Thursday, April 17, 2008

Scribal Error and DNA Mutation

I bet no one thought those two topics would be discussed in the place at the same time, ever. Certainly never occurred to me. But Jonathan Jarret at A Corner of Tenth Century Europe points to this site at that does just that. The point of the article seems to be to point out that scribal errors down a manuscript stemma show a remarkable similarity to mutations down a DNA string over time. Interesting, but who knows what it means.

The problem of course is that it assumes that the more copies a text goes through the more scribal error there will be. But that isn't the case. Part of the problem in textual criticism is that such assumptions are easily proven false, and one part of the stemma may indeed be very pure, even centuries and multiple copies removed from the the original, while another copy only one copy removed from the original may be rife with errors. In fact, this is just the problem I'm facing right now: I have a mnauscript very close to Aelfric's lifetime that contains many errors, another that is 2 centuries later, and other than updating the orthography into late 12th, early 13th century orthography (the ge- prefix on verb forms in OE becomes an i- prefix for example), is remarkably free of scribal error even though there is active editing of the text (leaving out portions on purpose). That is, the later manuscript, which displays activity that should add a layer of opportunities and situations that give rise to scribal errors is surprisingly free from such errors whereas a manuscript that is supposedly a straight copy and is close to the original has many scribal errors. So far as I know, such an example is not something duplicated in DNA, but I could be wrong, and undoubtedly will be corrected.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Krister Stendahl and David Noel Freedman

It is with sadness that I pass on the news making the round of blogs and e-lists that Krister Stendahl has passed away. I have to say that he was influential on my own fledgling biblical theology career way back in the day. I even met him once at a rather intimate gathering where he presented a paper and had a q and a session and he allowed me a few moments afterward to ask questions privately. I doubt he remembered, why would he?, but I do. That's a teacher! An obituary

Edit: Also, I've been informed that David Noel Freemdan has also passed away. Hard to stand on the shoulders of giants when the giants keep dieing out from under one. May they rest in peace. Update: Today's LA Times has an obituary:,1,3210473.story

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

So Sad

I've been involved in another forum in a discussion about the early medieval period. I reacted, perhaps too strongly, to characterizations of the period as "having no keen interest in classical antiquity" and "the Merovigian kingdom in particular was a dark age for learning" and to citations of books such as Charles Freeman "Closing of the Western Mind" which accuses Constantine and the church of giving up "reason" that was resuscitated until Aquinas, devoting a whole 4 pages to 6 centuries of thinkers. I had thought that after Peter Brown and the reassessment of Late Antiquity of the last 35 years or so, that we'd gotten past this, but apparently not when well educated, intelligent people can speak of the "dearth of science" in the period seriously or that there was no philosophy etc.

We Early Medievalists have a long way to go.