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Ad fontes: source and original in the shadow of theology

Irene Peirano

Yale University

Many of the pioneers of Classical philology, from Lorenzo Valla, to Richard Bentley and Karl Lachmann, to name just a few, moved with ease between Greco-Roman texts and the New Testament. According to the prevailing scholarly opinion, the relation between these two fields in the late eighteenth and nineteenth century was one of direct influence of sacred philology over its profane counterpart. Thus, according to Giorgio Pasquali, philologia profana is a “tributary” of philologia sacra” (Pasquali, 1952, 8). Sebastiano Timpanaro, whose study of the development of Lachmann’s method remains one of the most important contributions to our understanding of the discipline, insisted that the ideological drive to search for a pure, original text was the product of the influence of New Testament criticism on Classical philology at the dawn of the nineteenth century (Timpanaro, 2005; cf. Kenney, 1974, 98-102).

The dialogue between philology and theology, however, is more complex than commonly assumed. While the denunciation of the Donation of Constantine as a forgery on “philological grounds” by the Humanist scholar Lorenzo Valla (On the Donation of Constantine, 1440) is often seen as standing at the beginning of the tradition of the modern philological method, it is perhaps less known that Valla’s Adnotationes Novi Testamenti, published by Erasmus in 1505, is considered partially responsible for spurring the modern history of the New Testament text (Celenza, 2012). In turn, Valla’s work on the Donation, with its groundbreaking recourse to philological and historical evidence, is concerned with a religious issue, as he exposes the donation of Italy by the emperor Constantine to de-legitimize the political authority of the Papacy. Erasmus’ reading of Valla and Valla’s own authenticity criticism suggest that the development of the method of textual criticism of profane texts stimulates and is in turn stimulated by parallel developments in the study of sacred texts.

This paper seeks to establish a more nuanced picture of the development of authenticity criticism across the fields of Greco-Roman and New Testament philology by examining the prefaces to three connected key editions of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century and their respective methodological claims. In Germany, Johann Jakob Griesbach published a groundbreaking edition of the New Testament in 1775-7, in which he was the first to completely abandon the textus receptus. In the preface, Griesbach debates the extent to which the ars critica deriving from Classical learning could benefit New Testament scholars. In his 1804 edition of Homer, the father of the modern Homeric questions, Friedrich Wolf, bowed to Griesbach’s accomplishment and hinted at the way in which Homeric critics could stand to learn from the work of New Testament scholars. Lastly, in his 1831 edition of the New Testament, Karl Lachmann self-consciously presents himself as a “philologist” importing the standards of his discipline into theology.

Thus, while it may be true that the study of stemmatics was conceptualized by New Testament critics, the very possibility of approaching Scripture as a text that can be perfected was cast as an application of the methods of philogia profana. I conclude by noting that a study of the historical dialogue between philology and theology is central not just to the renewal of textual methodologies in our field but above all to a much needed process of disciplinary self-examination in this age of the “globalized” Humanities.

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Philology's Shadow II

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