The Library Basement
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Tag textual criticism

XML and the Bible

While working on an importer to bring the SBL Greek New Testament into Open Scriptures, I noticed some interesting features of the SBLGNT XML file. (I promised that I would try to exclude posts of a technical nature from this blog, but I am breaking that promise, because I think this technical discussion is interesting and applicable to Biblical studies.)

The SBLGNT's XML representation of the Biblical text makes an interesting distinction between tags which have child elements and childless tags. That is, normal XML tags encompass the actual Greek text and its structures (such as paragraphs and books), while childless tags represent insertions which are not original to the text. Here is a truncated Matthew 1:1 in the SBLGNT XML as an example:

<book id="Mt">

\<title>ΚΑΤΑ ΜΑΘΘΑΙΟΝ\</title>


\<verse-number id="Matthew 1:1">1:1\</verse-number>


\<suffix> \</suffix>



\<suffix>. \</suffix>


Notice how there is no "verse" tag which encompasses all of the included text. Instead "verse-number" is a tag which is inserted where ever the verse breaks are located. This is opposed to the "p" (paragraph) tag, which encompasses all of the child "w" (word) and "suffix" (spaces and punctuation) tags. Paragraphs are of course present in the original biblical text.

One thing I might have done to take this principle even further would be to put the Book titles where they appear in the Greek manuscripts. In SBLGNT XML, the title is always the first child element of the "book" tag. However, that is not always where the title was in the manuscripts. Sometimes it was printed at the end of the book.

I like the distinction between textual forms and externally imposed structures as reflected in this XML document. I'm not sure what Logos' exact thinking was behind these design choices, but I think I've identified it.

What is the harder reading?

The latest issue of the Journal of Biblical Literature (129:3) has a great article entitled "A Disconcerting Prayer: On the Originality of Luke 23:34a" by Nathan Eubank. "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do" has been considered a spurious reading by modern textual critics, because the textual witness is divided and the prayer is just "too good" to have been omitted as a hard reading. Yet Eubank makes a thorough case that this prayer was indeed a hard reading in the early church for a number of reasons. I'm reasonably convinced by his arguments.

In the course of this study, Eubank highlights a problem with the text-critical axiom "the harder reading is to be preferred":

Hort warned that in making use of transcriptional probability, “we have to do with readings only as they are likely to have appeared to transcribers, not as they appear to us.” Yet Hort’s own confidence that no scribe would have omitted something as sublime as Luke 23:34a illustrates the tenuousness of arguments based on one’s general knowledge of early Christianity, rather than on actual early Christian interpretations of the reading in question. [0]

So if someone wants to make an argument based on the concept of a harder reading, one had better know what was considered hard when the text was being transmitted. This seems like a daunting task at first, because in most cases there is no direct evidence as to what any particular scribe or patron considered hard (unless there is comment in the margin). Furthermore, given the variance of opinion which has always existed in the church, there is never a safe assumption about what any particular scribe would have considered "hard," even if we can determine a general consensus in the church on a particular matter. So, how can a "hard" reading be determined?

As Eubank demonstrated, this can be done with references to the church fathers, among other methods. And the particular power of Eubanks' argument comes in that this same textual change is witnessed in all text families and time periods, a pattern which can be effectively explained by a "hard reading" being omitted by some, and not others, outside of the typical patterns of textual variance.

So while I'm usually skeptical of arguments from difficulty, Eubank has highlighted a very good example, and at the same time vindicated the textual validity of one of Jesus' most interesting prayers.

[0] Eubank, Nathan. "A Disconcerting Prayer: On the Originality of Luke 23:34a." Journal of Biblical Literature 129:3, p. 536.


Today I discovered a very interesting project: The Hexapla Institute.

The purpose of the Hexapla Institute is to publish a new critical edition of the fragments of Origen's Hexapla, an endeavor which might be described as, "A Field for the 21st Century" to be available in a print edition and as an online database.

In other  words, it's about the coolest project I've ever heard of. Sadly the website seems a bit out of date, so I'm not sure how/if the project is progressing at this point.

Codex Sinaiticus in the media

Some time ago I reported on the Codex Sinaiticus project and the media's problematic coverage. It is a difficult, technical topic to cover, but that does not explain all of the bizarre interpretations which appeared in print and online. Well, the topic is in the media again, and the coverage is as bad as ever. Thankfully Dan Wallace has compiled a very helpful list of media misconceptions:

“You might suppose it [the virtual reunification of Sinaticus] would upset those who believe the Bible is the inerrant, unaltered word of God, since the Codex shows there have over the centuries been thousands of alterations to today’s Bible. But they can counter that there are earlier, individual manuscripts of almost all the books in the Bible; the Codex just pulls them together into a single volume. In any case, fundamentalists have long been adept at ignoring the evidence of historical biblical scholarship” (ibid.). A whole host of faulty assumptions occur in this paragraph, such as that inerrantists and fundamentalists are synonymous, that the changes made to the codex in later centuries can have any impact on one’s belief in the inerrancy of the autographs, that the whole issue of canonicity is in some way altered by this codex, or even that knowledge of this manuscript is only now coming to light. All this really shows is that the author is ignorant of both inerrantists and Sinaiticus.

More there. Thankfully there are some exceptionally intelligent and talented individuals in the church who can help people sift through the nonsense.