Thursday, February 04, 2016

Defining the Byzantine Text

As a follow-up to my post about text-types from last week, here is an example of how our definitions of texts can influence our thinking about textual criticism. It matters particularly when it comes to comparing one “text” to another.

In their new book on NT textual criticism, Stanley Porter and Andrew Pitts make a common argument against the Majority Text position which could apply to the Byzantine Priority position as well. Porter and Pitts write:
Several other questions are left unanswered by the Majority text approach as well. Statistical probability of documents simply cannot explain why no distinctively Byzantine readings are identifiable in the Greek manuscripts, church fathers, or version from the first several centuries—certainly some remains would have been left, even if the manuscripts were in constant use. If the Majority text most accurately reflects the original, we would expect some traces of it chronologically close to the original. These significant obstacles to the Majority text approach still have not been convincingly overcome by its adherents (pp. 91–92 n. 3).
Now I admit that I find a form of the chronological argument against the Majority Text and the Byzantine text persuasive. But what I want to point out here is that this particular form of the argument hinges entirely on something that Porter and Pitts do not provide us with, namely, a definition of “distinctively Byzantine readings.”

To illuminate the problem, let’s consider how the Editio Critica Maior (ECM) defines the “Byzantine text.” You have to read it very carefully, but the ECM actually has two definitions. In the introduction (§3.1) we read that “the term Byzantine or Koine text refers to the form of text defined by those readings which are attested by the majority of the manuscripts and differ from the established text” (emphasis original). The supplementary volume gives a complete lists of just these readings for each book of the Catholic Epistles (pp. 10ff).

But the ECM also has a second, more implicit definition. On the same page (p. 10) of the supplementary volume we read about “the undivided (ungespaltene) Byzantine text” which differs from the initial text in only 61 of about 700 places in James. In the editors’ words, this undivided Byzantine text is, “apart from these 61 passages, an important witness to the early text” (p. 10; emphasis mine).

So we have two definitions: (1) the Byzantine text as all the shared readings found in the majority of Greek witnesses; and (2) the Byzantine text as that set of readings found in these same witnesses which differ from the initial text. The first entity is an important witness to the early text whereas the second is defined in distinction from essentially that same early text.

Now the problem should be obvious. An argument like that of Porter and Pitts risks circularity on this second definition and it is simply false on the first. There are hundreds of readings found in Byzantine manuscripts that are also found “chronologically close to the original.” In fact, according to the ECM, there are over 630 readings just in James that are the original or at least very close to it (depending on how you identify the initial text).

Now, perhaps Porter and Pitts have a definition of “distinctively Byzantine reading” that isn’t circular. From what they’ve written we simply don’t know because they don’t define their key term.

And that’s just the problem. Good arguments about the history of the text can only be made where we have clarity about what constitutes the textual entities—whether text-types or otherwise—that we are trying to relate to one another. Porter and Pitts have two texts they relate (“original” and “Majority/Byzantine”), but since they don’t define them, the relationship they propose is meaningless.

This isn’t to pick on Porter and Pitts. They just provide a good illustration of the problem of not defining the texts we claim to relate to one another.


  1. Well put. To illustrate the point, before the publication of P45 there was a whole set of distinctively Byzantine readings in Luke that did not have support from before the fourth century. These readings stopped being distinctively Byzantine after P45.
    However, I have an intuitive reluctance to treating the text of a witness as nothing more than a collection of readings or of variation units. Somehow, a text is more than that.

    1. Indeed, Sturz used readings in P45 to argue that (many) Byzantine readings were early, but critics countered that there's a difference between the age of the readings and the age of a text (a specific sequence of readings).

  2. Has this book been reviewed? I haven't read the thing, but this quotation makes me very concerned (being right for the wrong reasons).

    1. Stephen Carlson,

      I reviewed Porter & Pitt's book at .

    2. Stephen,
      For a different take then Snapp, Kruger reviewed it on his blog, 'Canon Fodder' in November, 2015.


  3. Thank you, Peter! Spot-on.

    The circularity of how "distinctively Byzantine" (formerly "distinctively Syrian") has been used for 135 years is a glaring example of the logic difficulty that manifests in textual criticism circles.

    And I wrote on this in the following posts:

    [TC-Alternate-list] Kenyon mangles Hort on the ECW distinctively Byzantine readings
    Steven Avery - June 11, 2011

    [TC-Alternate-list] distinctively Byzantine - a phrase distinctly from the Hortian Fog
    Steven Avery - Oct 28, 2011

    "by definition no "distinctly Byzantine" readings can be early, by definition. Once an early writer like Origen or Tertullian quotes a variant, that fact alone will remove it from the Hortian category.


    Steven Avery
    Dutchess County, NY

  4. Apparently lost sight of in this discussion is the definitional concept of what constitutes a "distinctively Byzantine reading". The claim originates with Hort (except that he termed the Byzantine "Syrian"), and is defined by him (quite reasonably) as a particular reading that appears among the later (post-AD 350) Byzantine MSS but which is not present in the early 4th century Aleph or B, nor appears in any early version or church father prior to AD 350 (this date plus or minus ca. 50 years).

    It was this particular definition that Sturz addressed in his dissertation, and that definition still can be used with profit today.

    Given these parameters, the actual number of "distinctively Byzantine readings" ends up painfully few, since nearly all readings found within the Byzantine Textform have at least some early support from versions and fathers, even if as Dr Carlson points out, the specific pattern of Byzantine readings otherwise is not found among the more limited geographical scope reflected in those early witnesses.

  5. Peter Gurry,

    It appears that even the ECM can not define the Byzantine text with circular reasoning! This make a specified definition all the more necessary when speaking about text types. Porter and Pitts seem to assume we will know that distinctively Byzantine means readings that are not also included in Western or Alexandrian texts.

    1. Do you mean the ECM cannot define the Byz text *without* circular reasoning? If so, I don't see the circularity.