Textual Criticism Transformed – Variants, Variances, and Variety

I began my MA Thesis, “Incorporating Syntax in Theories of Textual Criticism: Preliminary Studies on the Judaean Desert Isaiah Scrolls,” with a quote from Shemaryahu Talmon. The quote begins as follows:

A collation of variants extant, based on the synoptic study of the material available, either by a comparison of parallel passages within one Version, or of the major Versions with each other, results in the conclusion that the ancient authors, compilers, tradents and scribes enjoyed what may be termed a controlled freedom of textual variation.1

Talmon’s statement focuses the reader’s attention on the process of textual comparison with the result that “controlled freedom” best explains textual variants. What did Talmon have in mind by “controlled freedom”? What controls are at play when an ancient Jewish scribe or tradent made or copied a manuscript? Were diachronic linguistics at stake? Were lexical semantics? What about syntactical ambiguities? Were social issues of legal, political, or theological importance a factor? What about ideals of textuality, media, and knowledge? Yes. So how do we go about understanding this “controlled freedom.”

Talmon continues,

The exact limits of this “variation-scope,” though, cannot be accurately established intuitively, nor can they be gauged from mere sample collations. An investigation into this matter, based on a thorough and comprehensive synopsis of all types of variants, glosses, intentional modifications, etc., which can be ascertained in our sources is an urgent desideratum.2

Talmon’s thought here is rather complex and merits unpacking. First, Talmon intimated that a thick description of textual variants cannot appeal to intuitions of the philologist. Finer methods of textual and philological study, therefore, are required. But there is a huge problem here. Critical editions have arranged and presented textual data in way to align and promote its overall theory of textuality. In other words, the presentation of variants truncates the ability to advance methodological concerns, textual analysis, and our understanding Second Temple Judaism. I will return to this point in more detail in the next post. The second point to note is that Talmon wanted a thorough analysis of textual variants of all types. Talmon’s call for a thorough analysis of textual variants, therefore, should proceed on the grounds of greater methodological clarity, as implied in the previous point.

In my Master’s thesis, I took Talmon’s ideas to heart. In fact, I considered his comments foundational to methodological issues of textual criticism. Every edition of the Hebrew Bible is only a partial edition, from the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (and its predecessors), Biblia Hebraica Quinta, The Hebrew Bible Critical Edition, and, yes, even the editio critica Maior, The Hebrew University Bible Project. These are partial editions because textual variants are serialised apropos each edition’s editorial methodology. That is, each edition records a limited set of textual variants. Since a collocation of textual variants in each of these editions are incomplete, it is impossible to take a full account of textual variation. What is more, these editions are not cheap. Thus, it is necessary to purchase or consult every one of the editions while researching the Hebrew Bible. More practically, we are creating an environment where we need rather deep pockets to conduct responsible research, for these volumes are expensive.

So how do we go about analysing and getting a handle of the controlling factors of textual transmission? And how can we improve our methodological study of ancient manuscripts and Second Temple Judaism? We need to advance the field by adopting more sophisticated methods of textual analysis.

For my MA Thesis, I began to address Talmon’s call by creating a database of all the Judaean Desert Isaiah scrolls. At the time, I created a module in Accordance that provided a synoptic edition of the Isaiah scrolls:

DSS Isaiah Synoptic Module in Accordance (c) 2014-2021 James M. Tucker

In the lower half of the above window, the DSS Isaiah Synoptic Module parallels all the Isaiah scrolls. The benefit to have the text in a parallel format was to facilitate a quick collation of the manuscripts. What is more, since I could run [MERGE] searches in Accordance, I could run various morphological searches on any specified column so as to facilitate a linguistic analysis of textual variants. While writing the thesis, I began to sharpen my arguments that textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible reified “text” without consideration of language and cognition. That is to say, thinking about issues of language and syntax provides an important methodological corrective, as a thorough analysis results in linguistic variances not textual variants. But this is only the Hebrew. What about the ancient versions? The Greek, Aramaic, Syriac, Latin, Coptic, Ethiopic translations of the Hebrew? What role do they play? How do we manage the variety of the ancient versions?

For the thesis, I did not have to directly address the issue of the ancient versions, but they were on my radar. I began to create a master parallel tool:

Master Ancient Parallel Module in Accordance (c) 2014-2021 James M. Tucker

There are still many shortcomings in the presentation above, but I was thinking that the critical texts of each respective edition could link to the critical apparatus module. That is, the blue hyperlink sigla above each column would open the critical apparatus module for each respective text. This was a prototype and I quickly learned of its benefits—it is far superior to any print version. But, it is still a very limited resource and would cost too much. What is more, Accordance was not interested in the development of the resource.

In the past couple of weeks, I have had some extra time in the evenings. I have used this time to return to my MA thesis. I have long wanted to return to my Master’s thesis, to sharpen its arguments and refine my views. More importantly, I want to see Talmon’s desideratum a reality. In the next post, I will describe how I converted the Göttingen critical apparatuses into a database, so that each manuscript recorded in its apparatus can exist as a diplomatic transcription. This is the first step towards a revolution in the field of textual criticism.

  1. Shemaryahu Talmon, “The Textual Study of the Bible — A New Outlook,” in The Textual Study of the Bible — A New Outlook (ed. F.M. Cross; Cambridge: Hardvard University Press, 1975), 326.
  2. Ibid.

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