What is a critical edition, and how do I find one?

I have just been asked this basic question, on this post on the manuscripts of Pliny the Elder, and to my surprise a quick google does not give a satisfactory answer.  So … here goes!

Ancient literary texts were dictated or written by their authors more than 15 centuries ago.  They were then hand-copied for many centuries, initially in papyrus rolls, and then into the modern book format, the parchment codex.  During this time most ancient texts were lost, forever.  Only 1% of ancient literature is estimated to survive.

Those that do survive in medieval hand-written copies.  These are known as the “manuscripts” of ancient authors.  (For modern authors, we use the word “manuscript” differently, to mean the handwritten copy sent to the publisher by the author, but these almost never survive from antiquity).[1]  These copies are few.  Most ancient texts survive in copies no older than about A. D. 800, many of which descend from a single manuscript that had survived from Antiquity.  The only exceptions are texts that were used a lot during antiquity and after, such as the bible, and the works of the major church fathers.

Other losses of text happened.  Some texts survive in an incomplete form.  Sentences are missing.  Chapters are missing.  Whole books are missing.

For instance, the start of Suetonius’ Lives of the Twelve Caesars is not known to us, although it still existed in the 6th century AD, as a stray quote tells us.  Many ancient histories were written in tens of “books”, each originally a single scroll.  Livy’s Roman History is an example, written in at least 140 books.  The groups of 10 books travelled down the centuries separately.  Of Livy, all that survives is books 1-10 – one unit; books 21-30; books 31-40; and a single damaged manuscript which originally contained books 41-50 but the back is lost, and today it includes only books 41-45 and the first page of book 46.

Also, in the process of copying, scribes made mistakes.  Sometimes they went back and fixed them.  Sometimes a later copyist fixed it.  Sometimes a later copyist guessed wrong!  Also changes to the type of handwriting used for books – “book hand” is the jargon phrase – meant that later scribes could get confused.

Printing arrives in 1450.  The first printed editions of ancient texts arrive then.

But these were not “critical editions”.  Instead the publisher found a manuscript – often a late manuscript -, and simply printed whatever text was in it.  He might include some corrections, or not.  If it was a Greek text, he would often supply a translation into Latin.

These “pre-critical editions” were printed, and reprinted, for centuries.  Sometimes a work would be printed; and then a later publisher would find another manuscript, which contained parts of the work that the first one had not.  But often it was just a case of different punctuation, typeface, and notes.  (The text that “everybody” knew is sometimes called the “textus receptus”).

Imagine that you are an editor.  You have more than one manuscript.  They differ, in small ways.  What text do you print?  Well, the early editors bodged along, guessing at the correct text.

But in the early 19th century, scholars in Germany began to evolve some rules to decide how to handle this problem.  The rules are not scientific; they merely make common sense explicit.  The creation of these rules marked the creation of “textual criticism” as a discipline, dedicated to making it possible to restore a text to something like what the author wrote, and remove scribal errors.

The editions that arise from this process are known as “critical editions”.  They try to assemble all the manuscripts, where possible.  They try to compare them all.  They apply the rules of textual criticism to decide which versions of the text are original, and which are derived from the process of copying the work down the centuries.

Sometimes the “obvious” text is not right.  Greek texts in the 4th century BC were written in Attic Greek.  Later Hellenistic texts from the 3rd century BC to the 1st century AD were in a later form.  But from the 2nd century AD onwards, there was a revival of Attic Greek, which persisted as late as 1453.  Consequently Hellenistic texts could be “corrected” by an Atticising copyist.  The same process happens in Latin, where a difficult or unorthodox author can be “corrected”.  Some early editors certainly did the same, falsely correcting the author, rather than the manuscript.

Modern academic editions of ancient texts, in the original language, are always critical editions.  So to find a critical edition of any ancient author, you can use a library catalogue like the Library of Congress, or COPAC, and sort by date, most recent first.

Some critical editions become the “standard” edition.  The only way to find out which edition this might be is to read around the subject, read reviews of the editions, and see which edition is referenced.  Other critical editions of the same author will normally indicate if one edition is widely used.

Some critical editions are still not very good.  Most ancient literary texts do not even have a critical edition at all; the only editions are pre-critical.  The vast majority of ancient texts are of the church fathers, and modern scholars have preferred to edit classical texts instead.

  1. [1]My thanks to MDR for pointing out that such an original has survived, of the epigrams of the 6th century author Dioscorus of Aphrodito has survived, plus some other corrections – thank you.

The things not stated, and opaque to later readers

In the Journals of John Wesley, we find a couple of descriptive passages which must leave a careful non-English reader scratching his head in confusion.

The first of these, from 2nd July, 1745, reads as follows:

I was reading my text when a man came, raging as if just broke out of the tombs; and riding into the thickest of the people seized three or four one after another, none lifting up a hand against him A second (gentleman so called) soon came after, if possible more furious than he, and ordered his men to seize on some others, Mr Shepherd in particular. Most of the people however stood still as they were before and began singing an hymn. Upon this Mr B. lost all patience and cried out with all his might, “Seize him, seize him. I say, Seize the Preacher for his Majesty’s service.” But no one stirring he rode up and struck several of his attendants, cursing them bitterly for not doing as they were bid. Perceiving still that they would not move, he leaped off his horse, swore he would do it himself, and caught hold of my cassock, crying “I take you to serve his Majesty.” A servant taking his horse, he took me by the arm and we walked arm in arm for about three quarters of a mile. He entertained me all the time with the wickedness of the fellows belonging to the Society. When he was taking breath I said, “Sir, be they what they will, I apprehend it will not justify you in seizing me in this manner, and violently carrying me away, as you said, to serve his Majesty.” He replied, “I seize you! And violently carry you away” No, Sir, no. Nothing like it. I asked you to go with me to my house and you said you was willing; and if so you are welcome, and if not, you are welcome to go where you please.” I answered, “Sir, I know not if it would be safe for me to go back through this rabble.” “Sir, (said he) “I will go with you myself.” He then called for his horse, and another for me, and rode back with me to the place from whence he took me.

There is no indication in the text as to why Mr Borlase suddenly changed his tune.  He grabbed Wesley by the arm and frog-marched him away from the scene, ranting all the while; and then, when Wesley finally managed to say something, suddenly Borlase denied doing any such thing.

Another similar passage here:

As soon as I came within sight of Tolcarn, (in Wendron parish,) where I was to preach in the evening, I was met by many, running as it were for their lives, and begging me to go no further. I asked “Why not?” They said, “The churchwardens and constables, and all the heads of the parish, are waiting for you at the top of the hill, and are resolved to have you: they have a special warrant from the justices met at Helstone, who will stay there till you are brought. I rode directly up the hill, and observing four or five horsemen, well dressed, went straight to them and said, “Gentlemen has any of you any thing to say to me? — I am John Wesley.” One of them appeared extremely angry at this, that I should presume to say I was Mr John Wesley. And I know not how I might have fared for advancing so bold an assertion, but that Mr Collins the minister of Redruth, (accidentally as he said,) came by. Upon his accosting me and saying he knew me at Oxford, my first antagonist was silent, and a dispute of another kind began: whether this preaching had done any good.  I appealed to matter of fact. He allowed, (after many words), “People are the better for the present,” but added, “To be sure, by and by, they will be as bad if not worse than ever.”

Again we see the sudden change in attitude.  A group of the local gentry have assembled, determined to arrest John Wesley and convey him to the magistrates, who are waiting for his arrival — doubtless to treat him as innocent until proven guilty.  And what happens?  Wesley speaks a few words, and suddenly the mood has changed.

To anyone unfamiliar with English society, this material must seem very abrupt.  It is easy — perhaps too easy — to imagine some dull source-critical academic, of the kind that is laughed at today, pronouncing these passages fictional; or interpolated; and using the awkwardness of the narrative as a reason.

But anyone who has been in England for five minutes knows the explanation.  In England, social status is reflected in the accent of the speaker.  The nobility and the labourer may speak the same language, but each will recognise the other simply by the way they speak.

We cannot hear the voice of John Wesley.  But we need not doubt that he spoke as a gentleman, in an Oxford accent, indeed. 

As soon as Mr Borlase heard him do so, and heard the educated words, he instantly realised that he was not dealing with a labourer, but with a man of property and standing who could, if he chose, prosecute him for assault and would be listened to by a judge.

Likewise the Cornish gentlemen had only to hear a few words, and observe his manner, to deduce instantly that their proposed actions were not possible or desirable to attempt on one of their own class, even before the identification by Mr Collins, the minister of Redruth.  It looks very much as if the luckless Collins had been brought along to identify their intended victim.  They had, perhaps, supposed that Wesley had been a poor bible scholar of Lincoln, rather than a gentleman.  A few words showed them otherwise.

It’s important to realise that all works are written in a kind of shorthand.  No literary text can explain every nuance to its readers, present and future.  There is an assumed commonality of understanding, impossible to avoid, between author and contemporary reader, which will not be the case a few centuries later.

Let us try to remember this, the next time some learned fool tries to argue from a presumed awkwardness in an ancient text.  The text may be interpolated.  But it may simply be that we don’t read it as a contemporary would have done.


Greek text critical marks as described by Diogenes Laertius

I’m reading through the first volume of Diogenes Laertius Lives of the Philosophers.  In book 3, devoted to Plato, we find the following interesting excursus, which I copy from a version present on Wikisource here.

65. The right interpretation of his dialogues includes three things: first, the meaning of every statement must be explained; next, its purpose, whether it is made for a primary reason or by way of illustration, and whether to establish his own doctrines or to refute his interlocutor; in the third place it remains to examine its truth.

And since certain critical marks are affixed to his works let us now say a word about these. The cross × is taken to indicate peculiar expressions and figures of speech, and generally any idiom of Platonic usage; the diple[65] (>) calls attention to doctrines and opinions characteristic of Plato; 66. the dotted cross (⨰) denotes select passages and beauties of style; the dotted diple (⋗) editors’ corrections of the text; the dotted obelus (÷) passages suspected without reason; the dotted antisigma (Ꜿ) repetitions and proposals for transpositions; the ceraunium the philosophical school; the asterisk (∗) an agreement of doctrine; the obelus (−) a spurious passage.

So much for the critical marks and his writings in general. As Antigonus of Carystus says in his Life of Zeno, when the writings were first edited with critical marks, their possessors charged a certain fee to anyone who wished to consult them.

65. A wedge-shaped mark >, used in early papyri to denote a fresh paragraph.

It is always good to see the actual basis for some of the remarks that get made in text critical handbooks.  Here at least, we have an explicit statement of what marks indicate what.


Rescuing a bit of Eusebius from oblivion

One of the things which I hoped for, in translating Eusebius “Gospel Questions”, was to find unknown material in the fragments that aren’t in Migne.  Yesterday that hope was justified.   In an obscure publication in Moscow in the 18th century of a catena, an extract from Ad Marinum 2 produced results:

At the line marked by my footnote 2, where I saw something was rather unusual about the Greek, it turns out that the Greek word for “dawning” came twice, and the scribe of the MS used by Mai (so also Migne and Zamagni) cut two whole lines by going on from the second one after just reaching the first.  So we’ll be the first to give our thirsty readers the real thing!  

That said, it’s only the usual verbosely repetitive hammering-in of a point already obvious;  but still, it’s very nice to have a text that does make sense without straining the Greek, as I did, or ignoring the problem altogether like Mai and Zamagni.

Two more lines of ancient literature, rescued from the darkness.  It is a small but definite triumph.


Nicaea II and missing books

This post raises some interesting questions about the destruction of Iconoclast literature after the second council of Nicaea in 787 AD.  (Also commented on here at Labarum).

The thrust of the post is that the council ordered the destruction of iconoclast books, aside from those held in a private collection by the patriarch of Constantinople.  The existence of such a collection may explain some of the reading material listed by Photius in his Bibliotheca.

What I was not clear about, tho, was what the historical sources quoted were.  How do we know this?

Sadly a firewall prevents me posting a comment, but if you know, please let me know.

I find that this is supposedly from the 9th canon of the canons of the council.  In the NPNF translation these read:

Canon IX.

That none of the books containing the heresy of the traducers of the Christians are to be hid.

All the childish devices and mad ravings which have been falsely written against the venerable images, must be delivered up to the Episcopium of Constantinople, that they may be locked away with other heretical books. And if anyone is found hiding such books, if he be a bishop or presbyter or deacon, let him be deposed; but if he be a monk or layman, let him be anathema.


Ancient Epitome of Canon IX.

If any one is found to have concealed a book written against the venerable images, if he is on the clergy list let him be deposed; if a layman or monk let him be cut off.

Van Espen.

What here is styled Episcopium was the palace of the Patriarch. In this palace were the archives, and this was called the “Cartophylacium,” in which the charts and episcopal laws were laid up. To this there was a prefect, the grand Chartophylax, one of the principal officials and of most exalted dignity of the Church of Constantinople, whose office Codinus explains as follows: “The Ghartophylax has in his keeping all the charts which pertain to ecclesiastical law (that is to say the letters in which privileges and other rights of the Church are contained) and is the judge of all ecclesiastical causes, and presides over marriage controversies which are taken cognizance of, and proceedings for dissolution of the marriage bond; moreover, he is judge in other clerical strifes, as the right hand of the Patriarch.”

In this Cartophylaceum or Archives, therefore, under the faithful guardianship of the Chartophylax, the fathers willed that the writings of the Iconoclasts should be laid up, lest in their perusal simple Catholics might be led astray.

But here at IntraText I find a different version of the text.  Now IntraText is not a scanning site; they just use what others upload.  So which translation is this?  The same text is here.  I also find it here with attribution to Peter L’Huillier. 

After much searching, I find online “Canons of the seven ecumenical councils from the Rudder trans. by D. Cummings, 1957, with intro by Archbishop Peter L’Huillier.” (Chicago: Orthodox Christian Educational Society) and discussed here.


Errors in the transmission of the Koran

The following article from Almasry Alyoum sheds an interesting light on claims that manuscripts of the Koran are without error.

Koran Copies Full of Mistakes on the Markets
By  Ahmed el-Beheiri    12/8/2008 

Several flawed copies of the Koran are put on sale from time to time and several of these copies have recently appeared on the markets. Some suras (chapters) are completely missing, while some have been completed with others.

This is described as a great negligence on the part of publishing and distribution houses in dealing with the act of pressing and collecting the verses of the Holy Koran.

Al-Masry al-Youm has obtained one of these copies full of mistakes. It was published by a publishing and distribution house (“Al-Misriya lil Nashr wa al-Tawzie”) that had been authorized by the Islamic Research Academy to print and distribute 40,000 copies.

The copies contain several mistakes in the collection and arrangement of the papers.

Speaking to al-Masry al-Youm, the director of the department in charge of research and composition, Abdel Zaher Abdel Razek, said that the house staff had made mistakes in collecting and arranging the papers of the Koran. As a result, he said, some suras had disappeared while others were completed with others.

He put the blame for the mistakes on the publishing house owner, as the copies were not reviewed once again before being launched on the markets.

“We will have no leniency on the publishing house owner and the others who made the same mistake” he added. “We will send him a strong letter to warn him and call on him to commit to precision and preserve the sacredness of the Holy Koran when printing it, otherwise he will lose his license to print it”.