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.
Tyler Robbins is a graduate of Maranatha Baptist Seminary, a DMin student at Central Seminary (Plymouth, MN) and a bi-vocational pastor at Sleater Kinney Road Baptist Church, in Olympia WA. He also works in State government. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist and is the author of What’s It Mean to be a Baptist?