The Case for Byzantine Priority: Part 3

by Maurice A. Robinson

The essence of a Byzantine-priority method

Any method which would restore the original text of the NT must follow certain guidelines and procedures within normative NT text-critical scholarship. It will not suffice merely to declare one form of the text superior in the absence of evidence, nor to support any theory with only selected and partial evidence which favors the case in question. The lack of balance in such matters plagues much of modern reasoned eclecticism, since preferred readings are all too often defended as primary simply because they are non-Byzantine. Principles of internal evidence are similarly manipulated, as witnessed by the repeated statements as to what “most scribes” (i. e., those responsible for the Byzantine Textform) would do in a given situation, when in fact “most scribes” did nothing of the kind on any regular basis.

The real issue facing NT textual criticism is the need to offer a transmissional explanation of the history of the text which includes an accurate view of scribal habits and normal transmissional considerations. Such must accord with the facts and must not prejudge the case against the Byzantine Textform. That this is not a new procedure or a departure from a previous consensus can be seen by the expression of an essential Byzantine-priority hypothesis in the theory of Westcott and Hort (quite differently applied, of course). The resultant methodology of the Byzantine-priority school is in fact more closely aligned with that of Westcott and Hort than any other.

Despite his myriad of qualifying remarks, Hort stated quite clearly in his Introduction the principles which, if applied directly, would legitimately support the Byzantine-priority position: As soon as the numbers of a minority exceed what can be explained by accidental coincidence, … their agreement … can only be explained on genealogical grounds[. W]e have thereby passed beyond purely numerical relations, and the necessity of examining the genealogy of both minority and majority has become apparent.

A theoretical presumption indeed remains that a majority of extant documents is more likely to represent a majority of ancestral documents at each stage of transmission than vice versa.

There is nothing inherently wrong with Hort’s “theoretical presumption.” Apart from the various anti-Byzantine qualifications made throughout the entire Introduction, the Westcott-Hort theory would revert to an implicit acceptance and following of this initial principle in accord with other good and solid principles which they elsewhere state. Thus, a “proper” Westcott-Hort theory which did not initially exclude the Byzantine Textform would reflect what might be expected to occur under “normal” textual transmission. Indeed, Hort’s initial “theoretical presumption” finds clear acceptance in the non-biblical realm. Fredson Bowers assumes a basic “normality” of transmission as the controlling factor in the promulgation of all handwritten documents; he also holds that a text reflected in an overwhelming majority of MSS is more likely to have a chronological origin preceding that of any text which might be found in a small minority:

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[Stemmatic textual analysis] joins with science in requiring the assumption of normality as the basis for any working hypothesis… If one collates 20 copies of a book and finds … that only 1 copy shows the uncorrected state … , “normality” makes it highly probable that the correction … was made at an earlier point in time … than [a form] … that shows 19 with uncorrected type and only 1 with corrected… The mathematical odds are excellent that this sampling of 20 copies can be extrapolated in accord with normality.

Such a claim differs but little from that made by Scrivener 150 years ago, and suggests that perhaps it is modern scholarship which has moved beyond “normality”–a scientific view of transmissional development in light of probability–in favor of a subjectively-based approach to the data. To complete the comparison in the non-biblical realm, modern eclectics should also consider the recent comments of D. C. Greetham:

Reliance upon individual critical perceptions (often masquerading as “scientific” methodology) … can result in extreme eclecticism, subjectivism, and normalization according to the esthetic dictates of the critic… The opposite extreme … maintains that … the only honest recourse is to select that specific … extant document which … seems best to represent authorial intention, and once having made that selection, to follow the readings of the document as closely as possible.”

When considering the above possibilities, Hort’s initial “theoretical presumption” is found to be that representing the scientifically-based middle ground, positioned as a corrective to both of Greetham’s extremes. As Colwell stated,

We need Hort Redivivus. We need him as a counter-influence to the two errors I have discussed: (1) the ignoring of the history of the manuscript tradition, and (2) overemphasis upon the internal evidence of readings. In Hort’s work two principles (and only two) are regarded as so important that they are printed in capital letters in the text and in italics in the table of contents. One is

“All trustworthy restoration of corrupted texts is founded on the study of their history,” and the other, “Knowledge of documents should precede final judgment upon readings.”

Beyond an antipathy for the Byzantine Textform and a historical reconstruction which attempted to define that Textform as the secondary result of a formal revision of the fourth century, Westcott and Hort made no idle claim regarding the importance of transmissional history and its related elements as the key to determining the original text of the NT. Had all things been equal, the more likely scenario which favored a predominantly Byzantine text would have been played out. In that sense, the present Byzantine-priority theory reflects a return to Hort, with the intent to explore the matter of textual transmission when a presumed formal Byzantine recension is no longer a factor.

A transmissional approach to textual criticism is not unparalleled. The criticism of the Homeric epics proceeds on much the same line. Not only do Homer’s works have more manuscript evidence available than any other piece of classical literature (though far less than that available for the NT), but Homer also is represented by MSS from a wide chronological and geographical range, from the early papyri through the uncials and Byzantine-era minuscules. The parallels to the NT transmissional situation are remarkably similar, since the Homeric texts exist in three forms: one shorter, one longer, and one in-between.

  1. The shorter form in Homer is considered to reflect Alexandrian critical know-how and scholarly revision applied to the text; the Alexandrian text of the NT is clearly shorter, has apparent Alexandrian connections, and may well reflect recensional activity.
  2. The longer form of the Homeric text is characterized by popular expansion and scribal “improvement”; the NT Western text generally is considered the “uncontrolled popular text” of the second century with similar characteristics.
  3. Between these extremes, a “medium” or “vulgate” text exists, which resisted both the popular expansions and the critical revisions; this text continued in much the same form from the early period into the minuscule era. The NT Byzantine Textform reflects a similar continuance from at least the fourth century onward.
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Yet the conclusions of Homeric scholarship based on a transmissional-historical approach stand in sharp contrast to those of NT eclecticism:

We have to assume that the original … was a medium [= vulgate] text… The longer texts … were gradually shaken out: if there had been … free trade in long, medium, and short copies at all periods, it is hard to see how this process could have commenced. Accordingly the need of accounting for the eventual predominance of the medium text, when the critics are shown to have been incapable of producing it, leads us to assume a medium text or vulgate in existence during the whole time of the hand-transmission of Homer. This consideration … revives the view … that the Homeric vulgate was in existence before the Alexandrian period… [Such] compels us to assume a central, average, or vulgate text.

Not only is the parallel between NT transmissional history and that of Homer striking, but the same situation exists regarding the works of Hippocrates. Allen notes that “the actual text of Hippocrates in Galen’s day was essentially the same as that of the mediaeval MSS … [just as] the text of [Homer in] the first century B.C. … is the same as that of the tenth-century minuscules.

In both classical and NT traditions there thus seems to be a “scribal continuity” of a basic “standard text” which remained relatively stable, preserved by the unforced action of copyists through the centuries who merely copied faithfully the text which lay before them. Further, such a text appears to prevail in the larger quantity of copies in Homer, Hippocrates, and the NT tradition. Apart from a clear indication that such consensus texts were produced by formal recension, it would appear that normal scribal activity and transmissional continuity would preserve in most manuscripts

“not only a very ancient text, but a very pure line of very ancient text.”


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Part Four will be published July 9th.

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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