used outside Biblical criticism. The manuscripts of Chaucer, for instance, use superscripts to denote the witnesses -- there are (for example) four manuscripts of the Canterbury Tales in the Rawlinson Collecton at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. These are given the standard symbols Ra1, Ra2, Ra3, Ra4. Rather than using a double superscript -- admittedly a severe problem in dealing with New Testament papyri (for those of us with older eyes, it's not easy to tell 𝔓461 from 𝔓462!), editors of Chaucer use subscripts -- so Ra1 represents the main text of Ra1, Ra11 represents a correction made by the original scribe, and Ra12 a correction made by any later corrector.

Also, there is the issue of correctors who can sometimes be told apart and sometimes can't. For example, if a manuscript has two correctors and a corrector writes a new text or fills in a word, you can probably tell which corrector it is based on the handwriting. But if all the corrector does is mark a letter or two for deletion, it's much harder. Maybe you can tell based on the ink color or the pen that is used, but that's much less reliable than looking at actual letters! And there is no universally accepted system for marking a reading as a correction from an undetermined hand.

A distinction is sometimes made between "amateur" and "professional" correctors. This is an unfortunate notation; in the period after the split of the Roman Empire, professional scribes were very nearly the only people who could read and write, and therefore all correctors were professional. If we change the designations to something like "systematic" and "casual," however, the distinction is accurate. A systematic corrector is one who goes over a section of text in detail, comparing it to some sort of exemplar. A casual corrector is one who notices a variant or two, probably in the course of reading, and makes some sort of correction. A casual corrector will make only a few corrections in a manuscript, and may not be dignified with a separate superscript number.

Corrections were made in many ways. If the mistake was noted before the ink had dried and the correction would fit in the space, the first reading might be sponged off and rewritten. Most, though, were spotted later. If words were missing, a mark was made in the text and the addition written in the margin. If the words in the text were wrong, they were so marked, usually by dots above the word, and the correct text in the margin (so, if a scribe wrote "mop" for "map," the reading "mop" would be marked ṁȯṗ and "map" written in the margin or above the line). If the text was simply deleted, then the dots would be written in and no alternative written. The addition of the dots was called "expunctuation."

Ideally a corrector would go over an entire manuscript with consistent diligence, but this was not always so. Often the corrector would experience revisor fatigue. The most famous example of that is found in Le, where the ancestral manuscript was almost entirely corrected toward the Byzantine text in Matthew but the Alexandrian text was much less affected in the later gospels.

While we usually speak of correctors as working on the text of a manuscript, there are a few instances of correctors working on the artwork as well. An early Syriac bible known as the Rabbula Gospels, for instance, has had many of the paintings retouched, presumably to make them conform more nearly with the opinions and attitudes of the correctors.

The list below describes some of the more noteworthy corrected manuscripts and the scribes who corrected them.

Noteworthy Corrected Manuscripts

The following list describes most of the manuscripts which have experienced noteworthy corrections.

Almost all other manuscripts contain corrections, of course. But few if any contain corrections such as those found in the manuscripts listed above, which actually change the nature of the manuscript. Descriptions of these manuscripts are therefore omitted.

The Significance of Corrections

Most corrections in most manuscripts merely correct slips of the pen. These are usually obvious, and have no textual significance. But the manuscripts listed above are another matter. ℵ, D, and 424 in particular were clearly corrected against manuscripts of completely different types.

This forces us to look at exactly what we know about those other manuscripts. Can we exactly reconstruct their texts? The answer is no. If the corrector leaves a reading alone, we cannot be certain that the manuscript he worked from actually agreed with the manuscript in our hands. The corrector may simply have ignored the alternate reading, either accidentally or on purpose. The useful readings are the corrections, not the uncorrected portions. (There is an analogy to this in Shakespeare criticism, in the many cases where the handful of witnesses are partially but not fully independent. Where the semi-independent witnesses agree, the reading is actually less weighty than where the disagree, because the agreement may be coincidence in error, but where they disagree, it is nearly sure that at least one witness is correct.)

So, in assessing a corrected text, we should examine first the corrections in isolation and only then the text as corrected. 424 proves this point well: Examining the corrections shows us that the direction of the corrections was toward the 1739 type of text; looking at 424-as-corrected shows a clear kinship to 6. This is obvious when examining both; it is less clear when examining either in isolation.