Bible and digital humanities: II. New Testament Textual Criticism in the Digital Age

Claire Clivaz - 01.12.2023


Welcome to the second module of the Opencourseware "Bible and digital humanities" of the Catholic University of Louvain (Belgium), created thanks to a 2023 grant from the équipe Université numérique, UCLouvain. This module will present some major features of the evolution of Greek New Testament editing in digital culture. Similar presentations would be required for the Hebrew Bible, or apocryphal and patristic literatures. As stated in the introductory module, this Opencourseware is a starter and hopes to motivate researchers in other fields of theology to teach the effects of the digital turn in their disciplines.

1. The New Testament at the heart of technological evolutions

The title of this first part is a historical observation: the New Testament has often found itself at the forefront of technological innovations in writing and the writing medium. This was the case in the early centuries of our era, when scribes were quick to adopt the codex - the book - rather than the volumen - the scroll - for copying the Christian Bible. Even more obviously, the New Testament was at the heart of the action during the advent of the printed culture.
We refer here to the emblematic scene of August 1514, when Erasmus knocked on the door of printer Iohannes Froben, as recounted by Patrick Andrist: “When [Erasmus] knocked incognito on the door of Iohannes Froben in August 1514, [he] had, as far as the biblical text was concerned and as far as we can tell, only the intention of publishing his Annotationes. Recent research is quite clear on this point: he had neither a complete Greek text nor a complete new Latin translation of the New Testament in his luggage. And it was only after their meeting, and perhaps thanks to it, that Erasmus decided to add to his commentary an edition of the Greek text as well as a new Latin translation” (2018, p. 139).
This printed New Testament, which was to mark the entire history of modern publishing, was thus born of an intellectual and pragmatic partnership between Erasmus and his publisher Froben, who took the front line in the 1516 princeps edition, with a dedication to the emperor. Erasmus, for his part, addressed Pope Leo X and the reader in his dedications.
From the outset, therefore, printing a book was a risky adventure, and the Novum Instrumentum omne is seen as a place of negotiation between author and printer, and then with the various readers, as evidenced by its very title, which addresses them in these terms: “If, then, whoever you are, you love true theology, read it, get to know it, and then judge for yourself” (“Quisquis igitur amas veram theologiam, lege, cognosce, ac deinde judica”).
The dialog between Froben and Erasmus led to the creation of an edition that dared to make revisions, emendations and annotations, in both Greek and Latin, and was conceived as a new instrument, with a claim to totality: indeed, the title of the first edition of this great work is Novum Instrumentum omne, systematically abbreviated to Novum Instrumentum. This can be verified by consulting the image on the title page of the first edition of 1516.
Omne - complete, whole, total: the term is lower-cased, and one might rightly wonder why the habit has developed of summarizing this work in modern editions by capitalizing instrumentum, but lower-casing omne. This choice no doubt stems from the imitation of the title of the second edition - Novum Testamentum instead of Novum Instrumentum. The instrumental innovation of the first edition quickly took a back seat to the theological polemics surrounding its content. The advent of digital culture today gives us the opportunity to take stock of the technological innovation represented by the Novum Instrumentum omne. The challenge of publishing this thousand-year-old text is no less great.

2. The Editio Critica Maior

While every student of the New Testament is familiar with the reference edition known as “the Nestle-Aland”, currently in its 28th edition, fewer will consult the impressive volumes published book by book in the Editio Critica Maior series, a project under the auspices of the Institut für Neutestamentliche Textforschung (INTF) in Münster.
The latest book to have been published is the Gospel according to Mark in 2021, and the book of Revelation is expected in 2024. A 2020 article by Keith J. Elliott describes the history and status of the advent of this detailed critical edition in print.
Based on multilingual work, the paper version of the Editio Critica Maior (ECM) serves as a benchmark for the entire discipline of New Testament textual criticism. However, as INTF Director Holger Strutwolf points out, “the ECM is by no means an end in itself, but rather the beginning of a new phase in the work of New Testament textual criticism” (2017, vol. III.3, p. VII). This evolutionary aspect can be understood in particular by the fact that digital culture has come to second the printed production of the ECM.
The relationship between emerging digital culture and ECM was synthesized in 2020 in an article by H.A.G. Houghton, David C. Parker, Peter Robinson and Klaus Wachtel. This article shows that, with the help of digital culture, the Greek New Testament can aspire to become almost an instrumentum omne: the ECM is understood as an edition on an “unprecedented” and multilingual scale - Latin, Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Old Slavonic, Ethiopic and Gothic (Houghton et al., 2020, p. 98 and p. 99). Christian Palestinian Aramaic has even been included in the edition of Mark’s Gospel (2021, vol. I.2.2, p. 100-108).
Since the edition of the Acts of the Apostles (Strutwolf et al., 2017), the development of the ECM has relied heavily on a tool that came into being only ten years ago but has become a fundamental object of research for anyone wishing to check for themselves what's going on in New Testament manuscripts. Let's take a closer look at the New Testament Virtual Manuscript Room or NTVMR.

3. The New Testament Virtual Manuscript Room (INTF)

The New Testament Virtual Manuscript Room (NTVMR) was created back in 2013 by Troy A. Griffitts and is being developed today under the leadership of Greg Paulson, its operational director. It is based on freely available software that has been reused in several ancient manuscript projects.
Its conception and aim are discussed in a doctoral thesis that was defended in 2018 by Griffitts at the University of Birmingham, under the guidance of H.A.G. Houghton, Software for the Collaborative Editing of the Greek New Testament.
The NTVMR is more than impressive. Focusing on Greek NT manuscripts, it is gradually welcoming manuscripts in other ancient languages as well, and has over 1,600,000 images, progressively indexed and transcribed. A 13-minute video, produced in 2013 by Troy A. Griffitts, shows how it works. Some of the images are freely accessible, but others require expert access, which can be requested from INTF.
Prior to the NTVMR, the Codex Sinaiticus - Aleph, GA 01 or BL Add.MS 43725 - was magisterially put online in July 2009. This online publication can be seen as a symbolic moment in the accession of New Testament textual criticism to digital culture, preceded of course by several steps. But for the scholars present at the inaugural symposium in London, there can be no doubt that this digital production marked the beginning of a new era in research.
It is also worth noting that one institution has opened an online manuscript room where you can find numerous New Testament manuscripts. This is the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (CSNTM, Plano, Texas, USA), directed by Dan Wallace. We can only be grateful to both the CSNTM and the INTF for committing resources and manpower to making available to researchers precious witnesses to New Testament texts.
But what difference does it make to be able to see New Testament manuscripts? It's a fundamental epistemological revolution, the beginnings of which we're only just seeing. It is on this conviction that the five-year SNSF project MARK16 (2018-2023) was conducted, which has made 61 manuscripts in eleven ancient languages with folios from the last chapter of Mark available online.
This material is revolutionizing exegetical research on the end of Mark and has created a research synergy with over thirty scholars. After the publication of a Colloquium 2022 book with twenty articles on this theme, the Mark 16 dynamic continues: the SBL 2023 international colloquium hosted two sessions devoted to Mark 16.
If you’re working on a biblical pericope and a detail of the text intrigues you, don’t hesitate for a second to check it out in the NTVMR. Let’s consider, for example, 0171, a small manuscript containing a few verses from the gospels of Luke and Matthew. It was not immediately identified as containing an attestation of Luke 22:44 - the disputed passage about the angel and the sweat of blood - which appears in a small fragment at the bottom of the page.
Thanks to a collaboration between the CSNTM and the NTVMR, this fragment can now be seen. It is even more important as a clear study by Pasquale Orsini and William Clarysse in 2012 demonstrated that 0171 dated from the end of the 2nd century. This is the information given on the PSI online website, the home of this manuscript, even if it is not a papyrus. To see it is to know it better: no doubt this little witness, snatched from the oblivion of centuries by digital technology, will make its way into the discussion of the variant of Luke 22:43-44, as it attests to a period at least as ancient as P75, which omits it.

4. What next ?

If viewing New Testament manuscripts implies numerous reconsiderations and revisions for scholars, won't this fact also have repercussions for the Greek New Testament edition itself, likely to have to be frequently reconsidered in the light of newly available data? This type of question is of course on the minds of textual criticism scholars. A first series of explorations of the question were conducted by Peter Robinson between 2003 and 2012, leading to the creation of the NT Transcripts tool, which aimed to offer a complete critical apparat and all transcriptions of Greek manuscripts: the prototype is still available online.
Since the publication of the Book of Acts in the ECM, the paper edition has been accompanied by a new digital prototype, the digital ECM. It currently includes the Book of Acts and the Gospel according to Mark.
In an article from 2020, Greg Paulson clearly presents the challenges of this digital turn: “The Nestle-Aland as Open Digital Edition: Already and Not Yet”. The possibilities are there, and so are the limits of resources, but the collective efforts of a very active and expanding field will undoubtedly support the development of innovative digital versions of the Greek New Testament in the years to come.
The last slide shows the references quoted in this module 2.