Monday, August 15, 2016

Colwell’s Reversal of Westcott and Hort on Singular Readings

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E. C. Colwell (source)
Westcott and Hort and E. C. Colwell are often connected in discussions of singular readings as they should be. But it’s not often appreciated how Colwell inverted WH’s primary purpose for studying singular readings. 

For WH, their main interest in singular readings was that their two prized manuscripts (01 and 03) often stood alone from the rest of the textual tradition as they knew it. Singular readings did give them access to the proclivities of 01 and 03 (a la Colwell), but this was not then aimed at elucidating transcriptional probability like it was for Colwell. Instead, this exercise was aimed squarely at determining which of 01 and 03’s singular readings had “a better title to consideration,” i.e., of being original (Intro, p. 233).

For Colwell, the study of singular readings is not only to “increase skill in the evaluation of that manuscript” (a la WH), but also “to gain knowledge of the habits of a scribe in general ... and thus to increase skill in the evaluation of readings.”* For Colwell, such a study was not aimed at identifying which singulars may claim originality. Rather, it was to give us access to those readings that we can be sure are the scribe’s rather than the author’s. 

Thus, unlike WH, Colwell’s interest in singulars hinges entirely “on the assumption that these readings are the creation of the scribe.” As such, they give us access to the work of the scribe as opposed to the author. In this, Colwell has reversed WH for whom the study of singular readings was aimed precisely at identifying those singulars that are the work of the author rather than the scribe. 

In other words, both recognize that singular readings can attune us to the scribe’s habits, but each uses this fact to focus on opposite sides of the scribe/author divide. WH are ultimately interested in authorial readings whereas Colwell is really interested in scribal readings. Obviously, this has to do with whether each thinks that singulars may be original. But the difference is still important especially as it comes to “skill in the evaluation of readings.” WH have their own view of how to best attain that and it has nothing to do with singular readings. But more on that another time.

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*E. C. Colwell, “Method in Evaluating Scribal Habits: A Study of P45, P66, P75,” in Studies in Methodology in Textual Criticism of the New Testament, NTTS 9 (Leiden: Brill, 1969), 108.

15 comments :

  1. Very interesting Peter! Could the fact that WH were dealing with so many few old manuscripts than Colwell had access to also be a factor?

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  2. Which manuscripts do you imagine WH to have had unique access to?

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  3. Unique access to? What do you mean?

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  4. I suppose it depends on how strongly one thinks a manuscript's singular readings can be good. For Westcott and Hort, they certainly thought so about 01 and 03. They wouldn't have scoured a random Syrian/Byzantine MS for good singular readings, however.

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    1. However, the more manuscripts we have that are as old, or in the case of some of the papyri, significantly older than 01 and 03, the lower the probability that a reading that remains singular is yet correct. Or at least so it seems to me.

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    2. Westcott & Hort did not have the (major) papyri. And the (major) papyri, particularly with P45, shows that there was textual diversity well before 01 and 03. I think this explains Colwell's different attitude to certain singular readings: he is no longer confident that any MS is close enough to the beginning for its singular readings to be true.

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  5. I seriously would question whether any singular reading ever should be considered original, given that the entire body of remaining MS, versional, and patristic testimony differs from such. In such instances, the singular reading remains but one step removed from pure conjecture, and in fact may well be a conjecture made by that particular scribe or the scribe of his/her exemplar.

    Although Westcott and Hort had their particular reason for favoring singular readings among their preferred MSS, such should not thereby commend itself within the broader text-critical field (despite certain eclectic preferences for such that appear from time to time).

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    1. the singular reading remains but one step removed from pure conjecture: This is exactly why I find the thorough-going eclectics' antipathy to conjecture so baffling. Their method will only allow them to adopt conjectures if an ancient scribe did it first.

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  6. Maurice,

    "one step removed from pure conjecture"

    You realise there are some among us who might see that as a positive! :)

    (incidentally, while I think I know what you mean, i'm no sure I like the phrase "pure conjecture"; to me that sounds like a conjecture based on nothing but conjecture, whereas I have argued that proper conjectures are based on the intrinsic evidence of the text)

    On a serious note though, wouldn't you say that a majority text position by definition starts by accepting th premise that a reading is not likely to be original unless it is found in the majority of mss?

    And given that, would it be fair to say that a majority text position has already rejected all singular readings in advance?

    Finally, what would you think if I argued that a majority text position rejects singular readings a priori on ideological grounds, apart from individual evaluation?

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    1. Ryan,
      Conjecture is always just a guess. If either external or internal considerations counted we would always choose the most likely reading from the manuscript tradition. Yes, I realize that classical critics often rely on conjecture, however when you have the huge catalog of manuscripts available for the NT in Greek, Latin and other prominent early translations we are dealing with a different scenario.

      Tim

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    2. Tim, at first glance it may appear that we are dealing with an entirely different scenario, but I believe a close examination shows this not to be the case. Yes, the ms base for the NT is very good, but no, it is not good enough to eliminate the need for conjectural emendation entirely.

      And conjecture must certainly be much more than just a guess; it must be an educated theory based on the intrinsic evidence of the text itself. Otherwise your engaging less in scholarship and more just in wishful thinking.

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  7. The problem I have with conjectural readings is not restricted to a priori concerns related to a Byzantine-priority or majority text position, but rather as ultimately involving transmissional considerations; i.e., any conjectured reading -- assuming such supposedly to be more reasonable than what appears among the existing witnesses -- would have to explain transmissionally how and why such would utterly disappear from our known transmissional history. Were such conjectures actually superior to all extant alternatives, I would consider its lack of perpetuation to be inexplicable.

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  8. Maurice, and I don't want to hijack this posting too much more, but I think you've zero'd in on the heart of the issue: how to explain the, as you so well put it, lack of perpetuation.

    My answer, of course, is that such readings were perpetuated just as we would expect them to have been, but subsequently the ms record of that perpetuation was lost. Evangelical text critics tend to focus on the rate of textual survival (e.g. "We have almost 6000 extant mss!!") but I am much more interested in the rate of ms loss: how many did we lose?

    Given that there does not seem to be a single exemplar among the current ms base, I conclude that the loss rate was at least 50%.

    Assuming that is correct, a reading could therefore easily have perpetuated itself in fully half of the ms tradition at one point and yet still not survive in a single ms today.

    That's why I caution that we should not be beguiled by the size of the extant ms base into thinking that it is more robust than it is.

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    1. Ryan,
      So, even considering a 50% loss, we would still have to posit that the entire 50% left did not include a single manuscript which contained the original reading! Given what we know about the tenacity of readings once they ener the textual stream this seems less likely then one of the extant manuscripts having the original. I am with those critics who contend that the number/percentage of manuscripts we have assures us that somewhere within that stream is the original text.

      Tim

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  9. Tim, I think the size of the ms base only looks that impressive when you consider it in abstract, apart from the specific of a particular variant. Once you start looking at the distribution of ms support for a large number of individual variants, you see that a surprising number of the readings we generally consider original have survived by the skin of their teeth - quite precariously with spartan ms support. Once you see how close some likely original readings came to not surviving, you start to get a feel, I believe, for just how easily some others could not.

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