Evangelical Textual Criticism

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Review of Robinson and Pierpont

Review of:

The New Testament in the Original Greek: Byzantine Textform, 2005, compiled and arranged by Maurice A. Robinson and William G. Pierpont (Chilton Book Publishing: USA, 2005).

Anyone who manages to bring a Greek New Testament all the way to publication deserves congratulation. A vast amount of work must have gone into producing this beautiful edition, which now contains accents, breathings, punctuation, and capitalization (see previous post).

It has an extraordinarily enlightened copyright policy:

'Anyone is permitted to copy and distribute this text or any portion of this text. It may be incorporated in a larger work, and/or quoted from, stored in a database retrieval system, photocopied, reprinted, or otherwise duplicated by anyone without prior notification, permission, compensation to the holder, or any other restrictions. All rights to this text are released to everyone and no one can reduce these rights at any time. Copyright is not claimed nor asserted for the new and revised form of the Greek NT text of this edition, nor for the original form of such as initially released into the public domain by the editors...Likewise, we hereby release into the public domain the introduction and appendix which have been especially prepared for this edition.' (reverse of title page)

The edition seeks to present as faithfully as possible the New Testament in the Byzantine textform, which the compilers also believe is exceedingly close to the original text of the New Testament.

The editors' preference for the Byzantine textform notwithstanding, there are several reasons why this edition is of significance to those who do not adhere to the so-called Byzantine Priority position:

1) It lists all variants between the Byzantine text (as given by the editors) and the Nestle-Aland text. This is the first time that this has been done and it allows one to begin to judge the nature of the Byzantine text in a more systematic way than was previously possible.

2) By its focus on the Byzantine text, this edition highlights certain interesting variants that are not even given in manual editions of the Greek New Testament.

3) Robinson has collated all mss of the Pericope Adulterae. The textforms given here for that passage are therefore uniquely authoritative. In the book of Revelation some information can be gained from this edition that cannot readily be gained from other manual editions—for instance, the identity of passages where there is strong support for the use of Greek letters as numbers and the identity of passages where there is no widespread use of letters in this way.

The 23-page preface explains the rationale for the edition, introduces its layout and concludes with a strongly theological section. In this the editors affirm (after the Westminster Confession) that divine revelation 'has been kept pure in all ages by the singular care and providence of God' (p. xxi). They particularly relate this providence to preservation of evidence. 'The task set before God's people is to identify and receive the best-attested form of that Greek biblical text as preserved among the extant evidence. Although no divine instruction exists regarding the establishment of the most precise form of the original autographs, such instruction is not required: autograph textual preservation can be recognized and established by a careful and judicious examination of the existing evidence. Scribal fidelity in manuscript transmission over the centuries remains the primary locus of autograph preservation' (loc. cit.).

The work closes with an appendix by Robinson, entitled 'The Case for Byzantine Priority', justifying the approach underlying the edition. This has appeared previously in TC: A Journal of Biblical Textual Criticism 6 (2001). This appendix does not contain the explicity theology of the Preface, though it does distance the Byzantine Priority position from approaches that seek to relate 'providential preservation' to a particular Greek text.

It is not possible here to engage with the Byzantine Priority hypothesis underlying this edition, except to make a few brief remarks:

It is clear that Robinson has considerable admiration for Westcott and Hort. He even claims that the Byzantine Priority school is 'more closely aligned with that of Westcott and Hort than any other' (p. 539). He naturally thinks that their biggest mistake was their theory of a fourth century Syrian recension. Robinson challenges this notion, and in doing so is in the company of a great many critics. Having rejected a Byzantine recension, it is then rather striking that Robinson opts for an Alexandrian recension: 'the Alexandrian text of the NT is clearly shorter, has apparent Alexandrian connections, and may well reflect recensional activity' (p. 542). Let proponents of the Byzantine text not be so like the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:23-35)!

A general rule for use of evidence is that big claims require big evidence. Any claim for widespread recensional activity in the early Alexandrian text therefore requires a considerable amount of evidence, but this is lacking. Robinson does footnote one article of his in support: 'The Recensional Nature of the Alexandrian Text-Type: A Response to Selected Criticisms of the Byzantine-Priority Theory', Faith and Mission 11 (1993 [actually published 1997]) 46-74. I have not read this article, but if it does support something as significant as the author claims then it surely ought to be made available in a more widely circulated journal or on the Internet.

Robinson gives a range of arguments in support of Byzantine Priority. One that will be considered here is his claim that the sequential result of eclectic reasoning rarely has support in the manuscripts when an extended length of text is considered. Now it is obviously possible to suggest scenarios whereby manuscripts would contain a mixture of original and secondary readings, making it necessary for critics to restore the original by an eclectic process. However, the more substantial question raised by Robinson's argument is one of the probability of various eclectic solutions. It is clear that most of us textual critics have an eclectic approach but that we do not even contemplate calculating the levels of complexity involved in possible routes whereby our reconstructed text could have given rise to the particular distribution of readings we see in the manuscripts. Given that the number of copying generations between our earliest manuscripts and the original is more likely to be in double figures than in triple figures, we should probably still expect sequences of readings of the original to be grouped together to some extent within extant witnesses. This is obviously an area that requires further analysis.

Although it may be that eclectics do not consider enough the transmissional process implied by their choice of readings, Robinson's solution to reject all forms of eclecticism seems an unnecessary response. His aversion to eclecticism means that he in fact prints two versions of the Pericope Adulterae rather than select between the readings of different manuscript groups. Thus von Soden's μ5 group is printed as the main text and his μ6 group as an alternative in an italicized footnote. Since eclecticism is not allowed in any form then Robinson cannot even consider abandoning the Byzantine text when it is at its most isolated. The bottom line in the Byzantine Priority position as here outlined is that no matter how much support there is for a reading outside the Byzantine tradition it cannot be conceived of as original without wide Byzantine support.

It is clear that the basic textual philosophy of this edition is not going to change in response to the views of those who cannot accept the Byzantine Priority position. However, even while remaining true to the compilers' textual theories, this edition could be improved in a number of ways.

1) A minor point from an academic perspective, but a major point from a user's perspective is that the edition is rather bulky. While the size of type-face certainly has some advantages (e.g. for the visually impaired) this is far too large for those of us who like to slip a Greek New Testament into our pocket. We already sometimes experience difficulty with the size of the Nestle-Aland 27th edn, which is larger than the 26th, which in turn was larger than the 25th. Robinson and Pierpont's edition is more like the size of a street preacher's Bible and its dimensions could easily be reduced.

2) More significantly, many readers will have considerable trouble with the fact that nowhere are any manuscript witnesses cited. Given Robinson's critique of eclectic editions for producing a text with no support over a section of any length in any single manuscript, it is important for Robinson to show that his edition does indeed have the support of manuscripts. While the Preface (pp. ix-x) assures us of its support within the bulk of Byzantine manuscripts, scholars are naturally sceptical, and it would be a great help if, alongside the claims of the Preface, the edition could list specific manuscripts in its support. There is some precedent for doing this in the UBS Greek New Testament's representation of the Byzantine text by giving select witnesses within brackets. Some similar way should be found of confirming the close relationship between this text and actual manuscripts.

The edition may be ordered as follows:

The publishers are Chilton Publishing. Their webpage links to Amazon, where the title retails for $17.95.

Prof. Robinson writes:
'I hope it soon will be available from CBD (Christian Book Distributors) at a discount from retail, perhaps selling at around $13. The publisher (Chilton) is willing to ship case lots of 12 at the lowest possible price (around US$7-8 per copy with shipping additional), but he is not equipped to ship individual copies. On the other hand, I am willing to ship individual copies within the US for $11 (which includes postage and handling).' (private e-mail)


  1. Dr. Robinson and the late Pierpont have done a great service to New Testament scholarship and to the body of Christ. This work has been decades in the making. And they did it not for financial gain. Neither they nor the publisher are getting any as far as I know. That a book requiring so much scholarly endeavor should be sold so cheaply upon its initial piblication is a rarity that deserves our notice.

    It is certainly valuable to any student of the NT who is interested in the transmission of the text. I'm sure that further study will lead to improvement. But my hunch is that this edition will allow for a more informed and accurate identification of the Byzantine readings than those labelled "byz" in NA27 (albeit differing only slightly I'm sure). And it will probably be very useful as a base for collation. Also, his appendix (already available formerly from TC-Journal and a chapter in Rethinking New Testament Textual Criticism) should be the point of departure for current interaction with the Byzantine priority position.

  2. 'Also, his appendix (already available formerly from TC-Journal and a chapter in Rethinking New Testament Textual Criticism) should be the point of departure for current interaction with the Byzantine priority position.'

    Perhaps Dr. Robinson could verify this, but it seems to me that the Case For Byzantine Priority, as presented in this later volume, has some additional material not found in the "Rethinking.." and Internet versions.

  3. Hi P.J.,
    Nice review. A few comments:

    "Having rejected a Byzantine recension, it is then rather striking that Robinson opts for an Alexandrian recension."

    I don't think Robinson's argument hangs on this point. But I too would like to see his article.

    "One that will be considered here is his claim that the sequential result of eclectic reasoning rarely has support in the manuscripts when an extended length of text is considered."

    Not just extended lengths of text, but individual verses. I'd love to see some of the scholars here interact with his example verses in footnote 16 on page 536.

    "Robinson's solution to reject all forms of eclecticism seems an unnecessary response...Since eclecticism is not allowed in any form then Robinson cannot even consider abandoning the Byzantine text when it is at its most isolated."

    If he did, this edition would lack some of the value you've ascribed to it. It would not then be the "Byzantine Textform", a useful reference even for eclectics, but "Maurice Robinson's Eclectic Text".

    "A minor point from an academic perspective, but a major point from a user's perspective is that the edition is rather bulky."

    I love the large print, but I'd like a handy edition too. Alas, the demand is probably insufficient.

    C. Perkins

  4. Thanks for the great quick break down, Peter.

    But wasn't that you I saw last fall outside the Dons stadium, preaching from your Greek NT?

  5. When I do street outreach (as I'll do in Belmont Street, Aberdeen this Friday - 10 p.m., all evangelical textual critics welcome!), I usually do personal work for which a pocket GNT is essential. Any larger and it can cause panic in the crowds.

  6. maurice a robinson7:59 pm, January 26, 2006

    Anonymous asked whether the appendix, "The Case For Byzantine Priority", has some additional material not found in the Rethinking and Internet versions. The answer is no.

    The printed appendix should be identical to that published in the internet TC Journal.

    The material in Rethinking represents an overly brief summation of principles enunciated in the longer article.

  7. Nice review, Pete. Liked the line about big claims requiring big evidence.

    I personally was disappointed by the difference between the Rethinking article and the Case for Byzantine Priority article. The Rethinking article was apparently intended as an abbreviated version of the Case for Byzantine Priority article because someone (publishers?)wouldn't allow the whole Case article to be used because of space reasons.

    However, for me, the Rethinking article (which was far more publicly accessible) focussed too much on the argument that an eclectic choice of readings leads to a text that never existed in time or space.

    I find this argument very poor, because it simply asserts, rather than proves, its point. To me, the eclectic counter-reply is easily equal to it: 'we believe our eclectic text DID exist in time and space - it was the Original NT'. After this point is made, the debate goes nowhere - there is not enough evidence to sustain it any further it either way.

    The sad thing, to me, was that the Rethinking article omitted some of the better arguments from the Case for Byz Priority article. It would have been far more interesting to listen to the other participants in the Rethinking volume having to interact with Robinson's arguments on the Lucianic recension and the Cursive Revolution, for example.

  8. Apologies to any who turned up for evangelism in Aberdeen at 10 p.m. I hope you met others doing so. Unfortunately I was unable to make it as I was having dinner at short notice with the secretary of SNTS.

  9. It's interesting that William Pierpont, an electronics engineer, came to play such a lasting role in the textual criticism of the NT. Actually, it appears that in TC more than any other field of scientific endeavor, a tremendous portion of the work is done not by the academic professionals like Robinson, Wheeler, Hurtado, and (place your own name here if applicable, so no one feels slighted), but by the avocationists like Pierpont, Broman, Wilker, and Waltz. These typically do have advanced degrees or credentials in fields of hard science, but TC is what they live and breathe in every spare moment, and they are best known for their accomplishments in that field, rather than in their vocation.

  10. I should add that this edition is already being used for determining the "Byz" reading in Wieland Willker's online textual commentary of the gospels at: http://www-user.uni-bremen.de/~wie/TCG/Preface-4.pdf

    In the fourth edition, he made 24 such changes based on Robinson 2005.

  11. I enjoy using the comparative feature of the NA and Byz texts. It is a monumental work. One criticism is that there are many errors in accentation and breathing marks. I wonder if these corrections have been made.

  12. This NT is a great help in quickly assessing the variant readings between the two major textual theories of the NT. I have noticed, however, that there are many errors in accentuation and breathing marks. I wonder if anyone has called attention to this.