NT Wrong, Biblical Studies, and Autobiography.

I had the misfortune of reading Kierkegaard in between classes at a relatively conservative institution during my undergrad initiation into biblical languages, theology, and the history of all the critical and historical constructs that we label “Biblical Studies.” Not only did it throw the master plan off course, that being the attempt of Evangelicalism to pass on its disaffection with continental discourse to my as of yet unformed theological nerve center (which was further stymied by spending afternoons in Donald Bloesch’s office at a different school up the street, and then hearing Vanhoozer talk about Ricoeur ad infinitum in the very heart of Evangelicalism itself.). But Kierkegaard’s playful autonomy and ability to refute himself at will corrupted my sense of authorship (specifically in his pseudonymous work). It ran at odds with the interpretative strategies I employed in my coursework, but lingered in the back of my mind as a reminder that these things are provisional, open to revision. Even matters of historical criticism are open to Kierkegaard’s insistence that we learn to think in more playful ways about increasingly serious concerns. It was an odd, hermeneutically magical time that I have since been trained to shake off like a daydream in the course of writing properly annotated articles and theses, preparing indexes of data pools, or delivering papers at conferences that proclaim my irrefutable identity on a nametag.

Here is a truly Kierkegaardian question: Can Biblical Studies be written in the mode of David Foster Wallace? With his characteristic networks of footnotes, asides, self-refutations, and ominously uncritical and immediate perceptions of “what is at stake” in religious discourse. It is a question as silly as it is important, one hinted at in Staley’s (literally) phenomenal essay on autobiography in biblical criticism, but seldom broached within the guild. The possibility that scholarship could actually exist in pseudonymous or intentionally biographical modes, or even in the language of satire, is something that the history of biblical studies scholarship can’t quite wrap its head around. It is also one that has been posed to the biblioblogging world by the pseudonymous NT Wrong, whose blog has recently been abandoned with the promise of a new project in the near future. I know where I would probably fall in his famous spectrum (conservative, though this blog never actually appeared upon it, and doesn’t actually leave that many ideological clues in this respect). But I have followed the whole ordeal with rapt attention.

Part of this is due to my own lifelong struggle to understand how I am supposed to practically correlate all my disparate roles as New Testament Studies academic, historian of book forms, practicing book artist, and part-time film critic. It can get difficult to say the least. But I hope to see this discussion continue, especially as biblioblogging so effectively expands our research identities beyond SBL catalog abstracts into the flux of current events and changing minds. That is to say, blogging is not just another output for data, but actually involves a more nuanced conception of authorship and a geometrical expansion of what has always been referred to as the “academy.”

Some reactions to the recent NT Wrong interview:

NTW: This was one of the most absurd things I’ve seen in a long time. There were dozens of posts dedicated to discovering N. T. Wrong’s identity, thousands of words written, with greater or lesser degrees of seriousness. I loved it. I felt like I was watching from the box-seat at the theatre of the absurd… It also made me wonder whether this is how the Historical Jesus quest got started — as a joke which some slightly anal fellow didn’t quite get, and then it sort of snowballed from there, gradually gathering momentum until everybody thought it was actually very serious.

And to think that this grand prank has been played right as the new Jesus Seminar has convened. I would be more happy to compare the NT Wrong quest with the Historical Jesus quest if NT Wrong had been cruising the Usenet by that handle since 1980, and had left traces of long posts about his purpose and identity that now only exist as fragments in the Wayback Machine and the recesses of what is now Google Groups. And then there were a few biblioblogging predecessors on Yahoo or Live Journal in the early 1990’s that began to collect what NT Wrong posts they could recall from these old bulletin boards. And now this broad discussion would exist on the internet about who NT Wrong really was, and whether we can really trust that one guy’s Live Journal Entry #334 that claims he said this or that. And why does that WebEx post #0922456 agree verbally for several sentences, but then ascribe it to a different Usenet discussion context? And was NT Wrong ever actually on any of the UNIX platforms, or are all those just translations from BITNET? That would be far more thrilling and absurd.

NTW: It’s a strange ‘discipline’, isn’t it, in which one of the most well-known practitioners of biblical studies ends up quite high up in the hierarchy of the group which should really be the object of his study. Now, there are a few anthropologists and sociologists who do something similar as a form of total immersion or for some reason (I’m thinking, say, of Barbara Tedlock, both academic anthropologist of mysticism and practising shaman). But the difference is that these people not only use the emic experience to inform the etic conception, but continue to recognize the benefit of an etic conception to inform the emic experience. In the case of so many biblical scholars today — and N. T. Wright is merely just one of the most visible ones (and not only because he’s wearing a bright purple frock) — the academic-religious mix only goes, tendentiously, in one direction. Biblical studies is considered to ultimately be a mere tool for the service of the Church, so that everything done within the discipline is not primarily for the sake of knowledge itself, but for constructing new apologetics.

It goes without saying that I continue to see a valid distinction between ‘use’ and ‘interpretation’ (and I like Umberto Eco’s theoretical approach here), and I place scholars whom I encounter somewhere along the continuum between them. Frustratingly, in reading the publications of biblical studies, there are too many of these scholars far closer to the ‘use’ end of the continuum, so much so that it is just annoying to have to continually second guess whether a particular biblical scholar is interested in discovering what is true or only has an interest in defending what is already believed to be true.

I am not sold on this distinction between the emic and etic experience in biblical studies. Any attempt to discuss it simply shifts the etic axis from historical issues to history of interpretation, which then swings the pendulum of the emic back to a different, but equally academic-religious, category of “use.” And isn’t the pseudonymity of NT Wrong an expression of a particular category of “use” that only expresses his emic familiarity with the guild itself? I sense the same problem with his commentary on scholarship that he finds in most commentaries themselves.


Jacqueline Rush Lee: INTROspective at the Center for Book Arts

Cailun has a scanned image of the Jacqueline Rush Lee exhibition currently at The Center for Book Arts:

This exhibition of work will showcase sculptures created entirely out of used books with selections from the 2005 Biennial of Hawaii Artists (Epic) and her 2002 exhibition Volumes. VOLUMES (2002) is a body of work that was created entirely from used books. This body of work followed a “petrified” books series of 2000 in which Ms. Lee used kiln processes to transform books. In Volumes water was used to transform the books further. When soaked in water the dyes of the book fore edges bleed and the pages warp into beautiful striations. Once dried the books were then built into geometric forms. EPIC (2003-2005) is an installation consisting of a collection of gypsum cement panels that Ms. Lee calls “Imprescoes; a joining together of the words “imprint” and “fresco.” Using the discarded books of anonymous book owners, the work emerged from an experimental casting process in which book covers, edges, and raw book spines were embedded into gypsum cement, and then removed. As the dyes in the book covers and fore edges “bleed” into the curing gypsum, soft, painterly traces of the books are left behind.



Textual Criticism in the 21st Century

At ETC, Peter Head has blogged about the recent article by Koester in the Harvard Theological Review. In his overview of the subjects covered by HTR in the last century, one can see a sharp decline in papers on NT textual criticism in this most recent era of scholarship. A snippet:

"New discoveries of manuscripts, particularly of New Testament papyri, brought new excitement to the scene of New Testament study, and American scholars, some educated in Europe, such as James Hardy Ropes, or coming from Europe, such as Kirsopp Lake, played an important role in this discussion. Later, the center of these investigations had moved to the text-critical institute in Munster, where it became streamlined without achieving any significant progress, as J. Eldon Epp (sic) has so aptly argued in several publications."

It will be interesting to see what responses this generates at the ETC blog. On the one hand, Koester is right, and I wager that this statistic applies to other journals as broad in scope as the HTR. But on the other hand, the article ignores the idea that textual criticism has moved out of journals and into emerging databases and research programs that are simply taking a long time to put together. I consider what is happening at Birmingham, Muenster, somewhere in Texas, and in similar organizations to be more intriguing than a few HTR papers. And what percentage of biblical studies blogdom in the last five years or so involves discussion of text-critical matters? Enough to characterize this discussion as active and fruitful.

Coptic Bindings at the Morgan (the Coptic Tracery Binding)

A new exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum features one of the key items from its collection of Coptic bindings (a nice overview at the ABER:

"Another work in the show, the Coptic cover of the Gospels, is one of sixty Coptic bindings that Pierpont Morgan purchased in 1911, the year after they were found near the Monastery of St. Michael in Egypt. Almost all works were found with their original bindings and constitute an essential collection for the study of Coptic bookbinding. The Coptic Tracery Binding is regarded as the finest surviving Coptic binding. At its center is a cross surrounded by interlaced designs composed of two intertwined squares within a circle. All of these elements were cut from a single piece of red leather and sewn over gilt parchment."

This is the catalog item in question, which is an exemplary cover (though the link to the catalog description is incorrect). There is a nice large high-res image halfway down here. I wonder if it is a misnomer to refer to this as a "binding," as it is actually just the extant cover of an original book. In fact, some Coptic bindings are so elaborate and integral to a book's structure that they cease to exist as they are unbound. But the use of "bindings" to refer to the covers in the Pierpont collection goes all the way back to their original purchase, and is sustained in the literature. The exceptional nature of the Coptic Tracery binding is highlighted in Deborah Evetts lively account of how she crafted the Pierpont collection's current display cases.

On their origin:

"The manuscripts were found in 1910 at the site of the Coptic Monestary of St. Michael whose ruins are near the village of al-Hamuli in the Faiyum district of Egypt, southwest of Cairo. The Faiyum despression, an ancient jungle swamp covering 700 square miles, once stretched from Lake Birkat almost to the Nile and is renowned for the fossils found there. It was here that local farmers, digging for natural fertilizer for their fields, found the long buried manuscripts. This was the first of three big finds of ancient mss of the last hundred years, and is the only one composed solely of ancient Christian documents. The Nag Hammadi codices were found in 1945, and the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947."

On their condition:

"To understand the problems involved in designing houses for these covers, one has to appreciate the wide variety of sizes, thicknesses, and conditions to be accommodated. They range from complete bindings, complete covers, an partial covers to small fragments; from solid healthy boards to those whose papyrus is so riddled with insect tunneling that they "drape" like a Dali watch; from leather crazed by the kiln heating and blackened with leather dressing to leather that is remarkable for its color and quality after more than a thousand years internment; from papyrus boards with no leather covering to leather with no papyrus board."

So to have a cover in such fine condition as the one featured in this exhibition is remarkable. It not only withstood the ravages of time, but a series of failed attempts at preservation. Evett's point concerning the importance of this find is interesting, as it is seldom referenced within the context of codicology as practiced in the service of NT textual criticism. These manuscripts are so late in origin, and varied in subject matter, that they have limited value in providing witness to variants and text-types in the first few centuries. But their importance as witnesses to the technological development of the codex may outweigh both the Nag Hammadi and Qumran finds. Having had little interaction with the Morgan collection other than through its various published catalogs (one of the earliest of which can be read here - if you can't already tell, I love Google Books), I say this hesitantly. The amount of data that can be gleaned from the Nag Hammadi find from an artefactual perspective is still undetermined for the most part, and the more I probe, the more I find. But suffice it to say, these bindings and covers are a unique witness to a particular stage of early Christian publishing.

Here is an article on Pierpont's M579 by Leo Depuydt. The colophon of this particular Sahidic codex contains the oldest known date in any extant coptic manuscript (539 of the Era of the Martyrs, or 822 CE). There are some interesting descriptions of the codex in relation to the rest of the collection on pg. 269.


A Tour of a Torah Scroll

I recently had the chance to spend some time with a few joined sections of an early to mid 18th century Eastern European copy of Numbers. And thanks to my handy new camera, I was able to take a bunch of pictures that are handy illustrations for the recent post on the production of Torah scroll parchment. In these pictures you can clearly see the medieval sewn parchment descendent of papyrus collesis (the organic adhesive process by which sheets of papyrus were joined), as well as a few examples of repairs that were made to the parchment due to small mistakes made during the final scraping process. (Click the picture for hi-res.)

Joining Stitches:

Here on the reverse of one of the joins you can see the simple running stitch that comprises the bulk of the joint, a simple and sturdy use of the natural thread with a low profile that makes it easy to roll up the scroll. The third picture of the reverse tail is a good example of the makeshift adjustments required by the uneven edges left by the curing and stretching process.

On this detail of the same interior tail, you can see that this stitch is not passed through the scroll itself, but joins one flap from each section, the second of which (on the left hand side) is actually folded under, forming a gutter on the reverse.

Here are these joining stitches on the interior, the points of which can just barely be seen.

While rolling the scroll, the entirety of the running stitch exposes itself.

Parchment Patches:

In these next few pictures you can see what small tears and repairs look like. They usually take their shape from having been small slices in stretched skin - leaving an ovoid shape when relaxed. These would then be patched with small pieces while the skin was still moist and naturally adhesive.


Here is a chance to see both the ruling that takes place before any inscription begins, as well as the large degree of variance that would characterize the exterior layer of these parchment sections. The ruling would have been pretty painstaking, but is the only way to maintain the high degree of regularity you see in this beautiful script (characteristic of the provenance of this scroll, the scribal hand here is lovely). The variance you see in the exterior is much greater than that of the interior, which is prepared more carefully and evenly:

So there is a quick tour of this simple, yet effective, device known as the scroll. Its preperation in the 1700s would not have been significantly different than its construction in the first few centuries of parchment use. Is this type of running stitch the oldest successful book stitch in the history of books? Probably.