Thursday, September 29, 2022

Where the Priority Lies in Byzantine Priority


Last Saturday was the textual criticism conference at Clearview Church with myself, Maurice Robinson, Dave Black, and Abidan Shah. You can read Dave’s recap here. I can add my thanks to our hosts for taking such good care of us and to my fellow speakers for sharing with us. 

I was grateful for the opportunity to explain why I’m a reasoned eclectic in a forum like this. I haven’t ever done that and it was a good exercise. What made it especially fun is that none of the other presenters agreed with my position! (Although, by my definition, Dave Black’s Sturzian approach is still a form of reasoned eclecticism; he just has a different approach to external evidence than mine but that’s for another day.) This meant that I not only got to hear how others perceived my view, but I also got to hear their reaction to my perception of their view. That is always a helpful diagnostic and, in this case, I learned something from Maurice that I want to explain here.

The speakers. Photo from Dave Black

In my talk, I argued that the Byzantine Priority view could accurately be called Byzantine Exclusivism since there is never a place where the Byzantine prioritist thinks that the clear majority of manuscripts is flat wrong and the minority is right (e.g.). Even where the majority is split, their choice will always be within the split, never outside it. It is this consistent preference for one group of manuscripts over all others (where they disagree, of course) that sets it apart from all forms of eclecticism—reasoned or thoroughgoing or even Sturzian. This is where the clarification came in.

In his presentation, which followed mine, Maurice pointed out that the priority in “Byzantine Priority” does not mean the Byzantine reading gets priority at each point of variation, but rather that the Byzantine textform existed prior to the other textforms. This may seem like a trivial distinction, but I think it is important for two reasons.

First, it is a reminder that the Byzantine Priority position, as held by Maurice, is based fundamentally on a view of the text’s history not on some preconceived preference for pet readings. What that means is that, if the method is right, it’s right because of its view of history. If it’s wrong—as I think it is—it’s wrong for the same reason. I happen to think this is what all methods share in common, actually. But it was helpful to see it afresh.

Second, I think this should mean that there is no reason, in principle, why a Byzantine prioritist should be unwilling to reject Byzantine readings. The fact that this textform is earliest does not logically entail that it is always right anymore than thinking the Alexandrian text is earliest requires one to think it is always right. 

Now, I say it should mean this because in practice, as I noted, Byzantine prioritists are unwilling to accept any reading that is in the clear minority against the Byzantine majority. So, we are back to the question of whether or not it is really a method of prioritization or of exclusivism. I would be happy to be educated further on this and would love to hear from any Byzantine prioritists who think the Byzantine textform is sometimes wrong even when it’s unified (in which case they would be akin to James Snapps view).

One final observation, this experience was a fresh reminder of the danger of misinterpreting other people’s views because we have unwittingly filtered them in some way through our own starting assumptions. In my case, I was hearing the term “priority” through the lenses of my own reasoned eclecticism. What I heard was something like “the Byzantine reading is always prior at every place of variation” when what is meant is “the Byzantine textform is historically prior to the other text forms.” The first does follow from the second, but the order is important. I should have been more careful.

And for anyone wondering, Maurice and I had a grand time together. We have sparred many times over these things at various conferences, over meals, and even at his Smokey Mountain chalet. I always appreciate our conversations and leave them thankful for his sharp mind and his careful work.


  1. Excellent article! My understanding has always been that the Byzantine text type (along with all it's related families) was a general indication of the text during the Byzantine's silent period (pre 400). If this is indeed true, it makes sense that the originals were indeed Byzantine in nature. I think for me, the biggest argument is that the NT books were written to areas in that geographical area, none were directly written to believers in Egypt.

    1. And do you always follow the readings of the Byz text-type? For me, variants like the ones at 1 John 2.23 or 3.1 indicate whether someone is a prioritist or an exclusivist. Scrivener, for instance, did not hesitate to reject the majority reading at 2.23 because it’s an obvious parablepsis.

    2. For reference, see here:

    3. I'm not entirely sure, THH. I've been looking at the variant in Mark 3:11 "and fire". TR and NU readings are in agreement here, but the Byz, including HF, MT, CP and F35 all do not include this variant.

  2. I think even Robinson holds that the “majority” of manuscripts sometimes errs. Theoretically, at least, an extremely early error or “primitive corruption” could have divided the tradition and enjoyed a numerical preponderance given the proper conditions, e.g., an easy transcriptional error, a corrupt copy becoming the exemplar for many others, and so on. The counterargument that studious readers would have caught and corrected every error is unconvincing for primitive errors on the ground that many could have assumed the “error” to be authentic because of its early presence and perhaps even dominance in all the copies they knew, depending on how early the error was introduced and on other “proper conditions.”

    Some Byzantine-priority proponents have rejected the shorter majority reading of 1 John 2:23 in the past. Some could do so today with the following rationale:

    1. Primitive errors could have multiplied and become a majority given the right conditions. Such probably didn’t happen often, but when it did, it’s likely that the authentic reading would not have disappeared from all surviving copies. By the way, most Byzantine-priority advocates already admit that fully 20% of the mss supporting the majority reading in 1 John 2:23 descended from a single exemplar, i.e., the archetype of f35.

    2. At least twenty good Byzantine manuscripts contain the longer minority reading of 1 John 2:23 (percentage of agreement with the majority text in the test passages of Text und Textwert in parentheses): 223 (99%), 444 (98%), 452 (98%), 468* (97%), 959 (98%), 1069 (99%), 1103 (98%), 1106 (95%), 1245 (97%), 1352 (98%), 1390 (95%), 1509 (95%), 1521 (99%), 1643 (97%), 1828 (97%), 1902* (98%), 2400 (98%), 2475 (98%), 2511 (99%), 2523 (95%). For some of these, 1 John 2:23 represents the only deviation from the majority text in the 90+ test passages. Interestingly, none of these supports the και εσμεν addition in 1 John 3:1, which only has a few mss which are close to being as Byzantine as the larger group above (e.g. 1626 1872 2080).

    3. The contingent of good Byzantine mss that has the longer reading in 1 John 2:23 is corroborated by the earliest evidence of every kind (other Greek mss, early versions, church writers), whereas support for the majority text seems not to exist before the eighth or ninth century, and even then the support could be merely coincidental by virtue of independent homoeoteleuton error.

    Does the above rationale negate the conclusion that the Byzantine text is the best single representative of the “initial text”? It might for those who need or want a text that is indisputable at every point, but even Robinson denies such a status for his and Pierpont’s editions. Anyway, I don’t think the conclusion as stated above is necessarily negated. One can be wrong a few times and still be right more often than the next best option. But even in 1 John 2:23, which Peter brought up, both major readings do not lack excellent Byzantine witnesses. Such a scenario also means that the work of textual criticism, even for Byzantine-priority advocates, does not end at simply counting mss.

    1. Thanks Jonathan, very interesting. So it seems that the all or nothing approach regarding I John 2:23 & 3:1 (i.e. both in or both out) is not necessarily shared by all who hold to Byz. Priority. I find that encouraging considering I John 2:23 was one of my primary disagreements with the Byz. Priority position and text. Thanks again for the helpful data!

  3. Dr J B Boren9/30/2022 2:17 pm

    I am a rank amateur at TC, and enjoy reading this blog very much, as almost everthing that is said teaches me something I didn't know. With that said, this post makes me a little uncomfortable. If it wasn't always, TC has become a primarily apologetic endeavor. With the rapid spread of the various forms of textual exclusivism and absolutism (thank you, social media), this endeavor is more important than ever to a less-educated-than-ever church body. The 'uncomfortable' part is, these differing views pose a significant risk of polarization, where the TC folks spend more time and energy shooting at each other than defending the faith against historical and textual Ehr-ors (see what I did there?). I truly pray this doesn't happen, in spite of the fact that almost everything in our culture (sacred and secular alike) seems to want to split into warring factions these days. Certainly there will be disagreements...that's a given. What I'm praying for is an old-fashioned posture of disagreeing in a civil and respectful way and making cases evidentially and through valid argument over against ad-hominem argument.

    For 50-ish years, I'd never heard any significant comment about TC from the pew. Now, I get asked about it regularly in my SS class. Let's not drop the ball at such a time as this!

    Thanks again to all involved for the blog and the fire-hose education.

    1. Jeffrey Roberts3/14/2024 10:35 am

      I personally hold to what may be called Byzantine priority, but I don’t think anyone should totally throw out that which is termed the Alexandrian Text. I always ask the question. Did the early church fathers refer to a text? Example, Augustine referred to Mark 9:44, 46, 48 (City of God 21:9). Where did he get this text? Jerome? If it did come from the Latin Vulgate, then Jerome claimed that it was from Ancient Greek Texts. Would these Ancient Greek Texts that Jerome used not be older than the Alexandrian? Or even if not from Vulgate, they came from somewhere?