Monday, March 13, 2023

Recent Unsubstantiated Critiques of the CBGM (Pastorelli and Alexanderson)


At the SNTS in Leuven last summer, David Pastorelli came up to me during a break and handed over an off-print of an article, "La mise en oeuvre de la cohérence prégénéalogique dans le cadre de la Coherence-Based Genealogical Method: évaluation critique," BABELAO 10-11 (2022): 169-188, in which he criticizes the Coherence-Based Genealogical Method making ample references to my and Peter Gurry's introduction to the method. When I read the article I just felt that it was so full of misunderstandings that I did not know where to begin. Unfortunately, Pastorelli has never participated in our text-critical seminar at SNTS, where we could have had a dialogue about his concerns.

In any case, Klaus Wachtel has now actually taken the time to offer a response to Pastorelli under the heading, "Selective Reading and Unsubstiantiated Criticism" on the INTF Blog, for which I am grateful. In the blogpost, Wachtel refers to one of the many unsubstantiated statements that Pastorelli cites in his article, namely a statement that he has drawn from Bengt Alexanderson's 2014 critique of the CBGM: "This is all arbitrary, a 'place of variation', a reading, a variant, a passage can be anything" (Pastorelli, 179).  

Many years ago I was asked by a Swedish journal to review Alexanderson's study. I wrote the review in Swedish (Swedish version here), but  I have now translated it below for our blog readers – it is another example of criticism against the CBGM which is totally off the mark. (The critique of the CBGM are in his chapters 3–4.)

Review of Bengt Alexanderson, Problems in the New Testament: Old Manuscripts and Papyri, the New Genealogical Method (CBGM) and the Editio Critica Maior (ECM) (Acta Regiae Societatis Scientiarum et Litterarum Gothoburgensis. Humaniora 48). 146 pages. Kungl. Vetenskaps- och Vitterhets-Samhället i Göteborg 2014.

Bengt Alexanderson’s short study is divided into four chapters: (1) An analysis of textual variants in four of the oldest textual witnesses to the Gospel of John (P66, P75, Codices Sinaiticus and Vaticanus); (2) A survey of how Barbara Aland has analyzed early NT papyri in three studies; (3) A critical treatment of the Coherence-Based Genealogical Method (CBGM), developed by Gerd Mink of the Institut für neutestamentliche Textforschung in Münster and applied for the Editio Critica Maior (ECM) and, in extension, also Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece (from the 28th edition and onwards); (4) An evaluation of the second edition of the Editio Critica Maior IV. Catholic Letters (“ECM2”).

Unfortunately, the book has major shortcomings in style, language and special knowledge of New Testament textual criticism. The problems starts in the very first sentence when Alexanderson enumerates the four manuscripts to be analyzed and labels Codex Sinaiticus (ℵ 01) as “S” – a siglum reserved for an altogether different manuscript in our standard editions (Codex Vaticanus 354). In the next sentence he states that the two papyri P66 and P75 are the only manuscripts that can be dated to the fourth century. In reality, however, these papyri are usually dated earlier, whereas Sinaiticus and Vaticanus are dated to the fourth century.

In the first footnote (p. 10), the author tells us that the chapter in question has been published in an earlier version with reference to a webpage (under Gothenburg University Library). Here he says, “I have been much helped by Metzger,” referring to the Textual Commentary to the Greek New Testament published by United Bible Societies (UBS) where Metzger, as secretary of the UBS editorial committee, comments on the various decisions. At the same time, Alexanderson states that he often comes to different conclusions than these experts. Further ahead, he explains that he puts the greatest weight on internal criteria rather than knowledge of the character and quality of the manuscripts:

This way of handling the text, which I am very far from calling a method, has the consequence that so-called inner criteria become more important, or even remain as the sole survivors on the battlefield. This means that we must rely on our modest knowledge and on our feeble judgement. Let us accept this position with humility. (p. 18)

The statement is followed by a footnote with a quotation of Metzger who explains that the editorial committee made a decision at a certain point on the basis of external evidence, “impressed by the age, range and diversity of evidence.” Alexanderson objects without any discussion of this particular case: “This means that the reading was highly valuated, not that it was true” (p. 18n19). This highly selective way of citation leads to a serious misrepresentation of the method and work of the UBS committee on the part of Alexanderson in effect reflecting badly on his own scholarship.

The author then goes through a number of “interesting passages” in the Gospel of John where he compares the four manuscripts. Here he makes a number of good observations reflecting his good command of Greek grammar and style although his lack of familiarity with textual criticism shines through here and there. For example, he points out that it is interesting that a late minuscule like 1241 has a reading without πρώτην in John 2:11, “which is probably more original than that of P66” (p. 21). However, in this variation-unit all other manuscripts except P66* and ℵ* lack the word πρώτην. Alexanderson has likely misunderstood how the critical apparatus works. (A similar judgment about a reading in John 1:49 is sounder, since the reading in that case only occurs in P66* and 1241.)

Alexanderson rightly concludes that erroneous readings, which have not affected the tradition to any large degree, occurred already from an early stage of the tradition (p. 44). In this connection, however, a discussion about whether unique readings, including clear scribal errors, more likely go back to the individual scribe and are corrected directly or relatively soon. It is more difficult to understand why Alexanderson in the next breath draws the conclusion that the age of a manuscript and the spread of a reading cannot be attributed any weight (p. 44), in particularly not when his analysis is limited to a few variants in a few very early manuscripts including unique wordings, scribal errors and corrections. If one only considers the 135 passages which he discusses in chapter 1–15, where there are numerous variants in the textual tradition, Alexanderson still prefers the text of P75 and Vaticanus (B 03) remarkably often without drawing out the implications of this pattern. Further, Alexanderson does not think his study confirms that P75 and Vaticanus have a very similar text – a fact that no serious scholar questions – but this perhaps says more about his own procedure and selection of variants. Alexanderson’s study lacks a clear account of how often any of his selected textual witnesses agrees or not.

In chapter two Alexanderson summarizes and discusses three articles by Barbara Aland (2002–2006) where she analyzes early fragmentary papyrus manuscripts using a specially developed method (which has been further developed since then). Alexanderson does not entirely agree with Aland that several of these manuscripts reflect an exemplar of high quality. This likely has to do with his disagreement with the common view that unique readings in the New Testament textual tradition are more likely changes by the individual scribe in relationship to the exemplar that was copied. In other words, it is important to understand that Aland’s method evaluates the exemplar that the scribe of a certain papyrus used by filtering away the errors and unique readings the actual scribe himself produced in order to evaluate the textual quality of the reconstructed exemplar behind the copy.

The third most extensive chapter is an evaluation of the CBGM. The method is complicated and unfortunately the author’s critique overshoots the mark since he neither understands the method, nor shares its fundamental assumptions. Thus, Alexanderson rejects the view that the general character of a manuscript is important in order to determine the earliest reading in a particular passage (p. 59). Here Alexanderson breaks with the firmly established principle as formulated by F.J.A. Hort for some 130 years ago, Knowledge of documents should precede final judgments upon readings. Furthermore, Alexanderson seems to have misunderstood the basic notion of prior/posterior reading and confused prior with original (p. 61). These terms are used in the CBGM to explain which readings have given rise to other readings in a unit of variation (thus, there can be several prior readings in one passage, and one and the same reading can be both prior and posterior reading at the same time in relationship to other readings).

Alexanderson also criticizes the fact that the CBGM counts agreements and disagreements in the manuscripts’ texts in the first step, since he thinks certain agreements or disagreements must be given more weight than others from a qualitative (philological) standpoint – all cannot be assigned the same valuate since certain trivial agreements/disagreements are coincidental rather than pointing to real genealogical relationship between manuscripts (pp. 63–68). Here Alexanderson is absolutely correct, but the fact is that this qualitative evaluation is made in the next step of the CBGM where the textual critic weighs every individual textual problem and constructs local stemmata (this weighting is related to the notion of connectivity). In fact, the CBGM helps the user to better determine the likelihood that a certain similarity of text between any two manuscripts is coincidental, i.e., that scribes independent of each other have done the same change.

Alexanderson, on the other hand, draws the conclusion that “the basic statistics are of no value, and the method breaks down at the start” (p. 116), and, further, “I do not think that the method is of any value for establishing the text of the New Testament” (p. 117). Thereafter he asks rhetorically, “Has the CBGM done much damage? I do not think so. Fortunately, ECM2 still sticks to ‘reasoned eclecticism’ . . . I think that the EMC2 [sic] comes out quite well.” Apparently, Alexanderson does not realize that the ECM2 was produced on the basis of the method he has just rejected (CBGM) where the philological analysis and weighing of variants in each unit of variation is an integral part of the method (and Alexanderson is certainly not the only scholar who misunderstood the CBGM on this particular point, assuming that the computer software made the textual decisions rather than the text-critic).

In the final chapter, Alexanderson discusses the ECM2 and repeats the same position as before, “The only conclusion one can draw must be that a judgement on [a] tradition generally and on certain documents especially is of no relevance when it comes to considering a special passage” (p. 136). I know of very few current practitioners of New Testament textual criticism that share such a view, and certainly not those who represent the dominant school of the discipline known as “reasoned eclecticism,” which lies behind the widely used scholarly editions of the Greek New Testament today.

There is a great need to critically evaluate and explain modern and influential methods in New Testament textual criticism, but in my opinion the book under review does not fulfil this task. It could definitely have been improved by extensive peer review and proof reading, but that would likely have demanded a major rewriting of the book in the first place.

Tommy Wasserman

1 comment

  1. Timothy Joseph3/14/2023 2:47 pm

    After reading your review and the INTF Blog, it is indeed apparent that Alexanderson does indeed misunderstand. While Pastorelli seems less confused, he still seems to have a less than necessary understanding of the ECM. Still, I also believe that INTF has given the Byzantine text too much regard. Watchel did clearly explain their reasoning for doing so, yet, at least for me, his explanation was less than satisfactory.