The Erotic Life of Manuscripts

New Testament Textual Criticism and the Biological Sciences

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Yii-Jan Lin
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , January
     224 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


As evident from the title, Yii-Jan Lin’s The Erotic Life of Manuscripts: New Testament Textual Criticism and the Biological Sciences is not a typical historical review of New Testament textual criticism. Rather, it is an insightful, metacritical look at the development of the discipline as viewed from the relationship between language and power. Currently as an Assistant Professor of New Testament Studies at Yale Divinity School, Lin is not a text critic herself, which is what makes her book so intriguing. It can be profitable to have an outsider’s perspective on the status quo of a given field, but apply that perspective across several hundred years of development in that field and the results can be eye-opening.

Lin was drawn to this topic while investigating the competition between literary (e.g., postcolonial) criticism and lower (e.g., textual) criticism. While they view texts from different perspectives, both use a common language to describe the transmission of texts and stories over time: “the language of family ties, sexual reproduction, genealogy, in short, an ‘erotic’ language of relationships pure and impure, productive, dangerous, and ambivalent. This language in textual criticism is further complicated by racial terms, to speak of difference, mixture, and corruption” (7). 

It is this observation that led Lin to this research and her twin purposes (8): First, she seeks to locate studies of race and power within textual criticism as a methodological goal. Second, she aims to determine how New Testament textual criticism has been guided—and even constrained—by the biological metaphor of textual reproduction and transmission that arose from the dominant understanding of human origins built on a foundation of white supremacy.

Erotic Life traces this trajectory in two parts. Part 1 “covers the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a period of New testament textual criticism full of discovery, collection, and organization of ancient manuscripts” (8). Also, the initial organizational goals and methodologies of modern textual criticism are reviewed—focusing mainly on the work of J.A. Bengel and Karl Lachmann—and how their ideas and goals derived from contemporary scientists. 

Just as Carl Linnaeus and other 18th century naturalists classified the human species into several races according to physical characteristics and geography, so Bengel and his successors grouped New Testament manuscripts based on geographical origin; those groupings bearing distinguishable “colors” and “complexions.” Just as Linnaeus’s naturalist contemporaries believed in a Euro-centric model of descent, in which Caucasians were the original creation of God and the other “races” were degenerates thereof, early textual critics believed in an original and pure archetype. Therefore, in both biology and textual criticism, “novelty is not innovation but disruption of purity and lineage. Impurities introduced into the [biological] bloodline pollute it and multiply through the generations, just as variant readings are introduced into a text and then reproduced” (59).

Part 2 deals with developments from the 20th century to the present, as the goals of textual criticism shifted towards understanding “the transmission of the New Testament as a historical narrative, rather than a stark genealogy of corruption” (8). This follows the monumental shift in thinking on human origins and diversity that came with Darwinian evolution and Mendelian genetics. Again, textual criticism followed biology, “first moving away from the understanding of variants as simply ‘corruption’ toward seeing them as also a part of the evolutionary history of the textual tradition. Difference, rather than viewed as degeneration, would ... be understood as interesting in and of itself as a stage in a living text’s adaptation to its environment” (64).

This new biological knowledge, grounded in molecular mechanisms of genetic replication, transcription, and translation as opposed to their superficial expression, indicated a need for new methodologies and tools, such as phylogenetics and cladistics. Genealogical trees had not been sufficient to represent the existing biodiversity and interrelatedness of organisms. What next for textual criticism, then? (After all, Brooke Westcott and Fenton Hort never delivered on their promised stemma of texts [63].) As Lin states, “If phylogenetics represents the digital, and traditional philology and Lachmannian stemmatics the analog age of textual criticism, then the current state of New Testament textual criticism is a hybrid of both. This hybrid method is embodied by the Coherence-Based Genealogical Method (CBGM), which makes use of both computer analysis and traditional text-critical methods” (124).

Lin spends a good deal of space analyzing the CBGM, comparing it to modern phylogenetics, and notes some important differences (127–29). Perhaps most interesting, unlike phylogenetic methods, CBGM creates a rooted (that is, directional) tree of local stemma, representing the relationships at the variant level and pointing back to the Ausgangstext. As it turns out, “Ancestry and the ancestor ... are still the major preoccupation” of the modern text critic (128). This does make good sense. Although the analogy between biology and textual criticism is useful, it is not perfect. While biological origins may still be theoretical, the text of the New Testament has very real origins as ink on papyrus. While not necessarily invalidating later forms of the text as used by local communities, keeping this “initial text” in sight remains a worthwhile goal.

Lin clearly succeeds in her stated purposes. Textual criticism has been influenced by “the biological metaphor and its surrounding discourse” (8), both in terms of its shifting goals and methodologies. The shifts in the biological sciences “are not only the result of new discoveries but also new methods and perspectives that reflect both the disruption of an episteme and new socio-political concerns and anxieties. In the same way, textual criticism has changed not only due to the discovery of new manuscript but also of new methods and structures of knowledge corresponding to the exigencies of the scientific discourse it adopts” (18). 

With her research, Lin has provided a valuable service to New Testament textual criticism. With the benefit of this outside analysis, the hope is for an increased self-awareness within the discipline that seeks opportunities to shed any restraint imposed by the adopted biological metaphor and to leapfrog into new theories and methodologies of its own.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Steve Young is a graduate student and Research Assistant in Biblical Languages at Shepherds Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
March 15, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Yii-Jan Lin is Assistant Professor of New Testament at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California. She received her PhD in religious studies from Yale University and an MA in English literature from the University of Chicago.


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