Biblical Textual Criticism in the Internet Age

James R. Adair

Director, Religion & Technology Center

The practice of textual criticism of the biblical texts is meticulous and time consuming, and some scholars have devoted a major portion of their lives ferreting out and publishing data that is still used by their successors today. Who can forget the extraordinary efforts of Constantin von Tischendorf, who traveled throughout Europe and the Middle East in search of ancient New Testament manuscripts, publishing his results over many years? Indeed, his 8th critical edition, published in 1875, still stands today as an invaluable reference tool for textual critics. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Kennicott and DeRossi collated scores of medieval Hebrew manuscripts, publishing their results in a multivolume work that has yet to be surpassed. These works, and others, stand as monuments to the scholarship of previous generations, and they remind us that much of the work done in the past remains valuable to scholars and students of today. Unfortunately, works such as these are not available to everyone with an interest in studying them. Advances in technology and communication, however, are making it possible for the first time to put works such as these in the hands of those who need them. Moreover, these same advances in technology are allowing, or will allow, scholars of the biblical text to forge ahead in many areas of new research, including access to new readings in existing manuscripts, access to primary sources, analysis of textual witnesses, collation, analysis of individual readings and patterns of readings, access to information about scholarly projects, and scholarly publications. I will deal briefly with each of these areas in the next few minutes.

Access to Previous Work

In recent years, several new publishers specializing in the reprinting of public domain texts have sprung up, and some established publishers have also begun to focus attention on the market for reprints of classic works in religious studies. Books by Westcott, Hort, Bishop Lightfoot, Keil and Delitzsch, Wellhausen, Gunkel, Powis Smith, and others have been reprinted in recent years, often using photomechanical reproduction methods that exactly mimic the appearance of the original. While I applaud the interest that a new generation is showing in the older classic works, and I can appreciate the ingenuity of publishers in recognizing a market for this material and providing a product that will sell, to borrow from the Apostle Paul, I will show you a better way.

Works that are in the public domain may legally be reproduced and distributed without license or concern for prosecution. The Gutenberg Project has been supplying the world with electronic versions of many classic works for more than ten years now, but surprisingly, few works of value to text critics have been included in the collection. To begin to address this appalling oversight, my colleagues and I have begun to scan in a few works related to the biblical text. Tischendorf's 8th edition of the Greek New Testament and the Octateuch in the Cambridge Septuagint are now available for free online (in image format), and soon both Field's edition of Origen's Hexapla and Von Gall's edition of the Samaritan Pentateuch will be added (see Because of the intrinsic value that these works have for scholars, I hope to use the online versions to demonstrate the ease with which such texts can be digitized in image format and made available. In particular, I would like to interest those individuals or institutions with the means to do so to (1) identify classic texts whose digitization would benefit scholarship and (2) provide the funds to have them digitized. Page images can be created commercially for between 50 and 75 cents per page (for black and white or gray-scale images). Of course, it is also possible to create tagged full-text versions of texts, though the price is considerably higher. For the use to which most classic works would probably be put, page images are probably sufficient. I already have a list of many books related to biblical textual criticism that I would like to see digitized, and I'm sure all of you could easily come up with your own list as well. In the fairly near future, I hope that many of the works from all of our lists will be available online to everyone who is interested in reading them.

Access to New Readings

New imaging techniques that have been developed over the past ten years are allowing scholars to read text that had been lost for hundreds of years. Multispectral imaging allows technicians to view manuscripts using electromagnetic waves that lie outside the human visual spectrum (i.e., infrared and ultraviolet light). Text that has been smudged or erased often becomes clear when viewed using this technique. The undertext of palimpsest manuscripts can also be made much more visible by means of this technology. Even manuscripts that are charred, darkened by natural chemical processes, or otherwise defaced can often be read. Recently a new Comparative Edition of the Syriac Gospels was published. The texts of the Peshitta, the Harklean version, and the Sinaitic and Curetonian Old Syriac gospels were presented in parallel rows. The text of the two Old Syriac gospels was based on editions published early in the twentieth century. Since these two manuscripts have numerous lacunae that are due to illegible text, it would be valuable to see a second edition of the work that included new readings that had been recovered after multispectral imaging had been performed.

Other advances in photographic method also promise to reveal new readings from manuscripts that have long been known. The fragility of some documents makes it unwise to try to flatten out rough surfaces. In other cases, the owners of documents bound in a codex do not want the codex unbound in order to take new photos. High resolution digital cameras, when combined with computer controlled modifications in focus and camera angle, can produce multiple images which can then be resolved by sophisticated computer programs into a single sharp image that is much more readable than photographs taken by conventional means. These advances in imaging technology offer textual scholars the hope of new and more accurate readings of the primary source material which forms the basis of their work.

Access to Primary Sources

Primary sources are much more readily accessible now than in previous eras, thanks in part to institutions like the Ancient Biblical Manuscript Center in Claremont, CA, and to libraries around the world that allow scholars to view their manuscripts, often making microfilm copies available. Many scholars are working on projects that will allow even greater access to the individual manuscripts of the biblical text. And of course, the Dead Sea Scrolls, after spending years in the studies of scroll scholars, have in recent years been published in volume after volume of the Discoveries in the Judaean Desert series, as well as on microfilm and CD-ROM.

One of the pioneer efforts in this field, the Electronic New Testament Manuscript Project, was an attempt to enlist volunteer scholars to encode many New Testament manuscripts and make them available over the Internet. After encoding only a very few manuscripts, this project was unable to proceed due to lack of funds and/or volunteers. The project was useful in two respects, however. First, it provided a viable model for the encoding and distribution of manuscripts. Second, it demonstrated the difficulty involved in projects that rely too heavily on volunteers. This is not to say that volunteers cannot be used profitably in scholarly work. Project Gutenberg has always used volunteers in its digitization efforts, though the quality of the work produced by the volunteers has been somewhat mixed. A better example may be found in the field of archaeology. Archaeological excavations frequently use volunteer labor, under the strict supervision of professional archaeologists. Perhaps a lesson we can learn from the ENTMP is that volunteers can be used to digitize manuscripts, but (1) their work must be closely supervised by professional textual critics or paleographers, and (2) at least one person needs to be at work on the project more or less full time.

Project eL, an effort to enlist volunteer scholars to encode Codex Leningradensis, is now underway under the joint supervision of Kirk Lowery and Patrick Durusau. This project, based on the open source model used by many producers of software, promises to create a fully digitized text of the oldest complete manuscript of the Hebrew Bible and make it available to students and scholars via the World Wide Web. Two other current efforts are the Mt. Athos Project, which is designed to digitize and publish many of the manuscripts from the monastery on Mt. Athos in Greece, and the Principia Project, described earlier in this session by David Parker. One can easily envision other projects that publish the texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls, material from the Cairo Geniza, or the various Syriac witnesses to the New Testament. One other current effort is the ECanon, an online XML database of witnesses to the biblical text. Currently the ECanon contains three English translations, but it is designed to support witnesses of any sort, including manuscript witnesses. A colleague of mine and I have been working on the ECanon with grant support from both the Society of Biblical Literature and the National Council of Churches of the United States and Canada, and we hope to be able to add additional witnesses to the database in the near future.

Analysis of Textual Witnesses

Paleography is not an exact science, but expert paleographers can often date a manuscript to within 25 to 50 years of its point of origin. Manuscript discoveries throughout the twentieth century enabled the science of paleography to grow more accurate, and similarly, advances in technology have allowed other methods of analyzing manuscripts, such as radiocarbon dating, to grow more accurate as well. Thirty years ago radiocarbon dating (AKA Carbon 14 dating) was only accurate to within plus or minus 100 years or more, and huge amounts of material were required to be sacrificed in order to obtain a date. Refinements in method and improvements in measurement now allow much greater accuracy at a much lower cost in terms of the amount of material lost. Radiocarbon dating of manuscripts may now be used as a supplement to paleographical analysis in many cases. It is interesting to note, however, that most radiocarbon tests confirm the dates proposed by paleographers. This observation is important when scholars are confronted with sensational stories in the media reporting that a certain "expert" has proposed dating a manuscript much earlier (usually) than others, as in the case of the Magdalen Papyrus and the date proposed by Thiede.


Obtaining textual readings is important, but equally important is the ability to compare the testimony of one witness with that of another. Computer programs that aid the scholar in manuscript collation, such as Peter Robinson's COLLATE program and the collation program used by the International Greek New Testament Project, can help increase the accuracy of collation, and they can assist in identifying other witnesses that share the same readings. In conjunction with collation programs, the advent of databases that are able to store and manipulate multiple gigabytes of data quickly and efficiently are proving to be aids to textual scholars. It will be important in coming years for scholars to agree on encoding schemes, probably in XML format, so that the work created by one group of scholars will be usable by scholars working with other textual witnesses.

Analysis of Readings

Once scholars determine the reading of a textual witness, they generally want to compare it with other witnesses and analyze the results. Methods and computer programs that create group profiles using one methodology or another are well known to New Testament text critics, though perhaps their Old Testament counterparts are not as aware of them. Sample readings from various places within a manuscript are selected and compared with the readings of other manuscripts, the results are analyzed, and the method provides data that allows the scholar to judge the relative proximity of one manuscript to another, often placing certain manuscripts in family groups. Scholars continue to modify and refine existing methods, for example by means of multivariate analysis of the data (i.e., multidimensional comparisons). Rather than see one profile or grouping method as better than another, scholars should perhaps use multiple methods to analyze textual witnesses, since the various methods often tell different stories about the relationship of manuscripts.

In addition to profiling methods, which compare patterns of readings in one manuscript with those in others and measure the level of agreement, some scholars are beginning to experiment with stemmatics and parsimony programs, borrowed in part from biologists, who use such programs to reconstruct the complex evolutionary relationships among related species of plants and animals. Whether parsimony analysis ultimately proves to be of value to textual critics remains to be seen, but it is an interesting development, and it signals the need for scholars in one field to be aware of what scholars even in completely different fields are doing with their data.

Access to Information about Scholarly Projects

Many projects related to the biblical text are underway worldwide, and scholars are naturally interested in what their colleagues are doing. It used to be that the only way to find out about another scholar's work was to come to a meeting like this, but now it is possible to publicize a project simply by creating a Web site. Many of the textual projects currently underway have informative Web sites already available. Some of these include the Biblical Hebraica Quinta project, the New English Translation of the Septuagint, and Project eL. Of course there are many others as well. One thing we don't have is a central repository of information about important textual projects. I hope to remedy this lack in the near future under the sponsorship of my journal TC: A Journal of Biblical Textual Criticism. What I propose to do is create a page on which I identify some of the major textual projects currently underway, give a short overview of what the project is about, and point to the project's Web site. I hope that those of you involved in some of these projects will give me the information I need to create this site, and if your project doesn't have a Web page, please create one!

Scholarly Publications

Since the days of Gutenberg, scholars of the biblical text have taken advantage of the printing press to disseminate critical editions, readings of new manuscripts, and scholarly analysis. Print technology remains a vital part of scholarly publication, and it will continue to be important for years to come. However, electronic publication, on CD-ROM and especially on the Internet, is becoming increasingly important for scholarly communication, and I predict that the quantity of scholarly material related to biblical textual criticism that is produced and published electronically will surpass that published exclusively in print within 20 years, and perhaps sooner. Some types of material readily lend themselves to electronic publication: large databases of textual readings, image repositories, short scholarly notes on important discoveries, book reviews, and even scholarly articles, to name a few. TC: A Journal of Biblical Textual Criticism began publishing in 1996, and the number of articles published were very few. This year I expect to publish as many articles as in any two previous years, and there is every indication that the trend will continue. A colleague of mine in the e-journal business, Ehud Ben Zvi, has suggested the need for an electronic publication center for biblical scholars. I think that he is right about the need, and I would not be surprised if one or more electronic publishers spring up within the next couple of years, either independently or in collaboration with an existing print publisher.

Another need that I see is the creation of a non-profit center that is designed to work on digitization projects and to support others who are working on their own projects. I am in the process of setting up such an entity, and we are calling it the Religion & Technology Center. Its purpose will be: (1) to disseminate electronic resources of interest to scholars of religion, (2) to promote the publication of original scholarly works in formats compatible with online study and distribution, (3) to support other efforts to move the academic study of religion into the information age, and (4) to remain on the forefront of advances in technology through a commitment to research and development. Although the focus of this new center will not be exclusively devoted to biblical textual criticism, I will make every effort to find the resources necessary to publish material both old and new of interest to text critics. And I hope that all such material related to the biblical text will be available free of charge to anyone who is interested in seeing it.


Technology and communication have advanced tremendously in the past ten years, and textual critics of both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament have begun to take advantage of these advances. The potential for further use of the new technology for the benefit of scholarship is almost unlimited, and I hope that this presentation today has given you some ideas for using technology to its full potential in your study of and teaching about the biblical text.

This paper was presented at the Society of Biblical Literature International Meeting, Rome, Italy, 9-11 July 2001.

© James R. Adair, Jr., 2001.