Thursday, June 02, 2016

A Similarity between Reasoned Eclecticism & Byzantine Priority

Here’s something that two otherwise competing methods of New Testament textual criticism agree on, at least according to their two main proponents. Both reasoned eclecticism and the Byzantine priority position have in common that external evidence should be considered prior to internal evidence.
A helpful little book.

Here’s Mike Holmes:
To put the matter more briefly and abstractly, it is by means of external evidence that we identify the oldest surviving reading(s), which we then further evaluate by means of internal considerations.
Here’s Maurice Robinson:
In this system, final judgment on readings requires the strong application of internal evidence after an initial evaluation of the external data has been made.
I would be interested to know if Mike thinks this priority is fundamental to reasoned eclecticism. I wouldn’t think so since a consideration of transcriptional probabilities may influence the weight one gives to a manuscript’s text, a weight which subsequently informs which readings deserve further evaluation on internal grounds. There is, obviously, a circularity here, but a “fruitful” one as some have described it rather than a viscious one.

This is not unlike a suggestion made—to bring thoroughgoing eclecticism into the discussion—by J. K. Elliott. He says,
To be really thorough I suggest that we do our textual criticism eclectically without bowing to preconceived theories about the alleged superiority of certain witnesses. Then, having done our work, I suggest that we review the behavior of individual witnesses—in effect, rate them. Those that fall below a certain level of accuracy would in the future be regarded with some suspicion. 
Oddly, he then says that “I cannot claim that that is an overriding interest or concern of thoroughgoing eclecticism” which seems to undermine his suggestion.


  • Michael W. Holmes, “The Case for Reasoned Eclecticism,” in Rethinking New Testament Textual Criticism, ed. David Alan Black (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), p. 78.
  • Maurice A. Robinson, “Appendix: The Case for Byzantine Priority,” in The New Testament in the Original Greek: Byzantine Textform, ed. Maurice A. Robinson and William G. Pierpont (Southborough, MA: Chilton, 2005), p. 545.
  • J. K. Elliott, “The Case for Thoroughgoing Eclecticism,” in Rethinking New Testament Textual Criticism, ed. David Alan Black (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), p. 123.


  1. I would be very interested to see how many (and which) NT textual critics actually agree that external evidence should be considered prior to internal. I remember Epp distinguishing between different types of reasond eclectics, at least some of which tend to weigh internal evidence more heavily. I for one have great problems with saying that consideration of external evidence is methodologically prior. External evidence is only helpful insofar as you have some conception of the history of the text in mind, and the only way to arrive at such a history is by evaluating the readings and manuscript relations primarily based on internal evidence. Maybe practically, after a couple centuries of text-critical research, NT scholars feel confident enough about their knowledge of the history of the text to weed out late readings (which I am fine with), but surely internal evidence has to be the methodological starting point of any iterative process and the deciding factor in evaluating many variation units. No?

    -Drew Longacre

  2. I have tended to treat external evidence prior to the internal evidence (see e.g. from 1991 on Mark 1.1 or from 2014 on Col 4.8); and also generally teach that this order of treatment is the best/simplest approach.
    I think the first issue is simply that without treating the external evidence you don't know what all the readings actually are. For students the process of deciphering the apparatus gets the readings clear, and can sometimes point to issues relating to internal evidence.
    In general I try to get students to present the external and internal aspects of the investigation separately and then evaluate the implications for the overall argument/local stemma. On the basis that they can be done independently I don't suppose that it should make much difference in the order in which the investigation is undertaken and/or presented.

  3. From Westcott and Hort in the intro to their 1871 fascicle of the Gospels: “But if some exercise of personal judgment remains always indispensable, on the other hand the possibility of sound textual criticism is destroyed by the crude premature use of what is called internal evidence” (p. xix).