Theology Thursday - Byzantine Priority & the "Phantom" Eclectic Text (Part 1)

In an appendix to his The New Testament in the Original Greek: Byzantine Platform, Maurice Robinson explained the Textus Receptus and the Byzantine platform are, in fact, quite different. For him, the crux of the issue is the dominance of the Byzantine text:1

From the beginning of the modern critical era in the nineteenth century the Byzantine Textform has had a questionable reputation. Associated as it was with the faulty Textus Receptus editions which stemmed from Erasmus’ or Ximenes’ uncritical selection of a small number of late manuscripts (hereafter MSS), scholars in general have tended to label the Byzantine form of text “late and secondary,” due both to the relative age of the extant witnesses which provide the majority of its known support and to the internal quality of its readings as subjectively perceived.

Yet even though the numerical base of the Byzantine Textform rests primarily among the late minuscules and uncials of the ninth century and later, the antiquity of that text reaches at least as far back as its predecessor exemplars of the late fourth and early fifth century, as reflected in MSS A/02 and W/032.

Certainly, the Textus Receptus had its problems, not the least of which was its failure to reflect the Byzantine Textform in an accurate manner. But the Byzantine Textform is not the TR, nor need it be associated with the TR or those defending such in any manner.

Rather, the Byzantine Textform is the form of text which is known to have predominated among the Greek-speaking world from at least the fourth century until the invention of printing in the sixteenth century. The issue which needs to be explained by any theory of NT textual criticism is the origin, rise and virtual dominance of the Byzantine Textform within the history of transmission.

Various attempts have been made in this direction, postulating either the “AD 350 Byzantine recension” hypothesis of Westcott and Hort, or the current “process” view promulgated by modern schools of eclectic methodology. Yet neither of these explanations sufficiently accounts for the phenomenon, as even some of their own prophets have declared.

The alternative hypothesis has been too readily rejected out of hand, perhaps because, as Lake declared, it is by far the “least interesting” in terms of theory and too simple in praxis application: the concept that the Byzantine Textform as found amid the vast majority of MSS may in fact more closely reflect the original form of the NT text than any single MS, small group of MSS, or texttype.

Further, that such a theory can more easily account for the rise and dominance of the Byzantine Textform with far fewer problems than are found in the alternative solutions proposed by modern eclectic scholarship

In a short essay, Robinson laid out his case for Byzantine priority. Why should we have confidence in an eclectic text that does not even exist in manuscript form as a coherent whole? The eclectic text, Robinson insisted, is nothing but a “phantom mirage:”2

Modern methods of textual restoration appear to promise a good degree of success when applying reasoned or rigorous eclecticism to the text of the New Testament. The resultant text created by modern eclectic methods, however, has an Achilles’ heel that calls its entire methodology into question:

  1. Although modern eclectic methods apparently function well when evaluating readings within an isolated variant unit of text, the overall sequential linkage of readings from those separate variant units results in a running text that has absolutely no support from any known manuscript, version, or patristic writer within the entire period of historical textual transmission prior to the invention of printing.
  2. Even some single verses reflect this anomaly, and this stretches one’s credulity far beyond what is even remotely possible, severely begging the question regarding what would in fact be most probable.
  3. The original text of modern eclecticism thus becomes a phantom mirage with no real existence as soon as its readings are taken in sequence. The proffered original is a text whose distinctive pattern of agreement is far more likely not to reflect that lost autograph than to restore such.

Is the autograph text of the New Testament therefore a mere mirage, or can something else be done to recover the original text of the New Testament with a greater degree of certainty? There is a solution, although it is not what most textual critics might prefer: the original text can be recovered primarily from the consensus agreement of the vast amount of manuscripts that comprise what is termed the “Byzantine Textform.”

Although the Byzantine Textform has generally been deprecated as late, conflationary, harmonizing, longer, and smoother, there remains a transmissional likelihood that this supposedly secondary Textform may in fact best exemplify the transmissional integrity of the New Testament text over the centuries. The present essay offers a brief description of the method and principles applied within a Byzantine-priority theory of textual restoration.

The Essence of Byzantine Priority

Byzantine priority regards the perpetuation and preservation of the New Testament text as primarily a transmissional process, affected always by the human element during the copying process. The theory requires one to view the history of the text as a “reasoned transmissionalism,” carefully considering the effect of scribal habits and accidental and deliberate alteration of the text during the transmissional process. The historicaltransmissional approach reflects to a good degree the concepts pioneered by WH.

Westcott and Hort clearly recognized that textual criticism without a continually working history of transmission is impossible (thus indicting the modern eclectic method long before it existed). The Byzantine-priority theory, however, differs from that of WH by including the Byzantine Textform as a necessary primary component of the history of transmission and not as a Textform of secondary importance.

Modern reasoned or rigorous eclectics practice a methodology that treats variant readings as isolated entities separated into specific units. Within each unit, the supposedly “best” reading is determined on the basis of a number of valuable principles regarding both internal and external evidence. Since, however, these units remain methodologically isolated from one another, the manuscripts, versions, or fathers that support a reading in one variant unit are frequently at odds with the witnesses that support neighboring variant units.

This is particularly seen when a continued sequence of units is examined and one observes the dwindling number of witnesses that support the progressing resultant text as each new unit is added. Such an examination, if continued, will imitate Alice’s Cheshire cat— all visible support for the sequential text will utterly disappear, leaving only the smile of the proffered text as original.

Were such to occur only after a large number of variant units had been examined, perhaps the modern eclectic process could be excused. As it turns out, however, it usually takes only a small number of sequential variant units— and often only two such units within a single verse— to eliminate all semblance of actual manuscript support. This leaves a proferred “original” that over even short stretches of text has no demonstrable existence in any manuscript, version, or father during the entire scope of church history.

Yet if one were to follow the aggregate testimony of all manuscripts over those same sequential variant units, one would find that a continual degree of support remains, and that support is found primarily among the Byzantine witnesses. The cause of such near-unanimity is not due to the great number of Byzantine witnesses (as some deridingly suggest), but rather to a transmissional consistency of text that becomes better defined as additional witnesses are added to the total. In fact, one could utilize a dozen or so non-Byzantine witnesses to create a “consensus text,” and the result would be far closer to the Byzantine Textform than might be imagined. The principle is simple: the more witnesses added to the pool, the more consistent the text becomes, regardless of the text-type of those witnesses.

Since, however, the general tendency of such a consensus is to move closer to the Byzantine tradition, a theoretical presumption thereby exists that the Byzantine witnesses themselves may in fact present the strongest claim to autograph authenticity. These witnesses appear to preserve the basic transmissional form of the text far more accurately and consistently than witnesses of any other text-type. A Byzantine-priority theory becomes necessary in view of the nature and results of modern eclectic practice.

When all the “best” rules and manuscripts are utilized on a case-by-case basis merely to produce a sequential text with no legitimate manuscript, versional, or patristic support, both reasoned and thoroughgoing eclectics claim a text that lacks sufficient justification for either church or critical use. This forces one to inquire regarding what transmissional history could possibly be presumed for such an “original” text. One faces only a peculiar mélange of readings that are sporadically reflected in various manuscript and other witnesses.

From such an eclectically determined original text, one must also accept a further proposition regarding its transmission from the autograph: although a text originally existed for each of the various New Testament books, soon after its creation it totally disappeared from transmissional lines and is no longer represented over even short stretches of text in any single existing manuscript. Such a proposition creates an anomaly unknown in other textual fields and precludes any hope of restoring the long-lost original, even by the most assiduous application of eclectic principles.

Modern eclecticism simply cannot demonstrate any transmissional descent from the text it puts forth as supposedly original. It is not merely that single verses have failed to leave traces in even one extant witness, but the problem increases geometrically as soon as a sequence of variants spans multiple verses. This continually leaves modern eclectic texts without valid support.

In contrast, the Byzantine Textform at any point or over lengthy portions of text can demonstrate an overarching transmissional existence, not based upon merely a single manuscript or a small handful of manuscripts, but upon the broadest possible base of support. This phenomenon reflects transmissional reality as opposed to eclectic speculative hypotheses.

Next week, Robinson discusses what principles he uses to restore the Biblical text.


1 Maurice Robinson and William Pierpont, The New Testament in the Original Greek: Byzantine Textform (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2006), 533–534.

2 Maurice Robinson, “The Case for Byzantine Priority,” in Rethinking Textual Criticism, David A. Black, ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2002; Kindle ed.), KL 1701-1757. For stylistic reasons, some of the lengthly paragraphs have been broken into individual paragraphs, or given bulletted numbers. The text remains unchanged.

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There are 2 Comments

Bert Perry's picture

Appreciated the comment about the eclectic text/Alexandrian text family having not clear evidence of the entire NT.  Now one could argue on one side (as here) that it's evidence of a lack of authority, or conversely one could argue that it shows clear authority because it was apparently collected before all portions of the NT were available to the scribes.  If you've got all books save three of the NT, you're going to refuse to make a copy because you "need" the full NT?  Or are you going to go ahead and get as much as you can going?  (the latter is of course my answer)

To me, it's quite frankly inspiring where you'll find manuscripts of various types, and how few significant differences you'll find.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Paul Henebury's picture

Well done Tyler for giving this issue an airing.  Robinson's proposal is both modestly stated and reasonable.  I'm expecting the next portion to mention the fact that with other ancient texts (e.g. Homer) the middle text is the one usually considered the best.

For many years I have been concerned that the textual criticism I learned from Metzger, Aland, and Comfort was far too positivistic; viewing TC as a neutral endeavor.  The arguments for Byzantine Priority (or even parity - see Harry Sturz), are too often not understood or appreciated, with the impression being that those who hold to it are like King James Only fanatics.  A comparable example is the way evolutionists (who also tend to be positivistic) see ID proponents as "Creationists" and thereby dismiss their work without studying it.  A good example of how this works in eclecticism is the standard treatments of the Last Verses of Mark, where superficial arguments are passed on from book to book with little attention to the details.  

Anyway, thanks for this.       

Dr. Paul Henebury

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

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