Tuesday, November 26, 2013

First impressions of David Trobisch's User's Guide to Nestle-Aland 28

There is something about 'first impressions'. The first pages will determine how critically and sympathetically I will read the remainder of the book, how prepared I am to take the author on trust, and to what extent I am prepared to recommend the book to others. Before I say anything else (and I will say quite a lot of 'else'), Trobisch is a great educator and has wonderful pedagogical skills (and in addition he is very likeable, but that may be a general characteristic of manuscript folk). However, I am a little concerned about this User's Guide (great idea, by the way), well mainly about section 1.1, the very first section. And it almost puts me off recommending the book.


Because first impressions matter—a lot.
Perhaps you remember that picture of that Scandinavian social scientist swimming in a lake with a gaggle of little goslings following him. What he had done (if my memory serves me well), was to make sure that the poor creatures saw his face as the very first thing in their life once they had hatched and were imprinted accordingly to regard him as their parent.
The first couple of pages someone will read on textual criticism may function in much the same way, getting an impression of some of the basic issues which will then subsequently take a life time to get rid of. And the first couple of pages of this book are a problem.

So, let's start with a slightly flippant remark on the first sentence of the first paragraph.
'Between 5,500 and 6,000 handwritten copies with text from the New Testament are known today ...'
As it stands, this sentence is of course plain wrong as the number of handwritten copies with text from the NT is much, much higher. There are documents with text from the NT in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Georgian, and, more recently, in Dutch, English, German, Swahili, Cantonese, and hundreds of other tongues. In all these languages there are handwritten documents with text from the New Testament in the form of citations in a letter, a manuscript sent to a publisher, a wish-you-well card to a sick granny, etc. etc. So this can't be the meaning of the sentence.
I am quite sure that, as willing and cooperative readers, we are supposed to read this in light of the section heading 'The History of Transmission of the Greek New Testament'. But let's continue and see whether there is any systemic sloppiness.

Sentence 2:
'There is hardly a sentence of the New Testament that has the exact same wording in each of these exemplars.'

Here the real problems start. Firstly, 'hardly a sentence'. This is of course not true. It should be 'not a single sentence'. Why? Because almost all of these 5,500 to 6,000 copies contain only a part of the New Testament - different parts of the New Testament. Regardless of any amount of textual variation (or number of issued editions; see below for this awkward term), it is simply impossible for a single sentence to appear in 'each of these' copies. There is not even a single book of the New Testament that appears in 'each of these' manuscripts. It is impossible that a sentence can have the same wording in each of these manuscripts because the content of these documents do not overlap.

Which brings us to the second problem in this sentence. What does Trobisch mean with 'exemplar'? The normal meaning of this term in the field of textual criticism is something like the source from which another manuscript is copied. But let's face it, many of the 6,000 or so manuscripts have never functioned as exemplar within the chain of transmission (or so it seems, at least). Unnecessarily awkward use of terminology.

Sentence 3:

A sentence of just three letters, raising the expectation that we are going to get an answer on why there are hardly any manuscripts (not 'exemplars'; I am including my own improvements of the argument as we go along) that have the exact same wording in a single sentence. Well, the answer is not given in the next sentence, which comes across as the accidental remainder of an unfinished editorial process ('Most writings of the Greek Old Testament are based on old translations from Hebrew.') But what comes across in the next three paragraphs, and is confirmed by the first sentence of paragraph 5 (on page 2) is that Trobisch's first explanation for textual variation is this, 'Editorial changes are not the only explanation for the wealth of text variations.' Come on, David. I know you like the word 'edition' and its cognates in your scholarly work (and have used them to raise excellent points), but now you are pushing it a bit too far. You cannot seriously mean that editorial changes are the first or main reason why 'there is hardly a sentence ... that has the same wording'.

First impressions matter ...

Oops, I am on 700 words already and should stop by now. But I was interested to learn in the fourth paragraph that several distinct Byzantine editions from between the eighth and fifteenth centuries had been identified. Since this is a user's guide to Nestle-Aland 28 (you see, I do try to read things in context), it would be nice to find these referred to in that edition. Well, this proves to be tricky. Admittedly, in Revelation we find two Byzantine 'editions' (M-koine and M-Andrew), and with a stretch of the imagination we might force families 1 and 13 in the gospels into this category, but that is where the range of possibilities is exhausted. Perhaps I should not read this information about Byzantine editions in context then.

Finally, in the part intended for scholars, Trobisch introduces us to the Coherence Based Genealogical Method - and gets it quite wrong. [Edited: There is actually not that much shame in getting it wrong; I am struggling myself all the time. DJ] On page 53, we are informed that 'a basic insight of the CBGM is that the initial text is best understood as a virtual text'. I would say that this is no different than any eclectic would claim, but here it comes: 'Consequently, a stemma of manuscripts must occasionally allow room for postulated manuscripts that have been lost and that have influenced other manuscripts. These virtual witnesses should be treated with the same validity as existing manuscripts.' Ouch, the CBGM actually wants to do away with hypothetical postulated nodes in a manuscript tree, unlike the classical approach.[Edited: Initially I was unreasonably harsh; DJ]. Tommy thinks he understands how and why David Trobisch has misread the CBGM. Maybe he can explain in the comments.

All in all, in the first few pages contain some fundamental flaws. But things get better after that. If you are going to use this in class, make sure that you won't let your students read the first pages as their first intro ever to the Greek text and burden them with a wrong impression for the rest of their life. First impressions matter.
But in true Trobisch terminology, perhaps we will get a new version, a next edition. Because the first impression of this work is misleading. The book is actually better than the first impression suggests, much better.


  1. Thanks Dirk,

    Yes, I think I can guess where Trobisch got if from when he wrote about "postulated manuscripts" or "virtual manuscripts."

    I think he might have confused the fact that the Gregory-Aland numbers used in the stemmas are not representing real manuscripts (only the texts they carry). When Mink explains this, a reader might misunderstand this for "virtual manuscripts" ...

    But there is of course one "virtual manuscript" in the CBGM and that is A (Ausgangstext).

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  3. I don't know Tommy. Are you suggesting that maybe Trobisch just means by "virtual manuscript" what Mink means by "witness"? If he does, then what would it mean when he says that "these virtual witnesses should be treated with the same validity as existing manuscripts"?

    It's definitely a confusing paragraph.

  4. Tommy, you said exactly what I was going to say. CBGM starts by making a key distinction between the manuscripts themselves and the states of the text they bear. The results of CBGM can, therefore, not be read back onto the historical transmission process, I.e. saying that ms A has a prior text to wittness B does not mean that ms A was actually copied prior to ms B.

  5. Rather, it simply tells us that ms A carries a text that tends to be prior to the text in B more often than not.

  6. I tend to see that stage of CBGM as helpful primarily for giving me a bayesian style "prior probability". It just gives me a starting point for evaluating a given variation unit. If in the variation unit I need to choose between reading 1 and reading 2, and r1 is found in ms A and r2 is found in msB, then CBGM tells me right away that the prior probability favours r1, because msA tends to have the older reading.

    However, as dirk's enjoyable presentation emphasised, that tendency can often be hairline close, and even if not close, it's never 100%: msA will not *always* have the older reading. There will always be some - or sometimes many - points where, the dominant trend notwithstanding,msA does not have the older reading. So it s up to me to perform my own evaluation of the individual variation unit to see if it follows or bucks the dominant trend.

  7. Well Peter, I don't know either, it was just a virtual guess ;-).

  8. I don't have the German copy of the Einleitung with me, so I'm not sure what word stands behind the mentioned "exemplars." In Slovak, this very word can also mean "specimen" and, by analogy, "artefact."

  9. Is there in Trobisch's Guide any sort of textual commentary on the 34 changes? Or is one forthcoming by anyone?


  10. Julie, Such a commentary on the 34 changes would be very useful indeed. I am working on1 Peter 4:16, and would value an explanation for this strange adaptation of the more poorly-attested reading.
    Peter Rodgers

  11. So I think I solved the riddle of Trobisch's "virtual manuscripts" and they are a product of bad translation. The German is quite clear that the only "virtual manuscript" referred to in this paragraph is the Ausgangstext. My translation of the German is as follows:

    "A basic insight of the Coherence Method is that the target of text-critical work, the so-called Ausgangstext, from which all other text forms are derived is a virtual text which is extant in no manuscript. Accordingly, one can therefore also repeatedly accept in the stemma such a virtual, non-extant Mother-manuscript [=Ausgangstext] upon which other texts are dependent. The virtual Ausgangstext is treated just like an extant manuscript."

    Unlike the English version, this is a very accurate description of how the Ausgangstext functions in the CBGM. Gerd Mink even called the Ausgangstext a "imaginäre Quelle" in his 1982 essay.

  12. Peter, that assumes of course that the English was based on the prior German version. Not knowing the editorial history it is theoretically possible that the German has corrected a blatant error in the English. Either way, a translation error of such magnitude remains stunning though.

  13. I hadn't thought of that, Dirk. But now that I look, Trobisch's preface to the German edition is signed with a date in March 2013 and the English with a date in September 2013 so it seems that the English was probably based on the German. Elliott's review in JSNT says that there is already a 2nd German edition which I haven't seen.