The Case for Byzantine Priority: Part 2

by Maurice A. Robinson

A Problem of Modern Eclecticism: Sequential Variant Units and the Resultant “Original” Text

Modern eclectic praxis operates on a variant unit basis without any apparent consideration of the consequences. The resultant situation is simple: the best modern eclectic texts simply have no proven existence within transmissional history, and their claim to represent the autograph or the closest approximation thereunto cannot be substantiated from the extant MS, versional or patristic data. Calvin L. Porter has noted pointedly that modern eclecticism, although

“not based upon a theory of the history of the text … does reflect a certain presupposition about that history. It seems to assume that very early the original text was rent piecemeal and so carried to the ends of the earth where the textual critic, like lamenting Isis, must seek it by his skill.”

Such a scenario imposes an impossible burden upon textual restoration, since not only is the original text no longer extant in any known MS or texttype, but no MS or group of MSS reflects such in its overall pattern of readings. There thus remains no transmissional guide to suggest how such an “original” text would appear when found. One should not be surprised to find that the only certain conclusions of modern eclecticism seem to be that the original form of the NT text

(a) will not resemble the Byzantine Textform; but

(b) will resemble the Alexandrian texttype.

It is one thing for modern eclecticism to defend numerous readings when considered solely as isolated units of variation. It is quite another matter for modern eclecticism to claim that the sequential result of such isolated decisions will produce a text closer to the autograph (or canonical archetype) than that produced by any other method.While all eclectic methods utilize what appear to be sufficient internal and external criteria to provide a convincing and persuasive case for an “original” reading at any given point of variation, strangely lacking is any attempt to defend the resultant sequential text as a transmissional entity. The lay reader can be overwhelmingly convinced regarding any individual eclectic decision due to its apparent plausibility, consistency, and presumed credibility; arguments offered at this level are persuasive. A major problem arises, however, as soon as those same readings are viewed as a connected sequence; at such a point the resultant text must be scrutinized in transmissional and historical terms.

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Colwell noted that

“Westcott and Hort’s genealogical method slew the Textus Receptus.”

Westcott and Hort appealed to a purely hypothetical stemma of descent which they

“did not apply … to the manuscripts of the New Testament”;

yet they claimed thereby to

“show clearly that a majority of manuscripts is not necessarily to be preferred as correct.”

Possibility (which is all that was claimed) does not amount to probability; the latter requires evidence which the former does not. As Colwell noted, by an

a priori possibility” Westcott and Hort could “demolish the argument based on the numerical superiority urged by the adherents of the Textus Receptus.”

The TR (and for all practical purposes, the Byzantine Textform) thus was overthrown on the basis of a hypothesis which was not demonstrable as probable. Hort’s reader of the stemmatic chart was left uninformed that the diagrammed possibility which discredited the Byzantine Textform was not only unprovable, but highly improbable in light of transmissional considerations. Thus on the basis of unproven possibilities the Westcott-Hort theory postulated its “Syrian [Byzantine] recension” of ca. AD 350.

A parallel exists: modern eclecticism faces a greater problem than did the Byzantine text under the theoretical stemma of Westcott and Hort. Not only does its resultant text lack genealogical support within transmissional theory, but it fails the probability test as well. That the original text or anything close to such would fail to perpetuate itself sequentially within reasonably short sections is a key weakness affecting the entire modern eclectic theory and method.

The problem is not that the entire text of a NT book nor even of a chapter might be unattested by any single MS; most MSS (including those of the Byzantine Textform) have unique or divergent readings within any extended portion of text; no two MSS agree completely in all particulars. However, the problem with the resultant sequential aspect of modern eclectic theory is that its preferred text repeatedly can be shown to have no known MS support over even short stretches of text–and at times even within a single verse. The problem increases geometrically as a sequence of variants extends over two, three, five, or more verses.

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This raises serious questions about the supposed transmissional history required by eclectic choice. As with Hort’s genealogical appeal to a possible but not probable transmission, it is transmissionally unlikely that a short sequence of variants would leave no supporting witness within the manuscript tradition; the probability that such would occur repeatedly is virtually nil.

Modern eclecticism creates a text which, within repeated short sequences, rapidly degenerates into one possessing no support among manuscript, versional, or patristic witnesses. The problem deteriorates further as the scope of sequential variation increases. One of the complaints against the Byzantine Textform has been that such could not have existed at an early date due to the lack of a single pre-fourth century MS reflecting the specific pattern of agreement characteristic of that Textform, even though the Byzantine Textform can demonstrate its specific pattern within the vast majority of witnesses from at least the fourth century onward.

Yet those who use the modern eclectic texts are expected to accept a proffered “original” which similarly lacks any pattern of agreement over even a short stretch of text that would link it with what is found in any MS, group of MSS, version, or patristic witness in the entire manuscript tradition. Such remains a perpetual crux for the “original” text of modern eclecticism.

If a legitimate critique can be made against the Byzantine Textform because early witnesses fail to reflect its specific pattern of readings, the current eclectic models (regardless of edition) can be criticized more severely, since their resultant texts demonstrate a pattern of readings even less attested among the extant witnesses. The principle of Ockham’s Razor applies, and the cautious scholar seriously must ask which theory possesses the fewest speculative or questionable points when considered from all angles.

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Modern eclectic proponents fail to see their resultant text as falling under a greater condemnation, even though such a text is not only barely possible to imagine having occurred under any reasonable historical process of transmission, but whatever transmissional history would be required to explain their resultant text is not even remotely probable to have occurred under any normal circumstances. Yet modern eclectics continue to reject a lesser argument ex silentio regarding the likelihood of Byzantine propagation in areas outside of Egypt during the early centuries (where archaeological data happen not to be forthcoming), while their own reconstructed text requires a hypothetical transmissional history which transcends the status of the text in all centuries. The parallels do not compare well.

It seems extremely difficult to maintain archetype or autograph authenticity for any artificially-constructed eclectic text when such a text taken in sequence fails to leave its pattern or reconstructable traces within even one extant witness to the text of the NT; this is especially so when other supposedly “secondary” texttypes and Textforms are preserved in a reasonable body of extant witnesses with an acceptable level of reconstructability.


Part Three will be published on July 7th.

This excellent article is reprinted with permission of TC: A Journal of Biblical Textual Criticism .

© TC: A Journal of Biblical Textual Criticism, 2001.


About Fr. John A. Peck

Director of the Preachers Institute, priest in the Orthodox Church in America, award-winning graphic designer and media consultant, and non-profit administrator.
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