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The Problem with Reasoned Eclecticism

Codex Vaticanus

Reasoned Eclecticism is the name given to the "mainstream" modern method of New Testament textual criticism. It is the method that has been used over the last fifty years to put together the Greek text underlying most of the recent popular, modern English Bibles, like the NIV, the NASB, and the ESV. All of these Bibles are translated from a Greek text (the UBS 3rd/4th editions and the Nestle-Aland 26/27th editions) that has been edited along the lines suggested by Reasoned Eclecticism.

So, what does Reasoned Eclecticism involve? Reasoned Eclecticism, in its advertised pronouncements, uses three main criteria to judge which is the true reading of the text:

Firstly, Reasoned Eclecticism prefers readings with better External Evidence (we should prefer manuscript, versional and patristic witnesses with better age, character and geographical distribution).

Secondly, Reasoned Eclecticism prefers readings with better Internal Evidence (we should prefer the shorter, harder, disharmonized, and harsher forms of text - because scribes lengthened, polished up, improved and harmonized the text over time).

Thirdly, Reasoned Eclecticism prefers the reading that is more in keeping with what the author was more likely to have written.

That all sounds a reasonable basis for deciding upon the true reading of the text. What's the problem?

Reasoned Eclecticism has one main problem that produces a number of other related difficulties.

The Main Problem: External Evidence

The main problem with Reasoned Eclecticism is that, while in theory it gives all the appearance of being governed by sensible and carefully balanced guidelines, in reality there is only one rule: follow the reading of one or two fourth century Alexandrian manuscripts, Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus. Now, of course, I am exaggerating slightly here. But that there is a problem here is easy to demonstrate.

Thus, despite the many manuscript discoveries in the last hundred years, many of which are much older than the main Alexandrian uncials, and many of which have a very 'mixed' character (i.e. they are quite unlike Vaticanus and Sinaiticus at points), the modern critical text remains remarkably similar to Westcott and Hort's text of 1885, which was largely based on Codex Vaticanus. Michael Holmes argues that there are even less differences between the W-H text and UBS3-4 than the 558 differences between W-H and NA25 (Westcott and Hort at 125, a paper presented at SBL 2006).

J. M. Ross, in his article, "Some Unnoticed Points in the Text of the New Testament," (Novum Testamentum 25:1 (1983): 59-72), criticised the UBS text for following two simple rules: 1. Follow the reading of the Alexandrian uncials (i.e. Vaticanus and Sinaiticus), and 2. Prefer the Shorter Reading. Ross wrote, "This has been the method employed for the most part by editors over the last hundred years from Tischendorf and Hort to the recent Greek Testament issued by the United Bible Societies. Although the Editors of the UBS edition claim to have employed a more eclectic method, an examination of their actual text and of their Commentary on it shows that they have been largely guided by these two rules" (59).

The UBS editors occasionally adopt a reading based largely on the support of Codex Bezae (aping Westcott and Hort in so doing). The UBS editors were also very happy to invoke other similar transcriptional arguments alongside Prefer the Shorter Reading (like Prefer the Non-Harmonized variant). But Ross' criticism is very close to the truth. Actually, we can condense Ross criticism even further. Because the reading of Vaticanus  and Sinaiticus is almost always the shorter reading, the UBS text is largely a matter of following one simple rule: follow Vaticanus and/or Sinaiticus (and/or Alexandrinus in the book of Revelation). Also, on rare occasions, the UBS editors do not follow the shorter reading - when Vaticanus and a few friends have a longer reading. So, the main rule is this: follow the main Alexandrian uncials, and in particular, Vaticanus.

Kenaga on the UBS  text of 1 Corinthians

Thus, to demonstrate how the modern critical text (UBS/NA) based on Reasoned Eclecticism is really just a throwback to the Vaticanus-veneration of Westcott and Hort, we may look at two bodies of evidence. The first was the evidence produced by Dennis Kenaga in his essay, Skeptical Trends in New Testament Textual Criticism (for the original essay in full, see here). The second is the evidence produced by James Royse in his article, The Treatment of Scribal Leaps in Metzger's Textual Commentary.

Kenaga took for illustrative purposes the UBS text in 1 Corinthians and examined how the editors arrived at their resultant text. The editors of the UBS text firstly sidelined the vast majority of witnesses (i.e., the Byzantine text, just as Westcott and Hort did), leaving themselves with five main witnesses in 1 Corinthians: P66, Sinaiticus (01), Alexandrinus (A), Vaticanus (B) and Claromontanus (D).

Here is Kenaga's evaluation of the result of looking through all the 1009 readings where there was some variation (beyond spelling differences): 'The one result that was perfectly clear from the examination of the 1009 words was that the Alexandrian uncials (01, A and B) won a landslide victory: 1006 words matched Alexandrian [manuscripts] (99.7%) and 3 words did not; 891 matched Vaticanus; 110 of the remaining matched Sinaiticus' (p16).

And what of P46? Kenaga says, 'in 303 of the 1009 words (30%), P46, a papyrus about 100 years older than the Category I uncials [i.e. o1, A and B], was different from the [UBS text] ... They rejected it consistently, even though it is older. They reject the oldest witness, P46, which is also the largest papyrus, because with only one vote, it could not outvote three Alexandrian uncials, and the internal rules were never invoked on behalf of the older P46 to override the mechanical vote' (p17).

To use Kenaga's analogy from democratic elections, it becomes clear that, despite all the lists of manuscripts supporting various readings in the Textual Commentary accompanying the UBS text, very few of these manuscripts have actual voting rights, but (even more surprisingly), even less manuscripts are actually contenders for office. Thus, not even P46 is a candidate for office, but only a voter whose support lends extra weight to the reading of other candidates like Vaticanus or Sinaiticus.

Kenaga quotes Aland's Rule number 6 ('There is no single manuscript or group of manuscripts that can be followed mechanically ... decisions in textual criticism must be worked out afresh, passage by passage') and then continues: 'It is hard to be delicate about how central this issue is or the extent to which the statement is untrue. Ninety percent of the 1 Corinthians text comes from Vaticanus, and 99.7% comes from three Alexandrian manuscripts, out of a pool of hundreds ... The fact is that [the UBS text] does follow a small group of manuscripts rigidly, and primarily Vaticanus. After the A-list vote [i.e. 01, A and B] finishes its work, there is a little room for the internal rules to refine the variant selection'.

The significance of these statistics can be spelled out another way. The Textual Commentary accompanying the Greek New Testament, written by Metzger, is full of comments about internal evidence. 'Every page of TCGNT gives internal evidence and lists of witnesses, as if those were the relevant factors. The reader will not know that the Byzantine or papyri variants backed by witness lists were not real candidates because they were categorically disqualified, or the vote or rank was stacked against them before the voting started' (Kenaga, p17).

The reality is this: 'Textual criticism is a vast, complex and daunting labyrinth with thousands of books, scholarly studies and vocabulary. Yet to sort it out, [UBS text] believers can simplify it to a two-clause creed: Vaticanus is by far the best manuscript to recover the original, and Sinaiticus is its distant and main backup. Every other thought about the subject is supporting or secondary' (Kenaga, p18).

Or we may quote Metzger himself: 'The possibility must be left open that occasionally the text of B represents a secondary development' (Textual Commentary, p295). That is just about as close as a scholar famous for understatement ever gets to saying that Vaticanus is virtually always right.

Royse's Scribal Leaps

James Royse commented upon a similar pattern in his article, "The Treatment of Scribal Leaps in Metzger's Textual Commentary" (New Testament Studies, vol. 29, pp539-551). Here, Royse examined the treatment in the UBS commentary of a number of cases of scribal leaps (that is where scribes jumped from one word to another, omitting words and sentences in between, due to similar endings on these words or similar letters at the start, technically called cases of homoioteleuton and homoioarcton).

Firstly, Royse looked at cases where the editors adopt the longer reading, and explain the shorter reading (i.e. omission) as a result of a scribal leap, but do not attach a high rating to the longer text because the manuscripts which omit are Alexandrian (John 5:44, Matthew 12:47, Ephesians 5:19 and Mark 10:7).

Royse comments as follows: 'The rationale presented by Metzger for the rating at Matt. 12:47 shows clearly that the editors are reluctant to admit that (01, B) and a few friends (or a common ancestor) simply blundered at this text. As a consequence, the editors are unwilling to overrule with any confidence their usual preference for the shorter reading. Such unwillingness is especially puzzling when Metzger says that the omitted word at John 5:44 'seems to be required in the context', that Matt. 12:47 'seems to be necessary for the sense of the following verses', and that the omitted clause at Mark 10:7 'seems to be necessary for the sense'. Such omissions should surely be condemned as unproblematic scribal errors' (p540). 

Secondly, Royse looks at cases where the shorter reading could have been occasioned by a scribal leap, but the editors prefer the shorter reading anyway, all the while admitting the possible cause for the error (Matt. 1:11, 10:23, Luke 23:17, Acts 22:9, Eph. 5:30, Phil. 3:12, 1 Thess. 5:27 and Rev. 2:13). Royse then goes on to list some other cases (Mark 11:26, Rom. 9:28 and 1 Pet. 4:14) where the editors adopted the shorter reading and have rated it with an A. He comments, 'In all three cases the weight of (01, B) and a few other witnesses has caused the editors consciously to reject the likelihood of an omission by a leap, and to accord virtual certainty to the shorter text' (p540).

Royse shows remarkable restraint by not punctuating this last sentence with an exclamation mark.

Thirdly, Royse points out other cases where the editors prefer the shorter reading, in part because they can find no reason for omission (despite the obvious scribal leap): Matt. 26:28, Mark 14:24, Matt. 11:15, 13:9, 13:43, Matt. 18:35, Mark 12:40. In most of these cases, as Royse notes, the longer reading could have arisen as a result of harmonization, but Royse's point is that Metzger says things like 'there is no reason why it should have been deleted in such important witnesses as B D 700 al'.

Fourthly, Royse gives a few examples of places where a scribal leap possibly explains a variant but the textual commentary does not mention it (Matt. 27:24, Acts 23:28, 27:41, Rom. 8:21, 1 Pet. 1:22 and Jude 25). In all but the last case, the shorter reading is found in Codex B and a few friends.

The cumulative effect of the evidence that Royse presents is eye-opening: case after case of obvious scribal blunders in Vaticanus that are still included in the UBS text, some of which are rated as virtual textual certainties by the UBS editors! After seeing Royse's evidence it is hard to resist the conclusion that the UBS editors have serious problems objectively assessing the merits of the readings of certain favoured manuscripts. It is the systematic presentation of evidence by Royse that proves the point that there is a definite tendency at work: to turn a blind eye to obvious errors when Vaticanus is involved.

Now, it needs to be clearly understood that these instances of scribal leaps did not occur in Vaticanus alone - there were usually one or two other manuscripts that followed the same reading. But, it is clear that the reason that these blunders were not instantly dismissed as scribal errors by the UBS editors was the fact that Vaticanus headed the list of supporting evidence.

The words of the old nursery rhyme spring to mind: everywhere that Vaticanus went, the little lambs were sure to go. The UBS editors, it seems, had little hesitation jumping off textual cliffs if only Vaticanus (and one or two others) were to lead the way.

Royse concludes this first half of his article with these words: '[The UBS editors] thus end up preferring the shorter reading not only in general (or other things being equal), but also even when the shorter reading can readily be explained by a parablepsis. Indeed, they regard some such readings as virtually certain (e.g. Mark 11:26, Rom. 9:28, and 1 Pet. 4:14, cited above), thus dismissing omission by a leap as a serious possibility at all. The editors thus approach, it seems, the position that the shorter reading is to be preferred no matter what. Such a principle would, of course, be unacceptable to the editors and to anyone else. But their practice in some cases (and I have not listed them all) suggest that their working hypothesis often amounts to the same thing' (p544).

Royse comes away from this study with a genuinely puzzled tone: why is it that the editors have failed to notice so many obvious cases of scribal blunders? The answer is simple: virtually all of these cases of scribal errors are found in Codex Vaticanus, which the UBS editors consider to be well-nigh infallible.

Thus, the UBS text adopts precisely the same approach as Westcott and Hort, which is to follow very closely the text of Vaticanus and a few friends. As Colwell said: "Westcott and Hort wrote with two things constantly in mind: the Textus Receptus and the codex Vaticanus. But they did not hold them in mind with that passive objectivity which romanticists ascribe to the scientific mind. . . . The sound analogy is that of a theologian who writes on many doctrines but never forgets Total Depravity and the Unconditional Election of the Saints. As in theology, so in Hort's theory, the majority of individuals walk through the broad gate and are lost souls; only a few are the elect. Westcott and Hort preferred the text supported by a minority, by codex Vaticanus and a few friends; they rejected the readings supported by the majority of witnesses".

Thus, we conclude that the treatment of external evidence in our current critical text is not characterised by a free and fair-minded choice among the manuscript witnesses for the best-supported reading. It is not genuinely eclectic, nor open-minded toward the evidence; 'Reasoned Eclecticism' is a misnomer. Rather, it is characterised by slavish, dogged devotion to a small number of middle-aged Alexandrian uncials and particularly Codex Vaticanus. 

Problem 2: Internal Evidence

The result of the redution of NT textual criticism to one solitary rule ('follow Vaticanus and friends') is that the treatment of internal evidence also suffers. Consider Kenaga's examination of the internal evidence used to support textual decisions in the UBS text:

'Where the Byzantine manuscripts have a word the Alexandrians lack, the Byzantine scribes are charged by the [UBS] Committee with “inserting it” (Matt. 1:25) or “making a scribal assimilation to the LXX” (Matt. 2:18) or “softening the rigor of the precept” (Matt. 5:22) or making “an obvious expansion designed to heighten the impressiveness of the saying” (Matt. 6:4) or “supporting the perpetual virginity of Mary” (Acts 1:14) or “obviously a secondary development, probably connected with the beginning of an ecclesiastical lection” (Acts 3:11) or “deriving it from a list of vices” (1 Cor. 3:3). But conversely, when the Alexandrian manuscripts have a word that the Byzantine lack, the Byzantine scribes are charged with “homoeoteleuton” (1 John 2:23) or “deliberate editorial pruning of an awkward parenthetical clause” (1 John 2:23) or “omitting because the idea was theologically unacceptable” (1 Pet. 2:2) or “deliberate excision ... palaeographical oversight” (1 Cor. 7:34) or a “transcriptional blunder” (Luke 9:59). Mercy! Sometimes a poor Byzantine just can’t win, no matter whether he is shorter or longer. [UBS committee] imagination has discovered an incredible variety of corruptions the Byzantine scribes committed, and even their motives. For example, when the Byzantine scribes have “God” instead of the Alexandrian “Lord” (Acts 15:40), they are guilty of “scribal assimilation.” A little later, when the Byzantine scribes have “Lord” instead of the Alexandrian “God” (Acts 16:32), they are guilty of “scribal refinement.” Is it the Byzantine scribes or modern experts who are guilty of refinement?' (pp26-7).

Kenaga gives more examples of the double-standards, and again, is worth quoting in full: 'In individual passages the experts seem to have trenchant-sounding reasons. But in looking at the whole picture, a systematic subjectivity emerges. In Acts 20:32 the Byzantine includes “brethren” where the Alexandrian excludes it. In 1 Corinthians 15:31 the Alexandrian includes “brethren” where Byzantine excludes it. The internal evidence (lectio brevior) favors the Byzantine but the Committee chooses the Alexandrian because of the “strong external support for inclusion.” Why is the external evidence for the Alexandrian reading called strong when the oldest manuscript, P45, has the Byzantine reading? In Luke 10:21 NU chooses the Alexandrian “Holy Spirit” over the Byzantine “Spirit” without the word “Holy.” In Acts 8:18 NU chooses the Alexandrian “Spirit” without the adjective “Holy,” over the Byzantine “Holy Spirit,” in spite of the fact that the earlier papyri support the Byzantine. The alleged reason is that, in the Committee view, “the addition of τὸ ἅγιον ['the Holy'] was as natural for Christian scribes to make as its deletion would be inexplicable.” One time the Committee thinks the unreliable Byzantine scribes omitted it and the other time the Committee thinks it would be inexplicable for the trustworthy Alexandrian scribes to omit it. Who can argue with enthusiasm and confidence in the home team?' (p27).

As Ross wrote: "[T]he explanations put out to justify the readings selected on this basis are of little value as arguments for these readings, because they rest on the assumption that the readings are authentic" (59). What Ross means here is that the UBS editors' reasoning is circular: before they have even looked at the evidence, in their minds it is already a pre-ordained fact that Vaticanus and/or Sinaiticus probably have the true reading. The resultant 'argumentation' is really an attempt to justify this pre-determined outcome. In exactly the same way as Majority Text, Textus Receptus or KJV-only advocates, the UBS editors have placed their faith in a select set of manuscript witnesses, and everything they say thereafter is simply an attempt to justify their textual prejudices.

Sir Francis Bacon wrote: 'The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion ... draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises ... in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate' (Novum Organum, 1620, emphasis added).

G. K. Chesterton put it more bluntly: 'behind every double-standard lies a single hidden agenda'. The reality of Reasoned Eclecticism is that behind all the appearance of carefully weighed evidence about internal arguments, the textual decisions have very little to do with anything other than a desire to fall in line behind a small group of fourth-century Alexandrian uncials headed by Vaticanus. (For a more cynical and comprehensive explanation of how internal evidence can be manipulated to produce whatever result an editor wishes, see the essay, New Testament Textual Criticism - Science, Art or Religion?)

Problem Three: The Transcriptional Rules

J. M. Ross reduced the rules of Reasoned Eclecticism to two: follow Vaticanus and Sinaiticus, and prefer the shorter reading. However, in reality, the two rules reduce to one solitary rule, follow Vaticanus and Sinaiticus, for the simple reason that they almost always have the shorter reading. In fact, this has long been advertised as one of the reasons why we should follow their evidence: scribes tended to add to the text, so we should adopt the shorter reading as more probably original.

The reality, however, as study after study shows, is that scribes tended to omit rather than add. It would be tedious to here again rehash in detail all the evidence that shows, beyond any doubt, that scribes tended to omit rather than add. It stands to reason, however; after all, the easiest mistake to make is to omit. Those interested in reviewing the evidence can get a shapshot of it here (for some of the raw evidence and its implications) and here (for a more detailed explanation of the evidence). But here in brief are the results of the various studies:

Studies Type of Manuscript and Study Additions Omissions
Royse (1981) Major Papyri 130 (28%) 337 (72%)
Robinson (1982) Papyri, Majuscules and Miniscules in the book of Revelation 451 (40%) 678 (60%)
Head (1996 & 2004) Minor Papyri in the Gospels 10 (34%)  19 (66%)
Hernandez (2006) Majuscules in the book of Revelation 57 (40%) 87 (60%)
Royse (2008) Reworked update of his study of Major Papyri 127 (29%) 312 (71%)
Wilson (2011) Papyri, Majuscules, Minuscules and Lectionaries in 10% of the entire NT text 1088 (39%) 1712 (61%)


 These results show that scribes tended to omit rather than add to the text, and that the traditional preference for shorter readings (i.e. leaving words and verses out of our Bibles) is without foundation. Therefore, shorter texts (like Vaticanus and Sinaiticus) should be treated with far more caution, seeing they are largely characterised by omissions.

Instead of welcoming the evidence, however, the reaction of some leading textual critics to the accumulating evidence about scribal habits has been to dismiss the studies and disparage the research. Thus, responding to James Royse's study which showed that scribes tended to omit rather than add, Barbara Aland writes: 'in the previous comments I did not go into the criteria that lead in each particular case to a decision about the original reading, since they of course have not changed and will not change. Rather the old-school rules of classical philology are to be applied, which must be observed by anyone who produces a text ... These rules have often been presented by various authors in the appropriate handbooks. To be sure, in this area one can dispute the details of specific formulations or difficult points, but not the kernel of these rules themselves' (B. Aland, “Neutestamentliche Textforschung und Textgeschichte: Erwägungen zu einem notwendigen Thema”, NTS 36 (1990) 339, emphasis added). With the imperious tone, Barbara Aland's pronouncement here reminds the reader of no one so much as the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland: 'sentence first ... verdict afterwards'. Textual criticism must rest on evidence, not authority.

Or consider Hoger Strutwolf's article, 'Scribal Practices and the Transmission of Biblical Texts: New Insights from the Coherence-Based Genealogical Method', in Editing the Bible: Assessing the Task Past and Present, ed. John Kloppenborg, Judith Newman, (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2012), 139-160) where he admits that vitually all manuscripts show evidence of omissions rather than additions, but yet argues that we must not abandon the preference for the shorter reading because the Alexandrian manuscripts are shorter than the later Byzantine text. Strutwolf's argument reduces once again to Ross' rule number one: we must blindly follow a few Alexandrian manuscripts like Vaticanus, whatever the evidence shows. Strutwolf is urging his readers to ignore empirical evidence, and instead accompany him in indulging his textual prejudices for certain manuscripts (i.e. Vaticanus and its friends). Even though the evidence is staring him in the face, Strutwolf still insists on rejecting Royse's conclusion, and repeating the traditional piety about the preference for the shorter reading.

The same tendency to dismiss the accumulating evidence on scribal habits because it disturbs the peace and blasphemes the cult of Vaticanus can been seen in the writings of other leading textual critics (several other examples can be found in the article on Scribal Habits in the Festschrift for Maurice Robinson).

The late scientist Stephen Jay Gould wrote, 'Automatically rejecting dissenting views that challenge the conventional wisdom is a dangerous fallacy, for almost every generally accepted view was once deemed eccentric or heretical. Perpetuating the reign of a supposed scientific orthodoxy in this way, whether in a research laboratory or in a court room, is profoundly inimical to the search for truth'.

So, what does the repeal of the erroneous canon, Prefer the Shorter Reading, involve? Here are the figures from an examination of Matthew's gospel in the NA27 text. Our current critical text prefers a shorter reading about 60% of the time. Thus, in Matthew, NA27 has a longer reading 256 times (39%), a ‘middle’ reading 20 times (3%), and a shorter reading 379 times (58%). These are the exact opposite percentages to what the evidence from scribal habits shows our text should look like. If we were to re-adjust the text to reflect the evidence from scribal habits, we should have to promote over 100 longer readings to the mainline text of Matthew. Extrapolating these figures to the rest of the Gospels, there would need to be nearly 400 changes to our text. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that our current critical text has suffered 'death by a thousand cuts'.

Nor will it do for some mealy-mouthed textual critics to accept that we need to make a few changes. The evidence from scribal habits demands a radical re-evaluation of textual evidence at hundreds of places, not a little tinkering here and there. The reality is that any text that consistently and overwhelmingly prefers shorter readings (like the UBS/NA text) cannot anymore claim to represent the original text of the New Testament. What is required is the reintroduction of hundreds of readings that have been culled from the original New Testament text and relegated to the critical apparatus of the UBS/NA text. This is the reality of what is required to realign NT textual criticism with the research into scribal habits, yet the very thought is unmentionable - anathema - to most textual critics.

More than thirty years after James Royse's original study, and with study after study confirming his conclusions, with barely a squeak from the textual authorities acknowledging there is a problem, let alone proposing to take any steps to rectify it, Gould's description seems pointedly appropriate to the UBS text based on Reasoned Eclecticism: 'perpetuating the reign of a supposed scientific orthodoxy by rejecting the evidence that challenges the conventional wisdom'.

Problem Four: the History of the Text

The last problem we shall mention is again a direct result of the first problem - the reduction of NT textual criticism to a one-line creed: follow Codex Vaticanus and its friends. This fourth problem is that Reasoned Eclecticism as currently practiced largely depends upon a belief that in the fourth century there was a complete re-editing of the Greek New Testament that produced the later form of the Greek NT text. To use the language of the man in the street, what this idea means is that in the fourth century of the Christian era, the Greek New Testament was 'doctored' by some ecclesiastical authorities (some suggest Lucian of Antioch was responsible) to produce the Byzantine text which largely dominated the middle ages. Westcott and Hort used the idea of a Lucianic Recension to (conveniently) dispose of 95% of the Greek manuscript evidence (the Byzantine text) as having sprung from the corrupting influence of this 4th Century re-editing process. At a stroke, the numerical preponderance of the Byzantine evidence was dismissed as having sprung from one (late) edited manuscript. As a result, they were left with two early streams of manuscript evidence - the Alexandrian uncials and the Western evidence (headed by Codex Bezae, easily the most bizarre text of the NT).  Westcott and Hort chose the Alexandrian uncials, headed by Vaticanus. The Lucianic Recension was the foundation stone of Westcott and Hort's textual theory; their history of the text underpinned  everything else they believed.

Now, we have no desire to rehash the whole business here. The arguments for a Lucianic Recension (which would admittedly take up little space) and the arguments against it (which would be a work of many pages, for there are so many lines of evidence against the the idea) may be reviewed here. Suffice to say that the idea has no historical foundation: the Lucianic Recension is one of the great literary conspiracy theories of the modern age. There is no evidence which can be called historical - that is, substantiated by historical documentation - that supports the idea that the Greek NT was fundamentally remodelled by some text-critical editor in the fourth century. By comparison, there is historical evidence that such a thing happened with the Latin text of the New Testament (Pope Damascus commissioned Jerome to produce the Latin 'Vulgate'), but no such thing happened in the case of the Greek New Testament.

In fact, many leading textual critics have quietly abandoned the entire idea. Thus, Klaus Wachtel, in his Der Byzantinische Text der Katholischen Briefe (ANTF 24; Berlin: de Gruyter, 1995) says, 'Above all, these readings make it improbable that the Byzantine text could have had its beginning in a proper recension of the 4th century' (p. 199). Again, he writes, 'So also from the perspective of the development of the Byzantine text the traditional concept, namely, that the transmission history of the New Testament was determined by recensions, proves to be no longer viable' (p. 201). Earlier textual critics were more scathing in their scorn for the idea. Scrivener referred to recension theories as a playground for 'pleasant speculations which may amuse the fancy but cannot inform sober judgement'. Tregelles and Kenyon were others who dismissed the idea as implausible and unprovable (see Tregelles in his Account of the Printed Text, 90, or Kenyon in his Handbook to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament, 2nd ed. 324-5).

However, there are still textual critics (Gordon Fee and Daniel Wallace among them, both of whom have a large audience of groupies in the evangelical world) who hold to some form of Lucianic Recension. Gordon Fee thinks that Chrysostom popularised it (Studies and Documents vol. 45), while Daniel Wallace describes it as 'a decent hunch that may well be correct' (in an article on Mark 1:2 on bible.org (2004)). Philip Comfort writes 'The Byzantine text likely traces back to the work of Lucian of Antioch' (The Essential Guide to Bible Versions, Tyndale House Publishers, 2000). It is not as if any of these scholars offer any evidence for the idea of a Lucianic Recension - but they are happy to continue perpetuating the myth.

Even Metzger admitted that because of the lack of historical evidence, 'for information bearing on [the Lucianic recension], we must turn to the manuscripts which have been thought to contain' it ("The Lucianic Recension of the Greek Bible", Chapters in the History of NT Textual Criticism, NTTS IV, 1963, pp6-7), This surely must be counted one of the most famous cases of circular reasoning in the history of New Testament textual criticism: the proof that the Byzantine text is the result of a recension is the Byzantine text. It is like the story of the man who was always walking around the city of Chicago whistling. Someone asked him: why are you always whistling? He answered, To keep the tigers away. But there are no tigers in Chicago, replied his questioner. The man said, That's because of my whistling.

It is not just a few big names who believe in the Lucianic Recension. Many ordinary academics with a passing familiarity with New Testament textual criticism still believe in this incredible piece of historical fiction, and use it to push the idea to their students that we should prefer texts based on the readings of Codex Vaticanus and friends. Thus, the author recently listened to a lecture on textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible by a Hebrew teacher (who also teaches NT Greek) and was astonished to hear him dismissing (in an offhand comment) the Greek text of the vast majority of Greek NT manuscripts as having been produced by a recension in the fourth century.

The idea that the Lucianic Recension is dead and buried is simply not true. Too many people who have invested their life in promoting Reasoned Eclecticism and the modern critical texts (UBS/NA) are more than happy to let people keep on teaching, hearing and believing this falsehood. It was not that long ago that people could be banned from internet discussion forums on textual criticism just for questioning the evidence for it. That is how reactionary some defenders of Reasoned Ecelecticism are.

Some people would argue that Reasoned Eclecticism does not strictly depend upon a Lucianic Recension. It is true: one can observe some form of Reasoned Eclecticism (as currently formulated) without subscribing to a Lucianic Recension. But, generally-speaking, Reasoned Eclecticism is a package: you believe in the superiority of Vaticanus and friends, you dismiss the Byzantine text as a product of a late recension, and you by-and-large follow the readings that the editors of the UBS text have given you.

The alternative, once we have dismissed the Lucianic Recension as historical fiction, is to level the playing field, to some degree, and make NT textual criticism more genuinely eclectic. In this scenario, yes, the Alexandrian evidence is earlier, but on the other hand, Alexandrian manuscripts like Vaticanus show far more signs of scribal corruption (omissions, disharmonizations, harder readings) than Byzantine manuscripts. The Byzantine text is later, but it can no longer be treated as a monolithic whole derived from one lost manuscript. Furthermore, we must accept that it was transmitted from pre-fourth century ancestors just like any other text - after all, transmission is the default method of textual production. While Alexandrian manuscripts have direct evidence of earlier age, the Byzantines have indirect evidence. The reason why some textual critics cling to a Lucianic Recension is that they appear to be desperate to deny that Byzantine manuscripts originated by descent fom earlier ancestors by the normal copying process. This would make them the equal (in age) of our Alexandrian uncials, for the earliest extant Byzantine manuscripts date from the 5th century (only a century later than Vaticanus).

Furthermore, many individual Byzantine readings have more than indirect evidence of their antiquity. Gunter Zuntz writes: 'To sum up. A number of Byzantine readings, most of them genuine [i.e. original readings], which previously were discarded as "late", are anticipated by P46. Our inquiry has confirmed what was anyhow probable enough: the Byzantines did not hit upon these readings by conjecture or independent error. They reproduced an older tradition. The existence of this tradition was in several cases borne out by some versions or patristic quotations; but where such evidence is not forthcoming, the inference proved no less certain. How then - so one is tempted to go on asking - where no Chester Beatty papyrus happens to vouch for the early existence of a Byzantine reading? Are all Byzantine readings ancient? In the cognate case of the Homeric tradition G. Pasquali answers the same question in the affirmative; and, indeed, it sems to me unlikely that the Byzantine editors ever altered the text without manuscript evidence. They left so many hoplessly difficult places unassailed' (Zuntz, The Text of the Epistles, p55).

This is not to argue that the Byzantine text is the original text of the New Testament, but rather that its readings are worthy of consideration. Reasoned Eclecticism, on the other hand routinley, reflexively - almost automatically - dismisses the readings of the 95% majority of Greek manuscripts as a preliminary step to finding the true reading.


Hear the conclusion of the matter: Reasoned Eclecticism, as exemplified in the current critical text, is a swindle. It is neither truly eclectic, nor fair and reasonable in its treatment of internal evidence, nor willing to adapt to incoming research. The internal arguments marshalled in the UBS commentary are a sideshow, a smokescreen intended to distract the reader from the real process which determines the text: following what Codex Vaticanus reads. Reasoned Eclecticism is unable or unwilling to abandon 'the mirage of Vaticanus infallibility' (Gunter Zuntz, The Text of the Epistles, p217).

To be perfectly blunt and impolite, the whole process is rigged. In the modern critical text, the internal evidence is only ever marshalled to point in one direction. Whatever the evidence throws up, the result is always the same: the reading of the Alexandrian uncials is original. Byzantine Priority supporters will, no doubt, have enjoyed seeing the way the evidence is being manipulated, but even those who have no partialiity to the Byzantine text should be shocked to see the way that the early papyri are treated with nearly as much cavalier disdain in order to support the reading of a small club of Alexandrian uncials. As Kenaga shows, the claim that the modern critical text is based on the superior age of our newly-discovered (papyri) witnesses is clearly not true. It is neither based on age, nor on the geographical diversity of support, but on one manuscript, Codex Vaticanus, and whatever support (external and internal) this manuscript can manage to scrape together.

With the work of 19th Century textual critics like Westcott and Hort, New Testament textual criticism swung from one extreme (the Textus Receptus) to an opposite extreme. Dismissing the vast majority of thousands of manuscripts that witness to the New Testament text, Westcott and Hort placed their trust in one single manuscript (and a few friends). The result was a swing from an extremely long text to an extremely short text. Despite all the manuscript evidence uncovered in the last 100 years, and the studies into scribal habits over the last 30 years, Reasoned Eclecticism still follows basically the same text as Westcott and Hort - almost as if nothing has changed. The time has come for textual criticism to take a more balanced and reasonable mid-way position between these bizarre and eccentric extremes.

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