Saturday, February 15, 2014

How Bad is Wikipedia? Codex Alexandrinus as a Test Case

There are some things I really like about Wikipedia (although I don't really buy into David Parker's view that the Bible grew like a wikipedia article). It always comes up first in a google search so it is easy to find. It sometimes has really good pictures. And it usually has a jumble of information without any real coherent flow (which I generally don't mind). And lots of sentences finish with a reference (although it is not usually to the most relevant source). But a lot of scholars apparently don't like it and won't let their students use it. So how bad is wikipedia? I find it is sometimes helpful to check as one port of call among others, when I am up-dating a lecture; just to see: a) whether some stupid new idea has come out that I should be aware of; b) whether there is something really obvious I should include in my notes for a lecture; and c) what information people can glean entirely from secondary sources without ever having necessarily studied the subject.

Anyway, I was checking the wikipedia article for Codex Alexandrinus. That is over 7,000 words and 94 notes. It is full of information, and probably would give readers a reasonable idea of the manuscript. And the problems are sometimes subtle. Like the fact that a large proportion of the scholarship cited is from the 1800s (that doesn't make it wrong, but it does make it dated). Practically every sentence is poorly expressed (and that comes from an Australian). Look at that first note to Greek Bible! But I found a load of problems. (I know it can change all the time so I'll include the relevant bits here.)

1. "Wettstein designated it in 1751 by letter A, and it was the first manuscript to receive thus a large letter as its designation." If we overlook the 'large letter', we find here a typical wikipedia problem: two true facts are brought together in a stupid edit to create a false statement. Yes Wettstein designated it as A, yes, it was the first to have such a designation. But no, the connection between these statements ("thus") is wrong. It was already designated as "A" in Walton's Polyglot in 1657.

2. "The fourth volume contains the New Testament with 31 leaves lost." This is another typical wikipedia problem - the partial evidence taken as the full picture. What is the case? Well yes 31 leaves have been lost from the New Testament; but there are also leaves missing from 1 Clement (1 leaf) and 2 Clement (probably 2 leaves), both of which are in the fourth volume (leaving aside the possibility that they might be in Codex Alexandrinus' New Testament). So at least 34 leaves are lost from the fourth volume.

3. Here we are told: "Previously, General epistles were placed before Acts of the Apostles. They changed their positions after rebinding." (on the supposed authority of Westcott). But that is not what the colophon in the photo says, rather that this brings to a close "the Acts of the Apostles and the Catholic [Epistles]". Acts can't come after the Catholic Epistles because on the same page we have the end of Acts in the first column and the start of James in the second column. In fact Westcott said no such thing as is here stated. He gave the table of contents of Alexandrinus, further confirmation against the view that the order was changed in binding. As we shall see wikipedia has a keen interest in changes brought about in the binding of this manuscript.

4. Completely disconnected things put next to each other as if they are somehow related. There is a whole section further down on Textual Features, put those "Verses the scribe did not include" down there.

5. Leaving aside the fact that this also should be down in "Textual Features", this illustrates another wikipedia problem - inability to nuance and over-confidence in what can be proven. "In the lost two leaves (John 6:50-8:52), by counting the lines, it has been proven that it was not in the book – there was not room for it". So obviously it can be shown that if the text continued as normal there would not be enough space on the two missing leaves for all the text if 7.53 - 8.11 was included. And it is reasonable to assume that this amount of text was missing, and further that these verses were the missing ones. But we can't prove it wasn't some other twelve verses, or that these verses weren't added in the margin, or weren't somewhere else in the book (maybe somewhere in Matthew!). So we should say that A probably lacked these verses (Avid as in NA).

6. This is a doozy: "... most of the folios were originally gathered into quires of eight leaves each. In modern times it was rebound into quires of six leaves each." Now this sounds plausible enough, so long as you have no idea at all what a quire is. Incidentally I was so taken by this idea I thought about showing what the result would be like (but this is taking too long already). I do know that this completely wrong (and incidentally undocumented) statement has spread from wikipedia to other places on the interweb (e.g. Orthodoxwiki and answeringchristianity and thiswikipediaripoff).

7. The ye-olde English pretty obvious plagiarism detector: "whensoever" is probably enough, but those two sentences are both very odd: "The vellum has been fallen into holes in many places" - this may have meant something in its original context, but it no longer does.

8. (It looks like I'll easily make 10). Here we have another wikipedia staple: completely irrelevant information included for no obvious reason. "Words are written continuously in a large, round and well-formed uncial hand, with no accents and only some breathings (possibly added by a later editor). The letters are larger than those of the Codex Vaticanus. There is no division of words, but some pauses are observed in places in which should be a dot between two words." (I pass over the final phrase in silence). Here is a perfectly helpful couple of sentences, along with the interjection: "The letters are larger than those of the Codex Vaticanus." Oh yeah, like we all know how large those letters are! And this matters how? And why only one comparison?

9. That same clip has a typical wikipedia doublet. In fact a double doublet:  "no accents and only some breathings (possibly added by a later editor). ... There are no accent and breathing marks, except a few added by a later hand ..." cf. also "There is no division of words, but some pauses are observed in places in which should be a dot between two words ... but the punctuation was written by the first hand." Well this one is a contradictory doublet!

10. Leaving aside the fact that the proposed change of scribe at 1 Cor 10.8 was already mentioned a few paragraphs earlier, this sentence has a rather arbitrary element: "... who had better tools for comparison...". One could say that Milne and Skeat considered Kenyon's view and found it wanting (and perhaps that they have been followed by contemporary scholars - although I doubt that is particulary relevant unless they have also checked the data); but I don't see that they had any better tools than Kenyon did. They all worked with the manuscript itself. What other tools are there?

That is ten problems in the first half of the entry. And there are many more in the second half. I can see why many people advise students to avoid wikipedia. Wikipedia is quite bad. Facts are wrong, correct facts are placed in the wrong context, incorrect conclusions are drawn. Some of these errors would seem to have been deliberately inserted (either that or very stupid people are getting things badly wrong and adding them in). The best and most recent scholarship is cited the least. Evidence is not routinely provided. And the overall style is dreadful.


  1. Thank you! Terrific analysis. You just gave every teacher/professor in the known world a quick way to tell students not to depend on wikipedia as a source for their term papers. I'm emailing my students now to read your post. Bless you! Max

  2. Hi,

    Thanks, Peter.

    Most of the Bible manuscript work is by a Polish scholar, Leszek Jańczuk (b-1965). His limited English skills explains some of your concerns. In some cases, a writer whose first language is English has cleaned up the grammar and syntax. And looked for improper relationships that might have gotten in by grammar and syntax complexities. Also, Leszek has worked on a large number of manuscript articles.

    Generally, I have found him to be intelligent and his writing to be factually strong. However, that is not necessarily involving the very careful analysis you give above.

    Today, Codex Alexandrinus is largely an article he built up from 2008-2011.

    Your practiced eye is able to find the questionable statements fairly easily. I'll make the changes in the article. With a couple of exceptions (including Fuldensis and Sinaiticus) I have not tried to work with manuscript information. With your article here as a guide, Alexandrinus is much easier.

    Steven Avery
    Bayside, NY

  3. Paul Anderson2/15/2014 4:48 pm


    Also, it would be good if articles on A(02) would bring out the fact shown by the Lakes that the manuscript is textually related to Family Π as a weaker later stage than the exemplars for the group, especially for Π(041). But, most articles don't get into the nuts and bolts of textual affinity.

    Paul Anderson

  4. Why does the mention of teaching children even come up. Separation of church and state, leave this for college theology students this kind of information should rarely be presented to grade school children.

  5. Head: "a lot of scholars apparently don't like it and won't let their students use it."

    Quite the truth, with reasons now made painfully obvious.

    While some of the (mis)information on Wikipedia is due to ignorance or incompetency, other matters are agenda-driven, with neither result being helpful toward those whom the various articles supposedly were intended to help. The problem is compounded by the policy of allowing various unvetted editing and alteration, often resulting in a worse state of supposedly factual data than previously had obtained.

    From an academic standpoint, I tell my students that -- like cliches -- Wikipedia as a presumed "scholarly" source should be avoided like the plague...

    As Burgon quoted from a "conversation of the late President Routh":

    "Did you say that you 'wished I would give you a few words of advice,' sir? ... Then let me recommend to you the practice of always verifying your references, sir!"

    [Burgon, Last Twelve Verses of Mark, title page epigram]

  6. So the question is, why did you write such a long detailed post about the problem in the article, with images and all, but not actually correct the article.

    There's something comical about people who know their stuff burning so much effort complaining about the information in a publicly editable encyclopedia. Its like someone so fed up of walking past trash on the sidewalk that they bring a soap box and spend the afternoon declaring to the world how terrible it is that there is trash on the floor, and how people should really come along and pick it up.

  7. Although directed to Peter, I can offer one simple answer, based on what I have observed over the past several years:

    Almost as soon as someone attempts to correct various forms of error on Wikipedia, someone else (whether the original poster of misinformation or otherwise) will leap in to "restore" the original posting, delete the corrections, or further alter the text in a manner that continues to misinform. So why anyone seriously would want to play a never-ending game of "I can re-edit better than you can", I have no idea.

    As for me, I wouldn't deign to edit a Wikipedia article with a 10-foot keyboard.

  8. Correcting wikipedia treats the symptom, not the problem.

    I've corrected some egregious errors I've noticed, but we could make a long and humorous list of "the things I learned on wikipedia"...

  9. (Previous comment was not to Peter, but the comment about why not correct it.)

    Thank you, Peter, for taking the time to expose the problem.

    Wikipedia is not going away any time soon. People turn to it for accessibility, not reliability. And therein lies the problems... the perpetuation of misinformation... the shallowness of internet scholarship lacking critical evaluation of sources. Like I tell my students, I hope my cardiologist got his knowledge from somewhere other than wikipedia... and the engineer who builds bridges... and the airplane mechanic... and my dentist...

  10. Well, if Jańczuk can wait six months, Brill will be publishing an authoritative text on Alexandrinus that he can use to update this information. :p

    RE: "(I pass over the final phrase in silence)"


  11. Hi,

    And I have no problem with Peter not correcting the article. If you are not familiar with Wikipedia the whole process is intimidating. Plus, it was helpful to show the current state (you can make a url to show a back state, but that is not as effective.) Plus, by posting it here, any of us could follow up.

    Maurice Robinson is not really right about corrections on a topic like this one. Especially if you buttress your changes with an explanation in Talk. Often they will stick 100%. e.g. I made some changes a while back on Fuldensis, no problemo.

    This is less true on hot-button debate issues, so maybe that was the experience of Professor Robinson. Leszek, who is the main fella in Wiki manuscript land, is quite responsible.

    Wikipedia is often an excellent preliminary source, and then you move deeper. On one hand it is right for scholars to disclaim its use in papers, as an easy fix. On the other hand, you often hurt your own efforts if you do not avail yourself of its capabilities. Often it will lead you right to a good source. And there are many cases where it can be used informally directly.

    Ironically, some of the information that Peter attacked in the page was directly from Caspar Rene Gregory, normally a decent factual source. He happened to be wrong on the topic, yet he, eg. is the one who talked of a "large A".

    So far, I fixed the first three items. I'll report back after doing more. It gets more involved than you would think, since you want to find a proper source behind the correction.


  12. Steven - Most of the corrections are fairly easy to make, but #6 will require knowing where the confusion originated. The problem most likely results from a misunderstanding of Thompson's comments in the introduction to volume 1 of the full-scale facsimile. When the NT volume of the facsimile was published (1879), he believed that most of the quires were composed of six leaves, but he corrected himself in volume 1 (1909), claiming that "when the MS. was re-bound in the present century, the quire-formation was disregarded, the leaves being separated and re-backed and made up into sets of six" (Facsimile of the Codex Alexandrinus [London: Trustees of the British Museum, 1879–1883], 1:8).

    Hope that helps.

  13. Hi,

    Ok, seven down.

    And the Vaticanus letter size comparison, #8, I will leave alone. It was the comment of Tregelles and the reference is properly given.

    That leaves #6 and #7.

    #7 " all comes from Scrivener's

    Six Lectures

    "The vellum has fallen into holes
    in many places, and since the ink psels off for very age whensoever a leaf is touched a little roughly, no one is allowed to handle the manuscript except for good reasons."

    The reference that was given was Plain Introduction that only had the holes. The dubious phrasing was Scrivener, and then it was made a bit more dubious.


    I'll plan on the last two tomorrow, unless anyone else wants to have a little fun in the sun.


  14. Thanks Peter.Roger Pearse also remind us some important facts about Wikipedia a year ago: "In fact, many Wikipedia administrators are school-going teenagers. The youngest I personally am aware of was 11 years old when he won administrator rights; at 12, he became a bureaucrat, which means he had the ability to close requests for adminship and appoint other editors as administrators...Regular readers may recall the incident where the academic authors of the Acta Pauli blog were harassed by an administrator whom they discovered was 14 years old. "

  15. Steven Avery,

    I applaud your efforts to correct the errors that Peter pointed out, but I fear it may be missing the point a bit.

    The post title said this was a "test case," the implication being that this was just one example of a broader problem.

    You may correct these 10 specific errors in this one article on Alexandrinus, but 1) that still leaves other errors in the article that Peter did not identify in this post, and more importantly, 2) it still leaves all the similar errors in all the other manuscript articles. The very idea of this as a "case study" is to suggest that the other manuscript articles are of similar quality.

    Now, sure, if you're a supporter of wikipedia, you could see this as the basis for a call to mass correction, but I doubt you'll get the takers, primarily because those qualified to do it simply have better things to do than offer pro bono editing services to a source that, even if fully corrected, would still be redundant in the face of the scholarly resources on these manuscripts that are already available.

  16. Wikipedia is what it is. It is a free online massive collaboration. It is not a scholarly reference work. I think that Pete has demonstrated this well in his blog post. We should recognize its advantages (massive, online, free), and hope that decades of future contribution will result in significant improvements. I use Wikipedia on a daily basis, and would encourage students to use it for a quick reference on bigger picture issues, verifying information elsewhere when necessary.

    Additionally, the reality of peer reviewed scholarship sometimes is not so much more reliable than Wikipedia. Anybody ever been to SBL? Even journal articles and published books from recognized publishers are sometimes so filled with errors as to cause one to lose faith in the academy. (Yes, actually as bad as what Pete has outlined here.) Do any of us trust publications by the Smithsonian, National Geographic, the History Channel, the BBC, NPR or PBS without question? (Sure, Fox News is wholly reliable. I myself get all my information from America's Finest News Source.)

  17. Christian,

    first, thanks for that link, that was funnier than the onion's been for a long time!

    second, you wrote: " encourage students to use it for a quick reference on bigger picture issues, verifying information elsewhere when necessary."

    I think the kicker there though is that final phrase "when necessary." But how are the students to know when it is necessary? I quote stendahl too often, or maybe not often enough, "our vision is more often hindered by what we think we know than by our lack of knowledge." If the wikipedia entry sounds sensible - which it often will - then the student will think they have the right answer, and will see no need to go verify anything.

  18. James Snapp has been trying for years to get the scholarly world to quit lying about the ending of Mark, and the one place he's had any success is on wikipedia, where he can actually interact with those who disagree with him. Yes, his corrections are constantly being corrected, but--for the most part--nowhere else are his corrections even being considered.

  19. Wikipedia most definitely is the wrong forum for Mr Snapp to present his text-critical views, particularly if various Wikipedia users keep playing the correction and re-correction game with him so that no one really can be certain of his precise claims. The result comes across as little more than sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.

    What he really needs to do (and I have suggested as much) is to publish his material and thus allow his claims opportunity for serious consideration and scholarly review.

  20. Dr. Robinson,

    My views are expressed in my book, "Authentic; The Case for Mark 16:9-20." It is available now at Amazon as a Kindle e-book. Price: 99 cents. I don't think you'll get such a good deal from an ink-and-paper publisher.

    My now-and-then updating of the entry for Mark 16 on Wikipedia has consisted mainly of
    (1) mentioning my theory (that 16:9-20 existed as a freestanding document in the mid-60's, and was attached to 16:8 when Mark was prevented from finishing his account, before any copies of the Gospel of Mark were made) along with others, and
    (2) correcting misinformation, under-information, misleading ambiguities, and flatly false claims about the evidence pertaining to Mark 16:9-20.

    When is Peter Head or someone else at ETC going to do for Metzger's comments on Mark 16:9-20 in Textual Commentary what he has done for Wikipedia's entry about Codex Alexandrinus?

    Metzger's claim about non-annotated MSS with asterisks and obeli alongside Mk. 16:9-20 is false, as far as I have been able to test it.
    The same is true regarding Dan Wallace's claims on the same point.
    The insignificance of the silence of Clement -- considering that he directly quotes from the Gospel of Mark at all in very few places outside of chapter 10 -- is a point that should be tattooed to the sky, considering all the weight that has been unduly placed upon it.

    So where are the articles and blog-entries that should say so? The mistakes that have been pointed out in Wikipedia's article on Codex Alexandrinus are fleas compared to the elephants that have been spread about Mark 16:9-20.

    Yours in Christ,

    James Snapp, Jr.

  21. For the record, it should be noted that my view of the ending of Mark differs significantly from that of Mr Snapp.

    However, I do think that his investigations and corrections of various misstatements in the relevant literature regarding that passage have merit, and should be considered by any interested researcher, with critique if necessary.

  22. I concur with Christian, especially on his last point. I was quite shocked to have found out how misled I had been in believing that there's something like "ancient" Greek! See further,18209/

  23. re: James Snapp. Perhaps some (or perhaps even most) people don't spend their working lives responding to things and "correcting" as some others do. This particular blog entry was a mere case in point as to Wikipedia's frequent inaccuracy. Metzger's and others' inaccuracies get their response more often than not—and most times in the context of peer-reviewed scholarship. When was the last time you submitted something to the peer-review (e.g. conference/seminar paper, article, etc.)?

  24. Well I have lashed out my 77p on Authentic by James Snapp Jr.

  25. I personally don't really believe that "peer review" is a particularly interesting guarantee of quality.

  26. Hi,

    Ryan, I fixed those partly to learn really how deep were the errors in the "test case". And whether the criticisms were accurate and fair. And how I should approach such issues in general.

    My answer is .. very overdone. The manuscript section of Wikipedia is pretty good, there were flaws in the criticism as much as in the Wiki piece.

    Most of the Wiki article problems really go back to the fact that Leszek Janczuk is not polished in English. And he relied too much on Caspar Rene Gregory, similarly poor in English. A And always needing to be checked (even in the early 1900s). Thus some awkwardisms were in the article.

    Plus little problems like double references and placement and style.
    Fair enough, but not major.

    Some of the complaints were vacated or way overdone on examination.

    The most substantive errors were:

    #3 changing positions after rebinding .. apparently a real misreading of scholarship.

    From my study, even making eight changes.



    Two more of Minor significance

    #5 Pericope - an error but I see much worse every day from Metzger, Wallace et al.

    #10 - "... who had better tools for comparison...". A reasonable criticism, more than a quibble, but far from major.


    #6 - I still await a real explanation of why a "rebound into quires of six leaves each." is conceptually wrong and ignorant. Even after having a private conversation with one of our scholars, the criticism simply does not make sense.

    If the leaves are unbound (e.g. unsewn) and then redone into a new (something)... why is the new one (something) supposed to be a "set" rather than a "quire". What type of rule is that?

    And note the harsh capital letters criticizing the author on this point! I can pretty much assure you that Leszek knows exactly what is a quire.

    If no reason is given that is really clear, then the biggest error in the article and the criticism is in the criticism.

    The super-emphasis and attack on a learned Wikipedia author for ignorance, falsely.

    In this case, false accusations (and I await a demonstration otherwise) are worse than imprecise presentations.


    And understand, many Wikipedia articles are disasters. However, afaik not the technical manuscript articles, and not Codex Alexandrinus.



  27. I'm really sorry that my complaints were vacated. It is just how I feel sometimes. Not least at the moment.

  28. I, too, don't think it's necessarily "a particularly interesting guarantee of quality," but, most of the time, I hope, it should be a guarantee of some kind of external and hopefully academically rigorous "review." That's why I'm not sure it's worth one's while to spend too much time biblioblogging (ETC, NTWeblog, and a few others being notable exceptions). On this, I'd like to refer to two wise words of two scholars I happen to respect: and! :)

  29. Peter Head,
    Your opinions cost 77 pence? Here in America our opinions are worth two cents. Given its origin in the English "two pennyworth," American opinions were from the start worth only half English opinions.
    Without inflation to prop up the value of our opinions, it appears that they continue to lose ground in relative value to those in the Motherland.

  30. Daniel,
    I meant that I had purchased James Snapp's kindle book for 77p from Amazon.

  31. Hi,

    Peter, your complaints were not vacated. 8 out of 10 were acted upon quickly. Not a bad % in such a matter. And that was taking flak for simply making the correction.

    Granted, I emphasize that many of those 8 are not very substantive issues, still the corrections are made.

    The use of Tregelles about the size of Alexandrinus compared to Vaticanus seemed valid, so that was left alone. If some one wanted to put in more exact sizes, they could do so. I'm not going to remove accurate, sourced, helpful information without a good replacement.

    #6 was a key question. Despite inquiries I still do not understand your CAPS insult position contra the Wiki author, as to why a disassembled quire, then reset in another fashion, should not be called a quire. If an explanation makes sense, I will change the text. (Or if the original quire was not 8 leaves.)


  32. I find Wikipedia is good as an overview and a jumping off point. It had breadth, but almost always fails on depth.

    My confidence in Wikipedia was challenged when I found I was quoted in the Codex Boernerianus article in Oct 2010 (I found it in Oct 2010, it was first posted in July 2009.

    I had used Google Translate to translate Reichardt's introduction to his facsimile (which I found on the CSNTM). Janczuk had taken my (machine) translation of Windisch's German translation (found in Reichardt's intro) of the Old Irish poem found in Boernerianus. At the time I posted something to the talk page explaining the I was neither a German speaker, nor an expert in Old Irish, and my translation was heavily influenced by Scrivener's.

    Finally 2 years later that whole section was removed and replaced by something more appropriate.

    Upshot: There are lots of problems in wikipedia, but most of the more egregious ones get fixed over time. Still I wouldn't reference wikipedia in an article or a paper (in fact wikipedia doesn't claim to be referable -- original research is not allowed on wikipedia it is always a secondary source at best).


  33. Couple other examples of bad TC info on wiki...

    0212 - misleadingly makes it sound like it's a codex

    0243 - mentions only 7 of its 9 leaves, omitting the 2 of Heb... which is kinda important towards χωρις θυ in 2:9.