The Byzantine Priority Hypothesis

Contents: Introduction *Critical Arguments for the Byzantine Text *Critical Arguments against the Byzantine Text *Testing the Byzantine Text *Summary *Addendum


The first printed New Testaments were all primarily Byzantine. Indeed, theTextus Receptus was, for too long, used as thestandard for the Byzantine text (and even once it was challenged, it continued to betreated as if identical to the Byzantine text). In the nineteenth century, though, due tothe works of scholars such as Lachmannand Hort, that changed. The key element ofHort's theory -- the one part still accepted after the rest was generallyabandoned -- was his "proof" of the lateness of the Byzantinetext. For most of thecentury following Hort, the uselessness of the Byzantine text was notonly universally accepted, but nearly unquestioned.

In the late twentieth century, that has changed. A group of scholars --mostly American and mostly conservative evangelicals -- have called for areturn to the Byzantine text.

One must be careful in assessing people who prefer the Byzantine text.Most such are not textual critics, and do not engage in textualcriticism. Anyone who favours the King James Version or the TextusReceptus, or who claims providential preservation or some kind of divinesanction for a particular text, is not and cannot be a textual critic. Itis unfortunate that these non-critics have infected the arguments aboutthe Byzantine text, as their irrational, unreasonable, and uncriticalarguments serve only to muddy what should be a reasonable and fruitfuldebate. It is even more unfortunate that some legitimate critics whosupport the Byzantine text have accepted their rhetoric. This argument,like all critical arguments, must be decided based on evidence andlogic, not faith or claims of what "must" be so. The typicalargument is "providential preservation" -- the claim that Godmust have preserved the original text in all its purity. But asHarry A. Sturz (who is about as sympathetic to the Byzantine text asanyone can be while not being a pure Byzantine-prioritist) notes, "Hills[the leading exponent of this sort of preservation] fails to show whythe sovereign God must act in a particular way." [Harry A.Sturz, The Byzantine Text-Type & New Testament Textual Criticism (1984),p. 42. Italics added.] (For more on this subject, see the articleon Theology and Textual Criticism.)

But while these non-critics (and non-critical thinkers) make up themajority of those who prefer Byzantine or Byzantine-like texts, they arenot the entirety of the Byzantine-priority movement. There are genuinetextual scholars who prefer the Byzantine text, and others who, withoutentirely approving it, would still give it a much greater place thanHort did.

Critical Arguments for the Byzantine Text

The major names in this movement are Harry A. Sturz, (who, in TheByzantine Text-Type & New Testament Textual Criticism, offers thecase that the Byzantine type should be considered just as early asthe Alexandrian and "Western" types) and the two sets of editors,Zane C. Hodges and Arthur L. Farstad (whopublished The Greek New Testament According to the Majority Text) andMaurice A. Robinson and William G. Pierpont (who published The New Testamentin the Original Greek according to the Byzantine/Majority Textform).

Those who believe in Byzantine Priority on critical groundsusually offer three lines of argument:First, that Hort's proof that the Byzantine text is late is false;second, that the numerical preponderance of the Byzantine text is proofof its fundamental originality, and third, that the readings of the Byzantinetext are superior to those of other types (by some standard or other).(Those such as Sturz who argue simply forByzantine equality obviously pursue only the first line of argument.) Thosewishing to see the claims of these authors should consult Sturz or thearguments presented by Pierpont & Robinson (whose introduction,presenting the main arguments of their case, is availablehere. My thanks to Dr. Robinson for making thismaterial available in electronic form).

The claim that the sheer number of Byzantine manuscripts proves theoriginality of the type is most easily disposed of, since it is falseon its face. This is the Fallacy of Number --and it is a fallacy.By this argument, the predominant life on earth would bethe anaerobic bacteria (now in fact nearly extinct, as they die on contactwith oxygen in the air), and the human race would have originated in China. It istrue that, if nothing intereferes with the transmission process (meaning thatall manuscripts produce approximately equal numbers of descendents), thenthe text found in the majority of manuscripts would likely be the mostoriginal text. But there is no reason to think that the transmission processwas absolutely smooth -- such things almost never are, in the real world; thosewho claim that the history of the New Testament text is smooth must presentpositive proof that it was smooth, rather than making unverifiableand improbable claims. There is, in fact, strong evidencethat the course of transmission was not free of interference.The evidence is that different areas developed different local texts (theAlexandrian text in Egypt, the Byzantine in Constantinople and its vicinity,etc.). Of these areas, only Byzantium was still in Christian hands after thetenth century, when the main bulk of manuscripts were produced. Thus, nomatter what the original text, we would expect manuscripts which containthe local text of Byzantium (seemingly what we call the Byzantine Text) tobe the clear majority of surviving witnesses.

The fact is that replicative processes (which include everything fromthe breeding of drug-resistant bacteria to the copying of manuscripts) generallydo not follow straightforward reproductive paths. One cannot argue fromthe nature of transmission to the history of the text; the history of thetext is too complex and peculiar for that. One can only argue from thehistory of the text to the nature of transmission (and, in fact, our knowledgeof the history of the text is insufficient to allow us to argue in eitherdirection).

If analogies from bacteria don't seem convincing, how about analogiesfrom language? That languages come into existence, evolve, and decaycannot be denied. English exists today; it did not exist two thousandyears ago. Latin was common two thousand years ago; today it is a deadlanguage (though still widely known and remembered). These are facts. Fromthis, we can reconstruct the languages from which other languagesdescended.

English and Latin both go back to proto-Indo-European. This languageno longer exists, and, just like the New Testament archetype, must bereconstructed. This is an imprecise process, and the results are not assured.But consider what the argument of number says: It says that the preponderantweight of witnesses is the primary means of determining what is original.

Right now, English is the dominant Indo-European language. Does thismean that Indo-European is closer to English, which has hundreds of millionsof native speakers, than to Sanskrit, which is a dead language? Sixteen hundredyears ago, when Latin was dominant, was Indo-European more like Latin? We don'tknow the answer with certainty -- but we know that Indo-European was onlyone language, and was what it was. Numbers of later speakers don't affectthe question.

We can also cite examples of how non-original texts can become dominant.This is more common in with non-Biblical texts, but there is at least oneNew Testament example: The Byzantine subgroup von Soden labelled Kr.As far as I know, all parties admit that this type is recensional, at leastin the sense that it is carefully controlled and deliberately published -- themanuscripts agree very closely, the apparatus is unique, and the text ishighly recognizable although definitely Byzantine. Thistype was created no earlier than the eleventh century. Yet, according toVon Soden, it constitutes the absolute majority of manuscripts copied inthe final centuries of the manuscript era (and while this seems to bea slight exaggeration -- very many manuscripts of other types continuedto be copied -- the type was certainly more common than any other textualgroup in late centuries). Had printing not been invented,Kr would almost certainly have become the dominant type. What,then, of a text-type at least seven centuries older than Kr? Byall accounts, the Byzantine text was in existence by the fourth century.Certainly it could have become dominant whether original or not -- justas the majority of tuberculosis bacteria are now drug-resistant even thoughsuch bacteria were few and far between (if indeed they existed at all)a century ago.

We can offer another analogy from the manuscripts. The vast majority ofsurviving manuscripts from the third century and earlier are from Egypt. (Based on thetable of early manuscripts in Aland and Aland, The Text of the NewTestament, 94% of all such ancient manuscripts are Egyptian.) Does thismean that 94% of all early manuscripts which ever existed were written andused in Egypt? Of course not! This is simply another accident of history.

There is also the interesting case of the Peshitta Syriac (at least in theOld Testament). According to Ernst Würthwein, The Text of the OldTestament (translated by Erroll F. Rhodes), p. 87, prior to the ninthcentury, there was significant diversity in Peshitta manuscripts. But in thetenth century, a single monastery collected every Peshitta manuscript it couldlay its hands on -- supposedly collecting 250 copies just in the year 932!This left very few copies of the Peshitta in circulation -- and it appears thatall later copies were taken from a single ninth century copy which remained inSyria.

Thus we have many analogies to the descent of New Testament manuscripts:From biology. From linguistics. From manuscripts of secular authors. Evenfrom subgroups of the New Testament tradition. In no case does number meananything. It may be that the New Testament tradition is unique. But whyshould it be? God has not made Christianity the dominant world religion.God has not preserved theological purity. God has not given the humanrace good government. Why should God have done something special withNew Testament manuscripts?

Thus, although number certainlyis not an argument against the Byzantine text, it is a very feebleargument indeed in its favour. If there is any real evidence against theByzantine text, it will certainly overcome the evidence of number.

Andrew Lohr suggested another argument on behalf of the Byzantine text,this one geographical/historical:

Consider: where did the originals go? This is sometimes argued, and has to be, book by book.Take I Corinthians, though. I think most agree the original, call it g0 (generation 0),went to Corinth, and most likely (we cannot be certain) stayed there until it wore out. Let's call copies copied from the original g1, copies from a g1 copy g2, and so on. Whereare most of the g1 copies likely to be? Near Corinth. When someone takes a g1 copy to adistance, say to Alexandria, the g2 copies where it's taken are likely to be taken fromthe copy, preserving its idosyncrasies, perhaps with local "corrections" (Alexandriahad a tradition of textual criticism.) Maybe a copy that's going to a distance wouldbe made with special care, maybe with a haste that makes errors likely (probably somecases of both; scribes had various individual tendencies.) When the g0 copy wears out,its neighborhood probably has a number of g1 copies that can be corrected from eachother. But by the time a remote g1 copy wears out, it will probably have establishedits deviations in its neighborhood. So the most accurate copies will tend to be inthe neighborhood of where the originals were.

And most of the NT originals, the g0s, were probably in the "Byzantine arc"from Jerusalem through Turkey and Greece to Rome. (Old Conybeare and Howsonspeculated that Hebrews might have gone to Alexandria.) So not necessarilythe most accurate particular copies, but the most accurate tendency of text --average sloppiness around a g0, rather than a set of deviations coming from a g1 or g2or local editing -- is likely to be found in Byzantine areas.

Much of this is likely enough. Certainly it makes sense that the earliest copieswould cluster around the archetypes. But there are several drawbacks. One is thatwe have no actual proof that the Byzantine text is the text from the area of theByzantine arc. A second is that there are probably two archetypes of, say,1 Corinthians: The copy sent by Paul to the Corinthians, and the copy he presumablykept -- and while the former would be in Corinth, the latter might be anywhere.A third difficulty is that the book would probably be more often copied in Corinth --and so, although each individual copy might be better than a copy at an equal"generation depth" elsewhere, the net result might be a worse text simplybecause of more generations. A final difficulty, applying more to the epistles thanthe gospels, is that they were collected very early, and we don't know where thecollection was made or on what textual basis -- but probably most later copiesderive from that, not from better or worse local texts. Lohr's argumentis like the argument from number: It has some theoretical validity, but there are toomany things which might have gone wrong for it to allow us any certainty.

So any argument for the Byzantine text must lie on other grounds: On thebasis of its readings. Can such an argument succeed? Or, to put it anotherway, do the arguments against the Byzantine text fail?

Critical Arguments against the Byzantine Text

This is where we return to Hort. Despite a century of further research anddiscoveries, despite a general turning away from Hort's near-absoluteacceptance of the Alexandrian text, despite refusal to accept other partsof Hort's theory, his rejection of the Byzantine text is still widely considered finaland convincing. What were Hort's arguments, andhow well have they stood the test of time?

Hort offered three basic arguments against the Byzantine text (which he called theSyrian text):

Posterity of Syrian (δ) to 'Western' (β) and other (neutral, α) readings shown

(This rather simplifies Hort's list, as he uses other arguments in addition.Not all his arguments, however, are actually directed against the Byzantinetext. Hort, e.g., has been accused of using genealogy against the Byzantinetext, and it has been argued that this use is improper. If Hort had indeed doneso, this would be a valid charge against him -- but Hort did not direct genealogy againstthe Byzantine text; he directed it against the fallacy of number. For thispurpose, his hypothetical use of genealogy is perfectly valid; it's just thatit's not an argument against the Byzantine text. It is simply an argument againstthe methods used by certain pro-Byzantine scholars. So we are left with the threebasic arguments against the Byzantine text, which are also the most decisive if valid.)

These arguments are of varying degrees of strength.

The argument based on conflations must be rejected. Hort listed only eightconflations in the Byzantine text -- by no means a sufficient sample to prove hispoint. And yet, these seem to be the only true instances of the Byzantinetext conflating two other readings. (This should come as no surprise; even ifone accepts the view that the Byzantine text is a deliberate creation -- and fewwould still maintain this point -- it still worked primarily by picking and choosingbetween points of variation, not conflating them.) What's more, we find conflationsin many manuscripts. The conflations may be a black mark against the Byzantine text,but they are not proof of anything.

The argument about the age of the Byzantine witnesses has somewhat morevalidity. The earliest (almost-)purely-Byzantine manuscript of the Gospels isA, of the fifth century; outside the Gospels, we have to turn to Ψ,from the eighthcentury or later. The earliest Byzantine version, in the Gospels, is thePeshitta Syriac; outside the Gospels, none of the important versions (Latin,Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Georgian) is Byzantine. Among the Fathers, theearliest to show a Byzantine text (among those who give us enough text toclearly make the determination) is Chrysostom. Thus the direct evidence cannottake the Byzantine text back beyond the fourth century -- particularly as allof these early witnesses (A, Peshitta, Chrysostom) have relatively impureByzantine texts, displaying an unusually high number of divergences fromthe textform that came to dominate in the minuscule era.

Byzantine apologists have gone to great lengths to try to explain thisaway. Sturz, for instance, offers fifteen pages (150 readings) where theByzantine text opposes Westcott and Hort's text but has early support. Thisis a rather dubious procedure, based on a weak definition of the Alexandriantext (the fact that Westcott and Hort print a readingdoes not mean that it is the Alexandrian reading, or that any readingthey do not print is non-Alexandrian; in any case, there is good reason to believethat Westcott and Hort did not know of all text-types), and attempts to refutea theory that no one fully accepts any more -- but even if Sturz'slists were entirely accurate, the results mean nothing. It is not enough toprove that individual Byzantine readings are old; it is universally agreed thatmost Byzantine readings are old. The only way to prove, using the manuscripts,that the Byzantine type is old is to find an old Byzantine manuscript.No one -- not Burgon, not Sturz, not Hodges, not Robinson -- has been ableto do this.

This argument, however, is not strong. Arguments from silence never are. Thepresence of an early Byzantine witness would prove the Byzantine type to beearly, but the absence of such a witness proves absolutely nothing. The"Cæsarean" type has no Greek witnesses older than the ninthcentury, but its antiquity was never questioned (though its existenceremains subject to argument). Even the "Western" text cannotdisplay a Greek witness prior to the fifth or sixth century. (It is truethat older patristic evidence is claimed for the "Western" text --though this is less decisive than sometimes claimed, since the text of CodexBezae does not agree entirely with these witnesses.) It's worthnoting that we don't have any early writings from the Byzantine area, wherethat text might be expected to be found. Thus, the absence of early Byzantinemanuscripts proves very little except that the Byzantine text was not universalin early times.If anything, the Byzantine apologists' attempts to explain away the lack ofearly Byzantine witnesses is a case of "protesting too much";their argument would look stronger if they didn't try to prove theunprovable.

Still, on this count as on the last, the matter must rest as "CaseUnproved."

Thus the final verdict on the Byzantine test must rest upon thematter of internal evidence of lateness. Hort, interestingly,did not attempt to prove this point; he simply stated it, with somehandwaving at conflations and the like. Later editors have presentedexamples of Byzantine readings which the internal evidence clearlyconvicts of being late -- enough such that the case against the Byzantinetext seemed very strong. But all of these were based on isolated instances.We can certainly offer isolated counter-instances. Consider, for instance, thelast word of Jesus in Matthew and Mark. Did he say,"ΗΛΙ ΗΛΙ κτλ," or"ΕΛΩΙ ΕΛΩΙκτλ"?The following table shows the data (we'll ignore the variation in the otherwords):

 Matthew 27:46Mark 15:34
ΗΛΙ ΗΛΙ A (D E Θ ηλει ηλει) F G K (L αηλι αηλι) W Y Δ Π
1 13 33 565 579 700 892 1424 1582
it am cav ful hub* lich sang
(D Θ 565 ηλει ηλει) 059 131
ΕΛΩΙ ΕΛΩΙ ℵ (B ελωει ελωει)
33 hub** harl val cop
ℵ A B C E F G H K L W Y Δ Ψ
(1 1582 ελωι ελωει) 13 28 579 700 892 1424 it vg

If we rearrange this list by text-types, we see the following:

 Reading in
Reading in
(ℵ B 33 cop)
(A E F G K pm)
(Θ 565)

Thus we see that the Byzantine text, and only the Byzantine text, isfree from assimilation in one or the other reading. It doesn't really matterwhich reading is original; all the text-types except the Byzantine have aconforming reading in one or the other gospel.

Testing the Byzantine Text

Even as isolated instances, the readings mustered against theMajority text are probably enough to make us suspectthat the Byzantine type is not the original text, but they arecertainly not enough to make us declare it late. What is needed is adetailed test of a particular section of text, listing all differencesbetween the Byzantine and other text-types (ignoring readings of individualmanuscripts; also, the Textus Receptus must not be used to representthe Byzantine text). One the divergences are identified, they must be classifiedbased on internal evidence. If the Byzantine text fails the test significantlymore often than the other text-types, then and only then can it be judgedlate.

This is a difficult task to undertake casually. Properly, we need to testthe Byzantine text in all five major Biblical sections (Gospels, Acts, Catholics,Paul, Apocalypse), and large enough samples to be meaningful (at least fifteenchapters for the Gospels, ten for Paul, and five for the other sections. Note thatit is perfectly possible that the Byzantine text could be late in one corpus andearly in another). To do the job well would probably require a doctoral thesis.

We can only offer some small samples. (The apparatus of Hodges & Farstad canbe very helpful here in seeking variants, though the manuscript data is clearlyinadequate; the apparatus of Nestle, which simply omits many Byzantine variants,is not sufficient.) The list below is taken from Mark,chapter 9. (A chapter chosen because it offers many gospel parallels. This isbecause assimilation of parallels is one of the few cases where internal evidenceis consistently decisive: The harmonized reading is inferior unless the unharmonizedreading is the result of clear scribal error.)

Note that this is not a critical apparatus of Mark 9; it lists onlyplaces where text-types (appear to) divide. To avoid bias, the Byzantine readingis always listed first, then the Alexandrian, then any others. This is followedby a comment about which is original. Note: Variants found only in the "Western"text are not listed, as there is only one Greek witness to this type and fewclaim this text as original. I do, however, note "Cæsarean"-onlyreadings.

This is only a twenty verse sample, but it gives us a total of 37 readings. If we examinetheir nature, we find the following:

Reading TypeNumberPercent
Alexandrian clearly superior38%
Alexandrian marginally superior514%
Byzantine clearly superior25%
Byzantine marginally superior38%
Neither reading superior1027%
Alexandrian and Byzantine texts agree1438%

Given the small size of the sample (only 13 readings where one text shows superiority),we cannot draw any definite conclusions. We must have a larger sample. But in thissample at least, the Byzantine text obviously does not show the sort of massiveinferiority implied by Hort. (Indeed, the truly bad text, with an extreme degree ofassimilation, appears to be the "Cæsarean" text.)

If by some wild chance the above proportions are indicative, it would appear that theAlexandrian text is slightly better, but the Byzantine could not be considered secondary.It would have to be considered an independent text-type which simply hasn't endured aswell as the Alexandrian. But, given the size of the sample, it is quite possible thatif we gathered a truly large sample, we might find the Byzantine text equalling orsurpassing the Alexandrian.

We should also note the presence of eight readings where the Byzantinetext stands alone. This is a strong indication that the Byzantine text is not simplya combination of Alexandrian and Western (or even Alexandrian, Cæsarean, andWestern) readings. It is either independent of the other three, or it includescontributions from some other unidentified ("proto-Byzantine"?) text-type.

As an alternative to the above procedure, we might look for variants where one readingis clearly, obviously, and undeniably easier than the other. Examples of this would bereadings such asMark 1:2 (Byz add/Alex omit Ησαια) andJames 5:7 (Byz add/Alex omit υετον).Such readings, however, are very rare. (Readings where internal evidence favours aparticular reading are not rare, but absolutely decisive cases such as the two listed aboveare highly unusual.) But not all such readings favour the Alexandrian text; consider1 Corinthians 13:3, where only the Byzantine readingκαυθησωμαι can be said to explain theothers (since, if it were original, it would invite the two other readings; if eitherof the other readings were original, there would be no reason for a variant to arise).That being the case, we must find all such readings, which is probablynot practical.

Summary and author's expression of opinion:

When I started this article,I expected the Byzantine text to come off as clearly and significantly inferiorto the other text-types. I was wrong. While I believe additional tests are needed,I cannot help but suspect that Hort was in error, and the Byzantine text has independentvalue. This does not make me a believer in Byzantine priority, but I am temptedtoward a "Sturzian" position, in which the Byzantine text becomes one ofthe constellation of text-types which must be examined to understand a reading.

The basic difficulty, and the reason this issue remains unresolved, is the matterof pattern. It is not sufficient to do as Sturz did and show that some Byzantinereadings are early; this does not mean that the type as a whole is early. But it isequally invalid to do as Hort did and claim, because some Byzantine readings are late,that the type as a whole is late. The only way to demonstrate the matter as a wholeis to examine the Byzantine text as a whole. One must either subject all the readingsin a particular passage to the test, or one must use a statistically significantsample of randomly selected readings. It is not sufficient to use readings which,in some manner, bring themselves forward (e.g. by having the support of a papyrus).It's like taking a political poll by asking all registered Democrats to reveal theirpresidential preference. It may comfort the candidate (if he's stupidenough), but it really doesn't tell us much.

There seems to be a strong desire among scholars to make textual criticism simple(as opposed to repeatable or mechanical; although these may seem like the same thing,they are not). Hort made TC simple by effectively excluding all text-types but theAlexandrian. The Byzantine prioritists make TC simple by excluding all text-types butthe Byzantine. One wishes it could be so -- but there is no reason to believe thatTC is simple. If it were simple, we could have reduced it to a machine algorithm bynow. But no one has yet succeeded in so doing -- and probably won't until we makesome methodological breakthrough.


The above was my opinion as of mid-2002. Since that time, Ihave become aware of a major project by Wieland Willker which included anattempt to prove the very point described above.

It's somewhat difficult to assess Dr. Willker's work for this purpose,because what he engaged in was a full-fledged textual commentary -- a veryuseful item, far better than the UBS commentary, as it includes morereadings and a more complete assessment of internal and external evidence.

What's more, his assessment at several points appears very cogent, agreeingwith much of what I have found. Examples:

Regarding the "Cæsarean" text: The main concernof its editor was to harmonize. This explains the heavy editing in Mk.Unfortunately all witnesses of the group underwent subsequent Byzantinecorrection to a different degree. We have no pure witness.Θ is the best wehave. Full collations of all remotely Caesarean witnesses might be in order toclear up the kinship.

Regarding the "Western" text: Is D a singular idiosyncracy?If "D+it" ever was a Greek texttype is questionable. Do all or mostof the Old Latin witnesses go back to one single translation?

Dr. Willker classifies readings according to a scale similar to the above(i.e. Byz or UBS clearly or slightly superior),save that he is more interested in the readings of the UBS edition than thoseof particular text-types. But he does include an appendix looking at theparticular types. The display is graphic rather than tabular, but it appearsthat the results are roughly as follows:

Percentage of Secondary readings, By Text-Type

Text-Type% Secondary Readings

Hort, obviously, would be thrilled with these results.

I must emphasize that these are not my results, and the materialI have from Dr. Willker does not permit me to directly verify theassessments of readings based on internal evidence. I suspect, lookingat his commentary, that the data set includes many readings I would nothave considered decisive. But we must give him credit: if his resultscan be verified, and stand up under statistical examination, they wouldappear to deliver nearly the final blow to the Byzantine text; while thetype is not entirely bad, it has little claim to stand on its own.