Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Can Textual Criticism Be Exciting?

Ian A. Moir once lamented that textual criticism is often regarded as the “Cinderella” of biblical studies – and as such often meets with contempt and prejudice. Today, this observation still rings true. It seems to me that the general attitude towards NT textual criticism is that it is tedious, troublesome, boring work. There is perhaps some element of truth in that, given the terminologies, methodologies and theories involved, not to mention the demands of acquiring knowledge about the manuscripts, the Greek language and exegetical skills. But is textual criticism really as boring as it is often made out to be? In my experience, there is reason to answer in the negative because textual criticism sometimes only appears boring and scary for similar reason why some of us have a phobia of mathematics – we fear what looks incomprehensible.

Last academic year, I did an internship at the Institut für Neutesta- mentliche Textforschung (Münster, Germany) which gave me the chance to participate in their ongoing project Editio Critica Maior. My major task was the transcription of a manuscript of Mark’s Gospel (the 11th century minuscule 2487) by using a computer program called “jEdit”. I first underwent one full week of learning at the Institute where I was introduced to the fundamental knowledge of Greek palaeography and the Greek NT manuscripts. They also briefed me on how to operate the jEdit program and the instructions concerning transcribing a manuscript electronically. Thereafter, I was allowed to bring my work back to Leuven (so my internship did not interfere with my regular classes).

One of the interesting aspects of my on-the-job training was the study of the characteristics of the manuscript that I was working on, e.g., the handwriting style of the scribe. As you may know, minuscule manuscripts were written in cursive. The scribe also employed ligatures and abbreviations when copying the texts. This made deciphering the texts a very difficult task at the beginning of my transcription. As a sample of the challenge I faced, can you figure out the Greek words in the two pictures below?

Problems such as these are, in my opinion,
actually quite interesting (and dare I say fun) in that they require the sort of keenness and skills of a detective trying to solve a case. To give another example of the “detective” work involved. In the picture below, the letter ε is written above the word αυτους.
Pic 3

The problem is to decide whether the scribe is making a correction or just squeezing the letter ε in by writing it interlinearly above the word αυτους. Figuring it out will require studying the scribal habits – in this case it is likely a correction (from αυτους to εαυτους) because the scribe does not use interlinear letters elsewhere.

So, while textual criticism may appear incomprehensible at first glance, once we overcome the initial fear and really try to tackle it, we will come to see the charm of challenges that textual criticism presents. Also, thanks to this internship, I have become more confidence to read and work with manuscripts (e.g., checking textual variants in original manuscripts). I hope that, by sharing my internship experience, I can inspire more interest in textual criticism as well as in the project Editio Critica Maior.

Loretta H.Y. Man


  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post. Thanks for sharing your experiences Loretta!

  2. Hi Emmanuel, glad you enojoy reading it!

  3. To those who have expressed interest in knowing what the Greek words depicted in the first two pictures are, thank you for your interest.

    I will post the answer here: in the first picture, it should read "λογον", whereas in the second picture, it should read "μου"

  4. Just fascinating! There's something mysterious and holy about scribal handwriting. I never would have guessed "logon" for the first image. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Only a tittle separates mu from nu in this style of minuscule.

  6. Hi! I would say for the words to be figured out: λόγον μου, but especially in such cases we need a context :)

  7. I am on the process of launching to the field of Textual Criticism. I find your experience very encouraging...

  8. How did you locate your internship opportunity? Do you know how one might locate a similar internship for working with Old Testament manuscripts?

  9. The White Man: You are right. The difference between a mu and a nu is minute. They look very similar except that a mu has a tail that tapers off horizontally. If I doze off even for a second, I transcribed a mu for a nu.

    Anonymous: Glad you find encouragement in my text. All the best to your endeavours to the field of TC.

    Julie: My internship at the Institute arose out of my correspondence with them while writing my MA thesis. After completing my thesis, I want to continue to develop my knowledge on textual criticism. My supervisor suggested that it would be beneficial if I can work on an actual research project. So I email them and enquired what possibilities could there be at the Institute. They then suggested that I can participate their project Editio Critica Maior by transcribing manuscripts. As for a similar internship for working with OT manuscripts, I must confess that I have no idea about that. I can try asking some of our professors for you. If I find anything, I will post them here in the comments.


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