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Review of The Use of Textual Criticism for the Interpretation of Patristic Texts

Originally published in Augustinian Studies, 45 (2014): 119-122.

Kenneth Steinhauser and Scott Dermer, eds., The Use of Textual Criticism for the Interpretation of Patristic Texts, (Mellen Press, 2012), $169.95, pp 572, ISBN: 0-7734-3073-3

This collection of essays is the product of a doctoral seminar called “Manuscripts and Texts” offered by Kenneth B. Steinhauser (Professor of Theological Studies at St. Louis University) between 2007 and 2011. The work of the students represented in the book is the result of an assignment “to present a late antique or patristic text, where its transmission in some way had an effect on its meaning and our understanding of the text today” (19). Because many theologians study editions of texts produced by textual critics without understanding the principles of textual criticism, the seventeen case studies are assembled with the goal of illustrating “the close relationship between textual criticism and theological interpretation” (1).

Steinhauser begins the volume with a brief overview of the history of textual criticism and a discussion of what he considers the “four major debates” that exist for the field today: eclecticism versus stemmatics; best text versus critical text; conjecturing criticism versus conservative criticism; and error versus forgery (5-19). Steinhauer’s summary discussion of each of these debates is enlightening and they serve to orient the reader to the context in which the essays should be approached. The discussion of the first debate is somewhat puzzling, however; Steinhauser argues for the analytical approach of stemmatology (popularized by Karl Lachmann) but neither defines nor argues against eclecticism (5-7). Additionally, the weaknesses of stemmatology are not addressed, which may lead the novice reader into a false sense of confidence regarding this method.

The seventeen essays that follow Steinhauser’s introduction were gathered to demonstrate “those occasions where textual criticism and literary criticism overlap” (19). Grouped according to area of inquiry, the book is divided into the following sections: (1) in the area of “Determining Authorship” the two essays are “Transmission Implications Regarding the Authorship of Cyril of Jerusalem’s Mystagogic Catecheses” (Donna R. Hawk-Reinhard) and “The Transformation of Fulgentius of Ruspe in the Carolingian Age” (Francis X. Gumerlock); (2) in the area of “Date of Composition” there is a single essay on “Bishop Severus and the Jewish Conversion on Minorca” (Marilyn C. Kincaid); (3) in the area of “Identification of Sources” the two essays are “Three Source Arguments for the Two-Way Material in Didache and Barnabas” (Noël Pretila) and “The Question of Arian Interpolations in Methodius’ Symposium” (Hudson Russell Davis); (4) in the area of “Process of Composition” the five essays include “Possible Apollinarian Interpolations in the Short Recension of Athanasius’ Contra Gentes and De Incarnatione” (Sarah L. P. White), “The Passion of Cyprian in the So-Called ‘Donatist Dossier’ of Würzburg M. p. th. f. 33” (Alden Bass), “Transformation of the World: Victorinus of Pettau and the Ending of His Commentarius in Apocalypsim” (Gerardo Rodríguez-Galarza), “Authorial Commentary in Hilary of Poitiers’ De Synodis” (Eric Wickman), and “De Sacramentis into De Mysteriis: Ambrose of Milan as Author and Editor” (Scott Shoger); (5) in the area of “Reception” the four essays are “In search of ‘Le Texte Véritible’: The Rescension of Kephalaia Gnostica of Evagrius” (Kyle A. Schenkewitz), “The Syriac Transmission of Basil of Caesarea’s On the Holy Spirit (Benjamin D. Wayman), “A History of the Interpretation of St. Cyprian’s De unitate (Daniel Handschy), and “How Difficulties in Transmitting the Texts of Basil’s Adversus Eunomium 3.1 and Maximus’ Letter to Marinus Led to the Rise and Fall of Ferrara-Florence” (Jacob N. Van Sickle); (6) in the area of “Textual Variants” there are essays on “Conflating Deus and Dominus: The Ambiguous Transmission of the Acts of the Council of Aquileia” (Aaron Overby) and “Vellet or Vellent? A Textual Variant in Augustine’s Enchiridion” (Scott Dermer); and (7) a single essay in the area of “Textual Conjecture” on “Correcting Leon: An Analysis of the Conjecture of προεξομολογησάμενοι for προσεξομολογησάμενοι in Didache 14:1” (Timothy R. LeCroy).

The majority of these essays fit nicely into the purpose of the volume, with some exceptions mentioned below. A few of the essays are discussed to demonstrate the strengths and weaknesses of the work.

The first essay, by Donna R. Hawk-Reinhard, is an exemplary work from this volume. Dealing with the contentious issue of authorship of the late-fourth-century Mystagogic Catecheses, Hawk-Reinhard analyzes manuscript data which present a mixed picture: was this work authored by both Cyril of Jerusalem and his successor, John of Jerusalem, or was John of Jerusalem the sole author? To search out a possible answer, Hawk-Reinhard employs methods of text criticism, codicology, and literary criticism to produce a new stemma of the manuscript tradition and conclude that Cyril was the author and John was the redactor. Though Hawk-Reinhard is to be commended for employing a creative and multi-pronged approach to solving this issue, a more rigorous examination of the data analysis would afford more weight to her conclusions. For example, she examines a variation in the spelling of the third person plural, active aorist form of ἀπέρχομαι in chapter 4 of Mystagogic Catechesis 4. In two of the manuscripts from her stemma the spelling is ἀπῆλθαν, while the spelling ἀπῆλθον occurs in the others. Hawk-Reinhard asserts that ἀπῆλθαν “is less well attested in the New Testament” (based on the Nestle-Aland critical text, 27th edition) and that “a scribe would be more likely to harmonize with the more common reading than the less common reading” (58). Her conclusion may be correct, but the reader would have greater confidence in that conclusion if Hawk-Reinhard demonstrated an awareness of the general orthographic issues tied to that assertion (the orthographic normalization in NA27 and orthographic variation according to manuscripts, region, and period).

With the purpose of this book in mind, two of the essays are quite comfortable with regard to the practice of literary criticism without ever venturing into the realm of textual criticism. In the second essay (77-93), Francis X. Gumerlock tackles the topic of determining authorship by locating the origin of the confusion between Fulgentius, the bishop of Ruspe in North Africa, and his contemporary, Fulgentius the Mythographer (also from North Africa): during a debate over predestination in the Carolingian Age, Prudentius of Troyes conflated the two Fulgentii in his On Predestination against John Scot and from there the confusion spread. This is an interesting essay, but there is no manuscript text for which transmission is an issue; that is, the analysis is one of information content error rather than textual transmission error. In the third essay (97-115), Marilyn C. Kincaid tackles the issue of date of composition by arguing (convincingly) that there is ample evidence that the Letter of Severus was authentically fifth-century with regard to content, and not seventh-century (as some scholars have asserted). Again, there is no issue of textual transmission to be solved in answering that question, so the essay seems out of place in this book.

The fourth essay, by Noël Pretila, is written as a summary and evaluation of the three views regarding the relationship between the Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas with regard to the “Two-Way” material present in both. Pretila’s stated purpose is to “assist future readers by quickly orienting them to the problem of the relationship of the Two-Way material in the Didache and Barnabas” (120). Oddly, however, the essay does not deal with the status quaestionis, because Pretila focusses on 19th century scholarship almost to the exclusion of any recent discussion of the issue. For example, Pretila comments that he “could not find another proponent of Barnabean priority in [his] research after F. E. Vokes in 1938” (139), but John Lawson (1961) should have been on his radar.

In the seventh essay, Alden Bass challenges the label of “Donatist Dossier” that has been attached to Würzburg M. p. th. f. 33 (a manuscript which contains the Passion of Cyprian, four of Cyprian’s epistles, and two sermons by Pseudo-Cyprian, in addition to the Sentences of Sextus and the Synonyma of Isidore of Seville). Thematic variations in the Würzburg Passion of Cyprian from the Life and Passion of Cyprian seem, prima facie, to indicate Donatist influence; for example, one variation has Cyprian and the other believers shouting Deo laudes (the well-known battle cry of the Donatists, which was loathed by Augustine) when his sentence is pronounced. Through application of text critical principles to the Cyprianic material, Bass concludes that the label of “Donatist Dossier” is misleading and that the manuscript represents a post-Cyprianic, pre-Donatist recension, from which the distinctive cry of Deo laudes was only later adopted by the Donatists. Bass admits, however, that a more thorough study of the manuscript (including, for example, the material evidence in the manuscript, a systematic study of the textual interpolations, and a consideration of the presence of the non-Cyprianic works) may reveal more (231).

Finally, as is the case with most of the essays in this book, the sixteenth essay (by Scott Dermer) offers an engaging discussion of how the textual tradition influences theological interpretation. In this essay, Dermer examines a textual variant in Augustine’s Enchiridion 24.95: nec utique deus iniuste nolvit salvos fieri, cum possent salvi esse si vellent (alternate reading: vellet). Augustine here comments on Matthew 11:21 (“Woe to you, Chorazin…”) by asserting that the people of Chorazin and Bethsaida could have been saved—but did he mean that they could be saved if God so desired or if the people so desired? Judging that the manuscript witness is insufficient for deciding which reading is best, Dermer appeals to internal and theological evidence to reach a conclusion. (It should be noted that here, for example, it would have been helpful to the novice reader to have eclectic methodology explained in the introduction of the volume.) Dermer’s conclusion that vellet is the best reading is argued in a clear and compelling manner.

The audience that will benefit most from this book consists largely of theologians and church historians who have, for whatever reason, not incorporated text critical analysis in their study of ancient manuscripts. The case studies here provide practical application of rudimentary principles from textual criticism without requiring the reader to be an expert in the subject. In modeling a simple methodology, it is unfortunate that, apart from the final essay, none of the studies makes explicit mention of viewing the manuscript(s) in question. In an introduction such as this, there is a great opportunity to demonstrate the benefits of accessing manuscript data from primary sources (rather than transcriptions). Regardless, this work provides some valuable examples of how the history of textual transmission impacts the interpretation of those texts.

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