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Some Remarks on the First Volume (The Epistle of James) of the Novum Testamentum Graecum Editio Critica Maior

William L. Petersen
The Pennsylvania State University
The Netherlands Institute for Advanced Studies

1. The foundation of all biblical studies is today, as it has always been, the text. As A. E. Housman once remarked in a lecture, it is not necessary to claim that textual criticism is the crown and summit of all scholarship; here today it is sufficient to observe that every other field within biblical studies presupposes having a reliable and ancient text at its disposal (cf. Housman 1921: 69 = Housman 1988: 326). As obvious and as elementary as this is, it sometimes gets lost in the shuffle.

2. Permit me to offer an example from the gospels. While much ink has been spilt on the Synoptic Problem, there can be no resolution until we can recover the text of the gospels as they were known to the various evangelists in the first century; otherwise we will certainly be misled by modifications, harmonizations, and redactional features added to the text in the late first and early second centuries. And a comparison of the gospel text found in our earliest sources--Justin, Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus--with what we now find in our standard editions (UBS, Nestle-Aland, or even Merk, Bover, von Soden, or Tischendorf) suggests that we should be cautious about assuming we have recovered a first-century text (cf. Petersen 1994). So the foundational principle of biblical studies remains: first the text, then the theorizing.

3. My remarks are divided into three broad categories: first, for non-specialists, some very brief comments on the challenges of creating an edition such as that before us today; second, an evaluation of the edition itself; and, third, some remarks about the future--for this volume is only the first of a series which will eventually cover the entire New Testament.

I. The Challenges of Creating Such an Edition

4. Most of you are familiar with the steps required for the preparation of an edition: cataloging the manuscripts, then obtaining them or copies of them, collating them, creating lists of variants and the manuscript support for each variant. When the versions are included--and they are so very important, and so very neglected--another crucial step is required: deciding upon translation equivalencies. And if patristic material is employed--and it should be--then it is necessary to classify the parallel (is it a quotation, a paraphrase, or an allusion?) and determine its starting and ending points. Only then may one commence constituting a critical text, with reference, of course, to the author's style, the language of the period, the language's syntax and idioms, etc. This is the part of the task with which most are familiar; it is, however, only part of the task.

5. An equally challenging--perhaps even more challenging--aspect of the task is to marshal this information into an apparatus. An apparatus is obliged to be a butterfly and an elephant at the same time: an elephantine amount of information must be conveyed in an exquisite minimum of space. The apparatus must be instantly accessible to the user and understandable, transparent in its clarity, without ambiguity. It must also be entirely accurate, convey all of the readings of all of the manuscripts, Fathers, versions, and apocryphal works collated; nothing can be omitted. Meeting these conflicting challenges has hobbled editions past: one thinks of Hermann von Soden's magnificent edition of the gospels (von Soden 1911-1913), often unjustly maligned for errors in the collation (they are actually relatively minor), but burdened with a ponderous apparatus constructed from new sigla, a non-standard manner of citing variant readings, and references to undefined groups of manuscripts.

6. In short, the obstacles to creating an editio critica maior are monumental. Many of them are hidden to the end user--indeed, in the best editions, they are invisible--which is all the more reason to draw your attention to them today.

II. An Evaluation of the Present Edition

7. If I may paraphrase: "Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine, secundum verbum tuum in pace, quia viderunt oculi mei editionem criticam maiorem...."

8. It is hard to imagine a more splendid job. Prof. Dr. Aland, Dr. Wachtel, and Herr Mink, our thanks. You have set a standard which will remain unsurpassed during our lifetime.

9. There are four aspects of the physical presentation which I wish to emphasize. First, the numbering of each word and space between words in the text is a stroke of genius, for it removes any ambiguity about the precise location of a variant or interpunction. It should be adopted for all future editions of complex texts--and the text of the New Testament is the most complex extant.

10. Second, the identification of each variant by a letter results, once again, in absolute clarity for the user. The sequence of the presentation of the variants--first true variants (i.e., substitutions, interpolations), followed by omissions, followed by a list of manuscripts which are defective at this point--is also consistent and clear, as is the treatment of the variants themselves: when the variant involves more than one word, one works from the end of the variant backwards, towards the beginning.

11. Third, compared with all previous apparatuses, this one is like living in Texas: there is lots of room. The spacious presentation will save users from many errors of the eye.

12. Fourth and finally, the presentation of all the major variants immediately below the text line, rather as Adolf Jülicher arranged his edition of the Vetus Latina (Jülicher 1963-1976), relieves the user of much work by (1) extracting the variants from the apparatus, (2) grouping the relevant ones, and then (3) positioning them at the proper point in the text.

13. Turning to the constitution of the text itself, I also have four remarks. First, with typical diligence, the Münster Institut has carefully surveyed the extant Greek manuscripts of James. Using a transparent methodology worked out with great care in the Text und Textwert volumes (Aland et al. 1987-), any manuscript which disagrees by more than ten percent from the "Majority" text in the 98 "Teststellen" (cf. Dr. K. Wachtel's excellent study of the Byzantine text of the Catholic Epistles: Wachtel 1995) has been completely collated, and all of its variants are presented in this edition.

14. This is an enormous advance over all previous editions, where the selection of manuscripts was ad hoc: part Fingerspitzengefühl, part what was at hand (an old tradition in New Testament scholarship, dating back to the time of Erasmus and even earlier), and part what was already on the kitchen shelf. Moreover, the presentation of evidence was, for most manuscripts, incomplete. Now, in the Editio Critica Maior, the complete presentation of all variants from a manuscript means that the full text of any manuscript in the edition can be extracted from the apparatus.

15. Second, as the now decade-old first volume of Das Neue Testament in syrischer Überlieferung on the Catholic Epistles demonstrated, the Münster Institut has truly done its homework before including the evidence from the versions. Because of their antiquity, especially the Latin and the Syriac versions are among the most valuable for reconstructing the text of the New Testament. They are, however, among the least used. One of the reasons is the difficulty in deciding translation equivalencies, as well as in knowing when and how much to allow for the unique syntax or idioms of one language against another. Here, at least with the Latin (using the work of the Vetus Latina Institute at Beuron) and the Syriac, work has been incorporated into the Editio Critica Maior which, simply on its own, represents a major advance in our knowledge of these versions. The methods employed are exemplary and transparent. The result is that, for the first time in any edition, the versions are accorded their proper value.

16. Third, the inclusion of patristic evidence--attempted in so many earlier editions--has finally, for the first time since Tischendorf's editio octava (1869-1890), been successfully achieved. Especially splendid is the list of patristic editions employed, with full bibliographic references (given in the second part, titled "Supplementary Material," of the two-fascicle work, pp. B14-B20), and the full register--verse by verse--of patristic references (ibid., pp. B20-B25). While patristic evidence is notoriously difficult to handle, it nevertheless remains--as Krisopp Lake, Robert Blake and Sylva New remarked more than fifty years ago--"the guiding star of the textual critic in his [or her] efforts to localize and date a text" (Lake, Blake, and New 1928: 258).

17. The caution with which the versional evidence is presented is commendable: a question mark "refers to a versional reading which differs from the other variant readings and cannot be traced with confidence to a Greek base" (IV.I.1 [Supplementary Material], p. 18*). Furthermore, in the "Supplementary Material," there is a complete section--sec. 5.3: "Further Information on Versional Witnesses (Marked ? or >)", pp. B35-B39--which lists all unattested readings in the versions, with the variant given in the original language (Latin, Coptic, or Syriac: no longer need one track down the edition and find the reading for oneself) accompanied by both German and English translations, and, where necessary, an accompanying note, such as "Paraphrase" (at 2:1, words 2-30, a paraphrase in some manuscripts of the Sahidic), or "Word 12 is lacking, but its omission can easily be explained independently of its translation base" (at 3:17, Latin ms 66 [also known as ms ff]). While this is not a foolproof method, and some translations may be questioned, it is probably as close as we will come to perfection on this side of the looking-glass, for these notes allow the user to evaluate the translation and editors' decisions for him- or herself.

18. Fourth, for those concerned about the independence of the Münster Institut from the Nestle-Aland edition, it is to be noted that at two places in James (both, ironically, involve an inversion of word order: 1:22 [monon akroatai in NA27 becomes akroatai monon] and 2:3 [ekei h kaqou in NA27 becomes h kaqou ekei]), the text of the new Editio Critica Maior disagrees with that of Nestle-Aland27. This augers well for the independence of the Institut's work: it is not simply a new printing of Nestle-Aland27, buttressed by a larger apparatus. While the Institut's text of the gospels or the Acts will offer more instances where a reappraisal is required (and will undoubtedly elicit more comment than this text of James), this volume is undeniable proof that the Institut is not tied to the Nestle-Aland text.

III. Looking Ahead: Future Fascicles

19. As for the future, I offer three observations. First, simply as a point of aesthetics--but one which also touches on the matters of ease of use and prevention of errors of the eye--only one verse should be presented per page; indeed, in an ideal world there should be only one line of a verse per page. Where there are multiple lines and/or verses per page, the possibility of confusion increases, and the edition becomes less "user-friendly." While the size and the cost of future volumes would increase slightly if this suggestion were implemented, the pay-off in ease of use and prevention of errors would be worth it.

20. Second, there are several places where subjective analysis enters into the presentation of the materials. While this is inevitable in any edition, and while these places have been noted by the Münster team, permit me to make two of them specific, and explain why I feel uncomfortable with the present handling of the materials.

21. (1) Quoting the English text of the "Introduction" ("Text," IV.I.1, p. 13*), one reads: "Readings attested exclusively by a Father are only rarely recorded." This statement raises two problems.

22. (A) The editors' words, "only rarely recorded," immediately raise the question of what criteria were applied to decide which readings were recorded (and then "only rarely") and which were not? This opaque statement begs for clarification and leads directly to a second problem with this same statement.

23. (B) As the discovery of the Gospel of Thomas and work in Syriac and Diatessaronic studies have taught us, what is today perceived to be a "reading attested by only one Father" may tomorrow be discovered to have had broader attestation in antiquity than we previously thought. It would, therefore, be of enormous help to future scholars if every reading from a Father--even if today he is the "only" known source of this variant--were recorded. If this is not done, then future researchers will have to repeat the work already done by Münster and search for these same parallels once again, with the possibility that they may miss a parallel found long ago by the Münster Institut, but not recorded in the Editio Critica Maior, simply because it was (incorrectly) taken to be a "singularity." (Note that this suggestion of recording every reading also solves the first problem [A, above], by eliminating the undisclosed criteria by which "some" singular patristic readings are recorded, but others are excluded from the edition.)

24. (2) A second example of subjective decision-making is found in the following quotation from the "Introduction" (IV.I.1, p. 13* [emphasis added]), and also concerns patristic evidence: "Variants are excluded from the apparatus if they may be ascribed to a Father's stylistic tendencies and are unlikely to have been in his manuscript source."

25. As someone who works with patristic texts, I think I know what the editors mean, and I sympathize with their decision. An example is the Old High German column of bilingual Codex Sangallensis (Sankt Gallen, Stiftsbib. 56), which commonly substitutes "der Heilant" ("the Savior") where the Latin reads "Ihesus" as does the Greek. But I also see an enormous problem here: how can one be certain that a reading is a matter of "style," or that it is "unlikely" to have been found by the Father in a text from which he cites it? My concern is for those gray areas where the editors ask us to trust their decision--but new discoveries may show their decision to have been incorrect.

26. Here, as with the matter of "singular" patristic variants, I would argue that these variants should be included in the apparatus. And if it is decided that the inclusion of these readings burdens the apparatus to an unacceptable degree, then the information should be recorded in a list, arranged by verse, and printed in the "Supplementary Materials" volume--as this edition already does with "obvious errors" (the "Fehlerliste" or "f-list", in IV.2.1, sec. 2.4, pp. B12-B14 [this "f-list" is another point where subjective judgments have been made; while such decisions are not too complex in the case of James, they will be much more difficult in the case of the gospels]) in the Greek manuscripts. Whatever solution is decided upon, under no circumstances should the readings be discarded: they must be included in the edition. (It should be pointed out that in both of these instances, it is the editors who, in their characteristically open fashion, have candidly disclosed their procedures and thus permit one to offer such suggestions for improvements. This "full disclosure" of procedures is unique among editions of the New Testament, and is, perhaps, the single most significant feature of these volumes.)

27. My third major concern is the volume of material and its means of distribution. The Epistle of James contains only 108 verses; only 44 have "significant variants" (so Johnson 1995: 6). James' text also has a high degree of uniformity: no "Western Text" of James is extant. Our manuscript evidence is also relatively meager (for example, no Vetus Syra version exists, perhaps because James only entered the Syrian canon with the Peshitta [early fifth cent.]). Patristic citations are also modest in number, owing in part to the apparent lateness of James (Origen [early third cent.] is apparently the first father to cite it).

28. How does this compare with the Acts of the Apostles, where we have a very different "Western Text"? Or with Matthew, which has 1071 verses--ten times the number found in James? The number of "significant" variants in Matthew is certainly much higher as well. Additionally, we have more versional evidence and older patristic evidence for Matthew. James' 108 verses generated 141 pages of text; if one multiplies only by a factor of ten for Matthew, then one arrives at a volume 1,400 pages long. Allowing for the greater complexity of the text (more variants, with more witnesses), it would appear that a Matthew volume would run more than 2,000 pages. This is clearly an unmanageable mass of material. We all know that to err is human: these volumes on James contain errors, and any work of more than 2,000 pages will certainly contain errors, some of them major. It simply cannot be avoided.

29. Therefore, I would urge the Münster Institut to investigate the possibility of publishing--in addition to these magnificent paper volumes--the Editio Critica Maior electronically. There are numerous obstacles--the representation of the characters of the odd languages required (although the new "Unicode" initiative [which permits the direct keyboard entry of the characters of virtually any language, with the proper diacritical markings] may obviate this problem) and the precise formatting (and by that I mean the alignment, both vertically and horizontally) of the display are only two of the most obvious--but the rewards are great. Tasks such as searching the text or extracting the text of a certain manuscript or Father would be facilitated, as would the introduction of corrections or newly discovered evidence (think of P100: what a tragedy if these volumes had gone to press six months earlier, and the evidence from this newly-identified Oxyrhynchus papyrus could not have been included...). The ease of use, ability to correct and update, and the ability to search and extract whole "lines" of evidence, these are all advantages inherent in the electronic form of publication. The paper edition should not be abandoned, but it should be augmented by a electronic edition: each has its own strengths and its own weaknesses.

30. In closing, let me simply state once again what an enormous advance this is over all previous editions. The thoroughness and the precision with which the volumes have been researched and presented are exemplary; the clarity of the apparatus is a marvel. It is clear that Kurt Aland's greatest gift to scholarship is yet to come, and the James volumes are--literally--only the first glimmer of what awaits.

31. For the masterful stewardship of your husband's legacy, as well as for your own significant contribution to the Editio Critica Maior, we all are in your debt, Frau Dr. Aland; the Institut für Neutestamentliche Textforschung in Münster clearly remains--as it has been virtually since its founding--the world's preeminent centre for New Testament textual studies: these volumes are merely one more proof among many.

This paper is a revision of a presentation given to the New Testament Textual Criticism Section of the Society of Biblical Literature at the 1997 annual meeting in San Francisco, Michael W. Holmes, presiding. Presentations by Barbara Aland (general editor of the Editio Critica Maior), Peter H. Davids, Bart D. Ehrman, D. C. Parker, and Klaus Wachtel (co-editor) also appear in this issue of TC. See also the critique of the volume by J. K. Elliott.

© TC: A Journal of Biblical Textual Criticism, 1998.


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Petersen, William L. 1994. "What Text Can New Testament Textual Criticism Ultimately Reach?" In Aland and Delobel, eds., 1994: 136-152.

von Soden, Hermann Freiherr 1913. Die Schriften des Neuen Testaments. 2 vols. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

Tischendorf, Constantin von 1869-1890. Novum Testamentum Graece. 3 vols. Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs.

Wachtel, Klaus 1995. Der byzantinische Text der katholischen Briefe. Berlin and New York: de Gruyter.