Digitale Philologie und der Text des Neuen Testaments

Interview with Church historian Prof. Dr. Holger Strutwolf

Prof. Dr. Holger Strutwolf
© Bibelmuseum

To evaluate over 5,700 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, all different from each other, and to make the oldest available text of this collection of writings accessible – this is a task that would be impossible without digital tools, databases, and programmes. The lecture deals with how a digital edition of the New Testament is being created today, and the new insights that this can yield. The audience will learn about how the workshop at the Institute for New Testament Textual Research works.

Interview with Prof. Dr. Holger Strutwolf on the workshop report “Digital philology and the text of the New Testament” on 7 November 2023.

What does your DH project at the Cluster of Excellence investigate, and what question does the project aim to answer using DH methods?

Since the New Testament has been handed down in over 5,700 Greek manuscripts, all of which differ from one another, it is necessary to know the underlying patterns. In this way, it can be decided which text is original and which is a later development. By using a new computer-assisted method to evaluate all relevant manuscripts, we can study these processes so to speak “empirically” for the first time.

What do the DH methods actually look like when you apply them in your project?

We use the so-called “Coherence Based Genealogical Method” (CBGM), which makes it possible for the first time in the history of New Testament textual research to describe the entire tradition of the Greek New Testament genealogically, i.e. as in a family tree of manuscripts. This method requires digital copies of all relevant manuscripts, which are then digitally compared with each other. This is all part of the project “Novum Testamentum Graecum: Editio critica maior”, which has been a digital undertaking from the beginning and for which a range of digital tools and databases have been gradually developed: from the creation of a digital manuscript list, to the digitization of manuscript photos and their digital analysis, to a critical digital edition of the New Testament.

How have these methods been developed?

The CBGM was developed at the Institute for New Testament Textual Research specifically for research into the transmission of the New Testament. It is being systematically developed as part of the Cluster project to investigate by using the material as a whole how different variants and textual forms developed apart from each other. Many other programmes and digital tools have been developed together with partner projects in the course of the project.

Which results are already available, and which do you expect? What would the same research look like without DH methods?

As part of the Cluster of Excellence, we have examined in more detail an existing database of all the variations contained in approximately 160 selected manuscripts of the Acts of the Apostles. We are dealing with more than 60,000 word entries, whose individual forms we have determined in each case, e.g. whether it is a verb, a noun, or a preposition, singular or plural, masculine, feminine, or neuter, imperfect, aorist (additional past tense) or perfect, 1st person, 2nd person, etc. For the first time, we can explore the frequency of transmission phenomena. For example: Which parts of speech were most frequently changed? What patterns of change can be identified? Do transcribers tend to shorten or embellish texts? We can now compile accurate statistics to confirm or refute our initial assumptions. It hardly seems possible to evaluate this quantity of entries in this way without DH methods. It is hard to imagine whether such questions would have been tackled at all without DH methods. Thus, numerous computer programmes and database routines have had to be developed as part of the project, these making it possible for the first time to answer such questions. These programmes are also available to the scientific community outside the project, so that researchers can use their own questions to investigate our material independently.

Drawing on the work that we have done so far, we ourselves now want to address two questions in more detail: If we also compile such statistics for the individual manuscripts, can we determine certain scribes, places, or times that influenced transmission in a particular way? And: How can we record textual variants that signal changes in theological content?

What is the social relevance of this research today? What is the value of DH methods in this respect?

The New Testament is not only the key document of the Christian faith, but also an important and indispensable source for understanding European and non-European cultures. In its history of transmission, this collection of writings has strongly influenced social, political, and religious developments; in turn, though, these developments have also had a great impact on the process of transmission. Thus, neither the intellectual history of Europe and other Christian-influenced countries can be understood without knowledge of the history of the transmission of the New Testament, and nor the history of the Bible without the historical influences to which it has been exposed. Integrating the Bible and its tradition into social and cultural process of development, i.e. to understand their temporal contingency, is an essential prerequisite for counteracting the fundamentalist and uncritical use of the Holy Scriptures. (exc/pie)