Theology Thursday - Byzantine Priority & the "Phantom" Eclectic Text (Part 2)

Maurice Robinson continues to make his case for Byzantine priority for the Greek text of the New Testament. In this excerpt, he explains his approach to restoring the text from his perspective, and how it differs from the eclectic method.1 

Principles for Restoring the Text

For the most part, the principles utilized in the practice and application of Byzantine-priority theory remain identical to those found in the standard text-critical handbooks regarding the eclectic methods. The issue is not the principles, but the total scope of their application; modern eclecticism sees only the individual variant units, while Byzantine-priority sees the sequential text as a whole.

Of all the modern eclectic principles, one principle that will not be used is preference for the shorter reading. It should be obvious that such a principle has an inherent bias that favors manuscripts containing a larger number of shorter readings, and for the most part those happen to be those witnesses that comprise the eclectically favored Alexandrian text-type. Since it has been determined from the examination of early papyri that scribes were, in fact, more prone to omit than to add material to their New Testament texts, a case readily can be made for the elimination of this principle, but without going to the other extreme of favoring the longer reading (a bias that would then favor the Western text). The remaining principles of New Testament textual criticism, assiduously applied, and keeping in mind the sequential resultant text, tend to support a predominantly Byzantine text. All that is required is to eliminate the anti-Byzantine bias that has prevailed for the last century and a half.

Another significant difference between Byzantine-priority and modern eclectic text-critical praxis is that the Byzantine position maintains a constant awareness of transmissional probabilities, particularly in regard to what is most likely to have resulted within transmissional history on the basis of the data we possess. Such an awareness includes recognition of transcriptional factors that have resulted in unintentional error, as well as various deliberate alterations of the text by scribes with “editorial” or recensional leanings.

The following list of working principles is divided into internal and external factors; all principles, however, need to function together in order for legitimate decisions to be made in regard to any variant reading. Since these principles for the most part reflect what is found in standard text-critical handbooks and also function as the working principles of most modern eclectics, little explanatory comment will be needed.

Principles of Internal Evidence

The reading most likely to have given rise to all others within a variant unit is to be preferred.

Since variant readings by definition are those that deviate from the original text, it should be expected that such readings did not occur apart from some error or deliberate reasoning by a scribe. By careful examination of all possible causes for the creation of a variant reading, using internal, transcriptional, and transmissional evidence, it is possible in most instances to determine the reading most likely to have been original.

The reading that would be more difficult as a scribal creation is to be preferred.

In this as well as in other internal principles, causes of error or deliberate alteration are attributable to known habits of scribes. These cases are not, however, reflective of the mass of scribes as a whole, despite claims made in the handbooks to such effect. In the present case, difficult readings created by individual scribes certainly exist, but these tend not to perpetuate to any significant degree within transmissional history. This can easily be demonstrated by careful examination of the available critical apparatuses. A corollary to this principle is that the more difficult reading is more strongly to be preferred when found in the transmissional majority of witnesses rather than when limited to a single witness or minority group. It is far more likely that a minority of witnesses might possess a difficult reading merely due to error or individual scribal alteration as opposed to transmissional originality.

Readings that conform to the known style, vocabulary, and syntax of the original author are to be preferred.

While this principle taken alone tends to characterize rigorous or thoroughgoing eclecticism, it must not be supposed that such has no validity within other text-critical methods. For the most part, it should be expected that within a given book, a New Testament author will generally conform to a certain style, syntax, and vocabulary, and that scribes in most cases would not be inclined to alter such authorial characteristics unless extremely rare words or improper grammar or syntax happened to appear.

Readings that clearly harmonize or assimilate the wording of one passage to another are to be rejected.

While individual scribes often had a tendency to harmonize or assimilate wording, such generally occurred on a sporadic basis and is reflected primarily among individual manuscripts or small groups of manuscripts. There is little evidence to support any hypothesis of widespread scribal harmonization; for the most part scribes clearly can be shown not to have a harmonistic bent, else the Synoptic Gospel narratives would over time have become far more in harmony than they currently appear. The primary locus of harmonization and assimilation is within the immediate context (as opposed to remote parallels), and this in particular should be considered when evaluating variant readings.

Readings reflecting common scribal piety or religiously motivated expansion or alteration tend to be secondary.

In general, such readings are readily discernible by their pious nature and lack of perpetuation among a significant number of manuscripts. One must not suppose, however, that all readings with some theological significance are thereby suspect merely because they reflect orthodox piety.

The primary evaluation of readings should be based upon transcriptional probability.

Since manuscripts were transmitted by hand, the cause of most variant readings must be sought in the probabilities regarding what a scribe would be likely to do (or not do) in any given case.

Transcriptional error— rather than deliberate alteration— is more likely to be the ultimate source of many sensible variants.

Since scribal error has been shown to be far more common than deliberate alteration, the textual researcher should first ask whether some sort of scribal (transcriptional) error may have occasioned a given variant and also whether some of the remaining variants might reflect various attempts to repair the damage caused by such transcriptional error. Only after this has been done should inquiry be made into the likelihood of deliberate alteration by a given scribe, as well as to its perpetuation by later scribes.

Neither the shorter nor longer reading is to be preferred.

While modern eclecticism assumes that scribes were more likely to expand rather than shorten the text in cases where an include/ omit variation might occur, the opposite is the case. Accidental omission of single words or short phrases is now known to have occurred more frequently than deliberate expansion. Also, as mentioned earlier, the shorter-reading principle has a built-in bias that favors the Alexandrian text-type, since that text-type tends to be the shortest. Removal of this biased principle alters the results found in much of modern eclecticism. The optimal solution for New Testament textual criticism is to avoid adopting any principle that automatically dictates a decision geared to a specific text-type. Rather, all principles must work in harmony toward the goal of restoring the original text of the New Testament on a transmissional and scientific basis.

Notes

 
1 Maurice Robinson, “The Case for Byzantine Priority,” in Rethinking New Testament Textual Criticism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002; Kindle edition), KL 1757 – 1814.
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There are 6 Comments

josh p's picture

Thanks for posting this one Tyler. I am not very current on the latest Textual Critical material. Can you confirm or preferably cite support for his claim that scribes were more likely to omit than add? This almost seems to contradict his claim that scribes may have added due to piety but I guess he is separating those additions from non pious (claimed) additions.
It's been a while since I did much reading in Textual Criticism but I remember a lot of the CT guys claiming that many of the Byzantine additions were in fact due to piety.

TylerR's picture

Editor

I'm not a textual critical ninja, either. I did some fairly simple textual critical exercises in Seminary, have read a few books on the subject, and see the textual differences in the various printed texts I have set for comparison (SBLGNT, UBS-5, BYZ, TR, WH, Tregelles) from a practical perspective every week as I prepare Sunday School lessons. Everything I've read claims scribes are more likely to add than omit. Robinson takes it the opposite way:

Since it has been determined from the examination of early papyri that scribes were, in fact, more prone to omit than to add material to their New Testament texts, a case readily can be made for the elimination of this principle, but without going to the other extreme of favoring the longer reading (a bias that would then favor the Western text).

I would like to see a citation for this claim. There was no citation in the book I took it from. But, I think Robinson's point is that we must look beyond a simplistic "shorter reading = original" (or vice versa) mindset. He wrote:

the shorter-reading principle has a built-in bias that favors the Alexandrian text-type, since that text-type tends to be the shortest. Removal of this biased principle alters the results found in much of modern eclecticism. The optimal solution for New Testament textual criticism is to avoid adopting any principle that automatically dictates a decision geared to a specific text-type. Rather, all principles must work in harmony toward the goal of restoring the original text of the New Testament on a transmissional and scientific basis. 

This makes sense to me. It's common-sense, actually.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Bert Perry's picture

On one side, you've got Ockham--given two equally plausible solutions, the simpler is more lkely--and then you've got an editor's perspective from Cicero and Pascal, more or less "If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter."  In other words, editors/copy-wrights are likely to take out superfluous text.  One of the guys who led me to Christ majored in linguistics and noted that of all the theories he'd heard, none of them really convinced him.

Free comment and a bargain at that price.  Maybe  :^)

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Paul Henebury's picture

I think both Scrivener and Burgon provided many examples of how mistaken the "shorter reading" view was in actual practice.  I'm not in my office right now but I can recall reading pages of these examples years ago.  The Alexandrian texts also show distinct tendencies toward atticisms; not surprising since some of these text are actually written in Attic Greek, not Koine.    

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

TylerR's picture

Editor

The recent book Fundamentals of New Testament Textual Criticism ​is a very helpful book, and it has nice bibliographies at the end of each chapter. It is a very introductory book, but it's thorough enough to be very useful.

The preface reads, "we have written this distinctly midlevel textbook on New Testament textual criticism for interested and serious students and with recent scholarly discussion in pertinent areas in mind," (xiii). I think they succeeded.

I think I might read Harry Sturtz's book, which advocates a Byzantine approach. I'm very intrigued by this approach. Many times, I see the UBS-5 ignore mountains of data favor of an Alexandrian text reading. There is a clear preference for that text family. I think the Byzantine approach sounds interesting enough to look at a little closer.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Paul Henebury's picture

Yes, read Sturz.  He's very good.  He argues for parity.

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

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