Friday, May 11, 2018

Where did the Byzantine text come from?

In my occasional interactions with Byzantine-text-preferring folks, I have been puzzled by how many of them are unaware of modern research on the Byzantine text and its development. Some of these folks sincerely seem to think that Westcott and Hort’s views of the matter are still what modern textual critics believe. This is not the case. I know of no text critic today who would argue that the Byzantine text as we find it promulgated in the minuscules is the result of a concerted fourth-century recension.  

So, what do scholars think? The most serious work on the Byzantine text’s development has been done by Klaus Wachtel, especially in his 1995 dissertation. But few Byzantine advocates seem aware of it, probably because it remains untranslated into English (sadly).

Fortunately, a number of Wachtel’s papers from over the years are easily accessible online—and in English. So, I thought I would point out just one of the places where he has explained his view. This is in the hope that those who hold to a Byzantine priority position, a Majority text position, or an Ecclesiastical text position (I realize there are differences in these views) will see that modern eclecticism has developed since 1881 on the question of the Byzantine text. In fact, Wachtel’s animating goal in his dissertation was refuting the view of a fourth-century recension.

In any case, here is Wachtel talking about the Gospels:
The term “text-type”, however, still carries along relics of the old division of the New Testament manuscript tradition into three or four “recensions”. If we take the whole evidence into account, a picture emerges that is far more complex. The external criteria applied when variants are assessed have to be re-defined accordingly. To this end we have to focus on individual manuscripts and explore their relationships with other manuscripts. Assigning them to text-types has become obsolete.

You may ask, why then I am still referring to the “Byzantine text” myself. I am doing so, because the term aptly denominates the mainstream text form in the Byzantine empire. This mainstream has its headwaters in pre-Byzantine times, in fact in the very first phase of our manuscript tradition, and it underwent a long process of development and standardization. The final phase began with the introduction of the minuscule script in the 9th century and ended up in a largely uniform text characterized by readings attested by the majority of all Greek manuscripts from the 13th - 15th centuries counted by hundreds and thousands.

Standardization means editorial activity, and in fact, a text form so similar to the late majority text as represented by Codex Alexandrinus cannot have emerged from a linear copying process without conscious editing. It is indeed likely that the text in Codex Alexandrinus is the result of editorial activity which may have been carried out in one or, more likely, several steps. Likewise, the text of the 6th century purple codices N 022 and Σ 042 certainly was not just copied from some manuscript picked at random. Diorthosis, correction, was an integral part of the copying process. Yet the assumption that a recension stood at the beginning of the formation of the Byzantine text and then penetrated the whole manuscript tradition reflects a categorically different view of the transmission history. I am going to focus on the differences between five manuscript texts to show that despite intense editorial activity the Byzantine majority text is the result of a process of reconciliation between different strands of transmission.*
I myself have found this view persuasive at least as far as the Catholic Letters are concerned (though I have tweaked it just slightly). You, of course, may or may not agree with this view, but it is the most detailed and substantiated view of the Byzantine text’s origin on offer. And it is now cited as such in both the major introductions to the field (Metzger-Ehrman’s, and Parker’s).

Kirsopp Lake’s diagram of WH’s view of textual history. He rejected this too.

No major textual critic, to my knowledge, holds to Westcott and Hort’s fourth-century revision view anymore though it may well linger among those in the wider NT guild. My point here is only to say that Byzantine prioritists (of whatever stripe) need to address Wachtel’s arguments not Westcott and Hort’s.

Here ends my public service announcement.

* Klaus Wachtel, “The Byzantine Text of the Gospels: Recension or Process?” paper delivered at SBL in 2009, online here.


  1. << I know of no text critic today who would argue that the Byzantine text as we find it promulgated in the minuscules is the result of a concerted fourth-century recension. >>

    Are you stating as a fact that no one at Dallas Theological Seminary, and no one at Wheaton, advocates the theory of the Lucianic recension nowadays? As I recall -- and as the interview at demonstrates -- Dan Wallace in 2006 was still promoting the idea that the Byzantine Text "originated in the early fourth century as a consciously edited text, cannibalizing readings from earlier textforms" and no matter how you slice it, with qualifications about later tweaking, etc., that sure sounds like an unfocused form of the Lucianic recension theory to me.

    1. James White still advocates a Byzantine recension. He says in his 2009 edition of "the King James Only Controversy" the following words:

      "Most also believe the Byzantine represents a later period in which readings from other text-types were put together ("conflated") into the Byzantine reading...Since the Byzantine text comes from a later period (the earliest texts are almost all Alexandrian and not Byzantine), it is "fuller" in the sense that it not only contains conflations of the other text-types, but it gives evidence of what might be called "expansion of piety." That is, additions have been made to the text that flow from a desire to protect and reverence divine truths... "

      The King James Only Controversy, 2009 edition, pp 71 - 72.

      Colwell utterly refuted the conflation theory in Ernest C. Colwell, “Genealogical Method: Its Achievements and Its Limitations”, Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 66, No. 2 (Jun., 1947), pp. 116 – 118.

      Peter Curry is absolutely correct, however. All important researchers of the Greek New Testament have now rejected the Lucianic recension theory.

    2. *Peter Gurry

    3. Dad,
      Ehrmm, yeah, James White says a lot of nonsensical things when he attempts to delve into textual criticism. Even granting the existence of conflate readings in Byz would not render the entire Byz Text late.
      James Snapp Jr.

  2. When Wachtel says, "The final phase began with the introduction of the minuscule script in the 9th century," this seems problematic, inasmuch as witnesses exist long before the 800s which display an essentially Byzantine Text. Codex W in Matthew, for example.

    Wachtel seems to be using an ultra-tight definitions, disqualifying the Gospels-text of Codex A from being considered Byzantine. Or perhaps he is describing one particular part of the text of the New Testament in a way that does not describe the transmission-history of the rest. Either way it seems problematic. One could do what you seem to say that you have done: consider the Byzantine Text the result of a long process in the General Epistles, but not necessarily in the other books. In which case, at most and best, what we have here is a transmission-model for the General Epistles, not for the whole New Testament.

    1. An additional problem is that most of the Byzantine manuscripts have not been analyzed yet, particularly for marginal notes or colophones that may indicate that a later manuscript was actually copied from a 4th century uncial.

  3. Just one more thing (lest I overload the comments) -- Wachtel's approach is built on some hefty assumptions. He /begins/, as illustrated in the file-download, with the assumptions that Mark 16:9-20, John 7:53-8:11, and Luke 22:43-44 are all non-original passages. Those who consider any of those passages to be genuine will no doubt find a transmission-model that rejects it/them to be unpersuasive.

    Also, here's another sample of Wallace's 2006 statements about the Lucianic recension: "Hort’s threefold argument against the Byzantine text is still a good argument that demonstrates the Byzantine text to be secondary, late, and inferior. Although there are a few leaks in the Hortian boat, it’s not enough to sink the ship."

    It certainly looks to me like Hort's Lucianic recension theory was still sailing at DTS in 2006. Are you entirely sure that it is now at the bottom of the ocean?

    1. Notice that Gurry's statement was limited to text critics. He also said, "though it [the 4th century recension theory] may well linger among those in the wider NT guild." I think that wider NT guild would include Wallace.

    2. I’m not sure about Dan. Maybe he’s the exception to what I said above but I’m not quite sure since he does not speak about Lucian, doesn’t use the term recension (a term WH could be quite particular about), and explicitly gives place for later revisions.

      But let’s not miss the main point here which is that Wachtel’s arguments are the ones that need to be engaged with not Hort’s (or Wallace’s for that matter).

    3. Earlier this year Edward D. Andrews (BS in Religion, MA in Biblical Studies, MDiv in Theology, and president of Christian Publishing House) was still promoting a recension by Lucian c. AD 290. He wrote, "As was stated earlier, Lucian produced the Syrian text, renamed Byzantine text. About 290 C.E., some of his associates, made various subsequent alterations, which deliberately combined elements from earlier types of text, and this text was adopted about 380 C.E. At Constantinople, it became the predominant form of the New Testament throughout the Greek-speaking world." (Jan. 27, 2022) But he might not be a major textual critic who qualifies to be included in Gurry's statement that "No major textual critic, to my knowledge, holds to Westcott and Hort’s fourth-century revision view anymore".

  4. "We cannot do without an edition of the 'Bible' with critical
    commentaries from the Tubingen school and books on criticism of biblical texts, which could bring a very useful 'confusion into the minds' of believers."

    Letter from Gorky to Stalin

  5. Gurry: “No major textual critic, to my knowledge, holds to Westcott and Hort’s fourth-century revision view anymore though it may well linger among those in the wider NT guild. My point here is only to say that Byzantine prioritists (of whatever stripe) need to address Wachtel’s arguments not Westcott and Hort’s.”

    Agreed in regard to the main point — but the fact remains that the current critical NA/UBS text remains far closer to W-H than anything else, despite the various modifications in theory and method that have occurred since 1881.

    Notably, Kurt Aland stated in 1964 (emphasis added by me): “None of us would entrust himself to a ship of the year 1881 in order to cross the Atlantic, even if the ship were renovated or he was promised danger money. Why then do we still do so in NT textual criticism?”

    So also Dan Wallace using a similar metaphor (as noted by Mr Snapp): “Although there are a few leaks in the Hortian boat, it’s not enough to sink the ship."

    Eldon J. Epp in his 1974 “Twentieth-Century Interlude” article pertinently commented: “Unfortunately, now — nearly a decade later — it is still both a valid and an embarrassing question.”

    I would suggest that the "valid and embarrassing question" indeed remains: the “ship has been renovated”, but it primarily remains the same ship that passed general muster in 1881 -- a point that might indicate some form of text-critical myopia that remains ignored or unperceived among adherents of current trends.

    1. To which Gordon Fee’s response still stands: “If all of this means that we still appear to be crossing the Atlantic in an 1881 ship, it may be that they built them better in those days.”

      On the other hand, it’s clear to me that our view of textual history has changed since their day. So why are the texts still so close to theirs? Similarity here is all relative. If the only alternative is a Byz text, then I guess they look similar. But why should that be the point of comparison?

    2. If it stands, then the criticism that not much has been accomplished in TC since then stands as well! That would be the point of the comparison: to see if things have actually changed.

  6. Paolo Trovato5/11/2018 9:25 pm

    I apologize if this can sound excessive or unpolite, but I find rather difficult to appreciate the effort of keeping together all the enormous amount of the Byz MSS (better: I don’t see the convenience of doing so). Most of them seem to be a late vulgate, i.e. MUST be the outcome of subsequent revisions (and genealogically they count for ONE MS). Perhaps if it would be possible to single out some old enough almost-Byz MSS that anticipate, to say so, a number of typical readings of the Byzs, and concentrate on these witnesses (old-Byz, ur-Byz, whatever you want) it would be easier to compare this text type (I would say, group or family, but it doesn’t matter) with the other text types on a equal footing -

    1. One aspect of this project would be, as you say, singling out old enough manuscripts that have Byzantine tendencies.

      But wouldn't it be prudent also to pursue another aspect of isolating the subgroups within the later Byzantine mss, and counting each of those as one manuscript, rather than grouping the whole lot of them together?

      Both of these sets of data would supplement one another, I would think, in investigating the origins of the Byzantine text.

    2. ERIC,
      It seems that if we did as Paolo suggests, and singled out a number of early Byzantine manuscripts which, if Watchel is correct, would include different streams of text which later merged into the minuscules or later Byzantine text, isolating the later subgroups would be redundant and unnecessary.


    3. It would only be redundant if those earlier manuscripts represented the ancestors of those later subgroups, or else if those later subgroups all separated from some stream later on. But neither of those possibilities could be determined until after the data were taken into account. It can't be assumed that the different streams represented among the early Byzantine manuscripts represent all the same steams that existed that early which would give rise to the streams that are evident in the later Byzantine manuscripts. It could as well be the case that we would need to posit ancestors for some subgroups of the Byzantine text that had to exist alongside A and W (or their proto-byzantine ancestors), rather than being directly descended from them.

    4. Paolo Trovato5/12/2018 7:56 am

      Dear ERIC
      Just to clarify my position, with a little group of young scholars I have been collating since 2003 ALL the MS tradition of Dante’ Commedia (580 MSS) in 630 loci critici. Two days ago, after 15 years of work on 630 loci critici out of the 14233 lines of the poem, a book of one of these young scholars (Elisabetta Tonello) proposes an overall classification of more or less the 90 % of this tradition, that is ALL the MSS produced in Tuscany ( They are, in gross terms, the equivalent of your Byz. (What I am saying now is not yet published, but we also singled out from the remnant 50 MSS 12 MSS particularly conservative (4 groups, perhaps descending from 2 hyparchetipes) on which we will base a new eclectic edition).
      I am afraid that the good will of studying ALL the witnesses can paralyze for centuries your paramount research on what everybody, Christian or Shintoist etc., must see as one of the most important books in human history. If some scholars go on classifying meticulously the Byz it is great, but MOST readings are useless for clasisification. That’s why I wonder if it is so difficult to start a provisional parsimonious program of loci critici comparison between a manageable number of very important MSS (15? 30? 35? It is up to you), some important Byz or pre Byz included., trying to attribute them to subgroups etc. etc. Of course, the loci should be passages like the ones you are discussing here in these weeks. In my opinion, it would do no harm and other groups of research could verify in various ways what is coming out from this test.

    5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. Please take this research out of the hands of theologians. Digitize the texts, and have them analyzed using the tools of evolutionary biologists, i.e. cladistics (

    1. And just as in TC, Cladistics has its own set of contradictions, all determined by the methods used.

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. Hello ,

    Above, James Snapp pointed out a major circularity fallacy, with Klaus Wacthel assuming that major variants were not original.

    Now, look at this "logic" from Wachtel, presumably referring to the Gospels:

    "Standardization means editorial activity, and in fact, a text form so similar to the late majority text as represented by Codex Alexandrinus cannot have emerged from a linear copying process without conscious editing."

    So, a 550 AD text had to receive "conscious editing" because manuscripts hundreds of years later are in agreement?
    This is logic turned upside-down.

    As for "conscious editing", that is a very vague term, and can simply mean restoring text parts that were removed in abbreviated manuscripts.


  10. Wachtel has been answered:

    1. Hi Ross

      I've responded to John Tors' web-article on his own site but it is "pending moderation."

      Though Tors' critique gets touted as an answer to Wachtel it fails.

      The very very short version: Tors treats a data set as if it were a randomised population sample when it is not (and neither INTF nor Wachtel claimed it was - in fact they explain in detail that it is not, and Tors even quotes them) undermining his entire argument. The size of the data set doesn't help to overcome its inherent selection bias.

    2. Tors critique of Wachtel fails utterly because the data set he's using is not a randomised population sample.

    3. That goes way over my head. But I wonder why if it is good for Wachtel, why isn't it good for Tors?

  11. Alexander Thomson8/03/2022 12:47 am

    Please help me out. Diocletian’s persecution of CE 303-313 saw the destruction of very many manuscripts? OK. When the persecution ended, and Christianity was no longer illegal, and there was the obvious and urgent need to replace manuscripts, why did individual Christians / ordinary bishops /metropolitans and the like /the imperium simply not send west into Sinai/Egypt/wherever for new copies? These could have been produced fairly quickly, and sen eastwards for further copying. If the western text was nearer to the original and/or had been more or less the text accepted in the east, why would eastern Christians almost universally produced or accepted a text that they knew to be inauthentic?