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In the process of establishing a text and of understanding its history, direct witnesses do not always suffice, and it often proves necessary to use indirect witnesses as well, because they may be older or provide other information than the preserved manuscripts. According to the type of indirect witness and to its degree of reliability (faithfulness or closeness to the text), the use of those witnesses for the history of the text and for the constitutio textus will pose various methodological problems, that should not be underestimated.

The indirect tradition may consist of the following types of indirect witnesses to a given text (the list is not exhaustive):

  • ancient or mediaeval translations of the text in other languages,
  • (exact) quotations of the text in later other texts, especially in anthologies,
  • any kind of rewriting of the text, either by the author himself or by others: a paraphrase, a summary, or even another recension of the text can be considered an indirect witness to the text.

The indirect tradition can sometimes be used as an out-group element to polarise variant readings in a textual tradition, this is especially true for ancient translations. In the case of the edition of the Greek and Latin Bible, for example, quotations of passages in the works of Church Fathers are regularly mentioned in the critical apparatus, as they may help to localise geographically a family of text. It also happens that a text is preserved in a more complete form in a translation than in the direct witnesses. This is the case of Titus of Bostra, Contra Manichaeos for example, of which a longer version is preserved in a Syriac translation (edited side by side with the Greek), and some fragments as well a mediaeval anthology (John of Damascus' Sacra parallela) (Poirier et al. 2013). In a text such as Proclus' Commentary on the Parmenides, the end of the text is missing in Greek and could be reconstructed thanks to a 13th-century Latin translation, although the back translation of a translation is a tricky procedure (Steel and Van Campe 2009).


– Poirier, Paul-Hubert, Agathe Roman, Thomas Schmidt, Éric Crégheur, and José Declerck, eds. 2013. Titus Bostrensis, Contra Manichaeos Libri IV: Graece et Syriace. Turnhout: Brepols.
– Steel, Carlos, and Leen Van Campe, eds. 2009. Procli In Platonis Parmenidem commentaria. Vol. III, Libros VI–VII. Oxford: Clarendon.

In other languages

DE: indirekte Tradition
FR: tradition indirecte
IT: tradizione indiretta


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