by Maurice A. Robinson
Selected Objections to the Byzantine-Priority Hypothesis
While modern eclectics demand that the Byzantine-priority hypothesis present a reasonable defense and explanation of its theory and conclusions, their own method is ahistorical, creating a text without a theory, thereby extricating themselves from complications more severe than those faced under Byzantine-priority. Were modern eclectics required to delineate and defend the presumed transmissional history underlying their preferred text, the explanation would be far more difficult. For any textual theory, logical and reasonable solutions must be provided regarding a multiplicity of historical and transmissional issues; otherwise there exists no secure underpinning for its conclusions. The following typical objections to the Byzantine-priority theory can be paralleled by similar objections against modern eclectic theory in regard to its presumed transmissional model. The matter of most importance is whether the answer supplied by either faction accords transmissionally with historical probability or with mere historical optimism.
No early Byzantine manuscripts prior to the fourth century.
Some response to this objection has already been provided, but a cumulative combination of factors provides the best reply:
The limited and localized nature of the extant early MSS suggests that presumptions regarding text-critical antiquity may be flawed. For classical works, Bowers notes that “the possibility exists that the extant copies (when few) do not accurately represent the original proportion.” Were a thousand papyrus and uncial MSS extant from before the fourth century which were relatively complete and sufficiently representative of the entire Eastern empire (by the location of their discovery), perhaps one could speak with greater authority than from the 63 fragmentary papyri we currently possess from that era. The resources of the pre-fourth century era unfortunately remain meager, restricted to a limited body of witnesses. Even if the text-critical evidence is extended through the eighth century, there would be only 424 documents, mostly fragmentary. In comparison to this meager total, the oft-repeated apologetic appeal to the value and restorative significance of the 5000+ remaining Greek NT MSS becomes an idle boast.
The “copying revolutions” previously noted seriously affected the continuity of the transmissional stream. This problem is not adverse, but requires a proper consideration of its effect. The first revolution transferred the NT text from papyrus to vellum; pre-existing papyri were destroyed or otherwise abandoned. This eliminated many predecessors of extant vellum MSS as well as those of non-extant vellum descendants. The second revolution–the conversion from uncial to minuscule script–was just as radical. It effectively eliminated the need to preserve uncial MSS once a minuscule copy had been made. There is no reason to reject the earliest minuscules, and many dating into the eleventh century, as copies of uncial exemplars no longer extant. The small number of extant pre-ninth-century uncial MSS and fragments may well derive from papyrus predecessors left to deteriorate after their vellum copies were made. If the genealogically independent early minuscules stem from now-lost independent uncials which themselves stemmed from independent early papyri, then no MS is inherently preferable merely because of its age, material or script. The genealogical independence of most of the existing MSS points back to the earliest times.
The local text of Egypt is not likely to reflect that which permeated the primary Greek-speaking portion of the Empire (Southern Italy through modern Greece and Turkey to Antioch on the Orontes), from which we have no MS, versional, or patristic data from before the mid-fourth century. After that point one finds from that region a highly pervasive and dominant Byzantine stream. It is far more reasonable to assume that the predecessors of that stream simply retained the same textual complexion which earlier had permeated that region. Otherwise, the greater task is to explain a previous non-Byzantine dominance in that region which was thoroughly overwhelmed by the Byzantine model within less than a century without a word of historical confirmation or authorization, whether from fathers, councils, or ecclesiastical or governmental decree. Also, how to explain a reversal of dominance in the widest region without seeing a parallel change in smaller regions of the Empire, where local varieties of text maintained their regional influence with but sporadic Byzantine intrusion influencing their readings over an extended period.
The silence of early testimony from the primary Greek-speaking region of the Empire leads to two opposite views. Modern eclectics assume an early dominance of a non-Byzantine text in those areas which became the stronghold of Byzantine support, despite the transmissional unlikelihood of such having occurred in history.
The Byzantine-priority advocates suggest that the later existence and dominance of the Byzantine Textform in that region provides presumptive evidence favoring a similar dominance in earlier times. It is reasonable to suppose that, as texts spread geographically from their initial locale, regional alteration would increase proportionally to distance. This is especially the case given the “uncontrolled popular text” phenomenon of the early centuries. Copies produced within a close proximity to the site of origin or initial reception of a given text would be expected to retain a more uniform textual complexion closely resembling that of the autograph; this would occur without the imposition of formal “controls” upon the copying or dissemination of the text.
Copies produced at a more remote distance from the site of origin would tend to diverge in greater quantity. If such a hypothesis is correct, the primary Greek-speaking region during the period of “geographical silence” would be expected to retain a Byzantine text, just as other localized regions preserved their disparate texts in the European and African West as well as in Egypt and Palestine; this is simple transmissional theory at work.
To draw a comparison with another widely-held hypothesis, the early existence of the Byzantine Textform rests on a stronger basis than the Synoptic Q. The two- and four-source theories argue for the necessary existence of a Q document without possessing even a fragment of such. Internal evidence is claimed to point inexorably in that direction (whether the present writer concurs is not an issue). On the assumption that such speculation represents fact, scholars create concordances, synopses, and even theologies for Q; some even claim “proof” of its existence by appealing to textual variants in a non-extant document! Many eclectic scholars freely accept Q as a “real” first-century document despite the utter lack of manuscript evidence for such.
Yet these same scholars paradoxically argue against possible authenticity of the Byzantine Textform on the basis of a lack of pre-fourth century documentary evidence. But no Q document or fragment has ever been found (and likely will not), from any century. Yet from at least AD 350 onward the Byzantine Textform does exist. Thus the evidence favoring the early existence of the Byzantine Textform is far stronger than the case for Q. A pre-fourth century dominant Byzantine Textform more emphatically can be postulated within the primary Greek-speaking region of the Empire, despite a lack of early evidence. Transmissionally, there is no compelling reason to conclude a non-Byzantine dominance in that region prior to the fourth century which left no reasonable minority representation among later witnesses in that same region when such clearly occurred elsewhere.
Until the discovery of P75 in 1955, a relatively “pure” Alexandrian MS was unknown among the Egyptian papyri; there was no proof that a text similar to that of Codex Vaticanus existed prior to the fourth century. Before P75, some suggested that Origen had created the Alexandrian text following his relocation to Caesarea. The “mixed” papyri found before P75 had provoked speculation that the Alexandrian texttype was the end product of a recent recension. P75 of course changed matters dramatically. But until a mere 45 years ago, no one could speak dogmatically regarding the early existence of a text resembling Vaticanus. Similarly, one cannot rule out the possibility (slim to be sure) that a second or third century Byzantine MS might someday be discovered in the sands of Egypt. Were such to occur, certain researchers still would be inclined to describe such a MS as “containing” more “Byzantine-like” readings than other early documents; this due to an a priori view that the Byzantine text could only be “much later.”
Major disruptions in transmissional history eliminated non-Byzantine predecessors.
These objections fall under two main heads: the Diocletian persecution and the rise of Islam.
The claim is that various persecutions, and especially that of Diocletian, so decimated the number of NT MSS that previously dominant texttypes were all but eliminated, leaving the rising Byzantine to fill the gap. This really assumes too much: an initial presumption is that a non-Byzantine text dominated the Eastern Empire; then, when persecutors demanded scriptures for destruction, the Alexandrian text alone was overwhelmingly surrendered. Persecutions, however, were not selective in their textual targets. The MSS surrendered and destroyed in a given region would reflect the general proportion of existing MSS, regardless of texttype; so too those which survived. Were 1000 MSS destroyed in a local area of which only 100 were Byzantine, even a 90% decimation still would leave a survival proportion similar to that which was destroyed. One cannot stretch credulity to presume a reversal of texttype dominance as the result of basically random persecutions. Some suggest that the Diocletian persecution was more severe in Palestine and Egypt, thereby wiping out the Alexandrian text in those regions.
Less-severely persecuted regions would then have their texts free to dominate. Yet another fallacy exists: had the Alexandrian text been original, it should have dominated the Greek-speaking portion of the Eastern Empire. It would retain its dominance even if the text in any other region were utterly destroyed. But if Alexandrian dominance did not continue, one should assume only a local and regional aspect for that text, and understand that before Constantine the Byzantine Textform had already become dominant in the primary Greek-speaking region of the Empire. This would exclude or minimize Alexandrian influence outside of Egypt and Palestine. Either way, the claimed early dominance of the Alexandrian text is called into question. Other factors suggest a proportional destruction and survival of MSS as regards texttype. Nigel Wilson has noted the loss or destruction of even Byzantine-era MSS by means unrelated to persecution:
One may lament the loss of texts, both classical and theological, that took place in the Byzantine age. But … circumstances were much against them. Destruction by fire and foreign invasion was frequent. Writing material was relatively scarce and expensive… Lending resulted in loss, … despite the fact that many books were marked with the owner’s name together with the curse of the three hundred and eighteen fathers of the Council of Nicaea on anyone who should steal or sell the books to others… Perhaps we should rather be surprised that so much survived.
It thus becomes a wonder that even the Byzantine Textform survived the manifold difficulties of its era, including the Fourth Crusade’s sack of Constantinople (AD 1204), and the Ottoman conquest (AD 1453). Yet MSS of Byzantine and non-Byzantine type survived the destructions of that era. There is little reason to suppose that the NT text ever suffered anything more than proportional destruction during any time of persecution, whether by Decius, Diocletian, Julian the Apostate, Mohammedan rulers, or even misguided and fanatical Christians.
The Islamic Conquest was not as totally destructive to NT MSS as has been claimed. Monasteries and churches in both Palestine and Egypt continued literary activity following the conquest and maintained communication with the Eastern and Western Empire, even while facing pressure to abandon Christianity and convert to Islam. Hatch puts this in proper perspective:
When the Arabs conquered Egypt, Palestine, and Syria, … the monastic and ecclesiastical libraries … naturally came under their control. Many books must have perished in this troubled epoch, but some escaped destruction… Christianity was regarded by the Moslems as a divinely revealed religion, and they would not ordinarily have felt impelled to destroy copies of the Christian Scriptures. The Arabs were in fact much less fanatical and harsh in the treatment of their Christian subjects than is sometimes supposed, and they did not aim at a wholesale conversion of the Christians.
Kurt Aland has suggested that the real cause of Egyptian textual difference from the Byzantine mainstream relates to a much earlier theological conflict between Eastern and Egyptian Christianity:
[One] should keep Egyptian Church history more firmly in sight… The alienation from the eastern church … set in among the Christian population of Egypt during the fourth century and reached its culmination in the … fifth century [with] … the formation of the monophysite church[. This] allows us to presuppose a tradition of the New Testament text isolated at least from the later Koine–an isolation strengthened by the Arab domination.
So also Farag, who discusses the state of Egyptian Christianity two centuries before the Arab conquest:
Abba Shenouda (333-451 A. D.) … devoted his life to fight pagan and Byzantine corruption in all its forms. The dream of his life was to emancipate Egypt religiously by separating the Coptic Church from Constantinople … [and] achieving political independence from the Byzantine state.
Despite the isolation, communication continued with the Eastern Greek Church even after the Arab Conquest. The effect was both textual and political:
The witnesses of the Egyptian text of the Greek New Testament … were all the more clearly subject to the influence of the Koine [= Byzantine text] with the passing of time. Political isolation did not keep the Greek monasteries in Egypt free from the influence of the Byzantine church.
The continued existence and survival of the Coptic Churchand monasteries in Egypt and Palestine exemplifies the true situation, negating claims to the contrary.
Chrysostom’s influence made the Byzantine the preferred text of Constantinople; this text later was imposed upon the Eastern Greek church by Imperial or Ecclesiastical decree.
A “new” or localized text, even if used by a popular Greek Father would not become transmissionally popular merely due to his reputation. A previous traditional textual dominance over a wider region would not be abandoned on such grounds. Less plausible than regional replacement is that any “new” or localized text would expand into Empire-wide dominance without ecclesiastical or Imperial decree. No such imposition of control is documented historically. It places an impossible demand on transmission to see a late, minority, and regionally localized text on its own outstripping and virtually eradicating whatever predecessor texts had previously dominated in either a local region or a wider geographical range. Yet this unlikely scenario is urged without historical evidence by some who oppose the Byzantine Textform. But as Colwell noted,
“the Byzantine … text-type … had in its origin no such single focus as the Latin had in Jerome.”
The complex character of the MSS comprising the Byzantine Textform demonstrates that any “official” sanctions–even if they had existed–simply did not work. A consistent form of text was not preserved even in the region surrounding Constantinople. Rather, as Lake, Blake, and New had suggested on the basis of numerous collations of Byzantine MSS, the lack of an observable commonality of text with clear stemmatic ties tends to indicate that scribes remained independent of any official sanctions as they copied their exemplar MSS. As Scrivener noted,
No one who has at all studied the cursive MSS. can fail to be struck with the individual character impressed on almost every one of them… The fancy which was once taken up, that there existed a standard Constantinopolitan text, to which all copies written within the limits of that Patriarchate were conformed, has been [quoting Tregelles]
“swept away at once and forever” …
by a closer examination of the copies themselves. Surely then it ill becomes us absolutely to reject as unworthy of serious discussion, the evidence of witnesses (whose mutual variations vouch for their independence and integrity) because their tendency on the whole is to uphold the authority of [the Byzantine Textform].
Scrivener’s observation was reiterated a century later by Jacob Geerlings, who noted regarding the Byzantine Textform that,
its origin did not wholly center in Constantinople, nor was its evolution the concern of either ecumenical councils or patriarchs… Its origins as well as those of other so-called text-types probably go back to the autographs… The Eastern Church never officially adopted or recognized a received or authorized text… At no point in its history was it ever adopted officially by the Eastern Church, quite unlike to the status of Jerome’s Vulgate in the Western Church… The term “rescension” [sic] which is sometimes applied to the Byzantine text implies … deliberate attempts by a group of scribes or ecclesiastical authorities … to revise or correct the Greek text… The case, as we have observed above, was otherwise.
Apart from the Byzantine as a Chrysostom-influenced or officially-imposed text, other critics have opted for another means of explaining the rise and dominance of the Byzantine Textform:
The Byzantine Textform is the result of a process which over the centuries steadily moved away from the original form of the text in the interest of smoothness, harmonization, grammatical and other “improvements.”
Colwell claimed that
“a text-type is a process, not the work of one hand,”
“scholars have been forced”
to this conclusion due to their study of the Alexandrian texttype. Also,
“the story of the manuscript tradition of the New Testament is the story of progression from a relatively uncontrolled tradition to a rigorously controlled tradition.”
In view of what Scrivener and Geerlings stated above, one seriously must consider Colwell’s further comment:
“The important questions … are, Where were controls applied? Why? By whom?”
If no such controls ever were actually imposed, the situation becomes radically altered.. Geerlings also explains the Byzantine Textform by a “process” model, following von Soden’s suggestion that the Ka and K1 texts reflect the initial stages of a developmental process that resulted in the majority Kx and large Kr groups. While the later Kr sub-group did develop out of the MSS which comprise the Kx group, the Kx is not so easily classified. The transmissionally more logical view would be that Kx more likely reflects the overarching text from which all minority Byzantine sub-types developed at different periods. This would coincide with Colwell, albeit to a different conclusion:
the Beta [= Alexandrian] Text-type par excellence is the type found in the later rather than the earlier witnesses; … the Alpha [= Byzantine] Text-type is found in von Soden’s Kx or Kr rather than in Ka (Family P) or K1 or Alexandrinus or Chrysostom.
Yet Colwell’s “process presuppositions” are non sequitur, and beg the question: he states,
(1) “Scribes do not automatically, as scribes, copy accurately”; and
(2) “Close agreement between manuscripts is possible only where there was some control. Wide divergence between manuscripts indicates lack of control.”
The better procedure would be to redefine the presuppositions in light of transmissional evidence:
(1) Scribes for the most part were generally careful and reasonably accurate in their copying endeavors. Were this not so, the MSS of the NT and all ancient works swiftly would have become a mass of confusion, and one would despair at ever recovering an original form of the text. While all scribes blundered or made intentional alterations to the text at various times, the overall character of the copied text was not so affected as to preclude a reasonably accurate transmission on “normal” terms, thus facilitating the recovery of an original from comparison of various witnesses;
(2) Colwell defines “control” as “editions with sanctions,” imposed from a source beyond the individual scribe. Yet there is no demonstrable unity of text within the Byzantine Textform MSS, and likewise no evidence that controls were ever imposed on the NT texts before the late Kr recension. The primary locus of “control” resided in the scribes’ perceived duty to be careful and accurate, duplicating the exemplar MS as precisely as possible. This level of “control” is wholly sufficient to explain most observable phenomena: there was a general accuracy in representing the text, while blunders and intentional alterations would differentiate the various texttypes and subtypes over the long period of transmissional history.
The primary problem with the “process” model is explaining how such a process could function under the constraints of transmission and locale. Hodges has spoken to this point in a classic statement which nullifies the “process” view as a solution to transmissional history:
No one has yet explained how a long, slow process spread out over many centuries as well as over a wide geographical area, and involving a multitude of copyists, who often knew nothing of the state of the text outside of their own monasteries or scriptoria, could achieve this widespread uniformity out of the diversity presented by the earlier [Western and Alexandrian] forms of text… An unguided process achieving relative stability and uniformity in the diversified textual, historical, and cultural circumstances in which the New Testament was copied, imposes impossible strains on our imagination.
A properly-nuanced “process” would recognize the various transmissional factors, as well as the tendency toward regional deviation into localized forms. This sort of process would produce texttypes and sub-types within a localized region, but not, on its own, any convergence into a single dominant Textform. The absence of control runs counter to Colwell’s presuppositions and conclusions; yet apart from formal control, a transmissional “process” would result in various texts diverging continually from the parent Textform. Such indeed is evidenced in the various regional texttypes and subtypes which exist in contrast to the uncontrolled parent Byzantine Textform.
Part Nine of this article will be published on July 21st.
This excellent article is reprinted with permission of TC: A Journal of Biblical Textual Criticism .
© TC: A Journal of Biblical Textual Criticism, 2001.