The Byzantine Text - Implications of Recension Theory

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Robert Truelove

Puritan Board Sophomore
I've shared my lecture here a few years ago dealing with problems with typical arguments for the Byzantine Text Type.

As a "Critical Text guy" I have found one of the chief difficulties for my textual position is explaining the genesis of the Byzantine Text. The fact that the Byzantine Text appears dominant from the 4th -5th Centuries on a wide geological scale, I must admit, poses a real conundrum. All parties seem to agree that the Byzantine Text is at least around 1 century older than it's oldest exemplars for a number of reasons (ex. uniformity and geographic distribution).

The primary argument from Textual Criticism is that the Byzantine Text form is demonstrably secondary. This is an argument derived by applying the principles of Textual Criticism to the manuscripts. In trying to explain HOW the Byzantine Text came into being, arguments are made from this methodology. Scribes are found guilty of...

1. Smoothing out difficult readings.

2. Conflating readings

3. Making general copy mistakes

4. "Correcting" readings to make them more orthodox

5. etc.

These sorts of arguments are conjectures. Sometimes criticism is made at this very point. However, arguments in favor of the Byzantine Text are also conjectures. Without having the original manuscripts (which do not exist for any work of antiquity) or a proven genealogical chart (this manuscript was copied from this manuscript, which was copied from this manuscript, etc.), the methodology of Textual Criticism will always be based upon conjecture (regardless of one's position).

I find the arguments on these points to be logical (for the most part) but where they utterly fail is explaining how, under these kinds of circumstances, Byzantine Text exemplars are found broadly distributed (geographically speaking) early on in their history. There are 3 typical explanations...

1. Hort's Lucian Recension Theory

2. The gradual effect of official scriptoriums introduced at the time of Constantine

3. The Byzantine Text form is not secondary

Due to lack of historical evidence, the Lucian Recension Theory isn't widely held to today. (Even though, there is rather substantial proof within the manuscripts themselves that some sort of systematic recension did indeed take place.)

The argument from the scriptoriums seems to be more prevalent today. This argument is fraught with its own problems. If the scriptorium argument were true, we would expect to see exemplars of the text in transition; an evolutionary progression. We do not see this. Rather, we see the Byzantine Text appear rather abruptly on the scene. Even allowing for a century of copying in the scriptoriums before our oldest Byzantine exemplars, it is hard for me to reconcile the uniformity of Byzantine Text with non-recensional scribal practices.

Finally, the Byzantine proponents answer this conundrum by stating that this is proof the Byzantine Text was not the product of a recension or corruption by scribes. Rather, it is the most faithful witness to the original. The lack of earlier Byzantine exemplars makes such a position inconclusive and has the opposite problem of explaining the genesis of the other textual families as corrupted forms of the Byzantine. The "heretic" argument doesn't work for me but I have spoken on that elsewhere.

I think we need to back up and give more thought to the idea that the Byzantine Text is the product of an early recension. A 3rd-4th Century recension of the Greek New Testament best explains the exemplars. Perhaps something like the Lucian Recension Theory is not a "trip into cloudland" at all? I'm not saying it had to be done under Lucian. It could have been systematic recension coordinated in the early scriptoriums.

If the evidence reveals that the Byzantine Text is indeed the product of an early recension of the Greek New Testament, this presents profound implications for the study of Textual Criticism. Hort already used this argument to displace the Byzantine Text but I think this was done too quickly. A few considerations...

If the Byzantine Text was an early recension, there are some points that could be advanced in its favor...

1. It would be the first "critical text".

2. Assuming those involved did their work well, the result was a critical text based upon potentially hundreds of 1st and 2nd century manuscripts that are no longer extant. This opposed to modern textual criticism which is primarily based upon a small handful of manuscripts, many of which are fragments.

3. The fact that there is no "outcry" recorded in history over this recension is evidence that the resulting text was not so alien to what the Christians of the time were familiar. Could it be that the silence in history regarding protests testify to the integrity of this recension?



Puritanboard Amanuensis
If the Byzantine Text was an early recension, there are some points that could be advanced in its favor...

1. It would be the first "critical text".

2. Assuming those involved did their work well, the result was a critical text based upon potentially hundreds of 1st and 2nd century manuscripts that are no longer extant. This opposed to modern textual criticism which is primarily based upon a small handful of manuscripts, many of which are fragments.

3. The fact that there is no "outcry" recorded in history over this recension is evidence that the resulting text was not so alien to what the Christians of the time were familiar. Could it be that the silence in history regarding protests testify to the integrity of this recension?


In general, the post assumes a connection between the mss. and the original. Why do we believe that any of the mss. represent the original? The answer to that question basically sets the textual critic in the direction he will ultimately travel. As a reader or listener I would like to know the path an author or speaker intends to travel before I embark on it with him. At the least, I would like to know if the author thinks there are any presuppositions which are going to influence discussion of the issues and the evaluation of the data.

More specifically,

1. I would opine that every text is a critical text as soon as it is acknowledged that there are variants. Given that most corruptions are dated to the second century, subsequent mss. must be acknowledged as critical texts in the generic sense of the word. The issue emerges with words like "recension." A recension would be a critical text in the specific sense of the word -- a revised text. How is this going to sit with the author's or reader's belief in a connection between ms. and original?

2. This is an important point. When textual criticism is reduced to counting or dating mss., the fact is that we are dealing with "extant" mss. Some calculation should be made of the number, date and quality of mss. which would have been available to the scribe/s involved in the copying process. If "recension" were to be an appropriate word for the Byzantine text, then a "good recension" would be one that was not only based upon a "good number" of mss., but also utilised a "good theory" of recension.

3. The argument from silence seems dubious to me because there might be factors present at that time of which we are unaware, and these might have served as reason enough to not raise an outcry.

But I come back to the first point. The data is fragmented and conjecture cannot be avoided to connect and complete the picture. Presupposition is going to be the determining factor.


Puritan Board Senior
One of the reasons the Byzantine Text reads smoother is because it was transcribed by those who knew the Greek language.

There’s evidence that some Alexandrian manuscripts were copied by scribes who weren’t well learned in the source language, but rather copied syllable by syllable or letter by letter. For instance, P66 seems to have been produced by a scribe who didn’t know Greek because of the simple mistakes that any Greek reader would have detected. P75 has similar issues pointing to a non-Greek scribe.

You don't have that issue in Byzantium since they kept the Greek language long after the Alexandrian and Western Church. The point being that Byzantium would have been better fit for having scribes who were well adept in the Greek language.

Consider that before 200 A.D. those areas that spoke Latin stopped using Greek, though Byzantium kept the language alive. Aland speaks of this fact in - K. and B. Aland, The Text of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), pp. 52-53

And not only did the Byzantine Text become a predominant text, it also became a more uniformed text.

Generally speaking, as texts move further from their source in time and distance they become more and more divergent. How then could the manuscripts become more and more uniform as they moved past the 4th century, and the Byzantine Text-type began to take predominance? If it was not based on an early exemplar one would expect to find more divergence as time passed and as the regions that it was found in expanded. But we find quite the opposite. We actually find that, though time from the exemplars increased and the territories that it was found in spread, the text became more uniform. This would at least hint to an early exemplar(s) that the different regions began to go back to after the church was settled from much persecution.

Though the preservation of Scripture is “providential” and not “miraculous” in nature…none the less, it is a preservation that keeps the original language text “pure in all ages.”

We know from history that the Alexandrian Greek text was not promulgated after the Muslims took over the region those texts were found in.

Further, the Western Church did not promulgate the Greek text since Latin was its official language, and the Vulgate became its official version.

The Eastern Church was not affected by the Muslims until much later than the Alexandrian region, nor was its official language any other than Greek. Therefore, the Eastern Church was, in fact, the only Church that kept the Greek text preserved up until around the time of the Reformation.

Can't we look at this historical evidence and come to the conclusion that it was only Byzantium that kept the Greek text preserved since these other two regions neglected the Greek text in toto?


Puritan Board Freshman
The Critical Text position lacks transparency in stating the implications of their premises. They must accept that are no “neutral scientific” bridge that guarantees we have an entire tradition going back to the originals outside the promises of Scripture. With respect to an evidential approach, all CT advocates, at best, can be certain about is that their reconstruction of a text replicates the majority opinion of a group of third century manuscript copies. Beyond that they are as uncertain and lost as anyone else, as there is no definite way to determine the antiquity of the text which lies behind the extant manuscripts. CT advocates supposed objective scientific approach represents a serious mischaracterization of reality as it is purely speculative. Neither the CT advocates, nor the TR advocates, have extant manuscripts that bridge the first 3-400 years of the Church. Unless CT advocates have dug up the originals, they are also left to adopt a faith-based presuppositional approach. The essential difference is that they base their bridging presuppositions on rationalistic ones; independent of biblical promises. As Reformed writer, Douglas Wilson opines,

But when we consider the facts carefully, nothing is more apparent than that this is actually a battle of the paradigms. In some respects, this is very much like the reconstruction of the evolutionary fossil tree, 98 percent of which is missing. When we consider all the manuscripts we possess, we must still compare them to the number of all the manuscripts ever written—which we do not have. This is a scholarly task outside the competence of science, and any attempt to submit the task to scientific canons will only result in increasing confusion. A process of scholarly reconstruction here makes sense only when undergirded with faith in the living God who controls the flow of all historical events. If, in order to be “scientific,” we eliminate this God from our considerations, the end of the road will be no text at all, or radical confusion about the text. The autonomous text critic is someone who believes that this problem of the original text is one which admits of a scientific solution. But the real solution to this problem is faith in God, and in His providential care for His Word.
Most CT advocates believe that the key doctrines or the original text is preserved somewhere among the variants, but they have no logical or scientific reason to believe so. No matter how they finesse it, their belief is predicated more on sentimentality as they have rejected any Biblical exegetical basis for assuming perfect preservation. No accumulation of sardonic putdowns or intellectual gymnastics can conceal this fact from the discerning reader. Textual critical evidential arguments presuppose that man can approach the knowledge of God’s Words as if man is morally neutral. It is predicated on the idea that man has an unaided intrinsic ability to reach knowledge of God’s Words in making textual choices and conjectural emendations.

Using a Neo-orthodox methodology, CT advocates have outsourced the canonicity of the Words of God to the educated guess of the reader at any single moment in time. This “guess” will always be provisional as they believe it is legitimate to change this “guess” to a “new Word of God” in any subsequent analysis of the variants. This is a novel and radical development in historic bibliology. It is axiomatic that uncertainty about the Words of God always yields uncertainty about the authority of Scripture. They are willing to sacrifice this certainty for some unbelievers’ conjecture built upon the flimsy foundation of a handful of divergent and contradictory manuscripts that have emerged from corrupted sources.

The fragmented textual evidence and divergent unverifiable theories of apostate textual critics must not be used to understand the doctrine and process of preservation. Scripture is the only authoritative source of truth on this issue, because God through special providence is the only One who knows how He exactly preserved His Words. There are no biblical promises that teach that God’s Words would be lost for thousands of years and potentially discoverable through rationalistic textual critical methods. Like the dispute over the doctrine of creationism, the argument concerning preservation is not over the evidence itself, but it is over the interpretation of the evidence according to one’s worldview. Textual observations cannot be interpreted “neutrally” independent of Scripture and then submitted to biblical authority. Do CT advocates think they can restrict the hegemony of science over Scripture to the realm of preservation issues? Indeed, the idea of a doctrine of preservation which leaves people in a state of doubt and confusion is contrary to the very nature of a doctrine.

Perfect preservationists say to those who reject prefect preservation the testimony of God, “This is my beloved Son: hear Him” (Luke 9:35) for this Son said, “Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled” (Matt 5:18).
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