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Further and faster with computers

12 July 2013

Anthony Harvey learns how technology is changing the study of Greek texts

Textual Scholarship and the Making of the New Testament
David C. Parker
OUP £20
Church Times Bookshop £18 (Use code CT771 )

UNSOPHISTICATED readers of printed books - that is, anything written since the invention of printing - usually take it for granted that the text in front of them (apart from any printer's errors) represents what the author actually wrote. If they read a Gospel in a modern translation, and notice some small differences between one version and another, they are likely to assume that this is due to differences in translation. But they may begin to notice that there tend to be small notes at the foot of the page, saying things such as "some witnesses add . . ." or "other au- thorities read . . ."; and they become aware that, since all our editions depend ultimately on written manu-scripts, and since no two handwritten copies are ever exactly the same, there may be doubt about which to follow.

Those who go on to study these texts in the original Greek will find, at the bottom of the page, not just footnotes, but what is called a critical apparatus, with a large number of symbols for manuscripts which they need to recognise.

The next stage is to learn which manuscripts are regarded as the most reliable; how they differ; how they may be related to one another; and what variations are best ascribed to the mistakes that anyone copying a text is liable to make.

But there are many further stages of sophistication through which students must travel if they wish to pursue the matter. They will become aware of the fine judgement that must be exercised by any editor who seeks to print a Greek text that claims to approximate to what the author wrote. It is students who have reached this last stage who will best appreciate David Parker's argument.

The book is based on a series of lectures that the author, an authority in this field, gave in the University of Oxford in 2011. Its purpose is to make more widely known the Münster Method being developed with the aid of computers at Münster and Birmingham, and already bearing fruit in the production of an important new critical edition of the Greek text.

He argues that these new techniques raise radical questions about the traditional methods of textual criticism; and his book also gives a flavour of the new possibilities being opened up by the digitisation of a large number of manuscripts, and the detailed comparison of them now being performed by computers - and not only of the texts themselves, but also of physical characteristics of each manuscript, such as artwork and decoration, which were not previously listed, but which may be found to have a bearing on the origin of a manuscript and its relationship to others.

"There is no such thing as a manuscript of the New Testament," Parker writes provocatively. The text is a process, not a fixed object. Each manuscript represents a stage in the process, and the sheer quantity and quality of computerised evidence will make editions of the future look quite different from the ones that we use today.

His argument is based on detailed analysis of complex material. Those who can follow it will be rewarded by a glimpse of the startling innovations that may be in store.

Canon Anthony Harvey is a former Sub-Dean of Westminster Abbey.

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