Maurice Robinson’s article The Case for Byzantine Priority – which was included in the gorgeously presented Byzantine Textform edition of the Greek New Testament by Maurice Robinson and William Pierpont – is a must read for anyone interested in New Testament textual criticism. It is perhaps the most thoughtfully articulated response to the modern eclecticism that has become the de facto method of modern textual criticism.
I’m not going to go into the basics of textual criticism here because I don’t have the time or space to do so, and I am by no means an expert myself. If you want some background on textual criticism in general and modern eclecticism specifically check out The Text of the New Testament by Barbara and Kurt Aland.
The Dominance of the Byzantine Textform
Robinson introduces the Byzantine textform as the “form of text which is known to have predominated in the Greek-speaking world from at least the fourth century until the invention of printing in the sixteenth century,” and whose reputation was sullied by it’s unfortunate association with the flawed Textus Receptus of Erasmus and Ximenes.
Certainly the Textus Receptus had its problems, not the least of which was its failure to reflect the Byzantine Textform in an accurate manner. But the Byzantine Textform is not the TR, nor need it be associated with the TR or those defending such in any manner…[but] the issue which needs to be explained by any theory of NT textual criticism is the origin, rise and virtual dominance of the Byzantine Textform within the history of transmission. Various attempts have been made in this direction, postulating either the “AD 350 Byzantine recension” hypothesis of Westcott and Hort,4 or the current “process” view promulgated by modern schools of eclectic methodology.5 Yet neither of these explanations sufficiently accounts for the phenomenon, as even some of their own prophets have declared.
Robinson asserts that the “Byzantine Textform as found amid the vast majority of MSS may in fact more closely reflect the original form of the NT text than any single MS, small group of MSS, or texttype” and he goes on to say that “such a theory can more easily explain the rise and dominance of the Byzantine Textform with far fewer problems than are found in the alternative solutions proposed by modern eclectic scholarship.”
The Inherent Weaknesses of Modern Eclecticism
That’s where things began to get interesting for me. Robinson goes on to address the weaknesses inherent in modern eclecticism, and how the transmissionalism of the Byzantine text may provide an answer for those weaknesses.
Modern eclectic praxis operates on a variant unit basis without any apparent consideration of the consequences. The resultant situation is simple: the best modern eclectic texts simply have no proven existence within transmissional history, and their claim to represent the autograph or the closest approximation thereunto cannot be substantiated from the extant MS, versional or patristic data. Calvin L. Porter has noted pointedly that modern eclecticism, although “not based upon a theory of the history of the text … does reflect a certain presupposition about that history. It seems to assume that very early the original text was rent piecemeal and so carried to the ends of the earth where the textual critic, like lamenting Isis, must seek it by his skill.”
In other words, the eclectic method – which essentially requires the critic to pick and choose pieces of text down to the smallest unit (including phrases, words, letters, even marks) and to bundle them together in a form for which we have no actual evidence to support. To put it another way, if the texts produced by this method are not a reconstruction of the original autographs, then they are certainly a hodge-podge form that is completely unique in all of history.
Not only does its resultant text lack genealogical support within transmissional theory, but it fails the probability test as well. That the original text or anything close to such would fail to perpetuate itself sequentially within reasonably short sections is a key weakness affecting the entire modern eclectic theory and method. The problem is not that the entire text of a NT book nor even of a chapter might be unattested by any single MS; most MSS (including those of the Byzantine Textform) have unique or divergent readings within any extended portion of text; no two MSS agree completely in all particulars. However, the problem with the resultant sequential aspect of modern eclectic theory is that its preferred text repeatedly can be shown to have no known MS support over even short stretches of text–and at times even within a single verse.
Robinson’s answer to these problems is of course the Byzantine Textform and a theory of what he calls a ‘reasoned transmissionalism.’ You’ll have to read the full essay to get down to the details of his arguments, but I believe that you’ll be better off for it. Whether or not you end up agreeing with Robinson and his assertions, the text compiled by Maurice and Pierpont is an important consideration for any New Testament student serious about getting as close to the original autographs as possible. You can find the full essay here.