Wednesday, February 1, 2012

On Distinguishing "Biblical" from "Para-Biblical" Manuscripts

One key categorical question that textual critics must answer in examining the text is which MSS should be classified as "biblical," as opposed to other "non-biblical" MSS. This task (and the terminology) have been the source of extraordinary controversy in the post-Qumran era. There is obviously a sense in which the term "biblical" is anachronistic, if "biblical" is understood in the sense of the books collected within the pages of a single book (or codex), which was never the case at Qumran. Perhaps when trying to understand the perceptions of texts from the perspective of the Qumran sect, a term such as "Scripture" would be more appropriate, though this (and all other potential terms) still leaves room for some confusion. Despite its limitations, the term "biblical" is still helpful as a conscious anachronism, denoting the books which would later be included in the Hebrew "Bible." Other works are clearly independent of these "biblical" books, and thus may be called "non-biblical." Yet other books, however, are closely related to the "biblical" books and are meant to be read alongside them, so they may be called "para-biblical" texts. I will use these terms here for lack of better alternatives and to focus on one specific point, not to get distracted by terminological intricacies. While "non-biblical" texts are generally easily distinguished from "biblical" texts, the border between the "biblical" and "para-biblical" is often not well-defined, if indeed it is even affirmed. My recent reading in Sidnie White Crawford's Rewriting Scripture in Second Temple Times and Michael Stone's Ancient Judaism: New Visions and Views has prompted further consideration of this boundary, and especially prompted appreciation of two criteria that I think are extremely significant. I would like to explore these criteria a little more closely and propose a tentative sorting mechanism for distinguishing "biblical" from "para-biblical" texts.

1) Replacement

The first criterion I found particularly helpful was the distinction of whether or not a given text was intended to replace a prior "biblical" text. A standard copy of a "biblical" book would be intended to further the transmission of the prior work and replace it as a newer copy. On the other hand, the nature of some works is that they are not intended to replace the prior work, but rather to complement the prior work and be read alongside of it. This criterion, to me, seems to be the determining factor in whether a book should be considered "biblical" or "para-biblical." It may not always be easy to tell the intention of a work (or its reception in a community), but it is nevertheless important.

2) Innovation

The second criterion I found helpful was the distinction of whether or not a scribe felt free to invent new material. While some scribes carefully copied without alteration the text before them, others felt free alter the text with information culled from the text itself. For instance, some may have chosen explicitly to harmonize passages assumed to be harmonious in the prior work. Others may have rearranged material from the prior work to emphasize certain points or group thematically similar passages. Still others may have explicated clarifying information interpreted to be implicit in the text. But in each of these cases, the scribes were acting on a relatively conservative impulse, that, while permitting some changes, restricted those changes to material available (explicitly or implicitly) from the prior work. On the other hand, some scribes may have felt free to add their own inovations to the text that could not be derived from the prior text itself. They may have incorporated additional stories familiar through oral or written traditions or even composed them themselves. They may have reworked the prior text into an entirely new literary structure with its own rhetorical aims independent of those of the prior text. Each of these scribes would have engaged in textual innovation, adding material not accessible from the prior text itself.

Based on these two primary criteria, I think we can find a helpful paradigm for sorting out "biblical" texts from other types.

Innovation                                     Replacement

                              Substitutionary                         Complementary
Conservative             "biblical"                               "para-biblical"
                                    (copy)                              (e.g., excerpt texts)        

Innovative                 "biblical"                               "para-biblical"
                               (new edition)                    (e.g., rewritten Scripture)

This paradigm allows us to discern four distinct categories.

Conservative Substitutionary - These are simple copies of "biblical" books which are intended to replace other copies and do not add significant information beyond what is inferable from the prior text. They are clearly to be considered "biblical."

Innovative Substitutionary - These are copies of "biblical" books which are intended to replace other copies but also add significant information beyond what is inferable from the prior text. They are to be considered "biblical," but their innovations identify them as new editions of the prior "biblical" books. Perhaps this could provide a relatively simple definition for the otherwise difficult to define "variant editions" of "biblical" texts?

Conservative Complementary - These are new compositions intended to be read alongside the prior "biblical" texts, but which do not add significant information beyond what is inferable from the prior text. Examples might be excerpt texts, which select passages from "biblical" texts without significant modification and rearrange them for theological or referential purposes.

Innovative Complementary - These are new compositions intended to be read alongside the prior "biblical" texts and add significant information beyond what is inferable from the prior text. Examples would be those works commonly included in the category of "Rewritten Scripture" (e.g., Jubilees, Genesis Apocryphon, etc.), which are intended to be read alongside their prior "biblical" books and provide additional information.

While these criteria (as with all criteria) are bound to encounter complicating factors, I suspect they accurately describe the differences between the different classes of literature. I further suspect that these qualitative criteria lead to more helpful distinctions than a sliding scale or spectrum based primarily on quantitative criteria.


  1. What Is the Goal of OT TC?

    I stand corrected, but it seems we have not discussed one fundamental issue: the goals of OT TC.
    Paul Wegner lists 6 goals, others include explaining the transmission history as the modern goal, etc.

    I think that we should not be too quick to discard the original goal of discovering Urschrift because in some cases (not all) we can make a pretty convincing argument for what Urschrift might have read, particularly in cases of double entendre.

    What do you think?

  2. Any Lively OTTC Online Disussion Group?

    I don't seem to have found any lively online OTTC discussion group. Wieland's is ok, but most of the issues seem to be NTTC?

    How can we encourage more discussion online like NTTC, B-Hebrew & B-Greek?

  3. As far as OTTC discussion lists, I'm not sure that there are any. You could start one! :) Or else you could just post on Wieland's TC list... Sometimes there are OT guys who weigh in on issues, so I'm sure you could get some response.

    The goal of OTTC has been quite controversial, but I too am still skeptical about abandoning the search for the most original text. History of interpretation is an important goal, and textual critics may have helpful insights, but it is not really the end goal of textual criticism. Likewise, transmission history is important (maybe?) for reconstructing the earliest forms of the text, but as interesting as it is, it is still just a means to an end. I still think that the ultimate goal of textual critics should be to reconstruct the earliest possible texts of literary works. I want to know (as best as possible) what the authors originally said, not just how later scribes received their texts.