Chapter 1. The starting point, a previous project: The Arabic Manuscripts of the Letters of Paul of Tarsus (2013-2016)1

HumaReC is the direct continuation of a previous project ‘The Arabic Manuscripts of the Letters of Paul of Tarsus. Come back to a neglected field’. The HumaReC project was formally announced as a continuation of this first research grant at the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNF). In addition, the first project provided me with the opportunity to be PhD student and to defend the thesis (September 2016), while the second project has provided me with the opportunity to work as a postdoc researcher. More importantly however, the concept for the present project was brought to life by Claire Clivaz and me during this first phase after a visit to the Marciana Library in November 2014. HumaReC was really developed on the grounds of concrete experiences of Humanities scholars being in close contact with Bioinformaticians and being curious about the evolution of working processes in scholarship.

The first project provided an insight into a neglected field: the corpus of Arabic New Testament manuscripts. Despite the variety of translations, the high number of manuscripts and the interesting history of transmission of the Bible in Arabic, very little research had been conducted in this field. After dynamic scholarly interest in the 17th-18th centuries, Western research rapidly turned away from Arabic New Testament manuscripts. The disinterest of New Testament scholars in the Arabic tradition is particularly striking. However, over the last few years there has been an observable, regained interest in the Arabic biblical tradition, as evidenced by the high number of new projects and publications.2

The reasons for this disinterest should be considered and it is worth contributing to the current scholarly rediscovery of this tradition. These factors played a role in the research choice of a largely unexplored corpus: the Arabic manuscripts of the letters of Paul. Based on a detailed overview of the current state of the field, an important part of the project attempts to analyze the lack of modern scholarly interest, especially in the New Testament textual criticism discipline.3

The low number of studies is due in most part to New Testament textual criticism scholars’ ‘condemnation’: they have considered Arabic manuscripts as ‘useless’ since the end of the 19th century. This scientifically flawed position can be explained by several factors, one of which has its roots in Orientalist stereotypes. It is thus worth recalling C. R. Gregory’s view on Eastern versions of the New Testament:

Furthermore, the Arabic versions suffered from the idea that since they were not directly derived from the Greek text, they were thus considered ‘secondary’. Even after studies highlighted the diversity of translations, which were indeed often based on Greek,4 the Arabic versions were still not a major consideration for New Testament textual criticism with its research focus on the original Greek text. New trends in research have since questioned the discipline by challenging the concept of the ‘original text’5 and by discussing the applied methodologies.6 All these evolutions advocate for the textual specificities of each singular witness. The digitization of manuscripts and the online accessibility of their images have had deep epistemological impacts as Clivaz has highlighted in several articles [Clivaz 2012a; Clivaz 2012b]. In the digital age, the manuscript stands at the center and critical editions are no longer the main reference [Clivaz and Hamidovic 2014; see also Wasserman and Gurry 2017:14]. This redefinition applies not only to Greek witnesses but it may have contributed to new impulses regarding the study of New Testament versions – Arabic included.

Moreover, the Internet supports and contributes to the renewed study of New Testament Arabic manuscripts by crystallizing identity issues that are reflected on websites, often polemically: the broadness of the Internet opens up spaces for new forms of discourse, where New Testament manuscripts raise different questions for different cultural and religious communities. For instance, the question of whether there were any Christian Arabic writings before Islam, this is directly related to the Arabic New Testament versions and is furthermore often echoed on the Internet in different forms.7 Intense online discussions may have contributed to the relatively recent growth in interest in the Arabic tradition. It is also worth mentioning that next to the two projects: Tarsian (see below) and HumaReC, other Arabic Bible focused projects are underway online, such as: PAVONe, and the Bibliography for Arabic Bible (an upcoming project).

It is thus increasingly obvious that the reconsideration of the Arabic tradition, a rather neglected field, was related to digital turn experimentation in the Humanities. Therefore, an awareness of digital issues is required and epistemological aspects have been incorporated into the project. Furthermore, it was also clear that giving our research an online presence would be vital.

The first step towards such a presence was a research blog hosted by the University of Lausanne. Its initial function was to provide a window into the project, an aspect that has become increasingly important. The blog also allowed people searching for online information about Arabic New Testament manuscripts to discover ongoing academic research. Finally, it was used to communicate research results.

Finally, between the moment when the project proposal was submitted in April 2012 and its end, the SNF began to favor Open Access (OA): first with temporary commitments leading up to the signing of OA2020 in March 2016 (see next chapter). This has led to the production of a supplementary addition to the project in the form of a digital OA edition of the First Letter to the Corinthians in Vat. Ar. 13, Tarsian. Encoded in TEI XML, the Arabic text is supported by a French translation and enhanced features developed on the basis of open source software created by EVT. This version was progressively published between February and July 2016, predating both the PhD defense and the availability of a hardcopy version of the thesis.

1 Swiss National Science Foundation project's webpage:

2 For this chapter 1, see part II of my PhD thesis [Schulthess 2016], available online. A revised version of the work will be published soon in the Brill series Biblia Arabica: see online announcement, [Schulthess 2019].

3 Idem.

4 A major breakthrough was the work of Guidi: [Guidi 1888].

5 See e.g. the critic of Epp: [Epp 1999].

6 We can evoke here the narrative textual criticism that aims to “move away from the traditional atomizing of texts into variant readings”, [Parker 1994:704]. Or more recently [Wasserman and Gurry 2017].

7 See chapter 3 of [Schulthess 2019]. See also [Schulthess 2012].