BMCR 2016.10.25

The Erotic Life of Manuscripts: New Testament Textual Criticism and the Biological Sciences

, The Erotic Life of Manuscripts: New Testament Textual Criticism and the Biological Sciences. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. xi, 203. ISBN 9780190279806 $74.00.


Those who fail to find textual criticism a “sexy” subject may be surprised by the title of this volume and the image of a woman, naked but for a crumpled bedsheet, which graces its dustjacket. Lin’s contention is that, from the early eighteenth century onwards, editors of the New Testament have been inspired by parallel developments in the natural sciences. What is more, she suggests that their adoption of biological vocabulary to describe the classification of manuscripts into “families” and “tribes”, or to assess their “contamination”, has resulted in a pseudo-scientific approach which has in turn shaped the discipline. Such a claim is particularly significant at the present time, when large datasets of textual differences are being analysed using phylogenetic software developed for evolutionary biology and the characteristics of a text may be described as its DNA. The conceit that manuscripts have an “erotic life” is intended to prompt consideration of the implications of metaphors in text-critical terminology, including scribal attempts to “reproduce” an exemplar and the description of textual “relationships”. Insofar as this book avoids overinterpreting the evidence or advocating a specific agenda, it contributes innovative and thought-provoking reflections on the history and practice of textual scholarship.

Chapter 1 focusses on the grouping of biblical manuscripts in racial terms. The first to do this for the New Testament was Johann Albrecht Bengel, who classified witnesses as “Asiatic” or “African” based on on a set of shared readings. While some of the evidence was connected with the geographical attestation of these forms, the labels were used far more broadly to describe textual characteristics. Lin implies that it was no coincidence that these are two of the four types in the taxonomy of the human race produced by Bengel’s contemporary Linnaeus, which formed the basis of much scientific and philosophical speculation. The fourfold division of New Testament texts by F.J.A. Hort at the end of the nineteenth century continues to underlie the common description of readings as “Western” or “Alexandrian”, even though scholars have recently advocated the abandonment of geographical text-types. In an age of increased sensitisation to racial language, the illustrations offered just a few decades ago by Fee and Colwell suggest that ethnic caricatures should no longer be employed to described textual relationships (see pp. 45 and 64; these authors are, frustratingly, absent from the Index).

Chapter 2 examines the expression of textual relations as genealogy. While this was also proposed by Bengel, it found its fullest expression in the method set out by Karl Lachmann in his 1842 edition of the Greek New Testament. This relied on the identification of shared errors, described as “corruptions”, to identify relationships. It also involved the notion of “contamination”, when readings from one textual strand were (re)introduced into an exemplar from another tradition. The task of the editor was conceived as the restoration of the “pure” form of text from which all others descended, through the painstaking reconstruction of the “family tree”, or stemma, for the whole tradition. The deployment of such language in broader historical events during the subsequent century bears witness to the potential significance of choices of terminology.

The heart of the book is the two substantial chapters concerned with the twentieth century. Chapter 3 treats the rise of “narrative textual criticism”, which might be characterised as “every variant reading tells a story”. Lin identifies the roots of this in the theory of local texts advanced by B.H. Streeter in 1924. She builds on a suggestion of Parker that this was inspired by Darwin’s theory of natural selection (p. 77): alternative readings preserve important information about the context in which they originated and circulated, while the emergence of a common, “Byzantine” text in the majority of surviving manuscripts could be considered the result of an evolutionary process dependent on external factors. The current popularity of text-critical concepts such as “orthodox corruption”, “living text”, or “the text as window”,1 along with a focus on textual criticism as reception history, reflects the embedding of the narrative approach in contemporary scholarship.

In Chapter 4, however, Lin proposes that narrative textual criticism may in turn be eclipsed by the application to textual datasets of phylogenetic software tools developed in the context of computational biology. The automated analysis of complete electronic transcriptions provides a totalising approach impossible for earlier proponents of the genealogical method (see pp. 62–3). Lin focusses in particular on the Coherence-Based Genealogical Method (CBGM) developed at the Institut für neutestamentliche Textforschung (INTF) in Münster. This application assists editors in reconstructing the “initial text” from a heavily-contaminated textual tradition: a stemma is developed on philological principles for every variation unit; each of these is encoded in electronic form and they are then combined by the software to give an indication of the proportion of “prior” and “posterior” readings between any two witnesses; eventually, a reconstruction is offered of the relationship of all surviving witnesses based on the computation of the most economical hypothesis to explain all attested differences.2 Lin’s descriptions both of this process and of the principles of genetics are admirably clear, providing a fuller scientific background than is usually found in accounts of the CBGM which focus on its text-critical aspects. At the same time she observes that, by casting aside classifications based on the external characteristics of manuscripts in favour of the analysis solely of abstract textual data, phylogenetic applications may represent a far greater disjuncture from traditional practice than has so far been realised, even by the CBGM’s own practitioners.

The lengthy conclusion continues to introduce new material as well as reiterating the complicated questions raised by the interaction between scientific disciplines and textual scholarship. Has the adoption of models from science created a false impression of the objectivity of textual criticism, reinforcing a misleading division between biblical interpretation (sometimes termed “higher criticism”) and the establishment of the text (“lower criticism”) even though it is clear that both are based on value judgments (pp. 160–1)? To what extent is phylogenetic analysis a radical departure from all previous descriptions of manuscript relationships (pp. 152–3)? Is Lin’s provocative analogy justified that the “initial text” of the CBGM is a cyborg, arising from the fusion of human judgment and the computational power of machines (pp. 155–6, 170)? Even the characterisation of the New Testament tradition as a “living text” comes in for criticism, with Lin suggesting that it may constitute “an apologia on the part of textual scholars” attempting to compensate for the dethronement of an “authoritative, stable, eternal, and therefore unchanging” original text (p. 101). Furthermore, she says, “the focus on a living text neglects the only true living entity in the act of reading, transcribing, and exegesis: the human interpreter” (p. 149).

Lin’s goal is to begin rather than conclude a conversation. One of the strengths of her analysis is her even-handed approach (notwithstanding the book’s premise that scholarship is rarely as objective as its proponents may believe): differing positions are subjected to equal scrutiny and she advances few proposals of her own. Another valuable contribution is the extensive quotation of sources, from Lachmann’s Preface to Gee’s In Search of Deep Time; fluent English translations are provided where necessary (apart from the last line of Latin in p. 52 n. 30). While there is an abundance of recent publications by New Testament textual scholars on the nature and goal of their discipline, many of which are listed in Lin’s bibliography, the distinctive approach of this volume provides a new and potentially more creative way of approaching the question of self-definition.

Nevertheless, those who join in Lin’s conversation are likely to challenge some of her positions. For example, Hort’s description of the Syrian text is called “characteristic of the Orientalism of his time”, not just “stereotypically feminine” but even (on the basis of the words “smooth and attractive”) resembling “an erotic physical form” (p. 35). A charge of overinterpretation might be sustained here. Secondly, the problematisation of certain metaphors claimed to originate in the biological sciences risks overlooking their use elsewhere. “Contamination” is as prevalent a concept in chemistry, where it exists independently of racialisation (cf. p. 54). “Complexion” does not necessarily have physiognomic implications. “Families” and “trees” may indeed be biological, yet alternatives such as a “constellation” (p. 150) also deserve to have their significance teased out. Deviation from an exemplar is indeed a failure if the goal of a scribe was to produce an exact copy, without carrying any moral implication (cf. p. 22). To what extent might textual critics versed in Greek and Latin literature appeal to etymology and usage rather than the contemporary scientific application of a particular term? Ancient scholars wrote of manuscripts being vitiosi and readings as corruptae long before the adoption of such terms in biology. Lin herself acknowledges that the concept of textual genealogy was advanced in the fifteenth century by Politian (p. 47, another name absent from the index). And for an author so attuned to the finer potential implications of scientific metaphors, Lin sometimes invokes theological terminology in a surprisingly careless fashion, referring to “the sins of an archetype” (p. 48) or “a new holy grail” (p. 52). Overall, the book is well presented. It is an occupational hazard that textual critics will spot errors such as Tregelle’s (p. 39), Washingtonius (p. 86) or Oxyrhyncus (p. 160); they will also worry about the alternation between “Linnean” and “Linnaean” on pp. 71–3, different spellings of Westcott’s first name (p. 198) and whether “geologic” (p. 94) is consistent with adjectives such as “theological” and “philological”. Despite the extensive reference to Nestle-Aland and the Editio Critica Maior, the Bibliography lacks the former and only lists one of the fascicles of the Catholic Epistles in the latter. The Index is relatively slight, as noted above: it is often necessary to return to the individual chapters to locate a particular person or idea.

The book is full of quotable lines, both from the author and her sources. For example, we are reminded by Streeter that “in textual criticism there are no short cuts” (p. 95), Mink tells us that “there is no way of differentiating between intentional and unintentional variants” (p. 140) and Lin herself notes “our age-old tendency to equate our texts with ourselves” (p. 157). All these, and many more, could provide starting points for discussion. Appendix 1 preserves a piece of fieldwork, namely the transcript of a conversation about the CBGM between the author, Gerd Mink and Klaus Wachtel, cited in the course of Chapter 4. The purpose of Appendix 2, a lightly annotated text of Maurice Bowra’s poem Marcus Niebuhr Tod, is less clear. Nonetheless, this engagingly humorous account of an alternative text of the Ten Commandments serves to assure the reader that, despite moments of earnestness of the preceding discussions, there is also a place for levity. Indeed, perhaps these verses should be read as a first step towards returning to a broader recognition of textual criticism as both an art and a science.


1. E.g. Bart D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture. The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament. Revised edition. Oxford: OUP, 2011; D.C. Parker, The Living Text of the Gospels. Cambridge: CUP, 1997.

2. The CBGM is described in a number of recent works on New Testament textual criticism, such as D.C. Parker, Textual Scholarship and the Making of the New Testament. Oxford: OUP, 2012. The creator of the method, Gerd Mink, has made available a description and full presentation download (16 MB) on the INTF website.