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Sunday, April 22, 2007

John Wenham's Changed View of the Byzantine N.T. Text

"This is a shocking book — at least it delivered a shock to my system. It is not often that one reads a book which reorientates one's whole approach to a subject, but that is what this one has done for me. It is a frontal attack upon the Westcott and Hort theory of the NT text, the general soundness of which I had accepted without question for forty years. Two or three years ago I had the first tricklings of doubt about it; then I chanced to read George Salmon's Some Thoughts on the Textual Criticism of the New Testament (1897), which increased the trickle to a stream: now with this book it has become a flood." — John Wenham on Pickering's "The Identity of the NT Text".

Many will know John Wenham from his "Elements of New Testament Greek" (now revised by other authors), but how many will be aware of his changed views about the Byzantine (a.k.a. Traditional or Ecclesiastical) Text of the NT? The following is a copy of his review of Wilbur Pickering's "The Identity of the NT Text", which I urge all believers with a good intellect (and an open mind) to read.

I am putting this in to show that it is not just fundamentalists, those inclined to right-wing views or easily-led-astray, young zealots, who have concerns about the N.T. text being used in the likes of the ESV. Please may I state that we should not overemphasise the differences, but neither should we ignore them. (See here for a list of the differences, although your Bible's margins will usually show this, and here for an explanation of terminology.)

I have read Pickering's rebuttal of Gordon Fee's Critique, but I still have to get my hands on Fee's article. I would add that there is a critique that is popularly available: D.A. Carson has an appendix on Pickering's book in "The King James Version Debate: A Plea for Realism". There is a lot that I agree with in Carson's critique, but I would note that Carson also sees the value in Pickering's collation of material and that I would read Carson in the light of Robinson.

(Please note that I view Robinson's thesis as the most reasonable explanation of textual history that I have seen so far, although I diverge with him in his insistence on a neutralist/ naturalist presupposition. One's theology cannot be wholly excluded, even if some push the consequences of the theology of preservation too far, i.e. TR'ists and esp. Ruckmanites.)

It appears to me that for some plausible, but flawed reasons we have rejected the Majority Text of the Church for a localised (Egyptian) textual tradition that is highly variable within itself. (I acknowledge that the modern UBS/NA text is supposedly eclectic, but it treats the Majority Text as inferior and unworthy of any serious consideration, and is basically Alexandrian.)

A Review of Wilbur N. Pickering's The Identity of the New Testament Text by John Wenham

This is a shocking book-at least it delivered a shock to my system. It is not often that one reads a book which reorientates one's whole approach to a subject, but that is what this one has done for me. It is a frontal attack upon the Westcott and Hort theory of the NT text, the general soundness of which I had accepted without question for forty years. Two or three years ago I had the first tricklings of doubt about it; then I chanced to read George Salmon's Some Thoughts on the Textual Criticism of the New Testament (1897), which increased the trickle to a stream: now with this book it has become a flood. The author is not outstandingly erudite, nor outstandingly skilful in presentation, nor always convincing in detail, but he has gone to the experts and he has assembled an impressive array of facts and arguments.

He reminds us that Fenton J. A. Hort was a man with a brilliant mind and forceful character, who at age twenty-three conceived an animosity against what he called "that vile Textus Receptus leaning entirely on late MSS." As E. C. Colwell says, "Hort organized his entire argument to depose the Textus Receptus." His main positions were: (1) There are no signs of deliberate falsification of the text for dogmatic purposes. (2) Witnesses are not to be counted individually, but grouped by the genealogical method. (3) This method gives three (main) ancestral types: Syrian, Western and Neutral. (4) The Syrian text, though represented by the majority of MSS, is inferior because: (a) it is a late text, the result of authoritative revisions completed about A.D. 350; (b) its characteristic readings are not found in texts or quotations before that date; and (c) it was "conflated" from the other two. (5) Judged by internal criteria, then, the Western text however early, is an edited text and inferior to the Neutral tradition. (6) The Neutral text, headed by B and Aleph, is close to the original.

Hort's advocacy convinced the learned world and as K. W. Clark said: "the Westcott-Hort text has become today our textus receptus," on which practically all Greek texts and modern translations are now based.

But Pickering argues that on almost all counts Hort was wrong:
(1) Deliberate change was the principal cause of early variants.
(2) The genealogical method is totally unworkable in New Testament texts and was not used by Hort. Among all the five thousand Greek MSS, we have only one known parent-child relationship and only two (not well-knit) families (fam. 1 and fam. 13). Readings in the various MSS occur in endless different combinations which cannot be reduced to genealogical trees.
(3) The so-called text-types have no cohesion and therefore no one common ancestor: "the Caesarean text is disintegrating" (B. M. Metzger); the Western text has "an infinitely complicated and intricate parentage" (F. G. Kenyon); "any attempt to reconstruct an archetype of the (Neutral) Beta Text-type ... is doomed to failure" (E. C. Colwell); "the great bulk of Byzantine (Syrian) manuscripts defies all attempts to group them" (G. Zuntz).
(4) It is now acknowledged that both the Neutral and the Western texts are edited.
(5) Aleph and B differ from one another in three thousand places in the gospels alone-not including differences of spelling. B is "disfigured by many blunders in transcription" (F. G. Kenyon); Aleph is far worse. They are not good witnesses. Furthermore, Hort's faith in B depended partly on the dubious theory "the shorter reading is preferable." G. D. Kilpatrick suggests that a substitute canon, "the longer reading is preferable," would be no worse. K. W. Clark sums up the position: "our failure suggests that we have lost the way, that we have reached a dead end, and that only a new and different insight will enable us to break through."

In looking for a breakthrough, Pickering poses the crucial question: How are we to account for the Byzantine stream of MSS — a stream which is enormously varied, yet relatively homogeneous? His answer is simply that it had a common source, not in a fourth century revision, but in the autographs. The Western and Neutral texts are the aberrations, while the Syrian text represents the best tradition. (Because of the accident of climate we happen to be better informed about early texts in Egypt than elsewhere, but Egypt was not necessarily the home of the best text. It is quite doubtful whether we should look to Alexandria as the safest guide to the New Testament: Antioch's tradition of scholarship might serve us better. Certainly antiquity alone is no criterion of dependability.)

In his assault on the Textus Receptus, Hort convinced the world that the witness of the majority of MSS was unimportant. But he could only sustain this if he could plausibly argue for his fourth century-revision. If that theory collapses, we have to reckon with many independent witnesses. In a church with no centralized censorship and with copyists working away independently all over the Near East and Mediterranean world, new errors would constantly occur, but their influence would be local. The true reading at any particular point in a text would almost invariably be preserved by the majority of MSS. This means that the recently despised symbol Byz, representing the majority of MSS, should in fact be treated with the utmost respect. The Institut fur neutestamentliche Textforschung at Munster has done much research on Greek minuscules to identify those which most frequently exhibit independence from the Byzantine tradition. Perhaps it would be even more valuable to identify those which most frequently give the majority readings. Hort had every right to be dissatisfied with a text based on an arbitrary selection of late MSS, but he had less right to be dissatisfied with the basic tradition. The breakthrough in textual criticism may come through tracing this tradition back to its most primitive forms and dropping our reverence for Aleph and B.

This is not an academic matter, for it affects the wording of the hundreds of millions of scriptures which we are distributing across the globe. It is shocking to think that we may have been giving the world a bad text.

Reproduced from "The Majority Text: Essays and Reviews in the Continuing Debate", edited by Theodore P. Letis, and originally printed in the Evangelical Quarterly, Vol. 51, no. 1 (January - March 1979).


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Blogger jmark said...

Hi TIm

Some interesting commetns here re Pickerings qualifications - Havent read all the site -

I dont mean that as if it is the final nail in the coffin, just an observation. He wasnt qualified in textual Criticism.

Sunday, April 22, 2007 6:45:00 pm  
Blogger Timothy Davis said...


Thanks for this contribution. It’s been a while since I read it, so it was good to go over it again, having just recently read Pickering and Robinson. It still mainly begs the question and doesn't try to answer the Byzantine Priority arguments, apart from the poor argument from the Latin and Syriac versions. To a certain degree, the cautionary note about Pickering has an ad hominem ring to it.

It was good to see a link to Robinson’s comment about his disagreement with Pickering’s use of quotes. It reminds me to contact Robinson about this statement. I’ll have a root around this debate on Yahoo.

I think that anyone who has more than a passing interest in the subject knows what Robinson means as Pickering in a sense proves too much (Wenham: "not convincing in detail"), but this does not take away from it as collation of information on the subject. Certainly Pickering seems intellectually schizophrenic at times, but this is relating to his arguments, rather than negating the quotes.

I just wonder if Robinson’s comment is overstated in an attempt to distance himself from Pickering. I also think from the context of the quote that it refers to Pickering’s initial discussion about the big debate in the eclectic school at the start of the book, which doesn’t take away from the conclusions that can be drawn from the evidence present in the rest of the book, much of which Robinson also states in his treatise.

It should be noted that Pickering has revised his book in response to criticism. Robinson’s criticism is 11 years old and may be outdated in the light of this. Pickering acknowledges Robinson at various points in the revision.

Maurice Robinson and Pickering may differ in various respects and approach it from different angles, but they share a lot and the conclusion is the same: the evidence does not show that the Byzantine text-stream should be rejected as secondary, but the evidence should lead one to give priority to it and see the Egyptian textual tradition as a localised deviation, which is also found to a greater or lesser degree in geographically-associated regions. (The fact is that the Alexandrian text-type is no where near as uniform as the Byzantine. So what does agreeing with the Alexandrian text really mean?)

Robinson even argues that if Hort wasn't biased against the TR, then the logical conclusion of his methodology would be to agree with the Byzantine text.

I would add that my own view is nearer Robinson's than Pickering's, but Pickering's work is still valuable. I'm not too worried about whether Pickering is correct at all points. His value is as a collator of information.

As for Pickering not being a textual critic, as Wenham said, "The author is not outstandingly erudite, nor outstandingly skilful in presentation, nor always convincing in detail, but he has gone to the experts and he has assembled an impressive array of facts and arguments." It is the collation of evidence that is important.

As for the Latin and Syriac versions supporting the Egyptian readings on some occasions, this is not surprising as geographical fringing/ overlapping is a well-known phenomenon and the Western Text is known for conflating Byzantine and Egyptian readings. This just seems a clear non-argument. (Am I missing something?)

It is also admitted by all sides that the text is quite mixed amongst the Fathers, including Origen (which blows away TR arguments for an Origenist conspiracy) and that they quoted a lot from their memories rather than by copying exemplars.

Alexandrian-biased eclectics will argue that there is no “pure” Byzantine text amongst the early Fathers, but is this not surprising given that most are associated with Alexandria and the further one goes from Alexandria the greater the support for Byzantine readings. We have hardly any Fathers from the areas where the autographs originated. No Byzantine Priority advocate is dismissing the mixed state of the early, extant textual evidence.

I would also add that the supporters of Alexandrian superiority can’t produce a “pure” Alexandrian text in the Fathers either. (The Alexandrian manuscripts disagree so much with themselves, so what is a pure Alexandrian text and how can it be superior?) This where Alexandrian-biased eclectics retreat to a "we're not advocating W&H, we're eclectics" position, while still maintaining the superiority of the Alexandrian tradition after the dust has settled.

I would note that other critiques of the Byzantine Priority position inexcusably misrepresent the arguments for the position, which makes me ask, "Have these guys actually read Pickering and Robinson, or did they just read Fee?" (It reminds me of the Evangelical Times treatment of theonomy - whatever one thinks on that subject - or some of the stuff you hear about John Piper.)

Popular consensus among scholars can often be due to peer pressure and not wanting to look unscholarly and go against the flow (or hold to a position that seems rather antiquated and associated with fundamentalism). We have seen enough of the "great names" deviating from orthodoxy in recent times to just accept their word at face value. Certainly most leading textual critics can hardly be called orthodox evangelicals. Don't take this as an ad hominem, but a word of caution.

The danger is that we accept all that textual critics say as if we were placing implicit faith in a priest. We have a duty to examine their arguments. They must convince us of the strength of their case. Ironically, it was the attempts in trying to convince the popular audience of the methodology of rational eclecticism that opened my eyes to its serious flaws. As Wenham said, "I had the first tricklings of doubt about it... [it] increased the trickle to a stream: now... it has become a flood."

Many men accepted the W&H Theory for a long time as the expert opinion, but most of it has been debunked by now. Pickering and Robinson do a good job of assembling facts that seem to blow away what remains.

The quotes of Fee's Critique that I have seen don't seem to be particularly strong at all. He again quibbles about the debate among eclectics, but I do want to get my hands on the full text.

Read Pickering and Robinson for yourself and draw your own conclusions. I know that you're an open-minded man.

The debate isn't finished for me. At this stage it appears to me that the current "orthodoxy" is seriously flawed and that the evidence points to Byzantine Priority. I really want to get the best arguments against the Byzantine Priority position, but it is hard to get at this stage.

However, "How are we to account for the Byzantine stream of MSS — a stream which is enormously varied, yet relatively homogeneous" if there is no recension?

I would add that it should always be remembered that the Zane-Hodges text (MT in the NKJV) is only one collation of the Majority Text.

Monday, April 23, 2007 7:27:00 pm  
Blogger Timothy Davis said...

P.S. Read Robinson first.

Monday, April 23, 2007 7:30:00 pm  
Blogger Kevin said...

Hi Tim,

Have you ever read the volumes by Jay Green and Dean Burgon, "Unholy Hands on the Bible". Jay Green who is quite well know because of his interlinear translation goes into a lot of details about textual difference. I was lost after the first volume. You can find more info at

Take care,

Tuesday, April 24, 2007 11:23:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Tim,

I have long been concerned about this problem from a philosophical perspective; and especially for our reformed churches.

In effect, if one has committed themselves to the "eclectic text" (ET)position, one has committed themselves to an inductively-arrived-at, scientific position. (The ET is a majority vote kind of text.) By definition, this means that the position is in flux, awaiting the latest "data," which can then be re-entered into committee's study -- and altered accordingly! The question arises: Is this really what we want for our biblical authority "base position?"

This cannot be! When we say, "Thus sayeth the Lord!" we cannot be saying (implicitly) "Based on the latest scientific findings of a group of editors ... who don't even believe in the supernatural origins of the biblical text!" If we quote from John 3: 16 -- or any other text -- we cannot be assuming that that text can change, at the whim of some group of "editors" in a far off citadel of learning. Our Bible must be a Bible. Both the Eastern Text and the Textus Receptus fit this bill far better than the electic text position.

Admittedly, this is a larger discussion than I can cover here; but the epistemological ramifications of this discussion are quite simply huge. It's the difference between the authority of the BBC's latest weather report, and the preaching of John Knox!

From comments I hear, I fear that most of our reformed brethren have the faintest idea of these consequences. Unfortunately many -- even with Ph.D's from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, St. Andrews, Edinburgh, and Aberdeen -- do not appreciate Christian Philosophy. They have constructed their evangelical theology on a humanistic philosophical base, and are quite haughty about being challenged. This was the philosophical lament of such recent giants as Francis Schaeffer and Cornelius Van Til. But many reformed Christians still don't seem to understand these great men's alarm.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007 1:45:00 pm  
Blogger Timothy Davis said...


I agree with you. As I have added to my post, I diverge from Maurice Robinson at the presuppositional level.

The idea that significant portions of Scripture (e.g. the Long Ending of Mark) should be received as God's Word but all of a sudden turn out not to be is inconsistent with the doctrine of Scriptural preservation. The idea also that the Church has had to wait until the end of the 19th Century to get a purer text also seems inconsistent with Scripture's teaching.

The fact is that textual criticism must be done and done scientifically, but the doctrine of Scriptural preservation has to mean something.

If a textual stream is relatively homogeneous, has been handed down in the Church through the ages, and is closest geographically to the autographs, then this is not only more probably closer to the originals, it also ties-in closer the doctrine of Scriptural preservation. This seems logically to be a good base starting point and the burden of proof is to show that such a textual stream is aberrant and must be abandoned for manuscripts largely confined to a distant geographical location, that the Church rejected and which has only recently become accessible. This is too big a topic to discuss here. What can I say? Read Robinson.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007 7:35:00 pm  
Blogger Timothy Davis said...

I would add that Maurice Robinson has graciously been answering questions that I have raised, esp. his views on Pickering, but I haven't had time to summarise this (and I also want him to review my summary so as to be fair and accurate).

Wednesday, April 25, 2007 7:42:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Isn't there also a point here about being confessional?

Ted Letis used to make the point that the WCF and its sister confessions demand our allegiance to the receieved texts (Scripture is "by his singular care and providence kept pure in all ages", WCF 1:8) - so the church does have a part to play in "authorising" Scipture - and it has done so not by establishing it, but by recognising the true text and preserving it for God's people.

Can we claim to be confessional if we hold to a text other than the one that has been preserved in and by true churches, rather than a more recent reconstruction of an imaginary autograph that no church has adhered to before the modern age?

Saturday, April 28, 2007 9:14:00 pm  
Blogger Timothy Davis said...

You're just bringing theology into it! ;)

Some would claim that they are being confessional by following the current forms of eclecticism (whether rational or rigorous). They would say that the Alexandrian texts differ little from the Byzantine, Western, etc., and so God has "by his singular care and providence kept [the text in the originals] pure in all ages".

I would say that it is hard to classify a position as being confessional (WCF or Baptist CF 1689) which drops huge chunks like the end of Mark and the Pericope de Adultera.

I guess they would say it depends on your interpretation of the Standards.

How would you reply? Also do you think that Erasmus' text is the "pure" text?

Saturday, April 28, 2007 10:23:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you are still reading these comments regarding textual criticism and editions of the Greek NT, there is an interesting proposal called Base Text at
Whoever wrote this essay suggests a Greek New Testament text composed of 3 Alexandrian texts: Vaticanus B, "from Matthew to Hebrews 9:13 (where it breaks off), then codex 1739 from Hebrews 9:14 to the end of Philemon, and finally codex Sinaiticus for the Book of Revelation." This would not be a critical not eclectic text, but simply (if anything is simple!) a text based on Alexandrian manuscripts with whatever copiest failings might be present in them, that were read by our Christian brothers and sisters in an earlier age. from:

Wednesday, December 21, 2011 3:32:00 pm  
Blogger Timothy Davis said...


Sunday, January 01, 2012 12:54:00 am  

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