Theology Thursday - Principles of External Evidence

Here, Maurice Robinson concludes his brief case for the Byzantine platform for the Greek text of the New Testament. Read on, and learn why he believes “modern eclecticism leaves an atmosphere of general uncertainty and despair regarding the possible recovery of the original text of the New Testament.” Should you despair? Should you move the Byzantine text up a notch or two in your BibleWorks program?

Principles of External Evidence1

  1. The quantity of preserved evidence for the text of the New Testament precludes conjectural emendation.
  2. Readings that appear sporadically within transmissional history are suspect.
  3. Variety of testimony is highly regarded. A reading supported by various versions and fathers demonstrates a wider variety of support than a reading lacking such. Among Greek manuscripts, a reading shared among differing text-types is more strongly supported than that localized to a single text-type or family group.
  4. Wherever possible, the raw number of manuscripts should be intelligently reduced.
  5. Manuscripts need to be weighed and not merely counted. The Byzantine-priority position is not dependent upon the numerical majority that happens to support that Textform, but on the matter of what reflects transmissional reality and probability. The number of Byzantine manuscripts is not an ultimate criterion of authenticity, since there is no consistently united Byzantine text within the New Testament or even within any given New Testament book. In numerous places the manuscripts of the Byzantine Textform are nearly evenly divided among two or more variant readings. These divided readings clearly demonstrate that the Byzantine Textform is not homogenous and that there was no attempt or intent to enforce any standardization of that text.
  6. It is important to seek out readings with demonstrable antiquity. The age of various witnesses demonstrates a datable existence for a reading (and, in the case of patristic quotations, a plausible locality) but not absolute antiquity. Two major disruptions affected transmissional history: “copying revolutions” in which numerous ancient manuscripts were subjected to massive recopying efforts, resulting in the destruction of most previous exemplars.
    1. The first copying revolution occurred when Christianity was legitimized under Constantine and the church of the early fourth century moved from a persecuted minority to an approved entity with governmental sponsorship. The writing material began to shift from papyrus to vellum. As a result, one finds that most of our extant uncial manuscripts have no apparent stemmatic or genealogical ties to earlier extant vellum or papyrus witnesses. It can be presumed that most archetypes of our existing uncial manuscripts were early papyrus exemplars that no longer exist; they were either destroyed deliberately, discarded, or allowed to deteriorate following the conversion of their text to a sturdier vellum exemplar.
    2. The second copying revolution occurred in the ninth century when handwriting switched rapidly from uncial to minuscule script. The evidence suggests that uncial exemplars were destroyed after a minuscule copy had been made. Most surviving minuscules of the ninth through eleventh centuries appear to have no stemmatic ties to known extant uncial or papyrus exemplars; hence their genealogical independence and authoritative weight becomes significant, since these likely were copied from uncial exemplars no longer extant.
  7. The concept of a single best manuscript or small group of manuscripts is unlikely to have transmissional evidence in its favor
  8. Exclusively following the oldest manuscripts or witnesses is transmissionally flawed. A variant reading found in a given witness (whether manuscript, version, or father) is guaranteed to be at least as old as the date of such a witness. Likewise, the pattern of readings found in a given witness, whether text-type-related or not, also dates from the same era of composition. A popular misconception is that the earlier the witness, the earlier and more authoritative the text presented by that witness, merely because such a witness is chronologically closer to the time of autograph composition. It is known, however, that virtually all sensible variant readings came into existence during the tumultuous second century— the era of the “uncontrolled popular text”— and that what is reflected in all our extant manuscripts is a mixture of variant readings that date back into the obscurity of that era from which we have but scant textual information. Certainly, all existing witnesses utilized one or more exemplars that reflected an earlier form of text; but since a relatively recent manuscript may have been copied from a very ancient exemplar, the argument from age alone is fallacious. This supposition is further increased when one realizes that the two copying revolutions described above produced a negative impact regarding chronological date versus the antiquity of the text contained in any given witness.
  9. Transmissional considerations coupled with internal principles point to the Byzantine Textform as a leading force in the history of transmission. The distinguishing feature of the Byzantine-priority method is its emphasis on a transmissional basis for understanding the history of the text and the restoration of that text by evaluating the readings of sequential variant units as primary components of that text. …..

Objections to and Support for the Byzantine-Priority Hypothesis

  1. There are no early Byzantine manuscripts prior to the fourth century.

The limited and localized nature of extant early manuscripts raises the possibility that presumptions regarding text-critical antiquity may be flawed. The two copying revolutions seriously affected the continuity of the transmissional stream. The localized text in Egypt is not likely to reflect what permeated the primary Greek-speaking portion of the empire (southern Italy, Greece, and modern Turkey), from which we have no manuscript, versional, or patristic data from before the mid-fourth century. Yet the later existence and dominance of the Byzantine Textform in that region provides presumptive evidence supporting a similar dominance from previous times.

  1. The argument for the early existence of the Byzantine Textform rests on a stronger basis than the Synoptic Q-hypothesis.

While many New Testament scholars postulate the existence of a document Q to explain the apparent relationships that exist among the Synoptic Gospels, neither such a document nor even a fragment thereof has ever been found. The confidence with which advocates of Q maintain its existence, however, seems to be considerable. Yet while the Byzantine Textform cannot be shown to exist in any document preceding the fourth century, from that point onward manuscripts, versions, and patristic witnesses abound to testify to its existence. Such cannot be done with Q.

  1. The early existence of the Alexandrian text-type has been confirmed only within recent memory.

Until the discovery of 𝔓 75 in 1955, a relatively “pure” Alexandrian manuscript was unknown among the Egyptian papyri, and there was no proof that a text similar to that found in Codex Vaticanus existed prior to the fourth century. Yet now the early existence of the Alexandrian text-type is clearly established by 𝔓 75, even though the proof for such is only a half-century old. There is no a priori reason that precludes the discovery of an essentially Byzantine manuscript in the years to come, and, by analogy with the situation of 𝔓 75, such should not be eliminated as a possibility.

  1. Disruptions in the transmissional history supposedly eliminated the Byzantine predecessors and competitors.
    1. The Diocletian or other persecutions.

Persecutions were not selective in their textual targets. Any manuscripts surrendered and destroyed would reflect the general proportion of existing manuscripts in a given region regardless of text-type; so also would the manuscripts that survived.

  1. The Islamic conquest.

Especially in the earliest times, Islam was not as totally destructive to Christianity or the New Testament manuscripts as has been claimed. Monasteries and the Coptic church continued to survive and maintain literary activity under Islam. Communication and travel were maintained between churches and monasteries in Islamic regions and the Byzantine East.

  1. The popularity and influence of Chrysostom.

Chrysostom used a near-Byzantine text while in Constantinople. Yet there is no evidence that the church ever followed closely or adopted the New Testament text of any father, regardless of his preaching or writing reputation. There is no historical record of any imposition of control upon the New Testament text or its scribes and manuscripts by decree of either church or empire.

  1. The Byzantine Textform supposedly can be understood as the result of a process.

In theory, such a process over the centuries steadily moved away from the original form of the text in the interest of smoothness, harmonization, and grammatical and other “improvements.” The primary problem with the process model lies in explaining how such a process could function given the exigencies of transmission and location apart from decree or collusion. A properly nuanced process view recognizes various factors involved in the transmissional process: (a) a tendency toward regional deviation into localized forms over the centuries; and (b) the transcriptional production of various subtypes within any localized, recensional, or dominant text-type. Apart from formal imposition of controls, the end result of any transmissional process is a text diverging continually from the parent text-type, contrary to the presuppositions of modern eclecticism.

Concluding Observations

Byzantine-priority theory provides a compelling and logical perspective. This theory can stand on its own merits in the quest toward the goal of establishing the original text of the New Testament, since it attempts to explain the evidential data preserved. Such a theory has a methodological consistency that cannot be demonstrated among the various modern eclectic alternatives. Apart from a transmissionally oriented base, any claims to approach and establish an authoritative form of the original text of the New Testament by a purely eclectic method will consistently fall short.

For the past century, modern eclecticism has functioned without an integrated history of textual transmission. Its resultant text has no root in any single document, group of documents, or text-type— and this is but an unfortunate by-product of its self-imposed methodology. Thoroughgoing eclecticism divorces itself from external criteria, while reasoned eclecticism attempts to strike a balance between internal and external considerations. Yet both systems fail precisely at the point of transmissional history, producing a resultant text that reflects a piecemeal assemblage created from disparate variant units otherwise unrelated to each other.

It is precisely at this point that the Byzantine-priority theory does not fail, but instead offers a transmissionally legitimate form of resultant text. In contrast, modern text-critical text-critical thought tends to move steadily away from the concept of “original” text, having become more interested in questionable speculations such as whether heterodox scribes perhaps treated the text more reliably than did the orthodox. Overall, modern eclecticism leaves an atmosphere of general uncertainty and despair regarding the possible recovery of the original text of the New Testament; its practitioners are no longer certain that the original text can be recovered or whether any concept of an original text can be maintained.

In contrast, the Byzantine-priority theory offers a clear practical alternative to current subjectivity and the often pessimistic suppositions that characterize modern eclectic theory. It reflects a legitimate text-critical method that aims properly at the restoration of the best attainable original text of the New Testament by the best available means.


1 David A. Black, Rethinking New Testament Textual Criticism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2002; Kindle ed.), KL 1815 – 1926. Some brief explanations of points have been omitted, due to space limitations.

933 reads

There is 1 Comment

Bert Perry's picture

In point 8, the author claims that virtually all sensible variants came to exist during the 2nd century.  But given that the earliest manuscripts we have are the Beatty/ Bodmer Alexandrian family circa AD 200, and the earliest Byzantine type is circa AD 400, western text types circa AD300, wouldn't we think that's something of a guess?  Now granted, the second century does have the advantage of being long enough for the autographs to have worn out, and it's before the earliest Alexandrian manuscripts, but it still leaves a century for the western and Caesarean types and two for the Byzantine.  Count me somewhat skeptical.  

I don't see what the existence of Q as a precursor to the synoptic Gospels would have to do with anything, either.  

A lot of this reminds me of debates over geology; we have a wide valley in Lake Pepin, is it a river valley or was it a glacier, or both, or neither?  

Help keep SI’s server humming. A few bucks makes a difference.