Classifying the manuscripts1

Manuscripts : A Family tree (Stemma)

When scholars are faced with a number of extant manuscripts of an ancient writer's works, it is usually necessary to attempt to classify them in various ways.

(The intention is to recover the author's text from the errors of transmission, as far as possible, without introducing new ones. This is an art rather than a science, but various principles have been evolved which seem more or less sensible, even though it is actually not possible to check the accuracy of the methods objectively1a).

In particular, it is useful to discover if some of the manuscripts are merely copies of others, as these may then be discarded, so far as establishing the correct text is concerned. The ideal is to construct a family tree for the manuscripts, which indicates their relation to one another and to the original.

In practice there is seldom enough evidence, for Latin manuscripts anyway, to draw a family tree - a stemma - that reaches back to anywhere before the 9th Century. This is also the case for the manuscripts of Tertullian. However it is possible to group the manuscripts into families.

The works of Tertullian did not travel independently from antiquity, with the exception of the Apologeticum2. Rather they were gathered at some remote period into groups of varying contents. This is shown from the variable contents of the manuscripts that have come down to us. For the works of Tertullian, the primary method of classifying the manuscripts into groups is to list the works contained in it. Each group - each Corpus - contained a different collection of Tertullian's works, and sometimes in a different order. From this alone we can establish some ground rules. In this we are considerably more fortunate than the student of the New Testament, for instance, who can rarely perform this exercise as the MSS usually contain the same works with little variation in order3.

Fragments cannot be classified in this way, as there may be no more than pieces of a single work which occurs in more than one group. Furthermore it cannot always be assumed that we have copies of manuscripts from all the collections that existed during the middle ages, in which case a fragment may be from an otherwise unknown Corpus. In addition, once we have a number of manuscripts within a group, further classification requires a further technique.

The answer in both cases is to examine the text for additions, omissions (lacunae), and mistakes or variants. Manuscripts can then be grouped based on text similarities.

Based on this, we can list the following collections that must have existed at the dawn of the middle ages4:

Title Contains Representatives
Corpus Trecense 5 works:

Adversus Judaeos
De carne Christi
De carnis resurrectione
De baptismo
De paenitentia

Known only from the Codex Trecensis. The collection may have been assembled by Vincent of Lerins in the 5th century6.
Corpus Corbeiense 6 works+6:

De carnis resurrectione
[De Trinitate (of Novatian)]
De spectaculis
De praescriptione haereticorum
De pudicitia
De ieiunio

Mainly known from the edition of Gelenius, B, Keppel Fragment 5 May have been assembled in the 5th century, as it contains Montanist and Novatianist works6. Copies may have once existed at Corbie and Cologne. The lost Codex Johannis Clementis Angli (C) probably belonged to this collection.
Corpus Agobardinum 21 works, originally (only 13 now):

Ad nationes
De praescriptione haereticorum
De testimonio animae
De corona
De spectaculis
De idololatria
De anima
De oratione
De cultu feminarum
Ad uxorem
De exhortatione castitatis
De carne Christi

Plus some lost works

Codex Agobardinus, Codex Ambrosianus.
Corpus Cluniacense 21 works (27 books) in two volumes6:

Codex 1 (10/11 books) :

De patientia
De carne Christi
De carnis resurrectione
Adversus Praxean
Adversus Valentinianos
Adversus Marcionem (5 books)

Codex 2 (17 books) :

De fuga
Ad scapulam
De corona
Ad martyras
De paenitentia
De virginibus velandis
De habitu muliebri + De cultu feminarum
De exhortatione castitatis
Ad uxorem (2 books)
De monogamia
De pallio
Contra Judaeos
[Adversus omnes haereticos - spurious]
De praescriptione haereticorum
Adversus Hermogenem

M, P and a host of others
Corpus Ottobonianum At least 4 works:

De pudicitia
De paenitentia
De patientia
De spectaculis

Codex Ottobonianus. Exhibits an excellent text.

The great majority of manuscripts belong to the Corpus Cluniacense. The catalogue of the Monastery at Cluny lists a two volume collection of the works of Tertullian, now lost, which is therefore most likely the ancestor of all the two-volume collections known to us. However see the page on this for some objections to this view.


All works quoted will be found in more detail in the bibliography. All have been checked except where noted.

1. See Reynolds and Wilson, Scribes and Scholars for more details of how manuscripts are classified.

1a. Useful as the process of text criticism is, it has sometimes been applied destructively, rather than to restore the text which it is supposed to serve. This happens most readily where a foreign motive - religious or political, or simply a fashion - intrudes. For a caution on the limits of the methodology, see A.E. Housman, The Application of Thought to Textual Criticism, in Selected Prose. The warnings are repeated by Metzger, The Text of the New Testament : Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration, p219. Text criticism is not rocket science, and a single stroke of an archaeologists spade could turn everything written on these matters into waste paper, just as the discovery of papyrus p52 did for the dating of the Gospel of John (see H.I.Bell, Recent discoveries of biblical papyri for this example, and its impact). It is strongly recommended that readers of these pages keep their scepticism switched on when considering claims based on textual methods (including any made on these pages), and keep considering always what the evidence is for the statements made, what evidence could exist that would support or refute the claims, and the degree to which consensus opinion may simply be the product of absence of evidence, rather than evidence of absence. On the other hand it would be perhaps a worse mistake to discard the immense services that scholars have given in removing copyist errors from the texts of classical and patristic works, simply because sometimes the process has been abused or exaggerated.

2. The Apologeticum is extant in 36 codices, mostly containing no other work of Tertullian - see here for details.

3. See Metzger, Text of the New Testament, for details.

4. Table based on Quasten, Patrology II, p251, except where noted.

5. Mattei, Paul, Tertullien : Le Mariage Unique, Sources Chretiennes 343 (1988), p102ff. French critical edition, introduction, translation. He gives 5 collections, where Quasten gives 6, making the Masburensis separate from the Corbeiense. Dekkers (see below) gives yet a different list for this collection, but agrees in 5 collections.

6. Dekkers, E., CCL I,, following Kroymann in CSEL 70, p.xxix ff.

7. In some copies, among them the Montepessulanus, the lost Gorziensis, and N, the Apologeticum has been added to the back of this codex. According to Dekkers, Dom E, CCL I, p.vii. Kroymann in Die Tertullian-Ueberlieferung states that at the end of Adv. Hermogenem are the words Finis opera Tertulliani.


This page has been online since 10th December 1999.

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