The Question of Rules
Nero Wolfe's guideline for his assistant Archie Goodwin, in responding to an unpredictable situation, was to use "intelligence guided by experience." That's good advice, but vague: how exactly do we apply it? The temptation is to make it less vague, but that would be a mistake. It is the purpose of this page to issue a warning about the mistake, and to suggest an alternative.
Text critics have accumulated helpful lists of the kinds of things that can happen to a text in the course of being copied: a canon of recurring scribal errors. From that list of types, some have gone on to extract rules for deciding particular situations. Some of the rules even have Latin names, which makes them sound very formidable. Among these is the principle lectio brevior potior: "The shorter reading is better."
Nothing could be more foolish than such rules. It was Griesbach who first enunciated that particular one (the first in his list of fifteen). But in illustrating it, he immediately qualified it by also listing cases where, in fact, the longer reading is better. Here, excerpted and expanded from Metzger 120, are the two sides of Griesbach's principle as he himself expressed it.
- The shorter reading is to be preferred to the longer, for scribes were more prone to add than to omit. The shorter reading is especially to be preferred when:
- It is also more difficult, obscure, ambiguous, or solecistic [since the longer reading may be thought of as a clarification]
- If the same thing is expressed in different ways in different manuscripts [which would attest different local explanations]
- If the word order varies [which would occur when a clarifying word has been added either before or after the original word]
- At the beginning of narrative units [where a contextualizing expansion is especially likely]
- If the longer reading has the character of a gloss or interpolation, or agrees with the wording of parallel passages [in the latter case, the longer reading is a harmonization]
- On the other hand, the longer reading is to be preferred when:
- An omission can be explained by homoeoteleuton [the scribe's eye skipped back to the second of two lines with identical endings, and not to the first, thus omitting everything in between]
- The omitted material might have seemed to the scribe obscure, harsh, offensive to piety, or in disagreement with parallel passages [pietistic or homogenizing abridgement]
- The omitted matter is trivial, such that, if omitted inadvertently, its absence might not be caught by the scribe on rereading his copy
- The shorter reading is less in accord with the style of the author
- The shorter reading makes no sense [as is likely if the omission is accidental and random]
- If it is probable that the shorter reading has been influenced by parallels in other texts
It will be obvious that these two lists of situations cancel out. We are left with the idea that either a shorter or a longer reading may be better, depending on what category of omission or addition seems to be suggested by the details of the individual situation. It is then the individual situation which should govern, and the "lectio brevior" principle, the invariable rule, simply vanishes as a guideline. Sometimes Yes, but sometimes also No. It depends, and we need to acquire a sense of what it depends on.
Metzger 121 adds, in extenuation, that Griesbach himself "showed great skill and tact in evaluating the evidence of variant readings." It is precisely tact, the judicious use of previous knowledge, which is required, and not the sort of simpleminded "iron rules" which Housman so rightly ridiculed. Let Metzger have the last word, by describing Griesbach at his best:
His judgement, based on patristic and versional evidence, that the shorter form of the Lord's Prayer in Luke 11:2-3 is to be preferred, was remarkably confirmed a few years later when the readings of Codex Vaticanus were published, for it was found that all of the omissions are supported by that early manuscript.
Now, there is a result to be proud of; a goal to strive toward. So by all means acquire experience, either directly or at second hand. Just don't use your experience to make a fool of yourself. Don't make a rule of it. Keep your balance, and keep yourself focused on the specific situation.
Philology is Copyright © 2001- by E Bruce Brooks
24 June 2003 / Contact The Project / Exit to Contents Page