Saturday, August 3, 2013

Ancient Scruples on Variant Literary Editions?

Thanks to the Dead Sea Scrolls and further study of the Septuagint and other texts of the Old Testament, scholars now recognize that some biblical books existed in multiple forms in antiquity. It was Eugene Ulrich at Notre Dame who started using the term "variant literary editions" to describe this phenomenon that studies not simply different copies of the same text but actually different editions of the same biblical book. His book The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Origins of the Bible collects a number of his earlier studies on this topic. This description is now widely accepted (see, e.g., James VanderKam, pp. 12-15; Emanuel Tov, p. 186, etc.), and the textual evidence puts the matter beyond doubt. Textual evidence confirms that multiple literary editions existed for Exodus, Numbers, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Songs, and Daniel (list from T. M. Law, p. 28).

What does seem to me worth considering, though, is how the ancients thought about these variant literary editions. Mostly, it seems that scholars assume that the ancients would have considered it perfectly fine, no problem, to have two forms of the same book. "[T]here is no reason to surmise that Jewish experts were concerned about a measure of fluidity in the texts of scriptural books until late in the first century C.E., when Josephus wrote a surprisingly strong statement about a fixed scriptural text (Ag. Ap. 1.38-42)" (VanderKam, p. 15). "That different editions of the same biblical books could coexist in the same community seems not to have caused any concern for ancient readers of scripture" (T. M. Law, p. 25; cf. p. 31). This might be a problem for modern Christians or Jews, but it obviously was not a problem for the ancients. After all, they collected multiple forms of the same texts within the same library, such as at Qumran.

But how do we know they thought this way? The simple possession of a text does not tell us what the owner thinks about that text. Just become Jerome probably possessed some copies of the LXX translations, and these existed within the same library in which he housed Hebrew copies of the same books, does not indicate that he thought the Greek text was just as authoritative as the Hebrew text. Or, just because Augustine owned some of Jerome's Latin translations does not mean that he thought Jerome was as authoritative a translator as the Seventy.

Or, we might think about the Gospels. One could think about Matthew, Mark, Luke, and even John, as variant literary editions of the same story. Actually, maybe we would want to categorize John as rewritten scripture. Certainly for the Synoptics, there is some sort of literary relationship, such that one text was produced with some level of dependence on one (or two) of the prior texts. This seems somewhat like what we have with the multiple forms of Jeremiah, or Samuel, or whatever. Now, all four Gospels were pretty firmly in place as a fourfold collection by the end of the second century. Does that mean that the people who collected them were unconcerned with the differences among them? Not at all. Early Christians exerted a great amount of energy in trying to explain these differences. 

I realize that this is example from the Gospels is different in kind from the earlier examples of Jerome and Augustine. Whereas Jerome did possess copies of the LXX but did not think that they were as authoritative as the Hebrew (and the reverse in the case of Augustine), early Christians did attribute equal authority to the Four Gospels. Both of these avenues provide fruitful ways of understanding how some ancient religious people dealt theologically/theoretically with what could be termed multiple literary editions. In either case, the differences posed difficulties that could not be ignored.

What about for the community at Qumran? They obviously possessed multiple editions of some biblical books. Do we know what they thought about these variant editions? Emanuel Tov realizes that we cannot assume an answer to this question, but arguments must be presented.
In view of this plurality, we ought to ask ourselves which copies carried authority, some or all, and for whom? For the Qumran community, the various Scripture texts were equally authoritative since its members paid no attention to textual differences between these texts. (Tov, p. 186)
He then presents two reasons to support this assessment:
  1. Pluralistic collection--"When collecting their Scripture books, the members of the community thus made no effort to adhere to a single textual group."
  2. Lack of preference for a specific biblical text in the Qumran compositions--"The Qumran covenanters copied sectarian and non-sectarian texts and authored sectarian compositions containing biblical quotations. In these quotations, no specific text or text group is preferred." 
I myself am not persuaded by these two lines of evidence. The first one I have already given reasons for doubting--we cannot tell what people think about the books in their library just by looking at the library catalog, as it were. The second point is more interesting and tricky, and one would need to consider carefully how the Qumran literature cites scripture to judge whether or not their practice gives any indication as to how they felt about textual variation. My initial feeling is that we cannot presuppose that the citation of a number of different texts--editions--indicates a lack of concern for this textual plurality. There are too many instances of the same sort of thing in patristic literature, citations of a variety of different text forms, or paraphrased citations, sometimes apparently just to make an exegetical point, indicating nothing about which text form the Father prefers, or what he thinks about textual plurality. (Origen is a great example here, and a complex one. Now, as it turns out he was okay with some textual plurality, but it would certainly be inaccurate and misleading to say that it was of no concern to him, or not at all problematic. It was an issue that had to be addressed, and he devoted a great portion of his life addressing it.)

[Another issue that I can't deal with here: someone had to cause the textual plurality, someone had to revise the texts. How they thought about what they were doing is also an interesting and complex issue.]

One last point: the ideal of textual uniformity was in play very early. I guess we could think about passages like Deuteronomy 4:2, but I was thinking more like at the end of the Letter of Aristeas (310-11) where a curse is placed on anyone who would alter the translation, because it was perfect. And Philo is at pains to establish that the Greek translation he uses corresponds in every possible way to the Hebrew text (Life of Moses 2.38-44). I have written extensively about this for both ancient Judaism and early Christianity in my book, ch. 5, but see more conveniently, on Christian authors, here.

These examples, of course, do not reflect reality, but this post is not about the reality of textual diversity. I just want to raise a question about how the ancients thought about that textual diversity. In my view, the evidence indicates that--if they paid enough attention to notice the diversity (and I'm sure that many didn't)--it would have caused some concern for them, it would have been an issue that needed addressing. They may well have addressed it in their own minds in some way without leaving us a record of their thoughts.

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