How different is a critical text from a pre-critical text?

We like to work from a critical text, don’t we? And rightly so; a text established in a scholarly manner, from a proper analysis of the witnesses and due consideration of the style of the author and the period is a good thing.

But an awful lot of texts don’t exist in that form.  So … how usable are those pre-critical texts?

Today I compared the text of excerpts of Eusebius from Jerome’s Commentary on Matthew, published by Angelo Mai in the 1820’s from, no doubt, some older edition, with the latest critical text in the Sources Chretiennes.  I was struck by the lack of differences. 

Differences there were.  An ergo for an igitur, a quum for a cum.  A late antique peccatricibus is given by SC for Mai’s peccatores — but the sense is the same.  Indeed I couldn’t find an instance where the text changed meaning. 

I did find that Mai had punctuated his excerpts inadequately.  He didn’t indicate omissions properly.  Where he introduced the “Magi” as the subject of a verb, to clarify the sense, he didn’t indicate that he had added this word.  But what he did quote really differed little if at all from the SC text except in details such as above.

I am rather heartened by this.  I had expected worse. 

It will be interesting to do the same exercise with Ambrose’s Commentary on Luke, where again Mai quotes excerpts and the SC is the critical text, and see what the results are.

2 Responses to “How different is a critical text from a pre-critical text?”


  1. Bill Thayer

    In my own experience, limited pretty much to Latin texts since my Greek is weak plus I’m not usually very interested in Greek writers, the fancy modern critical editions are at their most useful pretty much only when (a) numbers or proper nouns are involved; (b) new manuscripts have been found. Pliny, Ptolemy, astrological and technical writers, geographers: those I would want every piece of critical apparatus I could get; but Cicero and Plutarch and historians and philosophers and even theologians, I imagine it matters less: yes, even theologians and philosophers, who are often certainly technical writers — because they will usually make themselves fulsomely, repetitively, nauseatingly clear and our understanding of them isn’t likely to hinge on some one jot or a tittle somewhere.

  2. Roger Pearse

    Thank you for your take on this. My experience too is limited to Latin writers. I think these categories are probably correct. If we have a writer who is very terse, the meaning of individual words is going to be critical sometimes. But in other cases, less so.

    I think we all want a good apparatus if we can get one, and still more a good commentary for a technical writer. Without the latter we may often find ourselves in the dark.

    You’re right about the verbosity of some ecclesiastical writers, tho.



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