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According to Kister, the textual witnesses (manuscripts and testimonia of arn in the writings of medieval rabbinic authorities) of Version a fall into two principal branches, but often the original reading is contained in neither of them.An acquaintance with the two textual families, however, enables one in many cases to suggest, through cautious philological analysis, what the original reading might have been. ) of Version a seems not to represent an entirely new branch of that version, as suggested by some scholars, but rather a secondary text which attempted to reckon with textual defects found in the manuscript from which it was copied, defects that occur in later manuscripts of Version a (Kister).From these data one may conclude that the earliest form of arn goes back to a time not much later than the first half of the 3 century c.e.
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Version b was first published by Solomon Schechter (1887, together with a critical edition of Version a).
The two versions seem to be two distinct forms (and the only forms known at least since the Middle Ages) of an earlier consists of three different sections in both versions, reflecting the varying character of the five chapters of Avot in the Mishnah: (a) a detailed commentary on most of the sayings in Mishnah Avot 1:1–, except –2:7 (see below); (b) supplementary material to Mishnah Avot chapter 3–4, consisting of diverse sayings of Tannaim; (c) an elaboration of the numerical sayings in Mishnah Avot chapter 5.
Kister, Studies in Avot de-Rabbi Nathasn: Text, Redaction and Interpretation (Heb., 1998); M.
Kister, "Prolegomenon," Avoth de-Rabbi Nathan Solomon Schechter Edition with References to Parallels in the two versions and to the Addenda in the Schechter's Edition (Heb., 1997); M.
The general outlines (but usually not the wording) of a common core, from which the two versions evolved, can often be reconstructed by careful comparison between them.
This also means that each version is frequently unintelligible by itself.
Kister has strongly emphasized that both Version a and Version b are post-talmudic works, although there are certainly ancient elements in the traditions included in them.
The textual transmission of Avot de-Rabbi Nathan is also problematic.
Only a few manuscripts of Version b survive, most of them stemming from a single, rather late, medieval copy. Schechter, who published the two versions, with variae lectiones, notes, and a general introduction.