VICTORIA PYRON TANKERSLEY
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:
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.
[vi] Ibid., 22.
[v] Mounce, Basics of Biblical, 12.
[vii] Ibid., 27.
[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. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/530877925/bibliotheca.
Hafiz, Yasmine. “‘Bibliotheca’ Bible Project Blows Up on Kickstarter with Chapterless Bible.” The Huffington Post. July 25, 2014. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/07/24/bibliotheca- 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, http://www.folgerdigitaltexts.org/PDF/Lr.pdf.