Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Manuscripts 'treated as fossils'
By Julianna Kettlewell
BBC News science reporter

A palaeontologist has come up with a novel way of studying historical manuscripts, by treating them as fossils from an extinct species.

John Cisne, writing in Science magazine, says manuscripts from the Middle Ages have a lot in common with animal populations.

For this reason, he claims, he can work out how many copies of a manuscript once existed and how regularly they were destroyed, simply by applying a biological model.

Historians have cautiously welcomed this rare link between the arts and sciences.


This is cool, if it actually works. It reminds me of Hartmut Stegemann's technique for reconstructing the column arrangement of a whole Dead Sea Scroll and placing its fragments in order and in the right columns (based on the shapes and damage-patterns of the fragments), which often can be done pretty well even when all you have are some badly damaged fragments that represent only part of a scroll. The problem with such techniques, of course, is testing them to see if they do work. Stegemann's method has been verified by independent reconstructions of the Hodayot Scroll (1QHa) by Stegemann and Puech, cross-verified by the texts of the Cave 4 Hodayot manuscripts. I'm pretty sure it's also been tested on biblical manuscripts whose contents are known, but I can't find discussion of the latter anywhere. I wonder if some similar test could be applied to Cisne's method.


Annette Steudel, "Scroll Reconstruction," Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls (ed. Lawrence H. Schiffman and James C. VanderKam; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 842-44.

(Via Pete Williams at the Evangelical Textual Criticism blog.)

UPDATE (8 December): Ken Penner e-mails:
Perhaps you were thinking of Herbert's A New Method for Reconstructing Biblical Scrolls, and its Application to the Reconstruction of 4QSam-a (Brill, 1997)?

Yes, I think that's an example.

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