Tuesday, May 23, 2023

William Eyre: Neglected Figure in the History of Textual Criticism?


I recently acquired access to the substantial three-volume collection of James Ussher’s correspondence edited by Elizabethanne Boran. Ussher is most famous today for his very specific dating of creation. I’m no expert on him, but I can safely say that this was hardly his greatest contribution. He was, according to one recent biographer, “formidably learned” and kept a wide correspondence with great lights of hisday. He wrote on a wide range of subjects, including those of interest to this blog (see here). 

The particular letter I’m interested in, however, is not from Ussher but to him from a man named William Eyre (or Eyres, Aiers). Eyre was a Fellow at Emmanuel College and, according to Gordon Campbell, an overseer of the first Cambridge company of KJV translators who were assigned 1 Chronicles to Song of Solomon (more here).

Emmanuel College, where Eyre was a fellow

Before introducing the letter, it’s important to remember that, at this time, the dating of the Hebrew Masoretic vowel points was hotly contested. The issue was hardly arcane as it touched on a much larger debate between Catholics and Protestants on which versions of the Bible were “authentic” and therefore authoritative for settling doctrinal debate. If the Jews added the vowel points after both the Septuagint and the Vulgate, then it was easier to argue that the Hebrew text of the 16th century was inferior to either of those translations. From this Catholics could ground their preference for the Vulgate since, it was argued, Jerome had access to a purer Hebrew text than the one Protestants claimed. (If you want a great example, take a close look at Gen. 3.15 in the Douay-Rheims vs. KJV and think about its potential to influence Mariology.)

This is the backdrop to a long and fascinating letter that Eyre sent to Ussher on 24 March, 1608. (You can find the Latin online here.) The main subject of the letter is a proposed two-volume work that would contribute to the debate by showing that “only the Hebrew edition of the Old Testament, just as the Greek of the New, is authentic and pure.” The OT seems to occupy his special attention, but the NT is not left out.

What’s fascinating is the amount of detail he provides Ussher for his plan.

...here is the method of the things that I have begun to prepare — and indeed shortly (with the Lord’s help) I shall complete this work for private use. It can be called סיג התורה ‘fence around the law, or ‘Massoreth’ ’ or (as others read) ‘Masorah’, for preserving the purity of the sources, or removing corruption from the text of the sacred scriptures, and consequently for proving their authority; it is contained in two books, of which: 

  1. The first, will contain general introductory material. 
  2. The second, an index of variant readings, in the whole of scripture. 
The chief material of the first book (after the state of the controversy about the authentic edition of the scriptures and purity of the sources) I have covered in six propositions, which I could confirm with the firmest of reasoning, if they are rightly understood: 

  • 1st proposition: only that edition of the scriptures is authentic which was divinely inspired, and written down by the prophets and apostles. 
  • 2nd proposition: that prophetic scripture which was first written down is still preserved in the Church in a pure and whole state. 
  • 3rd proposition: the Hebrew scripture of the Old Testament was handed down in antiquity with the same notes of vowels and accents that we use today. 
  • 4th proposition: the Greek scripture of the New Testament (which was divinely inspired) still remains whole and pure in the Church. 
  • 5th proposition: the Greek translation of the Old Testament is neither divinely inspired, nor pure and whole. 
  • 6th proposition: the Vulgate Latin edition of the Bible is not faithful nor authentic, nor yet divinely written down.

The first volume was to include a substantial appendix that would cover the antiquity of the Hebrew characters, the Masorah, the versions, and, finally, a section on “the most corrected copies of the Hebrew Bible of the Old Testament, and Greek of the New Testament.”

By laying out the argument and the historical evidence, the first volume paved the way for the second in which Eyre would tackle specific variants. Here is his description of volume 2: 

The index and collation of variant readings through the individual books of scriptures, and the chapters of books, together with criticism on them, according to the order of particular passages: especially where the purity of the sources seems suspect to some people, or where there might be a danger of its being corrupted by the carelessness of copyists or the rashness of critics.

For Ussher’s benefit, he includes two detailed examples from Psalm 2 of his process. It’s here that things are especially interesting as Eyre anticipates key principles that still form the foundation of modern textual criticism. Consider his three criteria for judging genuine readings, which could fairly be said to describe what we now call internal and external evidence. Here is how he explains how he makes text-critical judgments:

‘I, II, III’ indicate criteria by whose help one should judge, from the previously established foundations of the propositions, the genuine reading in individual places: for they can be summarised under three headings: 

  1. Codices or copies of the oldest text, both manuscript and printed. 
  2. Versions and commentaries by translators, both old and more recent. 
  3. Reasoning from the words themselves and the circumstances of the passage, and also from collation of other passages, and analogy of faith.

The appendix to volume two is even more interesting as it summarizes his whole case. Note how several of these points, especially the fourth, anticipate principles that are still crucial to the discipline of modern textual criticism. 

  1. The reading of a passage of the Old or New Testament which is approved by the consensus and agreement of all copies which can be found, is not to be rejected on the ground of apparent contradiction, because it is difficult to fit it in, nor yet on the authority of some translators who might seem to have read the text differently, until some trustworthy copy shows the other reading: unless the circumstances of the passage, or analogy of faith, necessarily demand.
    This is clear from the things that are to be said in the first book, in the introductory material, especially in confirmation of the second, fourth, fifth, and sixth propositions. 
  2. The reading of a passage of the Old Testament, which is approved by the reliability of the Masoretic and of the most correct copies, though it may be different elsewhere, should (other things being equal) be preferred.
    The reason for this should be sought in what we said in the introduction on the reasoning and reliability of the ‘Masorah’, and also from the things that are taught in the second and fourth appendices of the first book. 
  3. The reading of a passage of the Old or New Testament, which is approved by the authority of translators who industriously followed their sources, that is, have illustrated Hebrew and Greek truth in their version or commentary, is better (other things being equal) that one which relies on the faith, or rather dreaming, of the translators who pursued tributaries, and translated the common Greek or Latin edition. 
    The truth of this is clear from the fifth and six propositions of the first book, and from its third appendix. 
  4. The reading of a passage of the New Testament which can be proved by the authority and reliability of older and more correct copies, though they may perhaps be fewer in number, is (other things being equal) to be preferred. See the fourth appendix of the first book.
    No one will fail to support this position, who has known what should be attributed to many codices, especially ones recently printed, which scatter errors around to the public and multiply the ‘errors in writing’ of one who first slipped by carelessness or ignorance. Indeed the multitude of those who err, as Jerome said on another matter, unless I am mistaken, ought not to lend support to error.

I have looked through the books and articles I have at hand to see if any mention William Eyre and none do. That’s hardly surprising as little seems to be known about him. Furthermore, as far as I can tell, his work described to Ussher in such detail was meant for private use and may have never materialized. If anyone knows otherwise, please let me know! 

In conclusion, it seems to me that William Eyre deserves at least a passing mention in the historical surveys of our discipline given how clearly he elaborates some very basic principles of modern textual criticism.


Update: I forgot to mention that full credit for bringing Eyre to my attention goes to Stephen Steele and that the translations above are from Boran’s edition, vol. 1, pp. 23–35.


  1. "1st proposition: only that edition of the scriptures is authentic which was divinely inspired, and written down by the prophets and apostles."

    Wait, this doctrine was invented by Benjamin Warfield in the 1880s.

    1. I was just about to say the same thing!

    2. A 16th/17th century theologian / biblical scholar would not necessarily have what Warfield had in mind when the 16th century guy said "only that edition of the scriptures is authentic which was divinely inspired" - though I disagree with 'Confessional bibliologists' phraseology like this implies no more than the Greek is to be preferred to the Versions.

    3. Timothy Joseph5/24/2023 2:17 am

      Wait, you read the quote above and think this just means the Greek rather than the Latin? Surely, he could have just said that if he was intending to. Seems a lot more like Warfield!

    4. My view on the matter is informed by my reading of 16th and 17th cent. sources such as Robert Rollock, William Whitacre, Ussher himself, Brian Walton and John Owen. I don't mind if you disagree, and if you're aware of further evidence that pushes the interpretation of Eyre towards the Warfieldian interpretation, I'm all ears.

      The key is the use of the term "edition" in a 17th century text. When referring to manuscripts as opposed to printed works "edition" was often used to refer to major streams of manuscript tradition as represented by different languages.

    5. John Owen sounds a lot like Warfeild here.

      "Hence, the providence of God showed itself as no less concerned with the preservation of the writings than of the doctrine contained in them, the writing itself being the product of his own eternal counsel for the preservation of the doctrine, after a sufficient discovery of the insufficiency of all other means for that end and purpose. Hence, the malice of Satan has raged no less against the book than against the truth contained in it. The dealings of Antiochus Epiphanes under the Old Testament, and of several persecuting emperors under the New Testament, proves no less. And it was no less a crime of old to be traditor libri (a traitor in the book) than to be abnegator fidei (deny-er of the faith). The reproach of chartacea scripta, and membranae (what is written down on paper or film), as Augustine, in Enchirid., cap. 1., reflects on its author. It is true, we don’t have the autographa of Moses and the prophets, of the apostles and evangelists, but the hapagrapha (“copies”), which contain every iota (every bit) that was in them."

      He is saying that the copies we have today are inspired because they contain the wording of the autograph.

    6. Francis Turretin seems to say something similar. That the copies of the scriptures present in his day are inspired because they preserve the wording of the autograph.

      “Have the original texts of the Old and New Testaments come down to us pure and un corrupted? We affirm against the papists.

      I. This question lies between us and the papists who speak against the purity of the sources for the purpose of establishing more easily the authority of their Vulgate version and leading us away to the tribunal of the church.

      Il. By the original texts, we do not mean the autographs written by the hand of Moses, of the prophets and of the apostles, which certainly do not now exist. We mean their apographs which are so called because they set forth to us the word of God in the very words of those who wrote under the immediate inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

      Ill. The question is not Are the sources so pure that no fault has crept into the many sacred manuscripts, either through the waste of time, the carelessness of copyists or the malice of the Jews or of heretics? For this is acknowledged on both sides and the various readings which Beza and Robert Stephanus have carefully observed in the Greek (and the Jews in the Hebrew) clearly prove it. Rather the question is have the original texts (or the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts) been so corrupted either by copyists through carelessness (or by the Jews and heretics through malice) that they can no longer be regarded as the judge of controversies and the rule to which all the versions must be applied? The papists affirm, we deny it.”

    7. I think Hefin’s right. When they refer to “versions” or “editions” in this period, they usually are thinking of one language in contrast to another not to competing manuscripts per se. Eyre’s sixth proposition makes this clear when he refers to “the Vulgate Latin edition.”

    8. That said, once the differences between manuscripts of one version are as apparent and numerous as those between language editions, the logic (and method of TC) works the same.

  2. Ussher was in no way peculiar as to his dating of creation he was one among many. However, his particular date became especially famous.

    Ussher himself while advocating text critical results congenial to folk within the modern "Confessional Bibliology" movement advocated a text critical method, and actually practiced a TC praxis that is in tension with "Confessional Bibliology." The fact that his own theology influenced the Westminster Confession, and his own collations entered into the Walton 'London Polyglot' are indicative of the subtlety of informed 17th century thought among those who actually handled manuscripts and their texts at that time (as opposed to Systamaticians doing armchair TC).

    It's certainly an interesting letter.

  3. The correspondence between Ussher and Louis Capel (Ludovicus Cappellus) would be interesting too. Eg there is a Latin letter in vol 16 p. 179 (28. Jan 1651) where Capel says something like: 'Moreover, from the other Index, which is subject to it, of the places of the Scriptures in which various readings occur, you will easily be able to see how prone it is for the Scribes to slip from one reading to another out of ignorance or thoughtlessness'.

    Also check out the letter (in English, vol 15, p. 233, 26. Jan 1624) from Ralph Skinner who says: 'But we constantly deny the Corruption of the Scriptures, which they affirm, and endeavour to prove by the 848 variae Lectiones, and by the Keries and the Cethists. And we answer, that variety of reading argues not any Corruption, but Ingenuity and plentiful Fruit of the Spirit of God'

    1. Also your post about Richard Baxter in 2019 references a letter from Ussher to Capel. There is a long Latin letter in vol 16 p. 204 which is probably it. http://evangelicaltextualcriticism.blogspot.com/2019/02/richard-baxter-on-autographs-and.html

    2. Thanks, Stephen. When you refer to volumes, are you referring to the Works of Ussher?

  4. In *one* letter of June 1651 to Arnold Boate, Usher mentioned the work of Patrick Young on variant readings in the Codex Alexandrinus and he also referred to a "censure" of William Eyre about differences between the Hebrew and Greek text of the OT.
    See https://books.google.nl/books?id=f-NBAQAAMAAJ , p. 621.

    1. And this censura on the Psalms is on pp. 8.

    2. Thanks, Teunis. You think the censura on p. 621 is the one on pp. 8ff? If so, that’s the same letter I’m quoting in this post. Perhaps Eyre finished his work on Psalms and sent that to Ussher privately.

    3. The 'Censura' is described by Garnet Milne as 'Eyre's defence of the Masoretic text against the LXX readings in the Psalms of the Vulgate'.

    4. Yes is the same letter. I was referring to Parr's edition of 1686 and you to Elrington's of 1864, based on Parr.
      You are right, possibly Eyre enlarged and finished the "Censura" and this version was known by Usher.

    5. For more about the discussion of Cappelus and Boate and the position of Usher, see Parr, vol.1, pp. 267ff.

      Usher published Eyre's letter of 1607 on pp. 221ff of "De Graeca Septuginta interpretum versione syntagma", 1655 (https://books.google.nl/books?id=6lAL7p8rEesC)
      Remarkably Eyre's "Specimen" and "Censura" is skipped on p. 229.

    6. Elrington's edition, not Parr's, of course!

  5. Boate believed that Eyre was aligned with Capel (not sure if that means against the inspiration of the vowel points or on Hebrew reliability in general - or if Boate is right). The debate between Boate and Capel is covered in Garnet Milne 'Has the Bible been kept pure?' (not a completely trustworthy source).

    "I humbly thank your grace for the offer of Mr. Eyre his notes on the Psalms; but if he be so wholly of Capellus his mind in the controversy I have with him, as his epistles to Capellus do seem to speak to him, I would not at all be beholden to him for any of his labours." (Boate to Ussher, 6 Sept 1651, vol 16, p. 197)

    Eyre says elsewhere (this is Google translate so take with a pinch of salt):
    "I think that it is necessary to distinguish carefully between the biblical and the Masoretic punctuation, so that we can defend the truth both from the excess and from the selection between the two, and to protect the seam." - Eyre to Ussher, 7 March 1623, vol 15, p. 210

    1. Can you elaborate on your comment "not a completely trustworthy source"? I've not read this one yet but it's been on my list of things to read for some time now.

    2. In some ways it's way more scholarly than most TR stuff, and he quotes an impressive range of primary sources. (From memory, I don't think he's even consistent in what he's arguing for though - at times it seems to be the TR, at times the MT)

      But everyone he quotes is squeezed into supporting his position, even when they clearly seem to be saying the opposite - or when it can be shown from other sources that they weren't TR-onlyists.

      Two examples, all involving people present at the Westminster Assembly:
      - He quotes Thomas Goodwin, Daniel Featley and Edward Leigh in support of his position - despite all of them having elsewhere appealed to Codex Alexandrinus over against theTR.
      - He also claims support from Thomas Gataker, even though Gataker is the author of a conjectural emendation.

      (I have a journal article hopefully coming out soon which elaborates on the first example, and a blog post in the works about the second).

      I have no reason to suspect he was being deliberately dishonest, and he's helpful at identifying relevant primary sources, but his summaries/conclusions often don't seem to follow from what he's quoting.

    3. Those critiques of the late Rev. Milne seem quite likely to me. Your forthcoming article would be very interesting. I'd be interested in seeing it on publication. Please let us know when and where.

    4. //Two examples, all involving people present at the Westminster Assembly:
      - He quotes Thomas Goodwin, Daniel Featley and Edward Leigh in support of his position - despite all of them having elsewhere appealed to Codex Alexandrinus over against theTR.
      - He also claims support from Thomas Gataker, even though Gataker is the author of a conjectural emendation.//

      If Hefin's point about the collation of Alexandrinus against Stephanus is correct, then the timing of each of these points may be important. It may be that they really did take an essentially TR-only position, even if only a naive or not fully worked out one, at the time of the Westminster Assembly and whenever it was that they said things that implicitly supported TR-only, but then after seeing the differences between Stephanus and Alexandrinus began refining that position more in a non-TR-only direction.

      I have no idea personally. But the timing of the quotes would be a relevant detail in an article like yours.

    5. To be honest my take on most of the Reformed authors I've read on maters textual is that they would be basically a kind of majority text / Byz text guys who thought the TR was a good representation of the Maj / Byz.

      Only Owen argues at any length for something rather like the TR only position of modern Confessional Bibliology and does so somewhat inconsistently (as Walton acerbically pointed out again and again in his response).

  6. My view is that polemics was pushing the Reformed in one direction and the actual inspection of manuscripts in another.

    While Codex Beza could be dismissed as an oddity (which frankly it is) the manuscripts that the reformed and their interlocutors in the 16th and early 17th century were hidden behind the principal printed editions they all relied on (Erasmus and Complutensian for the text, and Stephanus for additional apparatus info).

    It was the gift of Codex Alexandrinus from the Patriarch of Constantinople to a Reformed ruler (though received by his less-than-reformed heir) and the subsequent publication of a reasonably full collation of A GA 02 against Stephanus 1550 produced a bit of a crisis that comes to a head in the 1657 / 1558 debate between Brian Walton and John Owen.

    1. There's a typo in 1657/1558 that might lead some to wonder which century is right. I believe you mean 1657/1658, and not a century earlier than that, right? This may be significant, since that puts this development later than the Westminster Standards and the Canons of Dort. It would be interesting to see how the language used in Protestant statements of faith addressing preservation of Scripture changed after that.

    2. Lol. Well spotted. It should be 1657 / 1658 of course ;-)

      Protestant statements tended to retain the language of the 1647 Westminster Confession. The Savoy Declaration does and it is from 1658. But John Owen was one of its principal editors - so no surprise. The Baptist confession often called the 1689 was actually edited and initially published in 1677 and it follows the Westminster / Savoy wording.

      BUT BUT BUT ... Walton who very clearly anticipated the fundementals of Textual Criticism had no difficulty in adopting the language that had also been used by the Westminster confession.

      The debate between him and Owen is precisely over how God preserves by his special providence.