Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.09.08 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.09.08

Liv Ingeborg Lied, Hugo Lundhaug (ed.), Snapshots of Evolving Traditions: Jewish and Christian Manuscript Culture, Textual Fluidity, and New Philology. Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur 175.   Berlin; Boston:  De Gruyter, 2017.  Pp. xviii, 366.  ISBN 9783110344189.  $137.99.  

Reviewed by Pieter W. van der Horst, Utrecht University (

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[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

The 13 essays in this volume aim to provide “a broad introductory exploration of the applicability of the perspective of New Philology to late-antique Christian and Jewish texts in their manuscript contexts” (vii). In the introductory chapter the editors clarify the idea of ‘New Philology’ by arguing that when scholars of early Christian and Jewish literature acknowledge the fact that our surviving textual witnesses constitute in fact only snapshots of a movie about a developing textual tradition and that such snapshots are not necessarily representative of the entire movie, “it is pertinent to approach the interpretation of these texts from a perspective inspired by New Philology, taking textual fluidity and manuscript culture fully into consideration” (1). This is meant as a corrective to the traditional approach in which manuscripts are used only, or mainly, in the service of the reconstruction of an Urtext and in which variant readings are regarded as ‘deviations’ from it. Manuscripts are rather testimonies to the ‘life’ of a text, and in most modern critical editions of ancient literature the text presented is usually “foreign to the pool of existing manuscripts and the texts presented there” (3). The ‘unruliness’ displayed by actual manuscripts is thus made invisible, much to the detriment of scholarship. Fluidity of the texts should not be regarded as textual ‘corruption’ because ‘living’ texts were altered in the course of transmission to suit new times and needs. By hiding variants in a critical apparatus one also hides the fact that in a manuscript culture texts are constantly in a process of change. “As an alternative way of dealing with medieval manuscript variance New Philology pinpoints the fact that a literary work does not exist independently of its material embodiment, and that this physical form is part of the meaning of the text” (6). A ‘finished’ text is an illusion, for the changes introduced to the text during its transmission are not corruptions but should be studied as important aspects of the life of the text.

In the next chapter, Lundhaug deals with the textual fluidity of the Coptic Nag Hammadi codices. His prime example is the Apocryphon of John, which has been preserved in four copies so widely divergent that the search for an Urtext proved to be futile; only a synoptic edition was possible. We have only four Coptic codices as “snapshots of a fluid text” (27). Other examples of Nag Hammadi texts that have been preserved in multiple copies are discussed as well by Lundhaug and he concludes that they do not display clear reflections of a single Urtext. As regards the singularly attested texts, Lundhaug argues that even though variation is not apparent from a single copy, such texts “are not inherently more stable than text with multiple attestation” (34). They may fruitfully be read in the historical context of their manuscripts, in this case Egyptian monasticism of the fourth to fifth century (not second-century gnosticism!). And indeed some texts from Nag Hammadi dovetail nicely with what one finds in other Christian documents from this period. Lundhaug fails to mention here that this presumed 4th/5th–century context has been reconstructed mainly on the basis of critical text editions that were prepared by scholars using textual principles that he rejects (he refers, e.g., to Athanasius’ Life of Antony, but all mss of this text are late medieval).

This change in focus from hypothetical originals to preserved texts also informs the contribution by Lance Jenott on variants in the text of the Nag Hammadi Apocalypse of James that recently also turned up in another ms (Codex Tchacos) under the name of James. He argues that, although the variations between the two mss are relatively minor, “they create interesting points of difference in the theology and meaning of the texts” (78). Taking seriously these mss as artefacts providing us with windows onto the world of their producers and users, he voices a deep distrust towards the very concept of ‘textual corruption,’ let alone ‘original text.’ Maybe texts varying from one ms to another “should be considered as distinct works in their own right” (79).

René Falkenberg, too, deals with Nag Hammadi material, this time the third codex (NHC III), and views it as a 4th/5th–century artefact. In this lengthy contribution, he first studies the outer features and content of the codex and concludes that the selection and sequence of the five texts in Codex III “follows a deliberate and coherent pattern” (93). Moreover, all these texts share major themes when dealing with issues of cosmology, anthropology (e.g., ‘the deficiency of femininity’!), and eschatology that show points of contact with Egyptian monasticism. Paratextual elements are used throughout this codex for communicative purposes: superscript and subscript titles, colophons, blank spaces, various forms of marking specific sections of the text or highlighting key themes etc. are illustrated with clear photos. Again, NHC III is here presented as a document of late antique monasticism, not as a document of 2nd/3rd century Gnosticism.

The final contribution on the NHC, by Katrine Brix, compares the two versions of the Gospel of Truth, in NHC I and XII. This text is often identified with the Gospel of Truth known to have been written by the second-century Gnostic teacher Valentinus. But Brix argues that the level of textual fluidity problematizes the notion that the NHC texts could help us gain insight into early Valentinianism. The two versions should not be harmonized. The NHC texts are not versions of Valentinus’ Gospel but philosophical treatises that “may or may not have taken [their] departure from the ancient known Gospel” (144).

Lillian Larsen’s fine paper is about writing exercises scribbled on monastically provenenced materials such as ostraca, plaster, and wood. Following classical paedagogical guidelines (such as found in Quintilian), these exercises consist first of lists of individual letters, then of combinations of two or three consonants-plus-vowel (or syllables), then whole words, and finally short sentences, sayings, or stories. In the latter, Homeric heroes are usually—but not always!—replaced by biblical prophets and apostles, but these changes are relatively cosmetic. The element of textual fluidity plays a minor role here. The author fails to notice that the Greek syllabic exercise on the wooden board at p. 157 is a perfect hexameter.

Unlike Lundhaug, Samuel Rubenson does emphasize that modern editions of early monastic texts are mostly based upon mss that represent a late stage in a cumulative and living tradition. These editions “hide the transmission and give us texts that (...) actually never existed” (179). The extreme textual fluidity of this material cannot be reduced to a critical apparatus. Rubenson shows that in the mss of the Apophthegmata Patrum “paragraphs were added and excluded, and that the texts were constantly rearranged, reattributed, rephrased, divided and recombined” (180). And this freedom is even greater in the many versions in other ancient languages. Not only sayings collections but also in the transmission of stories, letters and other sources “each manuscript is a text of its own” (190). Rubenson’s quotes of Greek texts are far from faultless.

Gregory Given returns to Nag Hammadi. Focussing on four ‘letters’ or letter-like texts, he argues that comparison with monastic letter collections shows a remarkable ‘generic fluidity’, in the sense of fluidity relating to genre: the term epistolê (a loanword in Coptic) is used also for texts containing dialogues or narratives. Scholars should be more aware that this genre fluidity is common in Coptic ‘epistolary’ manuscripts.

Michael Philip Penn studies how late-antique Christological controversies changed the ways Syriac Christians wrote and read the manuscripts in which scribes informed their readers about what was orthodox and what was heretic. They used narrative framing (e.g., telling the reader that they were now going to read what was decreed at the ‘wicked council’ of Chalcedon), reading marks (e.g., highlighting ‘heretical texts by warning signs in the margins), composing more lengthy marginalia (‘Reader, when you see this statement, you should condemn it!’), or writing the names of heretics upside down. Readers, too, often added their comments.

In a fascinating contribution, Jeff Childers studies a unique Syriac ms, containing not only the Gospel of John but also – interspersed with the biblical text – a series of some 300 hermêneiai, ‘interpretations,’ in the sense of oracular answers to a variety of inquiries concerning daily life, keyed to the biblical text. “It represents a distinct kind of book, once common, a sort of divining gospel, in which the text of John’s Gospel and oracular material are synthesized into a single work” (243). The list of questions is lost, but Childers demonstrates by means of comparison with other codices (biblical and non-biblical) that this codex was a specially designed tool for sortilege, a system of divination by which an inquirer could receive an answer in the form of a numbered lot oracle. All Greek, Latin, Syriac, and Coptic hermêneia systems appear to be interrelated.

In a complex and hard to summarize article, Liv Ingeborg Lied shows that the Epistle of Baruch, commonly regarded as forming the closing chapters of the Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch (or 2 Baruch), has been transmitted in only one ms as attached to that (presumably Jewish) apocalypse but in all 46 other witnesses as a detached epistle in Syriac (Christian) biblical or liturgical mss. “The editors that have used manuscripts containing the detached Epistle in their quest for the most original reading of the Epistle attached to 2 Baruch, have systematically disregarded the paratextual and codicological information in the manuscripts which suggest that to those who produced and used these manuscripts the detached Epistle was a different entity with its own history and context of interpretation than the attached Epistle. They may well have originally come from one singular text, but our sources present them as two distinct units, and each of them already carry the marks of the literary, codicological, and cultural contexts that have preserved them” (294). But the plural of stemma is stemmata, not stemmae (281, 290)!

Eva Mroczek studies the boundaries of the Psalter in three different religious and linguistic traditions. The Dead Sea Scrolls do not presuppose a standard number of 150 Psalms, e.g., the ‘non-canonical’ but ‘Davidic’ Psalm 151 is not marked off from the other Psalms, whereas in Septuagint mss this Psalm always occupies an outside position; in Syriac Bible mss the situation is more complex, although they, too, place the Psalms 151-155 mostly in a different category. However, in both Greek and Syriac mss “the distinction between canonical and non-canonical positions is not presented as a difference between sacred and profane, or authentic and spurious” (318).

In the final contribution, a rather technical piece that presupposes considerable knowledge of the late antique and early medieval (but pre-Kabbalistic) Jewish mystical Hekhalot literature, James Davila explains in a carefully argued paper why, in his Hekhalot Literature in Translation (2013), faced with widely diverging manuscripts, he opted for a translation of his own critically reconstructed eclectic text with an apparatus of variants, in spite of his sympathy for the New Philology. In the end, he concludes, “traditional textual criticism remains an essential tool in our scholarly toolbox” (344).

It is good that the volume ends on this dissident note. To be sure, these studies demonstrate that the New Philology (even though it is not all that new) can yield very useful results, especially in terms of the history of a text, its scribes and readers. But in several of the contributions one gets the impression that the authors would like any attempt at reconstructing the original text of an ancient book to be abandoned. The search for an Urtext is called ‘problematic,’ ‘counterproductive,’ creating ‘a text that never existed,’ ‘futile,’ and the like. If we were to follow this trend, it would mean the end of classical philology. Reconstructing the earliest possible text always implies following a path with pitfalls; it is always difficult, and sometimes it is impossible (e.g., in cases such as the Greek Alexander Romance or the Physiologus). But as long as we want to gather knowledge of the ancient world, it will of necessity remain the core of classical scholarship.

Table of Contents

Preface VII
List of Contributors XI
Images XII
Abbreviations XIII
Hugo Lundhaug & Liv Ingeborg Lied. Studying Snapshots: On Manuscript Culture, Textual Fluidity, and New Philology 1
Hugo Lundhaug. An Illusion of Textual Stability: Textual Fluidity, New Philology, and the Nag Hammadi Codices 20
Lance Jenott. Reading Variants in James and the Apocalypse of James: A Perspective from New Philology 55
René Falkenberg. The Making of a Secret Book of John: Nag Hammadi Codex III in Light of New Philology 85
Katrine Brix. Two Witnesses, One Valentinian Gospel? The Gospel of Truth in Nag Hammadi Codices I and XII 126
Lillian I. Larsen. Monastic Paideia and Textual Fluidity in the Classroom 146
Samuel Rubenson. Textual Fluidity in Early Monasticism: Sayings, Sermons and Stories 178
J. Gregory Given. Four Texts from Nag Hammadi amid the Textual and Generic Fluidity of the “Letter” in the Literature of Late Antique Egypt 201
Michael Philip Penn. Know Thy Enemy: The Materialization of Orthodoxy in Syriac Manuscripts 221
Jeff Childers. “You Have Found What You Seek”: The Form and Function of a Sixth-Century Divinatory Bible in Syriac 242
Liv Ingeborg Lied. Between “Text Witness” and “Text on the Page”: Trajectories in the History of Editing the Epistle of Baruch 272
Eva Mroczek. The End of the Psalms in the Dead Sea Scrolls, Greek Codices, and Syriac Manuscripts 297
James R. Davila. Translating the Hekhalot Literature: Insights from New Philology 323
Indices 347
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