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A Glossary of Technical Terms and Annotations Used in Textual Criticism

    Most of the terms on this glossary page are linked to the www.earlham.edu website. Click on the linked term for an actual illustration from Greek manuscripts. For www.earlham.edu's complete sitemap, open their index page for many more terms and explanations than we give on this page.

    See www.earlham.edu's two informative pages Textual Criticism and Modern Textual Criticism.

Scribal errors creating variants in the textual tradition.

I. Unintentional Variants

A. Errors caused by a visual difficulty during the copy process.

1. Permutation.  Letters which resemble one another are difficult to distinguish. This is especially true if the letters were not written carefully in the manuscript which is being copied and if the copyist is hurrying, is working in poor light, or suffers from astigmatism. The copyist reads the text as representing a different word or combination of words. When an unusual change is found in a manuscript involving letters which look alike, then it is possible that the error arose from permutation.

2. Parablepsis ("looking by the side") refers to errors that occur when looking at the left or right margins of text.

a. Haplography.  The error of parablepsis (a looking by the side) is caused by homoeoteleuton (a similar ending of lines). The omission referred to as haplography occurs when text is missing owing to lines which have a similar ending in a manuscript.

b. Dittography.  The error of parablepsis (a looking by the side) is caused by homoeoteleuton (a similar ending of lines). Dittography is when a word or group of words is picked up a second time by the scribe and as a result the same line is copied twice when it only appears once.

B. Errors Caused by Faulty Hearing.  It is easy for someone with perfect hearing to hear incorrectly when words are confused because of similarly sounding letters. The scriptorium—the ancient "copy center"—worked by having one person dictate to a group of scribes who produced the copied manuscripts. Even when a scribe copied a manuscript alone, he would have read a portion out loud and then written it down. During the time from reading a text to writing it down, errors are bound to happen. Writing down something that sounds the same as that which was read is a common error that is detectable.

C. Errors Caused by Mental Lapse

1. Substitution of Synonyms.  From the moment a scribe read or heard the phrase he was to copy until he finished writing it out, there was a danger that what he held in memory could become distorted in some way. One way seems to have been writing down a synonym for a word that he was supposed to copy. In this case, perhaps the scribe was more conscious of the sense of what he was writing than the exact words themselves.

2. Variations in Sequence.  It appears that sometimes a scribe confused the sequence of words. In Greek, the word order is not crucial. There could appear a variation of the sequence without altering the sense of a phrase.

3. Transposition of Letters.  A totally different word can be formed by simply transposing a letter. The results can be devastating to the meaning of a passage.

4. Assimilation of Wording.  Scribes who worked for many years in copying the same manuscripts (e.g. Biblical) became very familiar with the wording of the texts. This could account for some of the times when a phrase in a manuscript has included in it the wording from a parallel passage.

D. Errors Caused by Poor Judgment.  There were times when scribes inadvertently copied a marginal gloss right into the text itself. This shows that some scribes were not paying attention to what they were doing and perhaps did not even think about what they were writing.

II. Intentional Variants

A. Spelling and Grammar Changes.  During the early centuries of the Common Era the spelling of many Greek words had not become standardized. The literati who revived a study of Classical Greek considered it necessary to improve the Hellenistic (or Koine, "common") Greek of the New Testament.

B. Harmonistic Alterations.  Since many scribes knew much of their Scriptures by heart, they recognized the places in which there are parallels or quotations which do not completely follow their antecedents. In order to harmonize these passages, they would sometimes alter the text to make it agree with the antecedent parallel or quotation.

C. Corrections.  Scribes often felt it their duty to correct the text they were copying if they felt that there were historical or geographical conflicts in what was written.

D. Conflations.  Rather than choosing between two variant readings for a text, many scribes decided to use both by conflating the variants. In this way, both readings would be preserved.

E. Doctrinal Alterations.  The Church Fathers repeatedly accuse the heretics of corrupting the Scriptures in order to support their special views. For example, Marcion, in the mid-second century, expunged his copies of the Gospel of Luke of all references to the Jewish background of Jesus. Either a scribe eliminated or altered what was potentially damaging to his own views or introduced alterations which would support his view.

III. Additional Annotations

Manuscript Replication.  In order to preserve an aging and deteriorating document or to make an additional copy, a scribe was employed to copy the contents of the original onto a new surface. A single scribe most likely read aloud to himself as he copied from the exemplar (the original) to the new document. In a scriptorium, the ancient "copy center," there could be a group of scribes who made multiple copies as a lector (reader) read the exemplar for them to duplicate.

Paleography is the study of ancient writing. It technically involves the analysis of the handwriting (script) of the ancient manuscripts. The paleographer studies such things as the angles of strokes, density of ink and its composition, and the general style as compared with other handwriting. By comparing handwriting styles and other features of a manuscript, the paleographer may be able to date a manuscript.

Papyrus (5th Cent. B.C.E.-8th Cent. C.E.).  Papyrus plants grew almost exclusively in the region of the Nile delta. Paper was made from the papyrus plant by separating it with a needle point into thin strips. It was fabricated on a board moistened with water by overlaying horizontal and vertical layers. Then it was pressed, and the sheets were dried in the sun. Finally, the individual sheets were joined to form a continuous roll. After the papyrus had been processed, it could be used as a writing material.

Parchment (2 Cent. C.E.-10th Cent. C.E.).  Parchment was made from the skins of animals such as sheep and cows. Vellum was a special kind of parchment made from calf skins. After being soaked in lime water and scraped, the skin was stretched and left to dry. The stretching process distinguished parchment from leather.

Transmission Errors.  The identification of transmission errors may help determine the relationship of one manuscript to another or, even more importantly, determine the textual variant which most likely represents the reading of the original manuscript. The work of the copyists of the NT was, on the whole, done with great care and fidelity. It has, in fact, been seriously estimated that there are substantial variations in hardly more than a thousandth part of the entire text (an estimate by Fenton J. A. Hort).