Textual Criticism or What Works?

Recently, an article by on the Guardian popped up on my facebook newsfeed, entitled Cloud Atlas ‘astonishingly different’ in US and UK editions. Just beneath that you could read ‘Academic discovers dramatically altered stretches of narrative while researching a paper on David Mitchell’s bestselling novel’. This immediately drew my attention as it is something close to what we study in biblical studies.

Different Versions

‘I have no earliest memories, Archivist. Every day of my life in Papa Song’s was as uniform as the fries we vended’ reads the British version of the book.1 The speaker is a fabricant, a sort of human soulless clone, that is bred to work – in this case in the fast food industry. In this sentence, from the British version, the fabricant makes a sad pun (which I, naturally, love) about uniforms and uniformity, and makes some fun of American fast food culture.

‘Fabricants have no earliest memories, Archivist. One twenty-four-hour cycle in Papa Song’s is indistinguishable from any other,’ is the exact sentence as it reads in the American version. Gone are the, admittedly sad, joke and the critique of US gastronomy. But, here, we see that a day is described as a twenty-four-hour cycle, something which fits perfectly into the structure of Cloud Atlas which revolves around interlocking cycles.

Clearly, these versions are very different. Professor Martin Paul Eve of Birkbeck, University of London, made this discovery purely by chance when his paperback version of the book was different to his kindle version. Apparently, what happened was that Mitchell submitted his manuscript to the publishers in UK and US, and they edited it but the changes in both countries were not synced up. Mitchell says this is mainly his fault, he just couldn’t be bothered: ‘It’s a lot of faff – you have to keep track of your changes and send them along to whichever side is currently behind – and as I have a low faff-tolerance threshold.’2

Which Version?

Now this leads to all many of interesting questions such as ‘What is the real Cloud Atlas?’, ‘Which version should be translated?’, and ‘Are both versions “wrong” and should we read Mitchell’s manuscript?’. Mitchell’s manuscript, while riveting to compare to these versions, would probably not be the definitive version as we take editing as part of the book writing process. As both versions developed independently from each other, we can also not conclude that one is more original than the other. And as to which version gets translated, I just cannot find out. It seems that the French one is based on the US text, but the Dutch one refers to a UK publisher. The German one refers to the days being like the fries, so it must be based on the British one. In other words, there seems to be no fixed choice.

Eve reflects on what all this means, concluding:

What I have presented here, however, is the case that we should be more careful and meticulous, often, in the reading of editions and the verification of identity across versions of contemporary fiction even when these works have only just been published. This should also pertain to our thinking about the labour structures of the production of contemporary fiction, which it seems can be heavier at the editorial house than is often acknowledged until much later in a text’s afterlife. Clearly, Mitchell cannot be the only author within the past decade-and-a-half to have considered the synchronisation process between presses to be more ‘faff’ than a definitive edition was worth. It is also apparent to me that […] the locus of authority in the text of Cloud Atlas is hardly just the author; it includes a variety of labour, editorial and reception points.3

In other words, we need to understand that when we refer to a text we are not only referring to the version we most recently read, but to a collection of variants. And that we cannot solely ascribe the text to the author, as clearly meaning is added by the others who touch the text.

New Testament

For centuries New Testament scholars have been tracing the variants of the New Testaments books. While Cloud Atlas has two hugely divergent versions, every book in the New Testament has thousands. Grab a newly translated Bible and try to look up Matthew 18.11 – you should fail horribly. The verse is not there. Grab an older translation, like the King James Version, and you will read something along the lines of ‘For the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost.’ Staying in Matthew you would notice huge differences like this in 5.44, 6.13, 16.2–3, 17.21, 20.16, 20.22–23, 23.14, 24.36, and 27.16.

The field of textual criticism has been around for a while and it attempts to trace the history of a text to find the most original version possible. So if a verse like Matthew 18.11 is only found in fifteenth-century manuscripts, but never before, we could assume that it is a later addition. There are more of these ‘rules’ some very complicated, others simple.

Eve’s analysis of Cloud Atlas raises some questions that might be worth considering for the study of the New Testament. While Cloud Atlas is not considered an inspired text by many people, most Christians assume that this is the case with the New Testament. They also assume that the authors themselves were inspired, not the text itself. This means that, theologically, it is vital to have the original text, as penned by those Christians two thousand years ago.

The End of Textual Criticism?

But, looking at the example of Cloud Atlas is that necessary? After the text has text the mind of the author, others touch it – and in the case of Cloud Atlas make it better. They make it into something the author is, I would imagine, more happy with. In response to this research by Eve, Mitchell has replied:

The UK version was submitted first and the US version some weeks or months later, so – if I was dead and couldn’t deny it – the inference would be that the American version is ‘more’ definitive, being alive, however, I’d ask readers to view the difference between the Cloud Atlases less like a director’s cut versus the original release and more like two very slightly different versions of the same song, recorded with the same musicians, in the same room, at the same session, with differences of only a few notes and a few words, which you can only spot if you concentrate intently. In this context, I don’t think what matters is ‘which is definitive?’ but ‘which works?’ For me, in the case of Cloud Atlas, both work. Not that I have the faintest memory, after all these years, what the differences even are.4

Mitchell feels that some variations in the details of the narrative are fine. They are to be seen as part of artistic expression and contextual variation. The version that is best is the version that works, for you. Mitchell, thinks both versions work. And, and this is important, he can’t even remember what the differences are.

Should we see the New Testament text critical project in the same way? Should we not try to find the most ‘original’ version of a text, but one that works for you? Certainly, Matthew 18.11 is a beautiful verse: it works. But if Matthew did not write it, but was added by a monk in the fifth century, is it still Matthew? Is it still the Bible? Is it still inspired? And, applying Mitchell’s last point, if Matthew were alive today, would he even notice that that verse had been added?

I cannot profess to have any definitive answers. Maybe it is my education in biblical studies, where textual criticism is a sine qua non, or maybe it is my understanding of inspiration, but I feel slightly uncomfortable with that idea. Surely, the ‘original’ text is a fata morgana, but at the same time, we do have to try to find it. Or do we? Cloud Atlas has challenged my thinking in this, but for the moment textual criticism is what works for me.

  1. I took these two examples from Martin Paul Eve, ‘“You Have to Keep Track of Your Changes”: The Version Variants and Publishing History of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas’, Open Library of Humanities, 2 (2016), 1–34 http://dx.doi.org/http://dx.doi. org/10.16995/olh.82. ↩︎
  2. Eve, ‘“You Have to Keep Track of Your Changes”’, p. 24. ↩︎
  3. Eve, ‘“You Have to Keep Track of Your Changes”’, p. 28. ↩︎
  4. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/aug/10/cloud-atlas-astonishingly-different-in-us-and-uk-editions-study-finds ↩︎

2 thoughts on “Textual Criticism or What Works?

  1. I do not know what version of Cloud Atlas I read (I Will check), but I found it an intriguing book.

  2. Very interesting article. Thank you!

    Something to ponder on. Textual Criticism gives rules, but what if the presuppositions behind those rules change?

    One fact from the Adventist perspective gives me the additional reason for reflection in the matter of textual criticism.which is the editing process of Ellen White’s books and articles.

    In the process of editing Ellen White’s books and especially articles, we encounter several stages of a text: we have an original manuscript, then several ‘original copies’ (made by her secretaries), then original copy with notes and changes made by Ellen White, then the proof-read text (correcting White’s mistakes) with possible suggestions to add something from the previous manuscripts. Ending with the final version accepted by Mrs. White. But, sometimes she needed a particular manuscript, which she changed to match new situation making two versions of the same article. Something that is rarely considered by textual critics.

    In the guild of the NT, we have some letters resembling other (Ephesians-Colossians, 1 Peter-Jude), but concerning variants – what if certain came from the same author (and his workshop) similarly to White’s two versions of the same article? Perhaps, two different versions of the ending of Mark’s Gospel?

    So, rules of textual criticism assume that there is an original manuscript that gave birth to other variants during the process of transmission. What if we have, in fact, several autographs as with Cloud Atlas? May it be the reason behind different categories of the NT manuscripts?

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