The Byzantine-Priority position is often considered simply a further variant of the Majority Text position, especially by those who object to its conclusions. For example, Dr. Daniel Wallace, an advocate of the Reasoned Eclectic approach, frequently cites both Majority Text and Byzantine-Priority proponents together as Majority Text advocates. Proponents of the Byzantine-Priority view, however, distinguish themselves from the Textus Receptus, Majority Text, and Ecclesiastical Text positions, often agreeing with the Eclectic Text advocates’ critiques on these views.
The Byzantine-Priority view rejects appeals to simple nose-counting to establish the best text. It also rejects the stemmatic approach of Hodges, and even, to some extent, the argument from divine preservation. The strength of the Byzantine-Priority position is its appeal to both rational principles of textual criticism, and to the need for a logical, reasonable, and factually defensible history of the transmission of the New Testament text.
The foremost proponent of the Byzantine-Priority view is Dr. Maurice Robinson. In a variety of papers, as well as in his published edition of the Greek New Testament (along with Dr. William Pierpont), The New Testament in the Original Greek according to the Byzantine/Majority Textform, he has articulated what is, in my opinion, the best challenge to date to the standard position of the Eclectic school.
Robinson sets the Byzantine-Priority position apart from the Majority Text position by pointing out a number of weaknesses in the latter. Firstly, he notes that while there is great similarity between manuscripts of the Byzantine family, there is by no means anything approaching a uniform text. No two Byzantine manuscripts are identical, as is true with all the New Testament manuscripts of all text types. The Majority Text position appeals to the uniformity of the Byzantine text as evidence of divine preservation, a position that the evidence contradicts. Robinson is also not comfortable with the idea of a single, orthodox line of transmission. This discomfort makes sense since he acknowledges the variations between the Byzantine manuscripts; that is to say, since no two Byzantine manuscripts are the same, if God had intended to preserve a perfect copy of the Greek New Testament in the Byzantine text type, one could only conclude that He failed to do so since no one can point to a single Byzantine manuscript and identify it as the preserved original. Indeed, the very existence of Hodges and Farstad’s work, The Greek New Testament according to the Majority Text, demonstrates the need for a unified text that represents the Majority Text. If God had preserved this single text, one can only wonder why Hodges and Farstad had to reconstruct the Majority Text and did not just reproduce the manuscript containing the Preserved Word. Also, while Robinson is very cautious over his use of internal evidence, he would not reject it completely as the Majority Text advocates are wont to do. Finally, he rejects Hodges’ stemmatics saying that this approach violates other accepted principles of textual criticism. Ironically, as Wallace has pointed out, Hodges’ stemmatic approach falls short of vindicating the principle that the majority of manuscripts must be correct. Firstly, he only applied the method to John 7:53-8:11 and Revelation, so it is not being tested against the entirety of the New Testament. Further, when the results of this method against these sections are examined, it turns out that 15 of the readings that they adopted as a result are supported by a minority of manuscripts. In other words for the pericope adulterae [John 7:53-8:11], the Majority Text, in half its readings, is a minority text. (See Daniel Wallace, “Some Second Thoughts on the Majority Text,” available on-line at http://www.bible.org/page.php?page_id=673.)
Robinson does not dismiss the fact of the quantity of extant Byzantine manuscripts as meaningless: he simply sees their value in a slightly different way. Rather than regarding the number of these manuscripts as a proof of his position in and of itself, he regards them as a phenomenon that must be explained adequately by any theory of textual transmission. It is here that Robinson identifies what he considers to be the Achilles’ heel of the Eclectic position: it fails to adequately account for the transmission of the New Testament text as is evident by the extant manuscripts. Robinson argues that there is a reason why there are only hints of Byzantine readings prior to the fourth century, and then an explosion of Byzantine texts after the ninth. He rejects the idea that there was some kind of official standardization of the text after Constantine brought peace to the church on the basis that there is not a shred of historical evidence to support such an idea. According to Robinson, not all of the earliest manuscripts are of the Alexandrian family favored by modern Eclectics. Indeed, most display a mixed text with no clear text type throughout. The textual situation in Egypt was, in his view, a little more complex than in the Greek-speaking East. Most of the manuscripts there display a mixed text type, although there is evidence of distinctively Alexandrian texts (p75) and some distinctively Byzantine texts. The vast majority of the manuscripts, however, seem to be a Western-Alexandrian mix. With such a preponderance of mixed texts, reasons Robinson, it is unlikely that a general text could emerge from the Egyptian sands. In light of this, it seems reasonable to suggest that in a very short space of time, the autographs were copied and, unintentionally, corrupted. Robinson points out that the corruption of the original was less likely as a result of heretical influence (most of the information available today about early heretical groups comes via contemporary critiques from Christians, indicating that heretical writings were identified as such by the church early on and dealt with) and more likely a result of hurried copies being disseminated around local communities. Each region would make its own errors and attempts to correct perceived errors of previous copyists, and as a result develop its own regional text type. While many regional copies would have been lost in the first couple of centuries as a result of persecution, the situation changed in the fourth century and onwards after Constantine established Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. Now Christian communities could freely interact with each other and share their copies of the Scriptures. As they did so, over a number of centuries of copying, comparison, and correction, a consensus text emerged that reflected the archetypal text from which these regional variations had all been born centuries before: the so-called “Byzantine” text form. As Robinson puts it:
“The result inevitably arrived at would be a continually-improving, self-consistent Textform, refined and restored, preserved (as would be expected) in an increasing number of manuscripts which slowly would overcome the influence of local texts and finally become the dominant text of the Greek-speaking world. This explains both the origin and dominance of the Byzantine/Majority Textform.”
Since it became the dominant text of the Greek-speaking world, it is only natural that the vast majority of manuscripts preserved to this day are from the Greek-speaking Eastern Church. It was this branch of Christendom in the Byzantine East that held out against the Muslim invaders until 1453. When Byzantium fell, the scholars fled into Europe taking their manuscripts with them. It only makes sense that these Byzantine texts became the basis for the earliest editions of the Greek New Testament, since these were the most readily available.
This historical reconstruction presents a possible chain of events that explains the evidence and in turn vindicates the Byzantine text type. It is such a historical reconstruction that explains the phenomena of the various extant text types the like of which Robinson believes modern Eclectics have, thus far, been unable to provide. Furthermore, Robinson believes that the inability of the Eclectic school to produce a text that resembles anything within the stream of transmission is also detrimental to their position.
While the Eclectic scholar may be able to provide a strong case for the acceptance of a particular Alexandrian variant within a reading, the resulting reading is found to be little, if at all, attested by the extant manuscripts. As Robinson points out, given that no two manuscripts are identical, one could overlook this if it occurred periodically in a text. The problem is that the Eclectic approach repeatedlyproduces readings that have no manuscript support. In Matthew 20:23, for example, there are seven variants. Of these seven variants, the Nestle-Aland text (27thedition) follows Aleph, B, and other Alexandrian or non-Byzantine readings over Byzantine readings in three places (the first, second, and sixth variants). The resulting passage (i.e., the chosen readings along with the rest of the verse) has no manuscript support, according to Robinson. In other words, the effort expended to determine the correct reading of a couple of variants has all been for the purpose of supporting a non-existent (let alone non-extant) text. Robinson believes that the transmissional history that the Eclectic critics would have to propose to support such readings is not even remotely probable to have occurred under any normal circumstances.
Robinson is very critical of Hort’s text critical methodology. In short, he accuses Hort of simply applying criteria that would eliminate the problem of the Byzantine text. For example, Hort’s genealogical argument suggested that all manuscripts of a particular text type are descended from a single ancestor; hence only one form of each type need be compared. Clearly this undercuts the Byzantine family’s majority status. Hort also dismissed the Byzantine text on the grounds that it shows evidence of later conflation, regardless of the fact that Alexandrian and Western manuscripts also show evidence of conflation. The lack of distinctively Byzantine readings in either the early manuscripts or the Fathers was also cited by Hort. Robinson claims that there are over 150 distinctively Byzantine readings dating from before 350 A.D. Also, he notes that if it were not for p75, there would be no evidence for distinctively Alexandrian texts prior to B and Aleph. With regard to quotations of Byzantine readings by the Fathers, Robinson points out that the early Fathers would have used local texts that would not have had a consistent text type. They would have also paraphrased, quoted from memory, and even altered the wording of passages to fit their purpose. Later scribes would not have modified readings to make them more familiar (i.e., Byzantine), as is often claimed. He proposes that if such a practice were widespread, there would not be as many passages left untouched as there are.
The proposed transmission history put forward to support the Byzantine-Priority view would seem to explain the existence of variant readings and the rise of the Byzantine text type. However, the demise of the other text forms, and the growth in popularity of the minuscule text both need to be explained. Many of the Byzantine manuscripts were written in minuscule script from after the ninth century. This in itself has been posited as a weakness in the Byzantine-Priority position since these are clearly late manuscripts. Robinson argues, however, that early does not always mean best. Indeed, if his hypothesis is correct, the earliest copies of the autographs would be, by and large, altered local copies and not direct verbatim copies of the original. In fact, his theory of transmission would certainly lend credence to the idea that the further along the transmission line the text is,the more likely it is to have been compared and conformed to other manuscripts. As noted earlier, Robinson sees this process as one of purification, returning these texts to the original (Byzantine) readings. From this perspective, a ninth century manuscript could be a lot closer to the original than a fourth century manuscript. Also, recognizing that a minuscule could have been copied from an early uncial manuscript no longer extant, there is a re-examination underway of the value of minuscule manuscripts. Even Kurt Aland admitted that this much maligned class of witnesses is in need of re-evaluation in light of some of the discoveries being made, in particular the discovery of miniscule manuscript 33, known as the Queen of the minuscules due to the quality of the text (see the Alands’ book, The Text of the New Testament, pp. 128-129).
Robinson explains the disappearance of the uncial texts by appealing to copying revolutions. He states that there is evidence for two such revolutions: the first occurred when parchment became popular, and the second when minuscule writing came into vogue. When both of these happened, many scribes would make copies of the old form into the new form and destroy the old. Hence, many early uncial texts were copied into minuscule script and the uncials then destroyed. For evidence of this, Robinson points to the mute testimony of palimpsests, which seem to indicate that older, presumably valuable uncial manuscripts were considered fit to be erased and re-used for other literary purposes. He also notes Kirsopp Lake’s comments regarding the genealogically-unrelated manuscripts he discovered at Sinai, Patmos, and Jerusalem. Lake concluded that the scribes must have destroyed their exemplars (i.e., the texts from which they copied).
In light of this, proponents of the Byzantine-Priority position would not necessarily advocate the use of text critical methods that tip the scales in favor of Byzantine readings. Rather, they would insist that textual critics stop tipping the scales against Byzantine readings, and simply allow the evidence to speak. While they do not dismiss completely the value of internal evidence, they are a lot more suspicious of it than those of the Eclectic position. On this point, Byzantine-Priority advocates appeal for a return to a more thorough use of external evidence according to Burgon’s principles.
Part 11: “Eclectic Text” Positions: Thoroughgoing Eclecticism–coming soon…