As is typical, I spent most of my four days at the Society of Biblical Literature meeting seeing old friends in the field and former students who now have teaching careers of their own. I did make some time to go to a few papers on the final day (yesterday). Some were very stimulating, interesting, and learned, others were … not.

Just to give you a sense of the sorts of things that get done in this setting, I’ll give (very) brief summaries of a couple of the papers I heard.. The sessions I went to were on New Testament Textual Criticism (this is the group that discusses the manuscripts that preserve the NT) and Social Memory and the Historical Jesus (roughly speaking, this group considers issues raised for establishing what Jesus really said and did based on advances in the study of “memory” by psychologists and historians today).

The textual criticism section was long my “home” in the SBL; I was the chair of the section for six years and on the steering committee that set up which papers were to be presented for probably fifteen years. I couldn’t go to all the papers yesterday, but I heard a couple.


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It’s a little hard to explain these papers without giving a lot of background.   I’ll give *some* background and hope it all makes sense.   The first paper was interested in showing how numbers are represented in manuscripts that represent different “kinds” of textual tradition.  To explain: we group manuscripts according to how frequently they agree with one another, putting them into different “families” along with other manuscripts with the same basic form of the text — kind of like a genealogical tree of manuscripts.  We do this because all the manuscripts differ from one another, and so it is useful to see which manuscripts are more closely aligned with which other manuscripts.  As it happens, not only are some individual manuscripts better than others (in that they appear to represent the oldest form of the text more frequently), but also some groups of manuscripts are better than others.  If you can figure out what most of the manuscripts of a group read at any place where there is variation, then you can establish the group’s support of that reading, even if some members of the group read something else.

In any event, this paper was presupposing all that.   It wanted to see if different manuscripts (of different groups) presented numbers differently in the text.   There are two ways a Greek text can give a number, either by presenting the number or spelling out the word for the number (as in English we can write “3” or “three”).    But ancient Greek didn’t use the Arabic numeral system as we do.  It used letters of the alphabet for numerals, often with a line of them; and so α, the first letter of the alphabet, was 1; β was two, γ was three and so on.

This paper showed that different manuscript groups were inclined to use more or fewer numerals (the Greek symbols/letters for numbers) more or less often than words (spelling out the numbers).   The author of the paper was a graduate student working on a PhD in the field in a university in Scotland.  The paper could have interesting implications in helping us establish better the kinds of groups different manuscripts belong to.

The second paper was somewhat more technical, and was done by a scholar from Germany (he presented the paper in English).   It dealt with a famous Syriac manuscript, that is, a hand-written copy in the ancient Syrian language, a language that is Semitic – that is, it belongs to the same language family as Hebrew and Arabic, and is a kind of dialectical variation of Aramaic.  It has its own alphabet, and like other semitic languages it is written from right to left.

This paper looked at the various sigla used in this particular manuscript to indicate places of textual variation.  That is, the scribe of the manuscript would insert something that looked like an asterisk (*) in places (he used other sigla as well), and then in the margin of the manuscript  indicate that there was a variant reading at this point – i.e., a few words were added in manuscripts evidently known to the scribe; or words were taken out; or the words of the text were given in different words from other texts.

Unfortunately, we don’t have the manuscript that the scribe of this particular manuscript was copying, and we don’t have the other manuscripts that this particular scribe knew about.   And so part of the paper was discussing what we can say about the textual tradition that this scribe knew.  This is a way of getting a better sense of the kinds of manuscripts – now lost – at one time survived at the time (say, 12th century) and place (say, Syria) of this particular scribe.

So these are highly technical kinds of presentation, the sort of thing that presupposes a ton of knowledge and that wouldn’t really make much sense to non-specialists (though I’ve tried to explain them here).   They are not the kind of earth-shattering, breath-taking,  ground-breaking discussions that would interest the outsider, but are, instead, the kind of rigorous detailed analyses  that slowly, inch-by-inch advance our knowledge of a field.