Tuesday, June 5, 2018

A Reply to Robert Holmstedt on Eclecticism

Robert Holmstedt recently posted a four-part post on his blog, which he styles as a critique of eclecticism in the textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible. As this is somewhat of a hot topic these days, I thought I would post a brief response here. Holmstedt's argument rests on two key concerns.

First, he argues that since an eclectically reconstructed text is not an historical artifact, it is of no use to linguists, and in fact only serves to obscure linguistic data. The point is fair enough in one respect. Few indeed would wish to construct new linguistic categories on the basis of undocumented modern conjectures! Yet I think he takes this argument too far. Several points in response.
     First, Holmstedt does not evaluate an eclectic text relative to realistic alternatives. When we realize that the alternative he proposes is continuing to use a morphologically tagged transcription of a single medieval manuscript riddled with scribal errors, ancient emendations, and inconsistencies arising through the vagaries of centuries of transmission, which can in no way be said to be representative of the vast and rich tradition of the Hebrew Bible, an eclectic text doesn't actually seem so bad.
     Second, the vast majority of any well-done eclectic text of the Hebrew Bible will inevitably be documented in ancient sources anyways. The number of undocumented modern conjectures should be quite low (and clearly marked as such in the editions anyways so as not to "obscure" the data), and the number that actually have any significant bearing on larger linguistic questions even fewer. Linguists should have been paying attention to these documented alternatives already anyways, so the only real effect of incorporating them into text editions will be to challenge naive defaults like the Leningrad Codex and force linguists to think more intentionally about their source texts. Either way, a well-done eclectic text is bound to be more linguistically sound than a transcription of a late and convoluted text, where responsible linguists would be forced to weed through the mess of scribal confusion for themselves (which probably few are competent to do) before having a secure data set for their work. The point of an eclectic edition, after all, is not a perfect text, but a better one than what can be found in any given manuscript. Sound linguistic analysis should never be based on a small number of textually problematic cases, regardless of which text is printed. Maybe forcing linguists to recognize the complications underlying their corpus of texts isn't such a bad thing after all.
     Third, Holmstedt seems to undervalue the utility of an eclectic edition. Modern textual critics are almost always forthright in their presentation of their eclectic editions not as historical artifacts, but as scholarly (re)constructions that attempt to approximate a lost textual state that is of some utilitarian interest. Holmstedt contests that this recognized reality invalidates any historical, exegetical, or linguistic usefulness for an eclectic edition. But such a stance rings hollow when we realize once again the even worse alternative that he proposes. The goal of a pure text is obviously forever unattainable, but textual critics try nonetheless to produce editions that are useful to real users. The simple reality is that a well-done eclectic edition is more useful to more users than a diplomatic edition, because more people are interested in ancient states of the Hebrew text than in late medieval Jewish copies. Despite their admitted limitations, skillfully executed eclectic editions provide a more reliable foundation for this type of study than the alternatives. Nothing need be lost in the process, but there is much potential gain. The goal of an eclectic edition is not to replace historical texts with an artificial text, but to present the results of careful text-critical work to non-specialists in a user-friendly way, while still laying out the complex textual tradition before the reader to explore and take into account. All historical, exegetical, and linguistic work on the Hebrew Bible is based on contingent texts, and eclectic texts highlight that reality in a productive way, while still offering users some specialist guidance through the confusing maze of the tradition. No one text is final, and the field will only be enriched by a variety of such voices, rather than silencing them by shoving them to an appendix never to be read by the vast majority of readers. The era of eclectic editions of the Hebrew Bible promises finally to bring to the forefront of everyone's minds that the text we use is always contingent and force us all to be wiser readers, both of the contingent text itself and the broader tradition which it records. This is not a liability, but an opportunity.

Second, Holmstedt makes a practical argument that the level of linguistic sophistication necessary to make informed textual decisions is beyond the grasp of most textual critics and that it is unlikely that any individual can ever possess all of the requisite skills to produce a good eclectic edition. Without wading through the details of his critique of Fox's readings, I am willing to grant Holmstedt the extraordinary complexity of the traditions of the books of the Hebrew Bible and the need for collaborative work, including between textual critics and linguists. Textual critics are dependent upon a thorough knowledge of linguistics, just as much as linguists should be dependent upon a thorough knowledge of their source texts. I too doubt that any one person can ever develop all of the necessary skills to do everything well that is necessary for such vast projects, and I have no doubt that the field will inevitably move towards larger collaborative projects as it develops, much as in other disciplines. But Holmstedt needs to cut us a little slack here in the early stages of the movement. We are, after all, starting out about two centuries behind most of our peers in terms of editorial philosophy. ;)
     I will take this opportunity to put in a good word for my text-critic colleagues, however. In my experience, textual critics actually tend to be some of the most linguistically competent scholars in the Biblical Studies guild, even if not sufficiently theoretical and sophisticated to satisfy Holmstedt. It takes a special sort of person to jump into the deep end of a textual tradition requiring--at a bare minimum--advanced competence in 5-10 ancient languages from numerous linguistic families over a span of over 2000 years and learn to swim, and it would be a rare person who survived this initiation who was not a philologist in the truest sense. I will be the first to admit my own limitations, but everyone's work will have weaknesses at points, without necessarily devaluing the overall work. After all, even after years of study, I am still stuck trying to figure out the Hebrew verbal system. ;)
     Tongue-in-cheek witticisms aside... or perhaps a theoretical linguist would have me call them semantic mechanisms of humor... (note to self: spend a month reading up on Raskin's and Attardo's General Theory of Verbal Humor before it is out of date) In all seriousness, I welcome Holmstedt's invitation to greater collaboration, and I plan to continue learning much from the work of linguistic specialists, but I don't think that is a fundamental flaw of any relevance to the principle of publishing eclectic editions of the Hebrew Bible.

As a final word, while Holmstedt (like many other detractors) brings up realistic challenges to the theoretical coherence and practical feasibility of producing eclectic editions, he does not provide a better alternative. In a world of modern textual scholarship characterized by countless digital texts and endlessly customizable user interfaces, I can understand that a rudimentary eclectic text might feel "barbaric", as Holmstedt's colleague put it. But it remains a valuable scholarly contribution, not as the final word, but as a useful record of informed decisions with a utilitarian purpose. If by his swinging pendulum of textual criticism outside of Biblical Studies Holmstedt is referring to recent trends in Material Philology, I will not hold my breath. I have learned much from scholars working from such a perspective and value many of their contributions as supplementary to traditional text-critical work, but they come up woefully short of providing a full-bodied alternative to eclectic text editing when it comes to large, complex, and important traditions like that of the Hebrew Bible. Eclectic texts, despite their limitations, have been and will continue to be important contributions to the study of ancient literature in most disciplines. Our long-standing reticence as a discipline is not a virtue or forward thinking, but a shortsighted retreat to the familiar and inadequate. A couple of years ago I explained at a meeting of the European Society for Textual Scholarship that some of the world's most important and well-preserved literature is still being studied almost exclusively on the basis of a transcription of a single late and problematic manuscript and a handful of mostly inaccurate and unhelpful footnotes, and not one person stood up to laud our bold disregard for outside scholarly conventions. Some just laughed incredulously, and I think there may be some ESTS members out there who still haven't figured out how deadly serious I was being. Textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible is slowly limping into the age of modern scholarly editing, a latecomer for sure, but if the all-star cast working on the HBCE is any indication, it is hopefully off to a good start.