The Anti-Scholar

This afternoon I found myself debating with a Muslim polemicist online who was rubbishing the bible, and suggesting that we don’t even have the words of Jesus.  The polemicist dealt with my replies by ignoring them and simply making further claims, so our debate did not last long.  But in the process I was treated to a quotation, which struck me as quite extraordinary:

A good number of the books of the Bible are pseudonymous (for example, written in the name of an apostle by someone else), that in fact we don’t have the original copies of any of the biblical books but only copies made centuries later, all of which have been altered.

This daft claim, I was told, was by a certain Bart Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them), Harper Collins (2010).

Of course one would never trust a polemic, so I went and looked.  To my astonishment the quotation, slightly abbreviated, was accurate, and may be found on pages 14-15 of the book.  A somewhat longer quoted is here.  The book itself is not a scholarly volume – so much must be allowed for -, but is an anti-Christian – and especially anti-bible – hit piece, complete with claims of “I was one of you once but then I learned better”.

It is always curious to hear claims that the transmitted authorship of “a good number” of the New Testament texts is now “known” to be false.  Such claims are invariably uttered with the utmost certainty.  But our knowledge of the authorship derives from precisely two sources, in exactly the same way as with every other ancient literary text.  The first source is the attributions in the manuscripts; in their tituli or colophons.  The other is the testimony of other ancient texts.  Neither justifies the claim made.  In reality this claim seems to be the product of something very like the “assured conclusions of modern scholarship”, or something of that sort.

But scholarship is not science.  There are few mechanisms to control partisan distortions.  On matters of controversy, of politics or religion, the consensus of scholarship in a time and place naturally tends to reflect the consensus of the non-scholars who control university appointments.

Anybody who delves into past controversies, long dead, can think of examples of this.  In patristics we have the arguments of the 19th century between “protestant” and “catholic” scholars, each in their university fortresses, over whether the longer or shorter forms of the treatises and letters of Cyprian should be accepted as genuine.  Today I think we would most accept that both are genuine, and the longer form was revised by the author in order to give support to Pope Stephen in his difficulties with the Novatianists.

An occurence of the same problem was demonstrated by N. Holzberg in his essay “Lucian and the Germans”, in A.C.Dionisotti, The Uses of Greek and Latin: Historical Essays, Strasbourg (1988), 199-209.  In Germany before 1945, Lucian was regarded as a second-rate Jewish author.  This consensus, Holzberg showed, derived from a single seminal article, which was verbally identical in passages with a non-scholarly rant, published in an anti-semitic magazine some months earlier, by Houston Stewart Chamberlain.  No doubt examples could be multiplied indefinitely.

None of this means that scholarship is not worth our time.  But it does mean that we need to exercise a critical intelligence towards claims which have a significant political or religious utility to the author or those who pay him.  This is true when we disagree with them and even more so when we do agree with them.  The greatest barrier to understanding the past is anachronism, and the greatest source of anachronism is our own opinions.

Biblical studies will never be anything other than a politicised discipline.  I suppose most of us know that the biblical scholars of the early 20th century were certain that John’s Gospel – which they elaborately called “The Fourth Gospel” – was composed around 170.  There was never any evidence for this at all, and all the evidence was against it.  In 1936 they were put right by the discovery of a papyrus fragment, dated before then.  But this was quite accidental.  They should never have got to that place in the first place.  Yet I see that some scholars still yearn for those days.

We need not spend any time on the claim that some of the NT texts are not by the transmitted author.  The data to support such a claim does not exist, the claim is useful to those who control the appointments of scholars in the USA, and the methods used seem entirely too reminiscent of the “Fourth Gospel” school of writing.

But Dr E. is supposed to be a professional textual critic, a man who earns his living by being paid to do textual criticism.  Does he actually mean what he says, when he tells his audience that “we don’t have the original copies of any of the biblical books but only copies made centuries later, all of which have been altered”, knowing that they will understand this to mean that we don’t actually have the text?

What is textual criticism about?  Let us have the words with which Paul Maas opens his handbook, Textual Criticism, Oxford (1958):

1. We have no autograph manuscripts of the Greek and Roman classical writers and no copies which have been collated with the originals; the manuscripts we possess derive from the originals through an unknown number of intermediate copies, and are consequently of questionable trustworthiness.

The business of textual criticism is to produce a text as close as possible to the original (constitutio textus).

An admirably economical and precise definition.

Textual criticism arises from the rediscovery of the classics during the renaissance, and the need to fix damage – mainly copyist errors.  It arose from love: love of the texts studied, of a desire to have them, to read them, to learn from them.  If I recall correctly, Petrarch was so excited when he discovered the letters of Cicero at Verona that he sat down and wrote a letter to Cicero, telling him how much they meant to him.

What, I wonder, would Petrarch have thought of a man who said,

we don’t have the original copies of any of the biblical classical books but only copies made centuries later, all of which have been altered.

I suspect that he would have called him an ignoramus; or rather, he would have called him something very much worse.  He lived in a time when insult was an art.  E. is paid to do what Petrarch did, to make the texts transmitted to us free of errors.  He is not paid – at least in principle – to invent reasons to suppose those texts not worth the reading.  Poisoning the well is no trade for a scholar.  Yet here we are.

It is absurd to suggest that “all the copies have been altered”, of the 5,000 manuscripts of the Greek NT.  Nobody knows that, least of all Dr. E., who, like most people, has probably never looked at more than a handful.  It could more reasonably be said that all contain copyist errors, but of course this is merely saying that we live in an imperfect world.  Every book in the world is imperfect, in one respect or another.  No printed edition reflects the author’s manuscript, even without corrections in proof.  For how many books that we have on our shelves is the autograph preserved?

It is absurd to say that we have “only copies made centuries later”, when we have the Apocriticus of Macarius Magnes, extant only in a posthumous printed edition of 1876.  The unwary reader will naturally infer from the claim that the copies are so late that the text is unreliable; when in fact the bible text is far and away the best preserved text of its period, and one with the earliest witnesses, to within a couple of decades in some cases.

But for E., we only have “copies… all of which have been altered.”  Hardly worth our time, unless paid to do so – certainly not worth our trust.  Far better to trust whatever the man on TV says this week; that is what the reader is intended to hear.

There’s nothing much to be done about Dr E., and those who pay him to write this stuff.  It’s not scholarship.  It’s polemic, intended to demoralise his religious enemies. There are very many worse things recorded of academics down the years.  Especially by their enemies!

But it’s still annoying to those of us trying to get people to read old books.  That should be all of us, and especially it should be every text critic and every scholar.


From my diary

I’ve had no time to do anything useful for a week, but I’m still gathering materials on John the Deacon as a sideline.  Thanks to the kindness of Fr. Gerardo Cioffari at the St Nicholas Centre in Bari (= Centro Studi Nicolaiani) – himself a considerable scholar -, I now have access to Pasquale Corsi’s translation of John the Deacon.

I don’t dare look at Corsi’s translation until I’m rather more advanced with my own translation than I currently am!   Of course Dr Corsi worked on the text for years, rather than my dabbling, and knows far more about it.  Dr Cioffari also sent me a booklet with critical text of an important work on the translation of the relics of St Nicholas to Bari, which may be very useful in time.

The translation is contained in P. Corsi, La traslazione di San Nicola: Le fonti, Bari (1987), p.87-109.  His introduction is also useful, as this extract shows (plus google translate):

A tal fine, viene qui proposta una traduzione della Vita di san Nicola dal testo latino di Giovanni, diacono della Chiesa napoletana, il quale verso l’880 aveva tradotto precedenti fonti greche6. L’edizione seguita è quella da me stesso pubblicata di recente7, però con alcune modifiche sug­erite da ulteriori letture e da qualche ripensamento; naturalmente ho provveduto anche ad eliminare alcuni errori materiali di stampa. Per quanto riguarda la traduzione, ho cercato di mantenere un giusto equili­brio tra la fedeltà al testo latino e le strutture linguistiche dell’italiano mo­derno, allo scopo di non sacrificare né lo stile del nostro agiografo né la scorrevolezza della versione moderna. Ovviamente, non posso essere certo di essere riuscito nell’intento. Mi auguro comunqe di aver conservato per il lettore le principali caratteristiche dell’opera di Giovanni, senza per que­sto rendere difficoltosa la comprensione dei concetti e delle espressioni.

To this end, a translation of the Life of St. Nicholas is published here from the Latin text of John, deacon of the Neapolitan Church, who had translated previous Greek sources towards 1880 (6). The edition followed is the one I published recently (7), but with some changes suggested by further reading and some rethinking; naturally I have also taken steps to eliminate some printing errors. As for the translation, I have tried to maintain a fair balance between fidelity to the Latin text and the linguistic structures of modern Italian, in order not to sacrifice either the style of our hagiographer or the fluency of the modern version. Obviously, I cannot be sure that I have succeeded in this intention. However, I hope to have kept the main characteristics of John’s work for the reader, without making it difficult to understand the concepts and expressions.

6 BHL 6104-6117, particol 6104-6106; cfr. BHG 1352y. Si veda, in proposito, anche l’introduzione al saggio qui appresso citato al n. 7.  (=On this, see the introduction to the article in note 7 below)

 7 P. CORSI, La ‘‘Vita” di San Nicola e un codice della versione di Giovanni Diacono, in “Nicolaus” VII/2 (1979), pp. 359-380, particol. pp. 361-380.

I’ve now placed an interlibrary request for the article in note 7, which should bring the Latin text, as edited from Ms. Berlin 741.

Interestingly a random Google search revealed an earlier translation by P. Corsi, in Autori Vari, Bibliografia agiografica italiana 1976-1999, p.23, item 254:

254. Corsi Pasquale, Giovanni Diacono: Vita di San Nicola, tradotta dal latino dal ms. Berolin. 741. Bari. Centro Studi Nicolaiani. 1982. 28 pp., ill.

The St Nicholas Centre publications are very nicely printed and illustrated, I should add.

But Corsi’s edition, although certainly an advance on any previous edition, is not the critical edition that we all need.  This I learn from a really useful database page, at Mirabileweb, here:

Non è disponibile un’edizione critica; un recente lavoro di P. Corsi non esaurisce i complessi rapporti tra i lemmi BHL e le edizioni antiche di Mombrizio, Falconio e A. Mai.

A critical edition is not available; a recent work by P. Corsi does not exhaust the complex relationships between the BHL lemmas and the ancient editions of Mombrizio, Falconio and A. Mai.

This is in line with my own understanding: the transmission of the text is very complicated.  Somebody needs to do a doctoral thesis on it!


Fragment of unknown work by Apuleius discovered in Verona

Via Ugo Mondini on Twitter I learn of an exciting find yesterday (May 9) at the Biblioteca Capitolare – the Chapter Library – in Verona.  It seems that an American team – the “Lazarus Project” – using Multi-Spectral Imaging have discovered a lost text by Apuleius.


Quarantasette scatti per ciascuna pagina effettuati con una fotocamera da 150 megapixel. Diversi filtri di luce, dall’infrarosso all’ultravioletto. Poi il computer elabora le immagini. È nata così la scoperta fatta il 9 maggio. In un palinsesto, un testo antico riscritto più volte, lo strato più basso nascondeva un frammento di un testo di Apuleio andato perduto: un commento alla Repubblica di Platone.

Il merito è degli studiosi del “Lazarus Project”, una squadra internazionale dell’università americana di Rochester, per la prima volta alla Biblioteca Capitolare, alla ricerca di segreti tra le pagine.

Google Translate:

Forty-seven shots per page taken with a 150 megapixel camera. Different light filters, from infrared to ultraviolet. Then the computer processes the images. Thus was born the discovery made on May 9th. In a palimpsest, an ancient text rewritten several times, the lower layer hid a fragment of a lost text by Apuleius: a commentary on Plato’s Republic.

The credit goes to the scholars of the “Lazarus Project”, an international team from the American University of Rochester, for the first time at the Chapter Library, in search of secrets among the pages.

There is a video in Italian at the news site – if anyone has the spoken Italian, perhaps they could advise whether it has extra details?

There is stuff out there, people!  It really is worth going and looking!



The May Poems in the Chronography of 354

As with April, only a single manuscript of the Chronography contains an image for the month of May.  This is MS Vienna 3146, which never contains the poems. So again we are reliant on other unillustrated manuscripts, or the indirect tradition, for the poems.

Here is the 4-line poem (tetrastich):

Cunctas veris opes et picta rosaria gemmis
liniger in calathis, aspice, Maius habet.
Mensis Atlantigenae dictus cognomine Maiae
quem merito multum diligit Uranie.

All the treasures of spring, and the roses coloured like gems,
Behold! May has them, wrapped in linen in a basket.
The month is named after Maia, the daughter of Atlas,
Which Urania rightly loves most.

The 2-line verse (distich) is as follows:

Hos sequitur laetus toto iam corpore Maius
…Mercurio et Maia quem tribuisse Jovem.

Blessed May in now follows these (months) with all its strength,
Which (it is said) Jove has assigned to Mercury, son of Maia.

Housman noted that the second line was clearly corrupt and suggested that Mercurio is a gloss.  To me the obvious accusative and infinitive Jovemtribuisse indicate reported speech, and therefore that the missing text must have a sense something like “it is said”.  Divjak and Wischmeyer thought the same in their German version.

Again the image is only preserved in the 16th century Vienna manuscript 3416, folio 23 (online here):

The depiction is of a figure holding something to his nose, together with a peacock and flowers in a kalathos.  From the first two lines of the tetrastich, the vessel is perhaps full of roses; and the figure is holding a rose in his right hand.

(For more information on this series of posts, please see the Introduction to the Poems of the Chronography of 354).


From my diary

I have now run all the way through John the Deacon’s Life of St Nicholas and made a first pass at translating it.  However I find that I will have to redo the first two chapters, which I attempted last year, as they are no good.  This is rather disconcerting, considering the sheer hard graft that I put into them, but there’s no doubt about it at all.  Fortunately I can reuse some little notes I made on difficult words.

It’s interesting that, when translating, you truly know when it is right.  If it is easy, it is usually right.  When you are struggling, ten to one but you are producing rubbish.

I have looked into collating some of the manuscripts.  I am slightly shocked at the meagre results of a search for software to assist in collation.  Considering the sheer number of people engaged in the study of texts, this is quite a surprise.  I can only suppose that this is caused by the inability to program of the majority of those engaged in the humanities.  I don’t think this is something that I will try to fix!

What has become clear is that collation is a time-consuming task outside my objective here.  I probably won’t do more on this.


Working with pre-critical Latin texts

Which comes first?  The text or the translation?  The question is not as simple as it seems.

There is no finer way to come to grips with a text than by preparing an exact translation of it into another language.  This forces the translator to look at every case ending, every -ae and -um; every verb tense and mood and voice.  It highlights, very rapidly, areas of the text that have some kind of awkwardness about them.

I once knew a Swedish scholar who was tasked with preparing a critical edition of one of the works of Tertullian – I no longer remember which one.  He began by translating an existing edition into English (!), very literally.  This gave him a word-by-word knowledge of the text, which is why he did it.

My own efforts to translate John the Deacon’s Life of St Nicholas have reminded me of this forcefully.  Some portions of the text are very much harder to translate than others.

In some cases the text itself – the Falconius edition of 1751 – seems suspect.  When this happens, I increasingly find myself consulting the Mombritius edition of 1478, and the Mai edition of 1840.  I have, indeed, come to mistrust the Falconius text.  But along the way, I find that interesting things emerge.

I have found that the Mai edition often simply omits a “difficult” sentence altogether.  The first three chapters of the text are particularly difficult, and I see that Mai simply omits most of it.  Clearly the scribe of whatever manuscript lies behind the Mai edition felt exactly as I did about the text; and didn’t propose to strain his brain with it.  Omitted sentences include all those which simply transcribe a Greek word.  These are a source of difficulty to the Mai scribe.  I do understand, indeed.  At one point John uses the word “heroes” with the meaning “bishops”!  I wonder what a Greek dictionary would show?

For John was translating an awful Greek text, the “Methodius ad Theodorum”, which is beyond my abilities.  I suspect that the two – Methodius and John – need to be edited together.  But my long years of corporate experience make me well aware of “scope creep”, as a risk to any project, and I refuse to be side-tracked.  My translation will be of John, and John only.

It would also be possible to start doing some text critical work on the text.  After all, a small number of manuscripts are already online.  The Bollandist website lists a good many.

I have already OCR’d the texts of Falconius, Mombritius and Mai, and created Word documents of them.  What I might do is to run a text comparison on these, and see what comes out.  It would be purely for fun, of course, but it might be interesting.

If only one could OCR the manuscripts.  But that said, today I found in one sentence of Falconius three OCR errors.  This did delay me rather.

As with everything I do, I believe that whatever I do will be useful to others; and whatever I leave undone, well, the world is no worse off in this than it was before.

But clearly it would be possible for me to continue this, and produce some form of critical text.  It might not be very good, depending on how much time and effort I devoted to it.  But in this case, the translation would be the father of the text.  Yet here again, to produce a proper critical edition of John the Deacon would certainly require knowledge of the Greek.  It would not be a simple task.

I shall not go down this route.  As I usually do, I will include the text that I have translated.  This will be a somewhat modified version of Falconius.  But I won’t go further than that.


A small personal amendment to the Lord’s prayer

A few weeks ago I was asked to attend a memorial service for someone that I never met in my life.  Such are family commitments.  The service was for a child, and was every bit as sentimental and content-free as I had feared.

I have never suffered from any urge whatsoever to be “religious”.  As I endured the empty words, inevitably the temptation emerged to, shall we say, modify them slightly.

This got me into trouble when we reached and recited the Lord’s Prayer:

And forgive us our sins,
As we forgive those who sin against us.  The bastards.

I did not realise that I had said this aloud, but the lady sitting next to me tugged at my sleeve and firmly instructed me to be quiet!

But actually, isn’t that exactly what Our Lord is asking us to do?  To forgive the bastards who did us an injury.  To forgive those we think of in such terms?

All the same, I don’t think that I will be asked along to another such endurance test soon.  Thankfully!


A bit of web searching for BHL 6106 = chapter 12 of John the Deacon’s Life of St Nicholas

Alright, I got tempted.  I did a google search on BHL 6106, the chapter of John of the Deacon’s Life of St Nicholas that I am currently translating, or rather prevaricating about translating!

Almost instantly I came up with two manuscripts at the French National Library.  The first is 12th century, Ms. BNF Paris Latin 5573.  The splendid catalogue – which came up with the match – is here.  At the bottom is a link to a full digital manuscript, fully downloadable.    The catalogue tells me which folio to look on.  Magic.

The next was BNF Paris Latin 18303, 11th century, and really rather attractive!  Catalogue is here.  I downloaded it and scrolled to fol. 37, and there is the start of my text:

BNF Paris Latin 18303 fol. 37r.

Magic.  This sort of thing is so easy.  Everyone should do it!

Well done the BNF for getting this stuff up there and out there.


From my diary

I’ve settled back down to translating the Life of St Nicholas by John the Deacon.  The new and improved Google Translate for Latin has made it a far easier task.  The word order was exotic, and I had to crawl through each sentence, one by one, decrypting each word.  This was tedious and time-consuming.  Now at least I have a very decent guide to each sentence, and can concentrate on individual points.

As happens sometimes, I have ended up translating the chapters – or readings, for I think these are probably readings for church services – in reverse order.  I have done chapters 15, 14 and 13, and am now wading through chapter 12.

The later chapters are of dubious authenticity.  Chapter 12 is the first – starting from the end – to have transliterations of Greek words in it, for proper names.  This reflects the fact that the Life was translated from the Greek Methodius ad Theodorum, in Naples in the 9th century.

The text is the 1751 edition of Falconius, which is fairly dodgy.  At points I think it must be corrupt.  Curiously this does not bother Google Translate at all, which laughs at spelling mistakes etc.  One word didn’t feature in any dictionary that I have, but it did not stop Google.  I would guess that Falconius has printed some odd medieval spelling.

Once I have a complete draft translation, I think that I shall have to look at manuscripts.  It is really curious that no critical edition exists.  I believe that several manuscripts are online, and it might be useful to look at these.

I also need to follow up whatever bibliographical hints I can get from the Bibliographia Hagiographica Latina.  Simply googling the BHL references will probably lead me to a few sources.

I think there is a full Italian translation of the text by Pasquale Corsi in La traslazione di San Nicola: le fonti, Bari: Biblioteca di San Nicola: Centro Studi Nicolaiani (1987) Series: Studi e testi / Centro Studi Nicolaiani 8.  But much Italian scholarship is ridiculously hard to access here, and little of it is online, or has attracted the attention of the PDF pirates.   However I gather that book might be available from the Centro Studi Nicolaiana, so I have just popped them an email to enquire.

Now back to John the Deacon!


The April Poems in the Chronography of 354

Only a single manuscript of the Chronography contains an image for the month of April.  This is MS Vienna 3146, which never contains the poems.  (I am told that the same image reappears in the Leiden MS Voss.Lat.Q 79, a manuscript of the Aratea!  But this I have not seen)  So we are reliant on other unillustrated manuscripts, or the indirect tradition, for the poems.  Here is the 4-line poem (tetrastich):

Contectam myrto Venerem veneratur Aprilis,
lumen veris habet, quo nitet alma Thetis
cereus et dextra flammas diffundit odoras;
balsama nec desunt, quis redolet Paphie.

April worships a Venus robed with myrtle,
He has the light of spring, in which nurturing Thetis blooms,
And the waxen candle on the right diffuses the scents of flame;
Nor is balsam wanting, of which the Paphian (Venus) is redolent.

The 2-line verse (distich), preserved in the St Gall unillustrated manuscript, is as follows:

Caesareae Veneris mensis, quo floribus arva
prompta virent, avibus quo sonat omne nemus.

This is the month of Caesar’s Venus, in which the fields are green,
resplendent with flowers, in which every wood resounds with birdsong.

Divjak and Wischmeyer add an interesting comment, that the tetrastich verse is about the relationship of Venus to April.  The picture shows an older man dancing with castanets in front of a male cult statue.  The man is perhaps a Gallus named “April”, dancing before a statue of Attis, the “Venus” of the Magna Mater cult.

The 16th century Vienna manuscript 3416 (online here) gives us the image:

Vienna 3146, f. 5v – April

The figure is treating on what look like a set of pipes, perhaps belonging to an organ.

(For more information on this series of posts, please see the Introduction to the Poems of the Chronography of 354).