Textual criticism is a branch of textual scholarship, philology, and of literary criticism that is concerned with the identification of textual variants, or different versions, of either manuscripts or of printed books. Such texts may range in dates from the earliest writing in cuneiform, impressed on clay, for example, to multiple unpublished versions of a 21st-century author's work. Historically, scribes who were paid to copy documents may have been literate, but many were simply copyists, mimicking the shapes of letters without necessarily understanding what they meant. This means that unintentional alterations were common when copying manuscripts by hand. Intentional alterations may have been made as well, for example the censoring of printed work for political, religious or cultural reasons.
The objective of the textual critic's work is to provide a better understanding of the creation and historical transmission of the text and its variants. This understanding may lead to the production of a "critical edition" containing a scholarly curated text. If a scholar has several versions of a manuscript but no known original, then established methods of textual criticism can be used to seek to reconstruct the original text as closely as possible. The same methods can be used to reconstruct intermediate versions, or recensions, of a document's transcription history, depending on the number and quality of the text available.
On the other hand, the one original text that a scholar theorizes to exist is referred to as the urtext (in the context of Biblical studies), archetype or autograph; however, there is not necessarily a single original text for every group of texts. For example, if a story was spread by oral tradition, and then later written down by different people in different locations, the versions can vary greatly.
There are many approaches or methods to the practice of textual criticism, notably eclecticism, stemmatics, and copy-text editing. Quantitative techniques are also used to determine the relationships between witnesses to a text, with methods from evolutionary biology (phylogenetics) appearing to be effective on a range of traditions.
In some domains, such as religious and classical text editing, the phrase "lower criticism" refers to textual criticism and "higher criticism" to the endeavor to establish the authorship, date, and place of composition of the original text.
Textual criticism of the Talmud has a long pre-history but has become a separate discipline from Talmudic study only recently. Much of the research is in Hebrew and German language periodicals.
Textual criticism originated in the classical era and its development in modern times began with classics scholars, in an effort to determine the original content of texts like Plato's Republic. There are far fewer witnesses to classical texts than to the Bible, so scholars can use stemmatics and, in some cases, copy text editing. However, unlike the New Testament where the earliest witnesses are within 200 years of the original, the earliest existing manuscripts of most classical texts were written about a millennium after their composition. All things being equal, textual scholars expect that a larger time gap between an original and a manuscript means more changes in the text.
Scientific and critical editions can be pr
Muslims consider the original Arabic text to be the final revelation, revealed to Muhammad from AD 610 to his death in 632. In Islamic tradition, the Quran was memorised and written down by Muhammad's companions and copied as needed.
The Quran is believed to have had some oral tradition of passing down at some point. Differences that affected the meaning were noted, and around AD 650 Uthman began a process of standardization, presumably to rid the Quran of these differences. Uthman's standardization did not completely eliminate the textual variants.
In the 1970s, 14,000 fragments of Quran were discovered in the Great Mosque of Sana'a, the Sana'a manuscripts. About 12,000 fragments belonged to 926 copies of the Quran, the other 2,000 were loose fragments. The oldest known copy of the Quran so far belongs to this collection: it dates to the end of the 7th–8th centuries.
The German scholar Gerd R. Puin has been investigating these Quran fragments for years. His research team made 35,000 microfilm photographs of the manuscripts, which he dated to early part of the 8th century. Puin has not published the entirety of his work, but noted unconventional verse orderings, minor textual variations, and rare styles of orthography. He also suggested that some of the parchments were palimpsests which had been reused. Puin believed that this implied an evolving text as opposed to a fixed one.
In an article in the 1999 Atlantic Monthly, Gerd Puin is quoted as saying that:
My idea is that the Koran is a kind of cocktail of texts that were not all understood even at the time of Muhammad. Many of them may even be a hundred years older than Islam itself. Even within the Islamic traditions there is a huge body of contradictory information, including a significant Christian substrate; one can derive a whole Islamic anti-history from them if one wants.
The Koran claims for itself that it is "mubeen", or "clear", but if you look at it, you will notice that every fifth sentence or so simply doesn't make sense. Many Muslims—and Orientalists—will tell you otherwise, of course, but the fact is that a fifth of the Koranic text is just incomprehensible. This is what has caused the traditional anxiety regarding translation. If the Koran is not comprehensible—if it can't even be understood in Arabic—then it's not translatable. People fear that. And since the Koran claims repeatedly to be clear but obviously is not—as even speakers of Arabic will tell you—there is a contradiction. Something else must be going on.
Canadian Islamic scholar,