Saturday, October 15, 2016

Review of Lin, The Erotic Life of Manuscripts

Yii-Jan Lin, The Erotic Life of Manuscripts: New Testament Textual Criticism and the Biological Sciences. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. Pp. xi, 203. ISBN 9780190279806. $74.00.

Reviewed by Hugh Houghton, Institute for Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing, University of Birmingham (


Those who fail to find textual criticism a “sexy” subject may be surprised by the title of this volume and the image of a woman, naked but for a crumpled bedsheet, which graces its dustjacket. Lin’s contention is that, from the early eighteenth century onwards, editors of the New Testament have been inspired by parallel developments in the natural sciences. What is more, she suggests that their adoption of biological vocabulary to describe the classification of manuscripts into “families” and “tribes”, or to assess their “contamination”, has resulted in a pseudo-scientific approach which has in turn shaped the discipline. Such a claim is particularly significant at the present time, when large datasets of textual differences are being analysed using phylogenetic software developed for evolutionary biology and the characteristics of a text may be described as its DNA. The conceit that manuscripts have an “erotic life” is intended to prompt consideration of the implications of metaphors in text-critical terminology, including scribal attempts to “reproduce” an exemplar and the description of textual “relationships”. Insofar as this book avoids overinterpreting the evidence or advocating a specific agenda, it contributes innovative and thought-provoking reflections on the history and practice of textual scholarship.