In my last post, I used the philosophical problem of the Sorites Paradox to illustrate the difficulty in pinning down exactly what counts as a “real” book of the Bible. A recent essay by Ronald Hendel, Professor of Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at UC Berkeley, might help to clarify our thoughts enough to offer a tentative answer. In “What Is a Biblical Book?” Hendel uses the philosophy of art to propose an answer to the question we looked at in my last post. [Spoiler Alert: This post will be a little more technical than my last one.]
In The Metaphysics of Morals, Immanuel Kant posed the philosophical question, “What is a book?” Hendel uses this question as a baseline to begin thinking about biblical books. According to Hendel’s reading of Kant, a book is a “physical object—that is, a manuscript or printed text” that functions semiotically “‘to represent a discourse’ to the public…by means of ‘visible linguistic signs.’” In other words, we recognize the Gospel of Luke as the Gospel of Luke by means of linguistic and semiotic markers that are generally recognizable to those who have read the Gospel of Luke before. When we read an ancient text about the birth of Jesus that features shepherds and angels singing “Glory to God in the highest,” we can be reasonably certain we are reading the Gospel of Luke.
Next, Hendel next builds on Nelson Goodman’s distinction between autographic and allographic arts and Charles Peirce and Richard Wollheim’s distinction between types and tokens to narrow and sharpen the way we think about biblical books. While an autographic work, according to Goodman, is a “single object, locatable in space and time,” like a “painting or a sculpture” (e.g. da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or Rodin’s The Kiss), an allographic work “exist[s] in multiple and dispersed copies, and any accurate copy is an authentic instantiation of the artwork.” An autographic work cannot be authentically duplicated—copies, even extremely convincing copies, are referred to either as “forgeries” or “prints.” The poster of René Magritte’s The Son of Man that hung on my dorm room wall in college was not the work of Magritte’s own hand, but a cheap reproduction purchased from the campus bookstore. By contrast, an allographic work does not depend upon a pristine, Platonic “original,” but is instead marked by the fact that any copy of the work is a genuine instantiation of that work. The PDF of Hendel’s essay that I read, for instance, is not the same instantiation as the hard copy of Hendel’s essay found in the Library of Congress, yet both copies are unquestionably understood to be the same essay.
Curiously, however, Goodman’s conception of an allographic work depends upon very strict limitations with regard to variations among texts. Should a copy vary from the author’s manuscript by a single character, according to Goodman, such a variation would constitute an entirely different work. It is not difficult to see how Goodman’s hypothesis falls short of proper application to the field of New Testament textual criticism. Not only are the original manuscripts of the Gospel texts unavailable to us (assuming we would even recognize them if they existed), but should we apply Goodman’s hypothesis unaltered to ancient manuscripts of the Gospel of Luke, for example, we would find that the Gospel of Luke does not exist; we would have merely a number of texts with remarkable linguistic/semiotic similarities. To remedy Goodman’s oversight, Hendel points out that texts like James Joyce’s Ulysses and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass exist in a legion of variations and editions, yet all of these variations are still considered instantiations of the same works.
Instead, Hendel suggests that Goodman’s hypothesis be revised to include “sameness of words and word sequences,” or “sameness of substantive readings.” In other words, if two compositions contain extended passages of identical or closely parallel text, chances are good that they are both instantiations of the same allographic work. In this way, Hendel maintains that books are doubly allographic: they are allographic in the sense that any number of copies of an original work constitute instantiations of that same work, but they are also allographic in the sense that variations may exist even among those copies and yet still be considered instantiations of the same work. Thus, each of those twelve early copies of the Gospel of Luke mentioned above can still be considered the Gospel of Luke, despite their numerous textual variants. Yet this still leaves the question posed by the Sorites Paradox in my last post: at what point does a text vary so much that it is no longer recognizable as a particular allographic instantiation? Or, as Hendel puts it, “Can we specify a limit to the range of allowable variation?”
To answer this question, Hendel employs the distinction between type and token as a critical method of distinguishing between copies of texts. A type, according to Hendel’s reading of Peirce and Wollheim, is an abstract concept that reflects a sort of Platonic ideal of a given object, word, or idea. On the other hand, a token is a particular instantiation of a type. For example, the specific bike that I ride to the university almost every day—an 8-speed 2015 Kona Dew—is a particular instantiation of the same model produced by Kona. My particular bike is a token, while Kona’s model design is a type. Even more generally, it could be said that my bike is a token of the concept of bicycle, which is also a type. Likewise, according to Hendel’s argument, we could also say that the idea of the Gospel of Luke is a type, while the individual copies and manuscript fragments mentioned above are tokens of the Third Gospel. Thus the answer to the question posed by the Sorites Paradox to discipline of textual criticism, according to Hendel, is something like this: As long as the linguistic and semiotic markers of a token text bear close enough resemblance to what readers recognize as the allographic type of that text, that particular token text is acknowledged as a genuine instantiation of the allographic type text.
What do you think? Is Hendel’s answer reasonable?
 Ronald Hendel, “What Is a Biblical Book?” in From Author to Copyist: Essays on the Composition, Redaction, and Transmission of the Hebrew Bible, ed. by Cana Werman (Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2015), 283-302.
 Ibid, 284.
 Ibid, 285.
 Ibid, 286.
 Ibid, 287.
 Ibid, 289.