Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Publication and Textual Criticism

1st-2nd cent. inkwell (credit)
M.D.C. Larsen, ‘Accidental Publication, Unfinished Texts and the Traditional Goals of New Testament Textual CriticismJSNT 39 (2017), 362–387.
Abstract:  Notions of ‘authorship’, ‘publication’ and ‘final text’ are often mentioned in traditional textual criticism, but less frequently discussed in detail. The projects of source and redaction criticism end and textual criticism begins based on when scholars imagine a text was finished. Yet modern notions of publication, textuality and authorship, which are largely shaped by the printing press, are often anachronistically applied to the ancient world. Exploring evidence from Plato to 4 Ezra to Tertullian and Augustine, I take up the question of when a text was considered ‘final’ by reconsidering what counted as publication in the ancient world. Once the assumption of textual finalization is set aside, the tools traditionally associated with textual, source and redaction criticism become unhelpful. While textual critics have noted the practical impossibilities of arriving at the ‘original text’, I demonstrate the conceptual roadblocks to imagining an ‘original’ and ‘final’ text in the ancient world.
In this article Larsen discusses examples of “textual unfinishedness” and accidental publication in antiquity in order to further complexify (or from his apparent perspective, rule out of court completely) the notion of the original or initial (published) text (especially in dialogue with Michael Holmes). Examples from a variety of ancient sources suggest to Larsen that accidental publication (i.e. publication of unfinished notes or the like) was ‘common’ (p. 372), ‘fairly common and widespread’ (p 372). He also discusses revisions and multiple versions of literary works, suggesting that for such texts a ‘living text’ model is better than ‘a final and fixed book’ model for discussing its textual development. This has, for Larsen, implications for New Testament textual criticism:
‘The prevalence of accidental publication, stolen texts and author variants simultaneously identifies and destabilizes one of the foundational assumptions of traditional textual criticism: without the assumption of a text existing in a final form, the boundaries between text, form and redaction criticism fall apart. Ancient writing practices and the prevalence of textual fluidity invite us to rethink some foundational categories and ideas of the discipline.’ (p. 376)
An obvious example, for Larsen, is the gospel attributed to Mark, which could be thought of as ‘unfinished textual raw material’ – ‘an open and unfinished gospel tradition’ (p. 378). (Larsen notes for further evidence and discussion his forthcoming book Before the Book: The Earliest Gospels (New York: Oxford University Press), which is presumably related to his 2017 Yale doctorate). Broadly he doesn’t think that the conceptualisation of publication is a useful category for discussing ‘the traditionary processes of revising a fluid text’ (pp. 379–380). The gospels, in particular, ‘are not the kind of texts that had originals’ (p. 379). Publication, for Larsen ‘was only notional and so existed only as a social construct’ (p. 376 – I’m not sure what this means).

I found it an interesting article. I wasn’t convinced that the evidence discussed showed ‘the prevalence of textual fluidity’ (as opposed to some form of publication, since even the authors he discusses presume the appropriateness of the distinction). I’m certainly not convinced that that gospels ‘are not the kind of texts that had originals’ – I don’t see the point in opposing one extreme caricature – ‘a single authoritative original text’ with a caricature at the other extreme; nor do I think we should conceptualise all the canonical gospels in the same way (which is another way of saying I look forward to hearing the argument of his book at some point). I do think it is helpful to think about the way that different genres functioned in antiquity, and I do wonder about the prevalence of epistolary notions (where a single original text is assumed by the genre) in our broader conceptualisations of how the New Testament text functions (this is not raised by Larsen, except to disagree with it briefly). Anyway, plenty to discuss.


  1. Thanks, Pete. I think this may have been an SBL paper from a year or two ago. But I didn't hear it myself.

    I added a link to the article on Larsen's Academia page. And a cool image.

    1. Yes SBL Atlanta 2015.
      Thanks for the links. I meant to do that.

  2. Having now read the article, some thoughts.

    I wonder if “textual finality” is the wrong category to work with here. Certainly, it can be hard to draw the lines between textual, source, and redaction criticism at certain points. (Tov discusses this for OTTC in his book.) But it seems to me that behind the objections to a “fixed goal” for TC are not really historical issues per se, but rather the question of textual authority. The question is better framed this way: did ancient writers believe there could be such a thing as an authoritative edition of their literary works? The answer is yes. If it were otherwise we would not find them complaining about people changing the text of their works. Larsen’s quote of Tertullian is a case in point: “Thus this written work, a third succeeding a second, and instead of third from now on the first, needs to begin by reporting the demise of the work it supersedes, so that no one may be perplexed if in one place or another he comes across varying forms of it.” Tertullian understands textual fluidity and change and still comes away saying that the latest stage on the textual continuum is the one that has his imprimatur. Thus, the notion of textual authority did not arrive with the printing press. This is important because textual authority rather than textual finality is the notion that grounds textual criticism—whether of the Bible or any other piece of literature. The question is, among disparate textual forms of a work, which one is most authoritative?

    The question is then whether the Gospels were the kind of writings that were given an authorial imprimatur in the vein of Tertullian quoted above. I don’t know how to answer that on historical grounds other than by showing that many did read them this way, not least by giving them titles. Hence Matthew really is a different work from Mark (a “discreet book” to use Larsen’s term) and not just a different edition of it.

    Finally, it seems that Larsen undermines his argument when he leaves the goal of the initial text in place. For his part, David Parker can assert that the Gospels do not have originals while still affirming that there is an initial text because he (wrongly, in my view) categorically bifurcates initial text and original text. But Larsen admits to going further than Parker by saying there may be no point or points of fixity at all in the Gospel traditions, even once written down. It is telling that Larsen can’t understand why Parker doesn’t speak of initial texts (plural). The answer, it seems to me, is because Parker does not deny all points of fixity but only an original point of fixity unlike Larsen.

    Obviously, a good article with much to discuss.

  3. I too read this article when it came out a few weeks ago. It really piqued my interest as it approached the assertion that Holmes made that of "macrolevel stability and microlevel flyidity" from the perspective of ancient publication practices in a very similar manner as I do in my forthcoming SBL paper. I need to go for now but I will give my thoughts in a later comment below.

  4. Thanks for the link, I'll have to go read the article.

    My presumptions going into it are that I'll think he's reaching too far.

    I'm happy accepting that the boundaries of the text were more fluid than we might traditionally think, and that the process of publishing a text was messier than we might have previously thought, but any stronger notion of fluidity - even something still short of an extreme caricature of total fluidity - is likely, in my view, reaching too far.

    Surely if the beginnings of the text were that much more fluid, we would see a wider diversity in the existing manuscript tradition. For as much as we discuss variants, the total scope of variation is relatively narrow. We would need to imagine some sort of external, top-down refining act - a massive, deliberate recension - occurring sometime between composition and the start of the manuscript line in order to get from such a fluidity thesis to the current state of the manuscript evidence.

    Also, I'm not sold on the idea of the printing press provoking us to anachronistically project fixed-finality back into the early era. I mean, yes, the printing press certainly lends itself to fixed-finality better than lesser writing technologies, but they still would have had to have gotten the idea from somewhere. Technologies usually come along to advance existing ideas. Technologies that need to establish their own ideas tend not to catch on - exhibit A: Google Glasses. But back to the printing press, I doubt it was the case that Guttenburg was saying to his friends "Hey look what I invented, moveable type! And not only that, I was thinking, you know how all our texts are so fluid and everything? I had a great idea in the bath this morning: why don't we make them fixed!? It will be real easy now with this nifty press I just invented..."

    1. Ryan, yes I agree on the printing press. Erasmus' edition of the Greek New Testament is hardly one of textual finality. The discrete stages are more easily discerned, but it is actually very fluid. Not to mention that we are up to Nestle 28!

    2. "Surely if the beginnings of the text were that much more fluid, we would see a wider diversity in the existing manuscript tradition."

      I agree with this. If the early stage of Gospels circulation were as fluid as some make it out to be, I wouldn't expect our existing manuscript witnesses all to be within as narrow of a range of variance with one another as they are.

      However, I think that those who do think that are looking more at witnesses other than manuscripts, especially early quotations, following the arguments of Koester in Synoptische Überlieferung bei den apostolischen Vätern. The idea seems to be that those quotations take us back to a period prior to the settling down of the text, while the extant manuscripts all come from after that time.

    3. But if you count Matthew as a form of Mark, wouldn't you agree that there is quite a bit of fluidity?

    4. Yes, I think you would have to! Obviously, for those of us who still operate from a 4 independent gospels perspective, such fluidity is not necessary.


    5. Vielleicht die eigentliche Frage ist, was ist die Ausgangstext?

    6. "But if you count Matthew as a form of Mark, wouldn’t you agree that there is quite a bit of fluidity?"

      Yes. And then Tatian's Diatesseron as another form yet.

      But it seems to me that all the evidence we have points to all these being understood to be distinct works going back to the earliest days of their existences. And to me, because of this, the existence of Matthew as distinct from Mark, and the existence of the Diatesseron as distinct from its sources, is strong evidence against the hyper-fluidity hypothesis and for the existence of a specific understood original official published form for each work.

      That said, there's still room for debate about how fuzzy the edges around the published works could be, especially if there was a possibility of a work having been published in more than one official edition, where each of those editions would be similar enough to be recognized as editions of the same work, but still with differences between them.

    7. Der Ausgangstext ist kein Problem. Seine englische Übersetzung ist.

  5. Even with the advent of e-book publishing, where you can upload a revised version of a book at no cost, sometimes as a process of refinement in preparation for publishing a print copy (which you can also now amend at very little cost), nevertheless there comes a point at which an author gets sick of working on revising a book and leaves it in a final form. I would think that for most fastidious authors, the thought of making revisions would be embarrassing, both in the ancient world as well as today. The idea of a living text idea has little to do with the medium, but rather the outlook and habits of the author.