|1st-2nd cent. inkwell (credit)|
Abstract: Notions of ‘authorship’, ‘publication’ and ‘final text’ are often mentioned in traditional textual criticism, but less frequently discussed in detail. The projects of source and redaction criticism end and textual criticism begins based on when scholars imagine a text was finished. Yet modern notions of publication, textuality and authorship, which are largely shaped by the printing press, are often anachronistically applied to the ancient world. Exploring evidence from Plato to 4 Ezra to Tertullian and Augustine, I take up the question of when a text was considered ‘final’ by reconsidering what counted as publication in the ancient world. Once the assumption of textual finalization is set aside, the tools traditionally associated with textual, source and redaction criticism become unhelpful. While textual critics have noted the practical impossibilities of arriving at the ‘original text’, I demonstrate the conceptual roadblocks to imagining an ‘original’ and ‘final’ text in the ancient world.In this article Larsen discusses examples of “textual unfinishedness” and accidental publication in antiquity in order to further complexify (or from his apparent perspective, rule out of court completely) the notion of the original or initial (published) text (especially in dialogue with Michael Holmes). Examples from a variety of ancient sources suggest to Larson that accidental publication (i.e. publication of unfinished notes or the like) was ‘common’ (p. 372), ‘fairly common and widespread’ (p 372). He also discusses revisions and multiple versions of literary works, suggesting that for such texts a ‘living text’ model is better than ‘a final and fixed book’ model for discussing its textual development. This has, for Larson, implications for New Testament textual criticism:
‘The prevalence of accidental publication, stolen texts and author variants simultaneously identifies and destabilizes one of the foundational assumptions of traditional textual criticism: without the assumption of a text existing in a final form, the boundaries between text, form and redaction criticism fall apart. Ancient writing practices and the prevalence of textual fluidity invite us to rethink some foundational categories and ideas of the discipline.’ (p. 376)An obvious example, for Larson, is the gospel attributed to Mark, which could be thought of as ‘unfinished textual raw material’ – ‘an open and unfinished gospel tradition’ (p. 378). (Larson notes for further evidence and discussion his forthcoming book Before the Book: The Earliest Gospels (New York: Oxford University Press), which is presumably related to his 2017 Yale doctorate). Broadly he doesn’t think that the conceptualisation of publication is a useful category for discussing ‘the traditionary processes of revising a fluid text’ (pp. 379–380). The gospels, in particular, ‘are not the kind of texts that had originals’ (p. 379). Publication, for Larson ‘was only notional and so existed only as a social construct’ (p. 376 – I’m not sure what this means).
I found it an interesting article. I wasn’t convinced that the evidence discussed showed ‘the prevalence of textual fluidity’ (as opposed to some form of publication, since even the authors he discusses presume the appropriateness of the distinction). I’m certainly not convinced that that gospels ‘are not the kind of texts that had originals’ – I don’t see the point in opposing one extreme caricature – ‘a single authoritative original text’ with a caricature at the other extreme; nor do I think we should conceptualise all the canonical gospels in the same way (which is another way of saying I look forward to hearing the argument of his book at some point). I do think it is helpful to think about the way that different genres functioned in antiquity, and I do wonder about the prevalence of epistolary notions (where a single original text is assumed by the genre) in our broader conceptualisations of how the New Testament text functions (this is not raised by Larsen, except to disagree with it briefly). Anyway, plenty to discuss.