restoring our biblical and constitutional foundations


Interview with Maurice Robinson (Part 2)

 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 2. (To read Part 1, click here.)

7. How does your approach differ from eclecticism (of any kind – radical, reasoned, Sturzian)?

“Sturzian” must be a textual variant of some sort. By way of definition, radical or rigorous eclecticism is based almost exclusively on internal evidence, while reasoned eclecticism is based on varying combinations of external and internal evidence.

Other theories are primarily externally based. These include the preference for a favorite ms (Tischendorf), small group of mss (Westcott-Hort), or a particular texttype (Amphoux/Heimerdinger for the Western; Robinson-Pierpont for the Byzantine). The Sturzian view also is primarily external, but follows the reading found in a majority of geographically diverse texttypes.

The simplest answer has been noted above. Eclecticism (any type) treats the text piecemeal, on a variant-by-variant basis. Byzantine-priority does not function on a variant-by-variant basis, but considers the entirety of the text as primary. Only after the text is established on the wider scale are the competing internal claims evaluated within the sequential variant units. In no case does Byzantine-priority adopt as primary a reading that lacks significant support. This principle clearly distinguishes Byzantine-priority from all forms of eclectic methodology. Internal criteria are utilized to confirm text-critically those readings established by external criteria and to demonstrate the secondary nature of the various competing alternatives.

The Byzantine Textform has been criticized because its specific pattern of readings is not found among surviving pre-fourth century textual witnesses. Yet the text produced by the various forms of modern eclecticism creates a sequence of claimed “original” readings whose pattern cannot be demonstrated ever to have existed within transmissional history. The Byzantine Textform, on the other hand, does in its aggregate reflect a legitimate and historically valid form of text that at any point retains a basic consensus of support among its related witnesses. Even where the Byzantine mss are divided, a transmissional consistency permeates a substantial portion of Byzantine witnesses. The Byzantine Textform thus  differs significantly from the results produced by various eclectic schools.

8. How would you defend your view that we now have the New Testament in the original Greek against the agnostic position that we cannot get back to the original?

I dealt with this issue in my ETS 2005 paper, “The Integrity of the Early New Testament Text: A Collation-based Comparison”. In general, any claim that suggests absence of the physical autograph equals absence of textual reliability or biblical authority is bogus. The manuscript copies we possess remain substantially identical to the autographs. As demonstrated in my paper, the earliest extant (non-Byzantine) papyri compared against the text of Byzantine minuscule mss copied a thousand years later share a verbal identity approximating 92% —  including orthographic and non-translatable differences. With such a large percentage of common text, even over more than a millennium of transmission, it is clear that the autograph text substantially has been preserved, even among disparate copies representing quite different textual traditions. On the same principle, dispute hardly should arise as to whether the autograph text similarly was preserved during the much shorter period between autograph composition and the earliest extant mss. Transmissional observations suggest an equally reliable transmissional history during the short period from which no evidence exists. In addition, all doctrinal essentials are clearly present within the ca. 92% average base text; no doctrine is established or negated within the remaining ca. 8% where differences occur. Also, most variants are quite minor and generally stylistic in nature. If the orthographic, non-translatable, and minor stylistic variants are excluded, the overall agreement among the earliest and latest mss rises substantially. The existing documents accurately represent the autographs in all essential points. The text we now possess is sufficient and substantial for establishing and maintaining all doctrinal positions held within orthodox Christianity, skeptics and postmodernists such as Ehrman, Epp, Parker, or the media to the contrary.

9. What is the leading argument in your mind for the inferiority of the Alexandrian text type?

“Reasoned transmissionalism”! Had any texttype other than the Byzantine more closely represented the autograph form of the text in any nt book, that texttype should have thoroughly permeated the primary Greek-speaking region of the Empire beyond the first few centuries. Any later-developing “new” texttype would fail to dominate against a presumed liturgically entrenched and widely disseminated “original” Textform. One need only consider in this regard the failure of the “Western” text to gain a substantial hold within the Greek ms tradition; similarly, one can consider the limited and apparently “localized” nature of the Alexandrian texttype. 

Westcott and Hort acknowledged that the Byzantine Textform dominated the Greek-speaking Eastern Empire from the mid-4th century onward. They also noted that such dominance could have occurred only in two ways: either (1) the Byzantine Textform was the product of a formal, ecclesiastically sanctioned revision, promulgated with full ecclesiastical authority behind it (the Alands’ “Byzantine Imperial Text”); or (2) the Byzantine Textform reflects the autograph form of the text, which — under a normal process of transmission — would be expected to produce an overwhelming number of descendants “at each stage of transmission” (W-H, Introduction, 45). W‑H argued the first alternative, without which their preferred B-Í type of text could not be maintained.

The W-H “revision” hypothesis generally has been discarded, due to lack of historical corroborating evidence. A “process” view is now instituted in its place, suggesting that, over a lengthy period of time, the Byzantine Textform slowly evolved into what finally becomes a relatively fixed form during the post-ninth century minuscule era. But, as Zane Hodges long ago pointed out:

“No one has yet explained how a long, slow process spread out over many centuries as well as over a wide geographical area, and involving a multitude of copyists, who often knew nothing of the state of the text outside of their own monasteries or scriptoria, could achieve this widespread uniformity out of the diversity presented by the earlier forms of text. Even an official edition of the New Testament — promoted with ecclesiastical sanction throughout the known world — would have had great difficulty achieving this result as the history of Jerome's Vulgate amply demonstrates. But an unguided process achieving relative stability and uniformity in the diversified textual, historical, and cultural circumstances in which the New Testament was copied, imposes impossible strains on our imagination” (Hodges, Appendix C, in Wilbur N. Pickering, The Identity of the New Testament Text, 166).

Other claims, such as the influence of Chrysostom, the Constantinopolitan Church, or the supposed destruction of Alexandrian mss due to the Islamic conquest, are discussed in my full-length essay, “The Case for Byzantine Priority”, available on the internet and as an appendix to the R-P Byzantine Greek nt. I might observe that, if the Alexandrian text could have been wiped out by the Islamic conquest, that predominantly Egyptian text was not widespread, but reflected only a more localized tradition; also, for either Chrysostom or Constantinople to effect such a significant change in the Church’s base text, full ecclesiastical authority and proclamation would have been necessary in order to accomplish its general acceptance throughout the Eastern Empire. No such proclamation or imposition of ecclesiastical authority seems ever to have occurred. The implication returns to Byzantine originality as the more probable cause of that Textform’s dominance within the transmissional history of the nt.

To return to the original question, I do not reject the Alexandrian texttype primarily on the basis of subjective judgments regarding a presumed inferior quality of its readings; nor do I approve the Byzantine Textform because of a supposed superior quality regarding its readings. Textual establishment is primarily a matter of evaluating the external evidence in order to determine on the basis of transmissional considerations whatever sequentially connected set of readings appears most likely to have been original. Hort correctly stated the leading principles in this regard: “Knowledge of documents should precede final judgment upon readings” (W-H, Introduction 30), and “All trustworthy restoration of corrupted texts is founded on the study of their history” (Ibid., 40; small caps original in both cases).

10. Do you allow any possibility that the Byzantine text preserved the wrong reading?

Michael Holmes asked that question during our 2000 on-campus text-critical conference. My answer was definite: NO — at least in regard to the 99% bulk of the Byzantine Textform where significant division does not appear among its mss. This again distinguishes our position from any form of “Byzantine eclecticism”. Had we treated the variant units merely on a case-by-case basis without following our principles consistently, the level of external support would fluctuate, and necessarily would produce a text that was no longer “authentically Byzantine”. As my text-critical mentor, Kenneth W. Clark, long ago suggested, on transmissional grounds, it is more likely that the original text is preserved in a single texttype, rather than “original readings” having been scattered among diverse textual witnesses that reflect widely divergent streams of transmission. Many good reasons can be cited in support of Clark’s view, one of which is the lack of support within eclectic editions for the pattern of readings claimed to be “original” (cf. my forthcoming essay regarding 105 whole verses of na27/ubs4 which, when tabulated as whole‑verse units, lack support from any ms, version, or father within transmissional history).

Modern eclecticism presupposes a highly skewed transmission of the text, sarcastically described by Calvin Porter: “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” (Calvin L. Porter, “A Textual Analysis of the Earliest Manuscripts of the Gospel of John”, PhD Diss., Duke University, 1961, 12). In contrast, a relatively “normal” process of transmission maintains the greater likelihood of autograph preservation within a single dominant branch of the transmissional tradition, absent any evidence demonstrating a major upheaval in the transmissional process. This argument particularly is cogent when transmissional dominance is accompanied by a high level of internal plausibility for the readings that appear within that dominant Textform.

11. What is your viewpoint on the reliability of the KJV/NKJV versions?

Text-critically, the KJV and NKJV are translated from a text commonly termed TR (Textus Receptus, or Received Text), with a smattering of readings from the Latin Vulgate, various retranslations from Latin sources, or editorial conjectures. All other nt translations tend to reflect a general Alexandrian type of text. In both cases, I have reservations, since neither agrees totally with the Byzantine tradition.

Yet the NKJV includes footnotes regarding significant variant readings, and clearly indicates whether a variant reading is found in the Nestle-ubs predominantly Alexandrian tradition (“NU-text”) or the Byzantine tradition (the “M-text”, being the Hodges-Farstad “majority” text). Footnotes in most English translations lack texttype-specific identification, leaving their readers in the dark regarding the textual nature of any variant. In this sense, there is a real benefit in the NKJV footnotes, unmatched in any other English translation. I would prefer to see a good, formal-equivalence English translation based on the Byzantine Textform, with footnotes indicating translatable variants from the alternative traditions.

Should one inquire about the translational quality of the KJV or NKJV, that is a separate matter. I strongly prefer formal equivalence; the KJV and NKJV qualify in that regard. However, I do not use the KJV for teaching or study purposes due to its archaic language and an inconsistency in rendering Greek words and phrases, particularly in parallel passages. The NKJV is superior in this regard, but remains inconsistent in rendering some words and phrases. Both translations are generally accurate and reliable: they will not mislead a reader in doctrinal matters. Other modern formal equivalence translations (ESV, NASV) are superior in translational quality, and would be strongly recommended had they been based on a Byzantine text or had they identified a sufficient number of Byzantine variants in their footnotes.

12. What are five books you would suggest to help a student in textual criticism?

An easier question.

(1) One should have a good critical apparatus edition, such as the latest Nestle-Aland 27th edition. That volume contains more variants and supporting evidence than UBS or other inexpensive commonly available editions. However, even in na27 not all significant variants are cited, particularly those specifically of the Byzantine tradition.

(2) One should be familiar with Metzger’s Text of the New Testament (3rd edition or earlier — Ehrman’s 4th edition revision contains several factual errors).

(3) The Alands’ book of the same title provides additional information regarding the history, materials, and methodological essentials of the discipline.

For information regarding current trends, the following co-authored volumes:

(4) Epp/Fee, Studies in the Theory and Method of New Testament Textual Criticism; and

(5) Ehrman/Holmes, The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research.

None of these works has much to say in favor of the Byzantine Textform, and what they do say is often a distortion or caricature. Nevertheless, they do represent contemporary text-critical thought within various eclectic frameworks.

To counter this trend, I recommend (6) the R-P edition of the Byzantine Textform — particularly its Preface and Appendix (“The Case for Byzantine Priority”) — as well as a number of other books and articles by myself, Hodges, Pickering, and others.

Once one has acquainted himself with contemporary thought, an examination of the major text-critical works of the 19th century is recommended (Scrivener, Burgon, Miller, and the W-H Introduction itself) — but that is beyond the scope of this question. 

13. What advice do you have for novice textual critics?

Study Greek and read the Greek nt until it becomes second-nature. Be familiar with the types of error that could occur during the transmissional process. Collate the various sample pages displayed in the handbooks; begin with the papyri and uncials, and then move on to the minuscule samples (Greenlee gives instruction regarding how to collate). Try to determine how a variant reading may have arisen, whether by accident or deliberate alteration. Consider all readings on the bases of external support, transmissional probability, transcriptional probability, intrinsic probability, and any other factors that might apply within a given context. Seek no authoritative outside opinion until you have attempted to comprehend the variants for yourself. Only then, examine what others have said concerning a given variant unit. Follow the same method, and examine sequentially all variant readings within randomly selected chapters of the Nestle-Aland edition (gospel variants will be most instructive). Any lesser approach to text-critical study opens the door to bias or undue outside influence, either of which could stifle the opportunity truly to engage in the discipline as an independent scholar.

April 14, 2006

Read Part 1.

David Alan Black is the editor of

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