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.


Cologne Mani-Codex

The Codex Manichaicus Coloniensis has made an appearance in blogdom today because April DeConick found it in its high-res glory (Der Mani-Kodex) at the website for the Cologne Papyri collection, which has provided quality images of its catalog items for some time now. The codex is interesting for a few reasons. What is left of it has provided a great deal of previously unknown information (firm dates and background info) about the founder of Manicheism. But it is also very tiny, only about 38 x 48 mm. As you can tell from the photos, its 96 parchment leaves are of a high quality, which permitted the clarity of its tiny and exacting script. Scattered throughout are remnants of thread, a lot of stitching stations, and curiously graphical marginal notations. Due to its size and presentation, many take it as an amulet, but I agree with Lee that the incredible amount of scribal artistry involved with such miniatures suggests alternative uses. I am inclined to think that the size of CMC is a radical example of the use of codices as a far more convenient and transportable format over the scroll. "Amulet" as a designation gets tossed around very quickly when dealing with artifacts of this size - it may be that these kinds of books were to their larger ancestors what a Kindle download of Infinite Jest would be to its massive counterpart.


New Series on "Bible in Technology": Learning and Teaching in a Post-PowerPoint Age.

Excellent news via Mark Goodacre about a new series from Gorgias Press about the impact computer technology can (and could) have on biblical studies: Bible in Technology:

"The Bible in Technology (BIT) is a series that explores the intersection between biblical studies and computer technology. It also includes studies that address the application of computer technology to cognate fields of ancient history. The series provides a forum for presenting and discussing advancements in this area, such as new software or techniques for analyzing biblical materials, online projects, and teaching resources. The series also seeks to reflect on the contribution and impact of computer technology on biblical research and teaching methods."

Besides the obvious impact these tools can have on scholarship, it is entirely possible that the current exploration of various database packages, imaging programs, and online virtualization platforms will change the appearance of biblical studies classrooms within the next generation of teaching. I can imagine walking students through Paul's missionary journeys via a set of Google Earth reconstructions of major Greco-Roman urban centers. Consider the ease with which students can be trained to deal with textual variants through the evolving online NA 28, and schooled in the basics of NT manuscript features with reference to commonly available hi-res images. Even just the potential similar software holds for rooting the student's first experience of NT theology and narration in physical materials is provocative. We are moving quickly beyond PowerPoint here. In terms of emerging forms of pedagogy, I look forward to the possiblity that this series may provide the practical tools for teachers eager to provide more immersive contexts for learning.

And beyond this, the wikification of biblical studies in a plethora of blogs and twitters is but one facet of the changing face of the Bible in Technology. It is the increased functionality of text-critical databases that will move debate about text-types forward. We can't even quite predict what the increased focus on digital imaging (as at CSNTM) will produce, at least an increase in knowledge of both the breadth and depth of existing fragments and manuscripts. Every year I attend papers on ANE archeology more to see what impact tech is having on that guild than anything else, and one can see such innovation clearly in the first volume to be published by Gorgias Press on virtual Qumran. It is important to note that new technologies can affect academic scholarship in the same the way technology affects other disciplines or industries. The shift towards the internet as a news source, for example, has affected the very form of advertising and journalism. In the same way that the printing press affected literacy habits, so has digital publishing begin to create seismic shifts in the way we relate to texts. This is all entry-level McLuhan, but the effect of technology on the way we percieve antiquity and historiography has been tested more specifically by Walter Ong (Orality and Literacy) and Jeffrey Staley (The Print's First Kiss). Beyond the ability of emerging technology to arrange and articulate large fields of data that NT scholars, textual critics, and papyrologists have been wrapping their heads around for centuries, software can actually create new disciplines of thought that otherwise could not exist.

Consider, for example, a visual updating of Turner's Typology of the Codex, which would lay out the same data (including minor modifications and updates) with hypertexted reference to each manuscript and feature listed. Such a tool would provide the codicological database that doesn't currently exist, but it would also enable us to further root our understanding of the scribal process in more clarified historical forms. It would enable us to think of this newly accessible record as a searchable collection of artifacts rather than a set of figures which could only previously be "seen" through charts and graphs. The odd effect of a continued use of technology may not be the disembodiment of New Testament history through the same virtualizing processes that have characterized effects of the internet in other industries, but the evocation of an historical realism that has otherwise been inacessible to the casual student.

So, other than the possibility that this series may eventually alight on the topic of what current tech can reveal about books and literacy in the first and second century (as if there were anyone that could speak to this specific topic), it will be well worth keeping tabs on it for two reasons:

1. It may provide the post-PowerPoint practical tools that enable teachers to create more immersive learning contexts and student access points to all the fields of data that copy machines can't really provide.
2. It may not just track the ways in which technology is increasing the accuracy, adaptability, and searchability of current databases, but it may also chart the movement of scholarship towards schools of thought that can only be enacted within these emerging technologies themselves.


Nein to Umlauts. Long Live Distigmai!

Breaking news is a common thing in textual criticism in terms of interesting fragments, variants, and digitized bits and bobs popping up on the blogosphere and discussion lists. But in a breathtaking blitz on the common use of "umlaut" to describe the pairs of dots in the margin of Codex Vaticanus, Philip Payne has officially declared* that they henceforth be called "distigmai" (pl) or "distigme" (sing) for the following reasons:

1. It will be readily recognized as a technical term with a specific
meaning, namely the presence of two (di) points (stigmata).
2. It has no other meaning that might distract from its use to
identify the locations of textual variants.
3. It is related to other expressions that described textual variants
in antiquity and is the most in keeping with the standard lexicon of
Greek paleography.
4. It is the expression most likely to gain universal acceptance.

Thanks to this modification, we will also know what to call the marks discovered by James Snapp in Codex Sangallensis 50 (a beautiful 9th century gospels codex, see the covers and pastedowns in the "binding" menu). It is generally accepted that they indicate textual variants in Vaticanus, but this is not indicative of their purpose in other contexts. This clarification is helpful, in that umlaut has always been a silly makeshift designation - I just tended to call them double stigmai when not in mixed company. See Evangelical Textual Criticism for the whole story behind this shift in terminology. I don't expect to hear about this on Paul Harvey anytime soon. Willker has an excellent page on these distigmai (which is just today outdated!), from which this image is shamefully stolen:

*Apparently this will be codified in the forthcoming: Philip B. Payne and Paul Canart. "Distigmai Matching the Original Ink of Codex Vaticanus: Do they Mark the Location of Textual Variants?" pages 191-213 in Patrick Andrist, ed., Le manuscrit B de la Bible (Vaticanus gr. 1209): Introduction au fac-similé, Actes du Colloque de Genève (11 juin 2001), contributions supplémentaires. Prahins, Switzerland: Éditions du Zèbre, 2009


An Intermission - The Machines That Made Us

Bear with me during this time of re-designing the site (it is horrific at the moment). In the meantime, enjoy Stephen Fry's The Machines that Made Us, which is the best introduction to Gutenberg and bookbinding tech around: