Wednesday, March 04, 2020

Rob Turnbull on Arabic Manuscripts and New Testament Textual Criticism

Rob talking about something important
Over at Biblia Arabica, Rob Turnbull has written a post about Arabic manuscripts, titled “Do Arabic Gospel manuscripts matter for Textual Criticism?” The article is an abridged version of a longer paper Rob presented at the 11th Birmingham Colloquium last year, and the full version is forthcoming in a volume of the papers from the Colloquium. I’ve always found Rob to be an engaging speaker and an even better person. I have vivid memories of looking around the room a couple of SBLs ago to see other people’s minds blown as much as mine was when Rob presented on some of the amazing software he had developed.

Arabic manuscripts can be classified into families, and Rob’s post is about the text-critical value of one of them, Family B. This family is composed of three manuscripts from the New Finds of St. Catherine’s Monastery: Sinai ar. Parch. N.F. 24, Sinai ar. Parch. N.F. 44, and Sinai ar. Parch. N.F. 8+28 (which are two parts of the same codex). Sinai ar. Parch. N.F. 8+28 has been written about here (but unfortunately, the downloadable pdf does not at present match what the content should be; it looks like this article was skipped in the digitisation of this issue of NovT).

Rob begins by mentioning that Arabic manuscripts are often overlooked because they are assumed to be more or less Byzantine. However, as he demonstrates, Family B is surprisingly non-Byzantine. Rob worked with the Text und Textwert volumes and took into consideration the way Greek was translated into Arabic and arrived at some nice graphs that show how Family B compares to Greek witnesses to the New Testament. One in particular is this chart of agreement with the majority text over time, where Family B is represented by the big red star in the middle:
[Caption quoted from the article:] Fig. 2. The similarity of manuscripts with the Majority Text over time. Data are combined across all the test locations used in the Four Gospels. Manuscripts are labeled with the category assigned to them by the Alands. [link removed] The approximate dates of Greek manuscripts are taken from the Kurzgefasste Liste.[link removed] For clarity, the only credible interval (expressing the uncertainty of the calculation) shown is for arb. This graph combines data from all four Gospels. The equivalent graphs broken down for all four Gospels are found on my Github page.
With Rob’s permission, I quote his conclusion here in full:
In conclusion, probing the character of Family B of the Arabic Gospels using Text und Textwert gives similar results to Kashouh’s earlier study from Luke. Family B is consistently non-Byzantine throughout the four Gospels and with high credibility would rank together the top 25 manuscripts of the Greek tradition in terms of dissimilarity with the Majority Text. The text of arb in Luke and the latter half of Matthew shows a high proportion of similarity with the ‘Ancient’ (UBS) Text though more test passages are necessary to demonstrate this with greater certainty. In particular, there are a very high number of ‘special’ readings which disagree with both the Majority and Ancient texts. This potentially makes arb of great value in explaining poorly understood branches of the transmission of the Gospels. This Arabic version is of high significance and it would be appropriate for it to be cited in the apparatus of future critical editions of the Gospels. It is hoped that through further study of this version, it can be precisely related to other manuscripts in the Greek tradition to illuminate the history of transmission of the Gospels.
Do be sure to check out the article here for a fuller argument and more charts and data: “Do Arabic Gospel manuscripts matter for Textual Criticism?


  1. Conrad Dixon3/04/2020 10:11 am

    I wasn't present sadly. Did he get a chance to discuss the Arabic copy of the Diatessaron? Or was that beyond the purview of his topic?

  2. Thanks for this post, and thanks to Rob Turnbull for his work.

    I have some questions related to what's presented.

    1) That graph indicates that out of the 2,000 manuscripts of the Gospels included in Text und Textwert there are only 4 papyri. Is that really the case? Why not include more? Is it because all the other Gospel papyri were considered too fragmentary and didn't contain enough of the test variants?

    2) Are there really 7 Gospels manuscripts from the 500s that have greater than 75% agreement with the majority in the test variants? I see that 6 of the 7 are even already included in the Aland's category V. But I seem to remember A and W being considered exceptional cases as manuscripts that old with Byzantine leanings. I assume that the green circle with ~75% majority text agreement in the 500s is W, and that A is the green circle in the 400s with ~85% agreement. But it's those 6 Category V manuscripts in the 500s that surprise me. What are those manuscripts? And are they being given older dates on this graph (based, it says, on the dates ascribed to them on the Liste) than what the same manuscripts used to be dated until recently?

    3) More to the point of what the OP is really about: For a study like this it's pretty vital to get into the details of how you know that the Arabic manuscripts in question really do attest to a given variant. A common problem with using versions for this is that readings in the versions that are often claimed to support a given Greek variant in fact can just as easily be explained by way of differences between the languages that result in the reading in the receptor language being a possible rendering of either one of two different Greek readings, and not a clear cut translation of one over the other, despite hasty claims that it is. P. J. Williams has shown good examples of this phenomenon with respect to Syriac versions here on this blog in the past. Of course there are some variants where it is more clear cut. But a prerequisite to presenting statistics like this is showing how the data treats these different cases.

  3. When I studied Christian Arabic under Arthur Voobus, he gave me an Arabic Gospel text (I think from the Vatican) to collate and it had many similarities to the Old Syriac Gospel text.