restoring our biblical and constitutional foundations


Interview with Maurice Robinson (Part 1)

 David Alan Black 

I recently asked the students in my textual criticism class to write out some questions they wanted to ask Dr. Maurice Robinson, my colleague at Southeastern Seminary, having already read his Case for Byzantine Priority. Dr. Robinson graciously agreed to answer them. I publish his written response, verbatim, in two parts. Here is Part 1.

1. How did you become interested in textual criticism?

In college, I began self-study of Koine Greek, motivated by the enthusiasm generated by a visiting pastor (Gordon Cross) who was presenting a Bible survey class to the congregation with a Greek familiarity course on the side. We laypersons were urged to purchase Berry’s Interlinear Greek nt, which gave us the benefit of a complete Greek nt text (tr) with a literal English meaning for every Greek word, a brief but complete lexicon, and — significant for text-critical purposes — a collection of variant readings adopted by various 19th-century scholarly editors.

The existence of those numerous variant readings piqued my curiosity, and I wondered which reading was correct or incorrect, and why. Some editors preferred one reading, but others chose to remain at various points with the tr. I knew nothing of manuscripts, texttypes, or text-critical principles. All I knew was what appeared in Berry, and he stated that the various editors cited in the footnotes each had published an edition of the Greek nt. In my ignorance, I presumed that whenever most editors differed from the tr, their collective judgment was correct. This presumption swiftly made me an amateur textual critic biased toward a predominantly Alexandrian text (although I had not heard that term).

On further inquiry, that pastor suggested I read Metzger’s Text of the New Testament, then in its first (1964) edition. I devoured that book with pleasure, followed by his recommended study of Greenlee’s Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism (1964). In 1966, the first edition of the ubs Greek nt was published for a very low price. I ordered a copy and saw in that volume the extensive citation of manuscript evidence that in part had been the basis for the editors’ decisions footnoted in Berry. More significantly, the ubs editors generally preferred the same variant readings as those of the editors cited in Berry. This tended to confirm my opinion that such readings did reflect the most accurate form of the “original text” of the nt. Thus, I became by default a “reasoned eclectic”, clearly preferring and advocating the results of modern text-critical praxis. This advocacy lasted nearly a decade, spanning my university studies and the first five years of seminary (MDiv and ThM), even while continuing to expand my knowledge of Koine Greek and nt textual criticism. My shift to Byzantine-priority was not realized until after completion of my ThM studies — but that’s another story.

2. Is your case for Byzantine priority prompted by theological reasons (e.g., inerrancy, divine preservation)?

The short answer is no. The long answer is more complex. Following my conversion, I had become convinced of the reliability and authority of Scripture. I then basically held to a somewhat inerrantist viewpoint. Certainly, my view regarding Scripture drove my interest regarding both its original language and the question of which readings were “original”. At that time, the readings my theological views approved were not those of the Byzantine Textform or the tr, but the predominantly Alexandrian variants cited in Berry’s footnotes and in the main text of the ubs edition. Certainly, my theological presuppositions did not compel a position regarding a traditional form of the text, nor a preference for any specific manuscripts or texttype, nor what variant reading should be preferred at any given point. Even today my view of Biblical inerrancy is not affected by my text-critical viewpoint, nor does my view regarding inerrancy determine my text-critical viewpoint. In theory and actual historical practice, any text or manuscript can be accepted as “God-breathed”, and theologically sufficient “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2Ti 3:16) — in other words, such mss and texts exist as valid witnesses to biblical authority, despite various known scribal errors or disagreements among them. In this regard, no ms or text fails in its aggregate to reflect an authoritative witness to God’s written revelation of truth. Textual criticism exists primarily to sort out the differences, and out of many reasonably good and accurate texts to determine more precisely which sequence of readings appears most closely to reflect the original form of that text as given by revelation. Either way, biblical inerrancy and other theological presumptions do not directly impact the outcome. In theory, no school of textual criticism should have to presuppose either an acceptance or rejection of Biblical inerrancy in order to function.

The other matter — “divine preservation” — seems rarely to have been a major issue until the rise of the so-called “KJV-only” faction during the 1970s and beyond. Those few evangelical writers who made any statement regarding “divine” or “providential” preservation generally accepted that concept as applying to any Greek nt manuscript or text, whether the tr, Westcott-Hort, or any other. The nt textual witnesses in their aggregate were considered to reflect the “providentially preserved” text. As with Biblical inerrancy, one can affirm providential preservation as permeating all biblical documents and editions, with no required limitation of either inerrancy or preservation to a single manuscript, texttype, edition, or translation. The real issue regarding the original Greek text remains a matter of theory and evidence, best served without the imposition of extraneous a priori theological assumptions that predetermine textual decisions and force the adoption of certain variant readings on grounds ultimately theological and not text-critical.

3. What reasons led you to self-publish your New Testament and accompanying article as opposed to choosing a more well-known publisher?

Some time ago I presented a faculty lecture/ETS paper on “Copyright and the Bible,” in which I criticized those marketers who deliberately enrich themselves by making merchandise (2Co 2:17) of the divinely revealed Scriptures. If the Bible really is the word of God written, it was divinely intended for wide dissemination and proclamation to all people with no restrictions at the lowest possible cost. In an unsolicited email, a Christian publisher who shared the same views inquired regarding the feasibility of reprinting a public domain tr edition. The conversation soon turned to the possibility of a new public domain edition of the Byzantine Textform. That publisher (Chilton Book Publishing — not a “self-publishing” or “vanity press” outfit by any means!) agreed to typeset and publish the new edition with no copyright restriction, and also to sell the published copies at cost (printing, binding, and shipping), with no profit to either of us. That we have done for the glory of God, and thereby hope to send a message of some import to the various publishers and marketers, including the Bible Societies. Had the same volume been published through standard commercial channels, such certainly would not have occurred (nor would most commercial publishers have much interest in a Greek text that differs from what is popularly accepted in modern critical editions).

4. What are the criteria for determining the date of a reading of the Byzantine text?

Let me return the question: what are the criteria for determining the date of any reading (as opposed to the date of an existing witness)? The only certainty is that a reading appearing in any ms is either older than that ms or created by the scribe of that ms. A reading found in a 2nd-century ms is certainly at least that old, but not necessarily any older nor necessarily “original”. Equally, a reading in a 12th-century ms might be “old” and possibly original, according to some textual critics. Most critics acknowledge that most readings found in mss of any era  — regardless of texttype — have demonstrable existence in mss, versions, or fathers dating from the second and third centuries. Colwell and others rightly have postulated that, except for late singular or near-singular readings, all meaningful variants are “old” and originate before ad 200. Readings dated solely on the basis of ms age do not carry very far when attempting to determine the autograph or “original” reading.

The real issue involves which reading in any particular variant unit is the oldest, and therefore the original or autograph reading. Such cannot be determined solely or even primarily on the basis of the date of whatever ms or mss contain a given reading. Many factors — external evidence, internal evidence, intrinsic probability, transcriptional probability, transmissional probability —must be considered in order to determine the most likely original reading in any variant unit. Such factors weigh differently according to various text-critical theories and methodologies, resulting in conclusions that vary according to the theory espoused.

I suggest that Occam’s Razor applies, and thus prefer the theory and method that, when consistently applied, appears to possess the least number of problems or complications. Assuming such to have occurred, that theory and method should be followed steadfastly, brooking no exceptions so long as the evidence and conclusions remain commensurate with the principles that characterize that theory (cases remain where any theory will retain some problematic variant units; I do not speak here regarding those). As a result of the consistent application of these principles, I draw a solid conclusion in favor of the Byzantine-priority hypothesis.

5. When the Byzantine mss disagree among themselves, what criteria do you use to determine the best Byzantine reading?

Were the Byzantine Textform monolithic (as some seem to suggest), no division would exist among its member mss; only a shared unity reflective of the original Byzantine archetype. Such is not the case, since the Byzantine archetype was transmitted amid many transmissional lines that at times differ among themselves. At any given point of variation some deviation is expected, although usually to a minor degree. When the division among the Byzantine mss approaches 50% in any variant unit, however, more care must be taken in order to determine the Byzantine archetype reading..

Our position as stated is to consider support greater than 70% among the Byzantine mss as reflecting the archetype of that Textform (Hodges and Farstad in their “Majority Text” edition suggest 80%, but only when including mss from non-Byzantine witnesses, such as the Western or Caesarean mss). Within our system, as the level of support drops from 70% down to 50%, external reliability steadily decreases. When the support ranges from 45%-55%, we consider the external data too closely divided, and non-determinative. At such points, the establishment of the Byzantine archetype requires a judicious application of various forms of internal evidence, as noted previously: intrinsic probability, transcriptional probability, transmissional probability, consideration of known scribal practices and proclivities, and the like. The primary reading suggested by each category carefully must be weighed in conjunction with all other categories; the best attested reading overall gaining the ascendancy. Where external testimony is closely divided, we place the alternatives in the side margin. As the division lessens from 50%-50% and approaches 70%-30%, alternate readings continue to be evaluated on the basis of internal evidence, but with a steadily increasing inclusion of external support as a determining factor. Our theory and method should not be described as “Byzantine eclecticism”: the primary establishment of the text remains externally based. Internal evidence becomes a confirming and balancing factor, but is not determinative, except where a variant unit externally is closely divided. This discussion is continued under the next question.

6. What place should be given to the internal evidence?

The primary determination of the text within Byzantine-priority is based on external criteria. So long as these criteria are nearly unanimous within the Byzantine tradition, internal evidence does not play a determining role in the establishment of the Byzantine archetype. This does not mean that internal evidence plays no role, but that its role is secondary and confirmatory: internal evidence is used to explain the rise of non-Byzantine and sub-Byzantine variants in relation to the archetypal reading established on external grounds. The use of internal evidence remains necessary. We believe that internal criteria generally will confirm the originality of the primary Byzantine reading and demonstrate the secondary nature of its various competitors — not always with the same degree of confidence nor always using the same internal criteria in any given case.

Where Byzantine readings are closely divided, the external criteria do not define a clear Byzantine archetype. In such cases, the various forms of internal criteria take a leading role. Closely divided external evidence can only eliminate readings that are weakly supported or non-Byzantine. The remaining closely divided readings need to be evaluated on the basis of internal criteria (transmissional, transcriptional/scribal, and intrinsic probabilities). One must remember, however, that divided Byzantine testimony in a given variant unit is relatively rare; for nearly all of the text, the Byzantine archetype reading is established directly on the basis of external attestation, with internal criteria confirming that result.

Go to Part 2.

April 13, 2006

David Alan Black is the editor of

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