Thursday, October 13, 2022

On the Essence of a Byzantine-priority Method


I do not mean to flog the Byzantine method on this blog, I promise. But I am writing on the topic of method right now and some things just fit better on a blog than in a footnote and I want to record them before I forget. 

In this case, I want to set two sets of quotes side-by-side to show what I think is the flaw in the Byzantine priority method. Recall, first, however, that in my last post on the subject, I pointed out that the Byzantine method rests on a fundamental historical claim and that it should stand or fall on that claim. I think that is crucial. 

The method is not to be judged on its occasional (mis)assocation with various disreputable “onlyisms” or whether it’s held by a minority of scholars or whether it accepts the two famous large variants (Mark 16:9–20; John 7:53–8:11) or whether it’s the underdog or whether Maurice Robinson has an enviable rock ’n’ roll CD collection (which he does). It is to be judged on its historical claim. 

What is that claim? Here is what Robinson says is the “essence” of the method in his seminal essay (emphasis his).

12. The real issue facing NT textual criticism is the need to offer a transmissional explanation of the history of the text which includes an accurate view of scribal habits and normal transmissional considerations. Such must accord with the facts and must not prejudge the case against the Byzantine Textform. That this is not a new procedure or a departure from a previous consensus can be seen by the expression of an essential Byzantine-priority hypothesis in the theory of Westcott and Hort (quite differently applied, of course). The resultant methodology of the Byzantine-priority school is in fact more closely aligned with that of Westcott and Hort than any other. Despite his myriad of qualifying remarks, Hort stated quite clearly in his Introduction the principles which, if applied directly, would legitimately support the Byzantine-priority position:

As soon as the numbers of a minority exceed what can be explained by accidental coincidence, ... their agreement ... can only be explained on genealogical grounds[. W]e have thereby passed beyond purely numerical relations, and the necessity of examining the genealogy of both minority and majority has become apparent. A theoretical presumption indeed remains that a majority of extant documents is more likely to represent a majority of ancestral documents at each stage of transmission than vice versa.

13. There is nothing inherently wrong with Hort’s “theoretical presumption.” Apart from the various anti-Byzantine qualifications made throughout the entire Introduction, the Westcott-Hort theory would revert to an implicit acceptance and following of this initial principle in accord with other good and solid principles which they elsewhere state. Thus, a “proper” Westcott-Hort theory which did not initially exclude the Byzantine Textform would reflect what might be expected to occur under “normal” textual transmission.

It is this claim to a “normal transmission” that I take issue with. But more than that, it is what Westcott and Hort take issue with and they do so on the very page that Robinson quotes. Also, they do so not because they jump to anti-Byzantine qualifications. Instead, the very next sentence after the section Robinson quotes says, “But the presumption [i.e., the essence of the Byz position] is too minute to weigh against the smallest tangible evidence of other kinds.” Why is this? Because 

At each stage of transmission the number of copies made from each MS depends on extraneous conditions, and varies irregularly from zero upwards: and when further the infinite variability of chances of preservation to a figure age is taken into account, every ground for expecting a priori any sort of correspondence of numerical proportion between existing documents and their less numerous ancestors in any one age falls to the ground. This is true even in the absence of mixture; and mixture, as will be shown presently (§§ 61, 76), does but multiply the uncertainty. (p. 45).

Robinson writes that only the activity of a “formal recension” would undermine the principle behind the Byz priority position. That is, of course, exactly what WH did with the Syrian text and Robinson is right to reject it, as do most of us today. But, importantly, a formal recension is not what WH here say undermines their “theoretical presumption.” What they point to instead is a factor that is just as serious and happens to be well documented for the NT, namely, contamination or mixture. Contamination, as we know, can wreak havoc on a simple genealogy and the notion that a majority of later manuscripts reflects a majority of early ones is nothing if not simple (NB: I did not say simplistic or dumb or naïve). In other words, the NT text does not follow a normal transmission process. 

The implication for WH is that, “For all practical purposes the rival probabilities represented by relative number of attesting documents must be treated as incommensurable.” (pp. 45–46). The theory of a majority of later manuscripts reflecting a majority of earlier ones does not fit the facts. There is no safety in numbers. Contamination does not allow for it. 

The Byzantine priority position, then, is not wrong because it gives preference to the Byzantine witnesses; it is wrong because of why it does so.


  1. Interesting points, and quite helpful. I love this blog and try to stay abreast from a far of developments in this field. I appreciate all you guys do. I wanted to speak a bit about what I see as a weakness in the Byzantine view.

    From a layman's perspective, it can be powerful to see the weight of the Byzantine argument. When counting manuscripts, the Byzantine text often wins decisively. What really helped me in all this was thinking through other reasons for why that text type assumed the majority status. I think I need to credit a Dan Wallace essay on the Majority text for some of this, but here goes:

    The majority of manuscripts that are Byzantine are from the general area of Byzantium, which happened to be the locale that kept the Greek language alive in both scholarship and everyday use the longest of anywhere in the world at that time. Western centers of learning quickly pivoted to Latin, and we see a preponderance of Latin versions used. Everyday Bibles were in Latin, with some scholarly texts in Greek. North African centers of learning soon were either Latinized or were eventually overrun by Islam. Oriental centers of learning prized Syriac. These places may have had Greek texts for scholarly use, but the versions were where church life happened. In Byzantium, no versions were needed, common and scholarly copies were all in Greek. And Greek lasted there until Byzantium was abandoned and scholarly texts were rescued and brought to Europe by those leaving.

    So a majority of texts today support the Byzantine text - is it any wonder? James White also in his popular work against KJV only views, points out that the majority of Greek texts of a given century were non-Byzantine up until the 9th century or later... which doevetails quite nicely with my explanation above.

  2. As far as I understand, professor Robinson does not hold that we should count manuscripts, but rather significant portions of text (ie, long variational units). You can read his "test tube" essay for more information. Moreover, what he calls "normal transmission" is precisely what W&H consider the "extraneous conditions" mentioned in the text you quoted. The fact that W&H call them "extraneous" and Robinson calls them "normal" is understandably confusing, but is a matter of nomenclature. "Normal conditions" in Robinson's language means, grosso modo, that scribes conducted their business without having a central authority coordinating them at all times. In other words, the usual scribal messiness, irregularities and idiosyncrasies are what Robinson calls "normal conditions". A recension would be "abnormal" in the sense that it requires someone unilaterally (centrally) defining the text for everyone else. And then there's the issue of contamination. If Robinson and Pierpont were counting manuscripts, contamination would certainly be a major problem for the Byzantine priority theory. But he counts long variational units instead, a method that I can't see a priori how can be rendered invalid by contamination, given that block contamination (arguably the most common form of contamination) most likely happened, in most instances, precisely at the long variational unit level.