Evangelical Textual Criticism

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Brevior lectio - history of the concept

Griesbach wrote in his first canon:
Brevior lectio, nisi testium vetustorum et gravium auctoritate penitus destituatur, praeferenda est verbosiori. Librarii enim multo proniores ad addendum fuerunt, quam ad omittendum.

'A shorter reading, unless it stands completely without the support of ancient and important witnesses, is to be preferred to a more verbose one. Copyists were much more inclined to add than to omit.'

My question is this: what was the basis on which Griesbach maintained that copyists were far more likely to add than to omit? Was it simply his impression, and if so on the basis of how many manuscripts and variant readings? Had there been work on scribal habits within the editing of Classical texts at the time? Or is it rather simply a statement of what Griesbach thought to be intrinsically more likely?


  1. Unfortunately, I can't read Latin. I also am not familiar with Greisbach directly. But, the lectio brevior canon is surely held by the majority of NT text critics who have their own reasons for holding it, not simply due to the influence of Greisbach. So I'll offer my 2 cents based on what I have read.

    My impression is that the lectio brevior canon relies on giving more wieght to the likelihood of intentional inrtroduction of variants than unintentional. When it comes to unintentional variants, personal experience virtually compels me to think that a scribe is more likely to produce a shorter text on accident, by way of skipping words, phrases, and lines, than a longer text. However, for intentional variants, the opposite is usually presumed to be the case (perhaps rightly). There are known mechanisms for accretion of material in a text, such as introduction of interlinear and marginal glosses, or conforming with a parallel passage, or a scribe adding what he knows the text is supposed to say based on his memory from something he had read or heard. So text critics will encounter certain longer readings and say to themselves, "I can see why a scribe would add this, but not why he would remove it" (this assumes the longer reading in question is not potentially heterodox, which is an important, but small subset for which such thinking would be precluded).

    I can't help thinking that more variants are due to accidental omission than most text critics seem to think. It sometimes seems to me like a text critic is only willing to admit the likelihood of an omission when there is an occasion for homoioteleuton or homoioarchton. In truth, I tend to think that anablepsis can easily occur at almost any point in any text, where superfluous adjectives, adverbs, and phrases might be left out because of a scribe's momentary lapse of thoroughness; or, as in the case of the scribe who accidentally left off the ending of Mark, due to an untimely death. (ok the last bit was a joke).

  2. I think I meant to say "parablepsis."

  3. Thanks. Clearly there is a lot to investigate with this idea. I also agree that it is not just homoioarcton (note: 'c' not 'ch') and homoioteleuton that cause shorter texts. Many omissions have no mechanical explanation.

    If people do not feel qualified to answer the question in relation to Griesbach I wonder if anyone can tell me when the position that deliberate acts generally produce longer readings and accidental acts shorter ones was first formulated.

  4. Griesbach does qualify the rule in various places. E.g. in the preface to his Novum Testamentum Graece I
    Prefer the shorter reading:
    Especially: (a) if the shorter reading is at the same time more obscure, harsher, ambiguous, hebraistic, solecistic, conflicts with parallel passages, etc; (b) at the beginning of sections; (c) if the order of varies from ms to ms; (d) if the same idea is expressed with varying wording in different mss.
    This does not apply to shorter readings: (a) which arose as a result of homoioteleuton, or which occur in passages where the copyist would be as inclined to make additions as to omit material; (b) which arose because of the difficulty of the fuller reading; (c) which fit the character and style of the writer less well than the fuller readings.

  5. Metzger gives an even fuller summary from Griesbach in The Text of the New Testament, p. 120 (old edition).

    There is no appeal to anything approaching evidence on the point. (although Griesbach did publish other supporting studies he doesn't appeal to them in support of this rule).

  6. Sorry,

    I should also have said that the basic principle/rule goes back to Wettstein.

    See my ‘Observations on Early Papyri of the Synoptic Gospels, especially on the “Scribal Habits”’ Biblica 71 (1990), 240–247 for documentation on Wettstein.
    That may even be on-line, I'm not sure.

  7. Sorry,

    I also should have said that Griesbach did personally collate very many NT manuscripts.
    Taking the Gospels as the starting point, five uncials were examined or collated by Griesbach (A, C, D, G, L); twenty-two minuscules had been examined or collated by Griesbach (10, 12, 13, 17, 24, 25, 33, 45, 50, 52, 72, 96, 110, 113–121); and eleven lectionary manuscripts (18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 25–30).

  8. Has the other Pete added an ET to the main post yet?

  9. I am going to stick my neck out and say that I think the canon was formulated for two reasons:

    (1) early collators of MSS collated them against the TR. Virtually all of the early uncials would have shown many more omissions from the TR than additions to it.

    (2) early collators believed that earlier MSS were superior to the 'degenerate' TR.

    Therefore, they reasoned that scribes had added to the text over the centuries to create the TR. Hence the rule. It was not formulated by reference to studies of scribal habits, but rather by reference to the TR.

    I have no evidence for this little bit of historical speculation (other than the fact that I no of know early studies of scribal habits). However, I do have the comical quote from Hort to back it up, in which (Introduction, p 235) under the obtuse heading 'absence of interpolations in B' he argues that Vaticanus' many singular omissions are really to be understood as proving VAticanus' purity and freedom from TR interpolations.

    I also believe that this is where the 'Harder Reading' canon came from, but I would be happy to learn of what was actually going on in the minds of the framers of these canons if there are other explanations.

  10. I think Eric and Andrew are both broadly right.

    Andrew is clearly right in that the rule was framed in relation to the TR, and to the process of collating manuscripts against the TR: increasingly there was evidence for other readings (normally shorter ones).

    Eric is also right in that the development/production of the Byzantine text was felt to be the product of the sort of processes he envisages in creating longer readings:
    "There are known mechanisms for accretion of material in a text, such as introduction of interlinear and marginal glosses, or conforming with a parallel passage, or a scribe adding what he knows the text is supposed to say based on his memory from something he had read or heard."

    So 'prefer the shorter reading' was helpful in deposing the longer/expanded/clearer Byzantine text; but it doesn't follow that it is as helpful in discussing scribal habits of the earlier period, and thus for choosing between earlier variants or variants within the 'Alexandrian' tradition.

  11. Is a Byzantine text from the fourteenth century noticeably longer than one from the fifth? To what extent is the lectio breviorcanon something that is held to hold equally through the centuries or to what extent is it just thought to apply to the period in which the principal text-types emerge?

  12. This we don't know because we haven't got studies of scribal habits in different eras.

  13. Head: we haven't got studies of scribal habits in different eras.

    For the record: my dissertation covered scribal habits ranging from papyri through uncial MSS through minuscule MSS in Revelation. No major differences in typical scribal habits were found to exist in any era. See Maurice A Robinson, "Scribal Habits among MSS of the Apocalypse" (PhD Diss, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1982).