Friday, August 19, 2022

Gainsford on “Can We Trust Medieaval Copies of Ancient Books?”


Stephen Carlson drew my attention to this interesting blogpost, “Can We Trust Medieaval Copies of Ancient Books?” by the classicist Peter Gainsford “Kiwi Hellenist.” First he makes five statements which I just list here:

1. Copying, by definition, is a faithful process.

2. Copying includes error-correction.

3. Modern editors have the explicit goals of gauging manuscripts’ reliability and amending errors, and they have a powerful arsenal of techniques for doing so.

4. Where there are doubts over a text, modern editions give full documentation of those doubts.

5. Where it is possible to check the accuracy of the manuscript tradition, its accuracy is high.

Then, in order to prove this last point, he works through three ancient texts from the satirist Lucian, the poet Meleager, and the geographer Strabo, respectively, where new evidence have come to light in the form of ancient papyri, so that he can compare an old edition (based on medieval manuscript) with the new evidence. After working through is examples, he concludes:

    1. Modern editors really know what they’re doing, and their expertise in sorting out the correct text deserves a huge amount of respect.
    2. Mediaeval copies are very accurate, with only minor discrepancies from their ancient counterparts.

Now, having said that, there are situations — or rather, literary genres — where we do expect much more discrepancies. Some ancient texts weren’t copied as such, but instead went through recensions and reworkings.

Note that Gainsford also added a postscript a day later with in which he expressed caution that his three examples were not representative of all ancient texts.

I do think his statements are applicable for the New Testament textual tradition and the first statement also made me associate to the basic assumption of the Coherence-Based Genealogical Method that “a scribe wants to copy a manuscript with fidelity; primarily the scribe does not want to create new readings.”

Now, go read the full blogpost!

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