Sunday, June 12, 2011

Plummer (1886): 80 variants in 12 verses? not likely

Plummer also wrote for the ICC series

In Alfred Plummer's commentary, The Gospel Acc. to St John (London, 1880-1892), p. 175 fwd, he makes the following incredible remark:
"The extraordinary number of various readings (80 in 183 words) points to more than one source."
  Here are Nazaroo's comments on the problematic statement:

Plummer's statement here remains extraordinary and unverifiable even today. By 'various readings', he must mean alternate readings, not variation units (places in text).
But the number itself would only be 'extraordinary' if we could compare it to collations in other places of the text, which have never been done. The Pericope Adulterae (Jn 7:53-8:11) has been extensively collated; initially by Tischendorf (1870), then more thoroughly by von Soden (1911), and finally exhaustively by Dr. Maurice Robinson (2000).
However, no other portion of the Gospels has been collated in all extant MSS, like the PA has. So we have no similar portion of text to compare to.
The number 80 is at any rate inaccurate.1 The method Plummer used to get this number is unknown, but it may simply be something gleaned from the Prolegomena of Tischendorf's 8th ed. GNT, ghost-written by Gregory, Davidson, Tregelles, and of dubious accuracy. If it includes all the quirks of Codex Bezae, these have not similarly been so thoroughly catalogued in any known GNT apparatus anywhere else in John.
Most remarkable of all, is Plummer's unique conclusion that this variant count implies "more than one source". Can he simply mean more than one source for the variants, or more than one source for the PA itself? We can never know at this point what Plummer had in mind. His statement here is worthless.

1. It turns out a similar statement is found 15 years earlier in Godet (1865):
"Besides, there is an extraordinary variation in the text in the documents which present this passage; 60 variants are counted in these twelve verses."
Note that the number is lower by ten. It is unlikely that any special collations were done between 1865 and 1880 when Plummer published. The similar numbers seem to indicate that he has simply mis-read Godet's "60" as "80", and although Plummer went through a dozen editions from 1880 to 1904, this was never corrected. 

The actual problem of accurately counting variant readings for a verse or passage is an ever-retreating mirage, and an unsolvable problem in mathematical terminology.  The more that manuscripts are copied, the more the errors will accumulate.  The more manuscripts we collate, the more variants we collect.  The actual variants for any passage or portion of scripture is a complete unknown, even if we only consider "extant" (surviving) copies.  

Such minute and exact collating has never been done, nor can it be.   Even with the more modest goal of 'surviving MSS', we cannot do it, because a large number of manuscripts remain in private hands are unavailable and unreported.  These documents are often priceless family heirlooms and the owners are completely uncooperative in even revealing their existance.


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