MVC Update—Scribal Error

Currently in my work with the MVC Project, I have been examining the manuscript for textual variants by comparing the SIUC copy of the manuscript against the critical edition.  Up until fairly recently, the differences that I have found have been small: changing word order in a way that doesn’t affect translation, omitting or adding a word, substituting a word with a synonym, that sort of thing.  The differences have been fairly small for the most part.

But when I was examining the manuscript recently, I discovered a couple variants that were a little more noteworthy.  In the first variant, no less than twenty-six words were inadvertently omitted from the SIUC copy of the Meditationes Vitae Christi manuscript because of an unfortunate scribal error known as haplography.

The problem phrase is “flexis genibus” (Latin for “on bended knees”).  It is easier to see what happens in haplography first, and then to explain it abstractly:

Tunc bos et asinus flexis genibus posuerunt ora super presepium, flantes per nares ac si ratione utentes cognoscerent quod puer sic pauperrime contectus, calefaccione tempore tanti frigoris indigeret.  Mater vero flexis genibus adorauit eundem et gratias agens Deo dixit (critical edition)

Tunc bos et asinus flexis genibus adorauerunt eundum et gratias agens Deo dixit (SIU manuscript)

The scribe copied the first occurrence of “flexis genibus”.  When he looked back at his source manuscript, his eyes went to the second occurrence of “flexis genibus”, so he picked up from there.  Everything in between the first “flexis genibus” and the second “flexis genibus”, twenty-six words in all, were left out because of haplography.  A second error was also created in the process: the scribe changed the singular verb form “adorauit” to the plural “adorauerunt”, so that it would match the (now) plural subject.

As you can see, the phrase “flexis genibus”  only occurs once in the SIU copy of the manuscript, and the verb is plural.

SIU’s MVC reads “Tunc bos et asinus flexis genibus adorauerunt”.  The “Tunc bos et asinus” comes before the first occurrence of the problem phrase, and “adorauerunt” comes (basically) after the second occurrence of the problem phrase; all of the intervening material is omitted.  This is a textbook case of haplography.

Haplography a fairly common scribal error, and it does show up in certain manuscripts of the New Testament.  For example, John 17:15 properly reads

I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil.

οὐκ ἐρωτῶ ἵνα ἄρῃς αὐτοὺς ἐκ τοῦ κόσμου ἀλλ᾽ ἵνα τηρήσῃςαὐτοὺς ἐκ τοῦ πονηροῦ.

But codex Sinaiticus (א) makes a mistake here.  After the scribe of א copied the first occurrence of ἐκ τοῦ, his eyes went to the second occurrence of ἐκ τοῦ.  So he picked up from there and left out everything in between.  Through this mistake, the scribe of א created the unfortunate reading “I do not pray that you should remove them from evil”—a reading that is rather the opposite of what the passage should say!!

The good thing about haplography, in the New Testament or otherwise, is that it is fairly easy to spot.  According to the MVC critical edition, the SIU copy is the only one that makes this error here.  When we compare a copy of a text that has haplography to a copy with the complete material, we can easily recognize what has happened and re-insert the material that was accidentally left out.

I believe that I have found another case of haplography in the Meditationes Vitae Christi.  But this time the omission isn’t in the SIU copy; it is in the critical edition!  In the first MVC scribal error I just discussed, the SIU copy was the only manuscript to contain the error; but in this second case, the SIU manuscript might be the only one to contain the correct reading! If this is the case, it is a big deal; because this means that—with the exception of the SIU copy—the entire textual tradition of the MVC is corrupt at this point in the text.

Let’s have a look at this variant:

Domina sentit strepitum et tumultum, et accepit puerum Iesum reuerenter.  Honorant eum ut regem et adorant ut Deum (critical edition)

Domina sentit strepitum et tumultum et accepit puerum.  Intrant illi domu(n)culam genuflectunt et adorant puerum Iesum reuerenter.  Honorant eum ut regem et adorant eum ut Deum (SIU manuscript)

Knowing what we do about haplography, it is easy to see how a scribe could have jumped from the first to the second “puerum” in this section.  But this isn’t all.

Haplography is closely connected to another scribal error known as homoioarchton.  Homoioarchton means “similar beginning”; and at times a scribe will jump from one word to another because both words begin with the same letter.  Have a look at the passage in the SIU manuscript.  Both of the words before each “puerum” start with a; and both of the words after each “puerum” start with i.  In other words, the passage does not only lend itself to haplography—it lends itself to homoioarchton as well.

This means that there is increased potential for a scribe’s eye to jump from one spot to another; especially if the phrases were almost on top of one another as they are in the SIU manuscript.

All of these factors easily explain the omission.  On the other hand, it is hard to see why the scribe who copied SIU’s MVC would have fabricated the material and inserted the longer reading.  The shorter reading does not contain any grammatical errors and flows smoothly with the context.  And if the scribe was going to fabricate a longer reading, it seems like he would have included something critical to the story, not an unnecessary detail that only amounted to a seven-word addition.

I cannot think of a good reason for the longer reading to have been fabricated, but there are several factors that demonstrate how the shorter reading could have come into being.  In my opinion the reading found in the critical edition is a haplography error on the longer, correct reading—the reading found only in the SIU manuscript.

A situation in which only one manuscript contained the correct reading is a near impossibility with the New Testament.  When the individual books of the Greek NT were written and put into circulation, many copies were immediately made, transported across broad geographic areas, and translated into the various languages of the day.  The NT is the most completely attested text from the ancient world; we have somewhere in the neighborhood of 20,000 NT manuscripts, if we include Greek texts as well as early translations.  This situation makes the odds of finding a correct reading in only one manuscript approach statistical impossibility.

Not so with the MVC.  Even though “it was rapidly disseminated in Latin and translated into all of the major European vernaculars, including English, French, German, Irish, Spanish, Catalan, and Swedish”, only somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 manuscripts survive [**].  This means that the odds of a single manuscript containing the correct reading are more likely—roughly 95 times more likely than such a situation occurring in the NT if we are just comparing the size of the textual corpus.

To summarize.  With regards to the first variant discussed at the beginning of this post, I am certain that SIU’s MVC contains a haplography error.  For this second variant, it does bother me that the SIU manuscript stands alone in the longer reading.  While the situation is possible, and definitely more likely than it would be for a text with a bigger manuscript tradition, I find it hard to believe that only one manuscript contains the correct reading.  Nevertheless, at this time I still believe that the SIU manuscript’s reading is the correct one and the critical edition contains a haplography error.

Either way, the SIU Meditationes Vitae Christi is a wonderful piece of Christian literature with an interesting textual history!

McNamer, Sarah. “The Origins of The Meditationes Vitae Christi.” Speculum, vol. 84, no. 4, 2009, pp. 905–955.

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