Sunday, July 12, 2009

Very widely-repeated, way, way wrong statements about numbers of certain manuscripts

In the Wrong Monkey blog post Am I an Historian? I offered as one definition of an historian "someone who not only studies historical topics a lot, but also often has questions, the answers to which he does not find in other peoples' historical writings, and is seized by the strong desire to search among primary documents and artifacts as well as in secondary sources until he finds those answers, and then writes about what he has found." Oftentimes I would like to have the answers to these questions provided for me by someone else; I don't necessarily want to do it myself, but for some reasons -- What reasons? I'll leave any answers to that question to whatever psychologists may be interested -- I feel that I must.

Sometimes I'm confronted, not with a total lack of answers, but with answers which are clearly wrong. There is a meme widely represented on the Internet by Christian apologists, comparing the number of manuscripts of the Bible with those of other works from antiquity, which repeats, on many different websites, the assertion that there are only 20 extant manuscripts of Livy. Google bible caesar livy manuscripts and you'll see a lot of sites repeating this claim: 20 extent manuscripts of Livy. Let's leave aside their claim that a greater number of manuscripts reflects a greater degree of truth in what is contained in the texts -- as opposed to, say, its reflecting a millenium and more in which one doctrine dominated and conflicting views were suppressed, or something like that. Let's just concentrate on this one figure for the moment: 20 extant manuscripts of Livy, a figure which is repeated many times on the WWW.

(But before we get to Livy: I found it amusing that one of these sites claimed that there are "only 10 Greek manuscripts" of some work by Caesar. because, you know: Caesar wrote in Latin. 10 Greek manuscripts would actually be a surprisingly high figure, if it turned out to be accurate.)

I'll just be listing the manuscripts individually in the materials I have at hand. And I am but a humble farmer.

In my copy of the Oxford Classical Texts edition of vol 1, books 1-5, of Livy's ab urbe condita, the editor, Robert Maxwell Ogilve, mentions 11 manuscripts from which he has worked: Pap. Oxyrh. 1379, V, M, Vorm., H, W, K, E, O, P, and U, as well as 6 other manuscripts which he has not used: R, D, L. A, F and B. (pp. xi, xii, and xxiv.)

That's 17. Moving on to the older vol 2, books 6-10, edited by Charles Flamstead Walters and Robert Seymour Conway, we find mention of no manuscripts not already mentioned in volume I. Holding at 17.

Vol 3, books 21-25, also edited by Walters and Conway, mentions a different P, Parisiis, Bibl. Nat. Lat., Cod. Lat. 5730. The P used in the first two volumes is 5725 in the same library. There is also now a C, a different R -- hey, we're up to 20 already! -- a different M, a B, a different D, an N and an F.-M. (p. xxx) 25 different manuscripts through vol. III.

In vol 4, books 26-30, the editors Conway and Stephen Keymer Johnson have made use of a different H, a different V, a different W, a J, a different K, an X, a Y, a Z and a different F. (pp. xxxvii-xxxviii.) That makes 34 different manuscripts of Livy, and we've got 3 more five-book volumes to go, plus a couple more things.

In his edition of vol 5, books 31-35, Alexander Hugh McDonald uses 9 manuscripts, all new to our list: F, B, N, V, L, P, A, E, and R. (pp. xliv-xxv.) We're up to 43 manuscripts.

Vol 6, books 36-40, edited by P.G. Walsh, adds no manuscripts to our list.

That's as far as the Oxford Classical Texts currently go. In the Teubner series edition of books 41-45, one more manuscript is mentioned (p. xiii), and we're up to 44.

Then there was a palimpsest of about 1,000 words from Book XCI discovered by Cardinal Angelo Mai in the 19th century, and just a few words from Book XI found in excavations at Naqlun in the 1980's.

That's 46. Assuming I counted correctly. But please, if it matters at all to you, count for yourselves if you like, see if I goofed. Where did those guys get their figure of 20? Maybe they were looking in the same places I was, but they didn't realize that the same letter didn't always mean the same manuscript? (The editors use letters to refer, at the bottom of the page, to their source for every bit of the text which appears in their editions. There's a siglia, a key, before the text, telling the reader what each letter means in that particular volume. Because it's easier to put "N" at the bottom of the page, for example, than "Oxon. Bibl. Coll. Novi 279.")

But, should we assume that the editors of these fine volumes by Oxford and Teubner have used every single existing manuscript of the books of Livy contained in the volumes they prepared? Or that they know of every manuscript, or that they even attempted to find out how many there were?

I don't know. Like I said, it would be nice if some expert somewhere had tallied everything up for me. Maybe someone has, and I just don't know where the figures are recorded.

The Google search I mentioned

Some of the top hits:

Compare this with other ancient historical writings:
a. Caesar's "Gallic Wars" - only 10 Greek manuscripts
b. "Annals" of Tacitus - 2
c. Livy - 20; Plato - 7; Sophocles - 100

Plato 427-347 B.C. 900 A.D. 1,200 yrs. 7
Tacitus 100 A.D. 1,100 A.D. 1,000 yrs. 20
Ceasar 100-44 B.C. 900 A.D. 1,000 yrs 10
Livy 59 B.C.-17A.D. --- --- 20
Pliny 61-113 A.D. 850 A.D. 750 yrs. 7

There are presently 5,686 Greek manuscripts in existence today for the New Testament.1 If we were to compare the number of New Testament manuscripts to other ancient writings, we find that the New Testament manuscripts far outweigh the others in quantity

PS, 1 March 2012: I continue to learn things. In Studies in Latin literature and its tradition: In honour of C.O. Brink (Supplementary volume), p 107, Professor M D Reeve mentions that he knows of 154 manuscripts of the third decade (that's books 21 through 30, kiddies) of Livy.

PPS, 8 July 2013: In his article "Die Platonhandschriften und ihre gegenseitigen beziehungen," published in 1887, Martin Wohlrab discusses 147 manuscripts of Plato known to him, and predicts that many more would come to the public's attention, and many more have.


  1. As I remarked elsewhere, I think it could provoke some interesting comments and reactions if you were to post links to the actual Christian apologist sites, by name, that fudge the numbers to make their own point appear stronger. :-)

  2. I took your suggestion and edited the post. Thank you.