Thursday, May 23, 2024

What level of confidence we should have in reconstructions of fragmentary papyrus texts?


With a fragmentary papyrus manuscript—as the majority of our NT papyri are—and a known text being copied, editors very often reconstruct the missing portions of text beyond the boundaries of the extant material. This is all well and good, and totally necessary. But one might ask the question as to what level of confidence we should have in the reconstructed (=non-extant) text?

A preliminary answer could be: “no confidence at all, it is not extant, reconstruction is basically speculation, try to ignore it.”

Another option might be: “well the scholar who did this had all the time with the actual manuscript, and had studied the general way of the scribe closely, and (potentially) long experience in such things, so it makes sense to trust it”.

But someone might say: “I wish we had a test case where a published text of a NT papyrus manuscript was later supplemented by the publication of a fragment or two which gave total clarity on the beginnings and endings of lines and could help us with an assessment of what level of confidence we should have in reconstructed texts.”

Recently I had occasion to look much more closely than I had before at two fragments of P66 from Köln (photos below) (remember that the later portions of P. Bodmer II was published by Martin and then in a revised edition by Martin and Barns in 1962). So we can compare the reconstructions (in John 19) of Martin & Barns with those of Gronewald.

 V. Martin & J.W.B. Barns, Papyrus Bodmer II, Supplément. Evangile de Jea chap. 14-21 (Geneva: Bibliotheca Bodmeriana; rev. 19622), 35-38.

M. Gronewald, ‘Johannes-evangelium, Kap. 19,8-11.13-15.18-20.23-24, Kölner Papyri 5’ Papyrologica Colonensia [Abhandlungen der Rheinisch-Westfälischen Akademie der Wissenschaften] 7 (1985), 73-76, 296-298.

Across the passages in John 19.8-11, 13-15, 18-20, 23-24 Martin (& Barns) was dealing with a fragmentary text (P. Bodmer II) somewhere in the middle of the four columns, and on that basis reconstructing total lines. With the new discoveries we had either beginnings or ends of lines for nine or ten lines in each of these columns.

The result of a comparison is that although Martin (& Barns) made some brilliant anticipations, the 1985 lines reconstructed by Gronewald match exactly the 1962 lines in only 18 out of 38 lines (47%). Although a fair number of the twenty are errors of word division of no great consequence; there are also new word order variations, spelling variations, additional punctuation, different cases, corrections, and one major difference in the text reading (in John 19.10 where alterations across three lines result in a quite distinct reading).

This test case confirms that we should be extremely cautious about appeals to reconstructed text in the use of fragmentary material.