Monday, January 24, 2011

The Missing Byzantine MSS in a Nutshell

Often the Hortians raise the issue of why there seem to be few Byzantine MSS for the whole period between the 4th and 9th centuries.

Not only is it suggested that the origin of the Byzantine text-type itself should be bumped centuries later commonly supposed, but that its dominance, even its very existence ought to be questioned, right up to the 8th century.

Recently, a whole new theory, or rather conjecture, has been proposed, in which two previously unheard of "recensions" have supposedly taken place, one in the 9th, and one in the 11th century.   This anonymous idea is to be based on a seemingly unavailable "doctoral thesis" by one Timothy Ralston from DTS.

Dr. Ralston

 The alleged 'evidence' of these new recensions is supposed to be found in examining 9th and 11th century MSS themselves, and proposing a timeline and readings belonging to each of these two centuries, then contrasting them to the TR.  The fact that the standard readings of the Majority text go back to the 5th century and earlier is apparently no barrier to the argument that these readings could have merely floated about, apparently unattached to a "text-type" until adopted by official editors very late in the game.

Our own alternate theory is that having come from the Great White North, Ontario Canada, Dr. Ralston's brain may still be partially frozen, somewhat like the "Ice-Age Man", and need more thawing out before he should attempt constructing a history of the Byzantine text.

The Real Explanation

Another, more practical expert, Dr. Maurice Robinson, has kindly cataloged for us the extant NT manuscripts by century.  This allows us to plot the quantities now known, against the expected numbers and shape of curve for a normal copying process:

Click to Enlarge

The result is a surprising discovery:  The actual "curve" has a huge 'bite' out of it.   This disturbing result can be centered on a specific era or span of centuries:

Click to Enlarge

To get a grip on why this is so unusual, and what it means, we need to review briefly how things actually should work.

An Analysis of MS Transmission

For this purpose, we can put aside questions of text, and just talk about physical numbers of MSS, and the process that generates them.   MS generation can be modeled along the lines of a simple 'stock market' system.   That is, its a basic process with a small amount of positive feedback, allowing for a limited 'runaway growth'.   This is a classic Fibonacci series, like rabbit population growth.

The graph here shows net MS production: the new MSS made, minus the number of MSS worn out or destroyed.   There is potential for 'negative growth' for short bursts, when production can't keep up with destruction.  Most of the time however, production will outstrip losses.

In this case, over shorter periods MS production capacity will be relatively constant, controlled by the # of production centers and resources.      Regulating Factors will include seasonal harvests (for papyri), scheduled slaughtering (for parchment), and available scribes.

One effect of constant capacity over short periods will be that fluctuations in production (as a % of total MSS) will gradually diminish as the total numbers of
 MSS increase.
click to enlarge

Just as in the simple Stock Market model, short term fluctuations and instabilities are absorbed and averaged out by longer term trends, in our case the steady increase in the total number of MSS.

In the long term however, the number of production centers and the quantity of MSS produced will increase alongside the expanding Christian population. This is a simple 'market driven' process, of supply and demand, limited by opportunity and resource management, and periodically affected by outside uncontrolled forces, like drought, short bursts of persecution, discovery of production centers or caches of MSS, and killing of key skilled personnel such as copyists. However, these short-term instabilities in production and catastrophic bursts of MSS destruction will have a typical 'stock-market' morphology. Recently, scientists have analyzed the stock-market in terms of Catastrophe Theory and similar models, in order to spot signs of instability and predict follow-up trends.

 For our purposes, the point of interest is the tell-tale 'Saw-Tooth' shape of the market plot. Whenever there is a local short-term burst of instability in the model (which could be either production failure or destruction of MSS in our case), a Saw Tooth fingerprint will appear in the long-term trend plot:

Click to Enlarge

 What is important to realize is that the typical kinds of 'catastrophe' have a distinct shape, which is determined by the nature of the feedback mechanisms of the model. It is not arbitrary but predetermined by the 'market' forces. In our even simpler case, deviations from this pattern of overall steady exponential growth are very difficult to produce.

Back to the Problem of the 'Big Bite'

Lets look again at the hole in the expected exponential growth curve:

This can only imply one of two basic situations.  Either,

(1) MSS were systematically and universally destroyed over a long period, from about 400 A.D. to about 900 A.D., or else,

(2) The MSS were all selected at the end of this period (about 900 A.D.) and selectively destroyed by age-range as the criterion. In this case, it would be a conscious, perpetrated and massive act of vandalism.

Since there was no selection made based upon the content or text-type, but rather age alone, it could not have been a deliberate act of forced 'recension' or revision, with the non-conforming MSS being destroyed.   Although there is a natural and gradual increase in the percentage of MSS containing key readings (like the Pericope de Adultera, Jn 7:53-8:11), this is just what we would expect in a natural, unguided and unselective destruction of MSS independent of their textual affinities or content.

The idea of two late, official 'recensions' (9th and 11th century) is a fantasy that contradicts the textual data regarding variants and their century by century support.  For instance, we have shown that a check of the surviving manuscripts with John 7:53-8:11, shows a gradual increase in the percentage of MSS that contain the verses  (see our simple chart of MSS with the PA).

But the problem of the missing manuscripts remains to be explained:

Dr. Maurice Robinson is painfully aware of this problem, and must conjecture a wholesale 'procedure' that involves recopying and DESTROYING the exemplars. This is to account for the existance of a huge number of manuscripts from all over the empire from the 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th, centuries onward, while there are virtually no surviving MSS for the previous 5 centuries.

A handful (less than a few hundred Greek uncials and fragments) simply won't adequately cover this relatively recent period.  The gradual dominance of Latin for instance, would only account for lower numbers of Greek MSS later on, not earlier.   But if there was a 'destruction process' operating over 5 centuries, it would explain the handful of survivors, that escaped.

But a sudden catastrophe or policy of destruction, if it came at the very end of the 8th century would have prevented the massive quantities that survived immediately afterward.   Such a relatively instantaneous process would have left two marks in history:
(1)  A record of the catastrophe, in the form of a protest and historical evidence.

(2)  A dearth of MSS to use as masters, and a long-lasting shortage of MSS of all ages afterward.
The answer seems to be in a much simpler problem and solution, uniquely attached to the Eastern Byzantine Empire:   A lack of quantities of good vellum and parchment resulted in a strategy of re-scraping, recycling, and reusing worn out manuscripts, giving their pages a second 'life', by a fresh recopying of the texts in a new form.

Such an explanation accounts for the repeated problems of war, famine, and disease which interfered with vellum and parchment production.  It simultaneously accounts for the undocumented 'destruction' (a mere habit of recycling because vellum was precious).  It also accounts for the surprising number of palimpsests and hidden uncial texts underlying minuscule MSS.

If such a practice of recycling was widespread, as a result of ever-increasing demands for vellum in a world where ever-increasing production was simply unsustainable, another expected symptom and glaring fact is explained.

The peak of the "Golden Age" of the Church was not the 9th, 10th, or 11th century, but rather the 4th, 5th and 6th.   Where are all the wonderful works of the prolific early fathers, commentators, debaters of the most productive and creative period the Church has ever experienced?

The same problem and the same answer await us.  The vellum was sorely needed to produce more copies of the Gospels, for an ever-expanding Church, and we strongly suspect that secular writings, the writings of the early church fathers, government documents, and anything else that used up precious vellum and took up needless space would have been cannibalized to meet the needs of New Testament manuscript production, on a "most useless first" basis.

It is probable that the some 10,000 Latin copies of the Gospels hide palimpsests of hundreds or even thousands of Uncial Greek copies and other documents, no longer of the same value or use in an Empire that was losing the ability to converse in Greek, as the Greek-speaking world rapidly contracted from war and the winds of change.



  1. Ralston's dissertation can be found here:

    Your article is well-thought and interesting, but unfortunately, it is a bit misinformed. Perhaps actually reading Ralston's dissertation or journal article (available here rather than bashing him would clear up some misconceptions and reveal some important data concerning the Byzantine texts.

    In his article, Ralston stated, "Hodges' statistical model which lies at the heart of the Majority Text theory demands that a texttype becomes less homogeneous over time as the cumulative effect of scribal errors and emendations are transmitted in subsequent generations of manuscripts. This effect is observed among the Alexandrian manuscripts of this study. However, the case is reversed for the Byzantine manuscripts, which grow more homogeneous over time, denying Hodges' statistical presupposition. In addition, Hodges' argument from stemmatics is damaged by this confirmation of Fee's long-held hypothesis that the later Byzantine witnesses bear a closer resemblance to each other than to the original Byzantine archetype." ("The 'Majority Text' and Byzantine Origins," p. 133-134)

    The question could then be asked, if the Byzantine text accurately represents the originals are the readings of the early Byzantine original or the late Byzantine? And if it's the late Byzantine, where are the elusive manuscripts that have acurately transmitted the original readings?

    Why does not one Byzantine text of Paul's Epistles exist before the ninth century? Is it really believable that *all* of the "good" copies of Paul's epistles for 900 years were destroyed (and not one "accidentally" slipped through) while many "bad" manuscripts were preserved? (Your "reuse theory" might work to cover a dip in the expected amount of manuscripts, but it isn't believable that it could cover *all* mss for 9 centuries.)

    Why is the Byzantine text not found in the early versions nor quoted by the early church fathers? Even if Greek Byzantine manuscripts (that were later destroyed) existed early on, why are the translations (Latin, Syriac, Coptic, etc...) not Byzantine? Why did the earliest church father's not quote from the Byzantine text? Surely the fathers, of all people, had access to the "best" manuscripts. These historical questions must be answered before the Majority Text can have any credibility.

    Remember, isolated Byzantine readings do not make a Byzantine text. Various Byzantine readings do appear early, with a gradual increase in later mss, eventually leading to a "completely" Byzantine text. This is exactly what is expected as Ralston's dissertation shows.

  2. This is absurd. The Byzantine text is quoted FAR MORE than the apostate texts from Alexandria! Burgon, Miller, Hoskier and other proved this long ago. And that fact spells irrevocable doom to Ralston's flights of fancy, just as it does to Hort's fable about the Lucianic Recension, which was ANOTHER MYTH invented by the Liar's Club to undermine and replace the Receptus Text, which has so many arguments to favor it. Ralston might just as well claim the Byzantine text came from Outer Space in the 4th century and Chrysostum decided to use it

  3. The works of Burgon and others are dated and inaccurate. Burgon and the others were collating "quotes" from late copies, not critical texts of these writings. What one must remember is that the texts that contain the "quotes" of early church fathers underwent the same type of copying and revision that the Scriptures went through. In fact, it could be reasonably argued that the Scriptures would be handled with better precision than the works of the fathers. It is probable that often scribes altered these works to agree with the text that they had available to them.

    The other point to consider is the question of the father's intent. Was he actually quoting or paraphrasing? If he was quoting, did he write from memory or was he directly copying the passage? Was he combining multiple passages together? The fathers rarely gave reference to the specific location(s) of the passage they were quoting. This makes it extremely difficult, particularly in the gospels, to use as evidence one way or the other. Burgon often made unwarranted assumptions in this regard.

    Burgon, Miller and Hoskier and have not been ignored by modern scholarship. With all due respect to them, there has been a refinement of understanding of the complexities of the issues that they simply did not have. There have also been many very important textual discoveries since their time. There are *many* scholarly books, articles, and dissertations that wrestle with these issues (including Ralston's, which is now quite old). Unfortunately for Burgon, they do not support his conclusions.

    The number of times a variant is "quoted" is almost irrelevant, in the same way that the number of times it appears is almost irrelevant. There are so many more variables that must be accounted for.

    When one is confined to reading literature from only one perspective, it is very difficult to see the forest for the trees. There has been a hundred years worth of scholarly research and discovery since John Burgon (many of which directly interact with his thesis). Unforunately, false assumptions and misrepresentations abound. People on "my side of the fence" are not "demon possessed" "liars" in a conspiracy to "change" the Bible.

    It is my prayer that before I die, King James Onlyism will no longer be an issue and Believers will be able to work side by side in unity.

    I challenge you to read some of the excellent modern scholarly works that wrestle with these issues. A particularly good introduction is James Price's "King James Onlyism: A New Sect".

  4. This is very interesting, I plan to reread it several times to absorb the data.

    I have been wondering as well lately, is there a list of the extant mss. that breaks them down by century, text-type and geographical origin?

    The point of origin for the New Testament books themselves is mostly in areas that later are acknowledged to be the center of the Byzantine text-form. What are the earliest extant mss. for that region and what text type do they reflect?

    The deck seems to be unfairly stacked in favor of the Alexandrian family if the survival of their earliest witnesses comes down to their remoteness from Bible burning persecutors and the unique climate of Egypt/ North Africa.