Textual criticism has been practiced for over two thousand years. Early textual critics were concerned with preserving the works of antiquity, and this continued through the medieval period into early modern times until the invention of the printing press.
Many ancient works, such as the Bible and the Greek tragedies, survive in hundreds of copies, and the relationship of each copy to the original may be unclear. Textual scholars have debated for centuries which sources are most closely derived from the original, hence which readings in those sources are correct. Although biblical books that are letters, like Greek plays, presumably had one original, the question of whether some biblical books, like the gospels, ever had just one original has been discussed. Interest in applying textual criticism to the Qur'an has also developed after the discovery of the Sana'a manuscripts in 1972, which possibly date back to the 7–8th century.
In the English language, the works of Shakespeare have been a particularly fertile ground for textual criticism—both because the texts, as transmitted, contain a considerable amount of variation, and because the effort and expense of producing superior editions of his works have always been widely viewed as worthwhile. The principles of textual criticism, although originally developed and refined for works of antiquity, the Bible, and Shakespeare, have been applied to many works, extending backwards from the present to the earliest known written documents, in Mesopotamia and Egypt—a period of about five millennia.
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