Critical Text Editions Versus Clear Text Editions


In Textual Editing and Criticism: An Introduction, Erick Kelemen states that “a fundamental principle in textual criticism is that no text is ever truly final, so that each reader can participate in creating (or recovering) it.”[i] This means that textual critics can actually work to create a text, rather than just to excavate the archaeology of the text. But shouldn’t textual critics be dedicated to recovering the authentic work, not creating their own edition?

Thomas Tanselle’s definitions of “work” and “document” provide clarity here.[ii] Tanselle views a document as the actual piece of paper, book, or manuscript we hold before our eyes, while he views a work as “an abstraction, reminiscent of Plato’s ideal forms.”[iii] In this, textual critics can spend their career excavating the literary documents as well as combining and interpreting them; they both rediscover and create the ideal work. However, some scholars still agree with my gut reaction, arguing against this “attempt to reconstruct the ideal text from the imperfect versions in the various documents.”[iv] They note that this ideal work is, in effect, merely an editor’s creation rather than the original author’s. However, as textual critics attempt to be faithful to the work and to present the whole, ideal work to readers, I’ve come to believe that the real issue doesn’t lie in whether or not critics conflate documents, but it lies in how those critics choose to present their conflated works.

To explore this question, I want to focus mostly on biblical literature, since it is known for being replete with editing and translation variations. While some scholars and recent biblical publishers may consider minor variations in the text to be accidental, a deeper exegetical look into the text reveals otherwise. For example, William Mounce, in Basics of Biblical Greek Grammar, explains that Romans 9:5 has the phrase κατὰ σάρκα, meaning “according to the flesh,” with no punctuation.[v] Whether or not a period, or “major stop,” is inferred after κατὰ σάρκα makes a significant theological difference. If there is a period, then the next statement in the verse refers to the Judaic idea of God, saying, “May God, supreme above all, be blessed for ever! Amen.” However, if there is no inferred period, the next statement then refers back to Christ, supporting the Christian idea of Christ as God, saying, “Christ, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.”[vi] Thus, the editor’s choice to insert or not insert a period, based on their understanding of the text and the language, results in a catastrophic theological conundrum—one that has the power to separate two different religions.

In another example, Mounce explains that even one little article, ὁ (or “the”), in John 1:1 is the defense against a major heresy— Sabellianism, or Modalism.[vii] The original Greek states, θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος, or “God was the Word.” Grammatically, “Word” is identified as the subject of the sentence because of the article “the,” and the word “God” is thrown to the front of the sentence for emphasis.[viii] If the translator accidentally mistook θεὸς for the subject and added ὁ, the text would then read as “the Word was the God,” instead of as “the Word was God.” This slight difference leads to yet another theological difference, namely, Modalism, which is the anti-Trinitarian belief that God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all the same being, simply manifesting in different modes, rather than three distinct persons.[ix]

Despite this textual fragility, a graphic artist named Adam Greene decided to create a Kickstarter project called Bibliotheca in 2014. Bibliotheca is a clear text edition of the Bible, based on the idea that “the literature of the Bible was experienced by its ancient audiences as pure literary art—written or oral—with none of the encyclopedic conventions we are accustomed to today (chapter divisions, verse numbers, notes, cross references, etc.).”[x] These conventions are completely eliminated from this version of the Bible to help readers have “an exceptionally fluid reading experience,” in which they get to enjoy the literary merits and story of biblical literature.[xi] However, despite the comfortable and fluid reading style Bibliotheca allows, some biblical scholars are (rightfully so) worried about the depth of understanding that it sacrifices. In an article by the Huffington Post, New Testament professor Dr. Margaret Aymer states her worry “that the lack of footnotes may create a false sense of certainty for readers,” since “‘even translations of classical works often have endnotes to indicate where there might be issues with the translation.’”[xii] Aymer then went on to say that she did not view the text as particularly dangerous. However, after having just a glimpse of the countless ways that biblical literature can be subtly changed, I wonder if it is actually dangerous. Putting a clear text edition of a book considered sacred in the hands of a wide range of potentially uneducated readers may set the stage for readers to come to misleading conclusions.

Critical text editions are not just important concerning ancient or sacred texts, either. Returning to Shakespeare, Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine, the editors of the New Folger Editions of Shakespeare, denounce the clear text edition that was previously published by Moby Text, saying, “The editors of the Moby Shakespeare produced their text long before scholars fully understood the proper grounds on which to make the thousands of decisions that Shakespeare editors face. The Folger Library Shakespeare Editions … make this editorial process as nearly transparent as is possible, in contrast to older texts, like the Moby, which hide editorial interventions. The reader of the Folger Shakespeare knows where the text has been altered because editorial interventions are signaled by square brackets.”[xiii] Mowat and Werstine explain that they do this so readers can avoid assuming that there is only one version of the plays. Because most clear text editions are created to give the readers a fluid, comfortable reading experience, I perused this version of King Lear to see how jumbled my reading experience was by the critical apparatus. I imagined an almost unreadable jumble of notes and additions, but what I found was quite the opposite. The bracketing is minimal, covering single words, whole lines, or whole paragraphs. Being no more distracting than the occasional footnote, they are easy to ignore, but they give the reader (or they gave me, at least) an opportunity to imagine the text without those words and imagine if the text would be saying anything different. An example of the text is as follows:

Screen Shot 2015-03-13 at 11.44.28 AM

However, although I do value the importance of a critical understanding of the text, I also do not believe that critical texts should be the only form of a work available. Clear text editions do have merit in the comfort and ease of access they offer to the reader, as both Kelemen and Greene note. This comfort, I think, may be necessary to reach a few different ends: it allows critics and scholars shut off the critical aspect of their minds so they can see the work in a different light and potentially come to new insights; it allows readers who are already familiar with a work’s intricacies to simply enjoy the work; and it allows readers who are intimidated by the expansiveness of a work to slowly melt into it. So, although critical editions are necessary to truly help the readers “begin to occupy the editor’s position,” I realize that occupying the editor’s position may not be a reader’s first goal.[i] I do, however, believe it should be an eventual goal.

Thus, although I believe that it is absolutely necessary for critical text editions to be available (and utilized), since readers cannot truly approach an ideal text without being faced, at some point, with the numerous variants of that text, I also do realize that not all reading experiences must be critical ones.[ii] Readers should have the opportunity to slowly ease their way into a difficult, intimidating text as they would ease their way into a frigid pool, allowing their senses to slowly accommodate to the feel of the work before diving head first. Likewise, they should, once fully submerged, have the opportunity to explore; being comfortable with the text, they can then search out its dizzying and mystifying depths.


[i] Kelemen, 9

[ii] Ibid., 11.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid., 22.

[v] Mounce, Basics of Biblical, 12.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid., 27.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Greene, “Scope,” para. 1.

[xi] Greene, “Design and Publication,” para. 1.

[xii] Hafiz, “Bibliotheca,” para. 11.

[xiii] Shakespeare, “Textual Introduction,” para. 3.

[xiv] Kelemen, Textual Editing, 18.

[xv] Ibid., 22.


Greene, Adam. Bibliotheca. Kickstarter.

Hafiz, Yasmine. “‘Bibliotheca’ Bible Project Blows Up on Kickstarter with Chapterless Bible.” The Huffington Post. July 25, 2014.      bible_n_5615243.html?utm_hp_ref=tw.

Kelemen, Erick. Textual Editing and Criticism: An Introduction. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2009.

Mounce, William. Basics of Biblical Greek Grammar. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of King Lear. Edited by Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine. Folger Shakespeare Library,



Add yours →

  1. I do think we run into the issue of authenticity as well as credibility with clear-text versus other critical editions. A clear-text is reader friendly, but it can be similar to an academic paper without citations. Where did this information come from? Was anything changed from the original? These questions are what scholars and academic readers tend to think of; clear-text editions, then, seem to be for general audiences. However, is it right for them to think that Goethe wrote “What’s up, Gretchen?” in old German, or should we question that translation and let them know something is off? It is easy for general readers to not get a clear understanding of the history behind a text, which seems to be against the point of a critical edition and the search through original material for a “true” manuscript. That is not to say that value does not lie in clear-text editions, but readers should be aware of what decisions were made on a text that could affect its meaning.

    That being said, you make a convincing argument for clear-text editions allowing readers to simply enjoy the work without being overwhelmed, as well as allowing scholars to take a break from being critical readers. Perhaps the solution to the issue of authenticity/credibility would be at least an introduction to the work describing the potential for discrepancies in meaning. Some works may do this already, but clear-text or not, I think some acknowledgment of the work and decisions behind a text are needed.


  2. Victoria, I find myself feeling very torn on this issue as well, and I think you’ve done a great job at representing both sides (critical text vs. clear text). With such extensive textual histories in the two examples you have given (the Bible, King Lear), I find that a clear text edition seems to do too much erasing, too much editorial interpretation, that I, too, worry about readers’ oversimplification and misplaced trust in these final editions. Giving readers a false impression that a work is straightforward seems to do an injustice to their historicity.

    After you brought up the Bibliotheca project, I wanted to look into it and see what the editor’s goals were in creating this clear text edition of the Bible. The way the editor, Adam Greene, represents the project made me see the value in the clear text edition—a point that you touch on at the end of your article. He describes this project as an attempt to recover the “literary” quality of the biblical text. “The literature of the Bible was experienced by its ancient audiences as pure literary art-—written or oral—with none of the encyclopedic conventions we are accustomed to today (chapter divisions, verse numbers, notes, cross references, etc.)….Bibliotheca is mean to provide a fresh alternative to the reader who wants to enjoy the biblical library anew, as great literary art.” Presented in this way, he makes a case for a clear text edition as an “alternative,” maybe never in place of, a critical edition of a work. In providing this alternative reading experience, he is allowing readers to experience a text in a different way. I think the more different approaches we can make to a text, the more varied reading experiences we can have, the more the text becomes illuminated with additional meaning, new interpretations, and differing perspectives. Because of this, I appreciate the role that a clear text edition can have in facilitating a different kind of reading, but I do believe that we miss the mark if this is our only reading of the text.


  3. Linda Wetherall March 19, 2015 — 12:15 am

    this article was incredibly insightful and written brilliantly. I love how you were able to clearly able to explain the effect a single change in punctuation would make in a passage of the bible. That point was truly the most powerful point in the essay for me personally, because of the weight that you assigned to that single piece of punctuation. I am still startled by the fact that an editor has the power to decide which theological belief the passage follows.

    This powerful point leads extremely well into your discussion of Bibliotheca. This is certainly the part of the discussion that leaves me feeling torn. On one hand it would be quite wonderful to have more people to be able to access literature and other written work without the imposition of most outside ideas or influence on them, because those elements can certainly be daunting to the more casual readers. On the other hand, it seems to be the duty of those more versed in literature and the written word to help guide those with less experience; because like you said in your article, leaving people to draw their own conclusions on such an influential written work without guidance would be foolish and dangerous. In the end I still feel incredibly torn, though I do know the best course of action would be to keep some form of guidence within these types of written work. Though editorial notes and the like may be rather imposing to casual readers, it is safer and more certain than leaving things completely to chance.

    I admit I have not heard of the Bibliotheca project until I listened to, and read your paper, so I plan to certainly look into it myself and see what is currently happening with the project, because I am quite curious to say the least.


  4. Arianne Peterson March 19, 2015 — 5:40 pm

    Hi, Victoria,

    I really appreciate the deeper analysis you have provided here on the question of critical vs. clear text editions. I think this question really speaks to larger issues of meaning and transparency in our society. You began to address this nicely within the context of religion, and I’m also thinking about the media and how the “editing” of people’s news sources contributes to their political actions. For example, when we watch the TV news, it seems like we are effectively getting a “clear text” version of the story—we usually don’t have access to the sources cited, or the full background that informs the current headline. This definitely serves to create an easier understanding for the consumer, but I think it can be dangerous in the same way you alluded to the danger that can result from misinterpretations of sacred texts presented in clear form. I wonder, to what extent do “we” (as editors or curators of information) have a responsibility to make our materials easily digestible and accessible to the reader? Certainly, ensuring clarity is inherently part of the role. But, at least in terms of political news, I feel citizens also have a responsibility to make sure their actions are based on critical explorations of media related to the issues their decisions affect.

    Your thesis that “the real issue doesn’t lie in whether or not critics conflate documents, but it lies in how those critics choose to present their conflated works” really speaks to me. I tend to resent being forced to choose between two opposing viewpoints, and I think your insight promotes a valuable possibility for compromise. While I think there is some merit in separating the critical information from a text (or newscast) itself, it still needs to be available to the reader/consumer. And, more than that, the editor needs to make the fact that this other information exists known, so that people know how to evaluate the information they’re receiving—even if they are using it merely for entertainment. In this vein, I like Angie’s proposed solution of an introduction. Readers can choose to skim or skip over it if they want to, but at least they know it’s there.


  5. Victoria, in response to your paper, which I enjoyed reading, I find myself slightly confused over why a textual critic may desire to sometimes opt for presenting a new version of work as a “clear text” edition. Previous to reading this, I did not realize that this was a role for textual critics. A clean text may have its value, but doesn’t this seem ultimately similar to what we call the author’s first version? I thought the textual critic’s job was primarily concerned with helping to create (not strictly create by itself) a fully realized newer edition filled with every possible historic evidence regarding the original text. This then creates the “ideal text.” With having some confusion or slight disagreement that has to do with this particular role, I cannot seem to see evidence as to why this is a textual critic’s responsibility to create. I understand the ideal text’s significance as another version a reader may use to more easily create literary criticism or simply to just read. I thought, as you quoted, that the textual critic’s primary role was as an ‘excavator” who is able to “decipher” the meanings or intentions of works by “reconstruct[ing] the ideal text from the imperfect versions in the various documents.” This consolidation becomes the editor’s creation rather than the original author’s and this does not feel right to me. I understand that the editor takes on the role of compiling all the historical pieces related to the original text and combines all this material into a newer, more comprehensive edition of the text, but, how can the author’s role be diminished? The author is still the creator of the body of work and potentially of all the historical pieces, such as, letters, notes and journals that are used to create the ideal text.


  6. Victoria,
    I enjoyed your discussion regarding the clear text method versus critical texts. Your idea that readers could read a clear text as a way “to slowly ease their way into a difficult, intimidating text” is something I agree with. This is true not only of scholarly works, but in other areas of life, too. For instance, to introduce my children to the classics, I found abridged versions of Black Beauty and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that would be easier (and faster) for them to read, yet would still give them a flavor of the stories. My reasoning was that, when they were a little older, they would remember a positive experience with these stories and perhaps not feel intimidated by reading other literary works. However, I agree with Angie and Arianne that it is critical for people to understand what they are reading and how a particular text is arrived at.
    For my taste, whether it be a holy text or classic novel, I prefer to have the version with footnotes or endnotes. That way, if I have immediate questions about what I am reading, I can quickly find the editor’s comments or explanations. It seems the notes would offer a jumping-off point for further study or learning.
    My takeaway from this discussion is that it is beneficial to have different versions of texts written for varying audience needs. Some just want the original text, others would benefit from an abridged version, while others prefer text plus explanatory and/or scholarly notes. In all cases, though, the editor needs to provide detail so the reader knows as much about the text as possible.


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