Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Saint Spyridon and the Early Byzantine Text

Saint Spyridon
          Saint Spyridon (270-358) – champion of orthodoxy, worker of wonders, friend of Saint Nicholas – served as bishop of Tremithus on the island of Cyprus in the early 300’s, after the death of his wife.  Many stories about Spyridon circulate to this day.  Some of them are fabulous to the point of being amusing.  Others seem to have at least a kernel of truth.  But one in particular has special significance to New Testament textual criticism.
          Spyridon, who had attended the Council of Nicea, later attended a gathering of bishops on the island of Cyprus.  Also in attendance was another bishop, Triphyllius, who was as well-known for his eloquence as Spyridon was for his faithfulness and simplicity.  At one point during the gathering, Triphyllius delivered a discourse in which he quoted the words of Christ in Mark 2:9 – “Arise, take up your bed, and walk” – except Triphyllius did not quote precisely:  instead of using κράββατος, the word for “bed” that is found in the text, he used σκιμπους.
          Probably Triphyllius’ intention was to ensure that his hearers would understand that the paralytic’s bed was something more like a stretcher than a bed with a frame to hold a mattress.  But Spyridon did not tolerate this deviation.  Standing up in the assembly, he asked, “Are you greater than the one who uttered the word κράββατόν, that you are ashamed to use his words?”.  He then turned and looked out at the crowd, convicting them the man of eloquence should be made to know his limits. 
          Such is the report from the Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, who wrote around 440.  This little incident was so instructive that it was even recollected centuries later, in 1611, by the author of the preface to the King James Version:  “A godly Father in the Primitive time shewed himself greatly moved, that one of the newfangleness called κράββατον σκιμπους, though the difference be little or none.”  
Spyridon is the patron saint of the Greek
island of Corfu, about 1000 miles from
Cyprus, where he served as bishop
           Here is the text-critically interesting aspect of this anecdote:  observe how vigilantly resistant Spyridon was to any sort of textual alteration.  Even a benign deviation undertaken to ensure comprehension was opposed immediately and forcefully.  Such a mindset is the complete opposite of what is required for the theory that during the age of Spyridon (in the early 300’s), bishops throughout Christendom were setting aside their previously cherished manuscripts of the Gospels in order to adopt a previously unseen edition which contained hundreds of previously unseen readings, including whole episodes which to many bishops were utter novelties.
          Hort, whose 1881 Notes on Select Readings is still recycled to this day by commentators, depicted the means by which John 7:53-8:11 was accepted as follows:  “It would be natural enough that an extraneous narrative of a remarkable incident in the Ministry, if it were deemed worthy of being read and perpetuated, should be inserted in the body of the Gospels.” 
          Such an appraisal of the situation in the early-mid 300’s seems flatly unrealistic in a milieu in which, when a single word was exchanged for a synonym, a memorable protest commenced.  The report, found in medieval Menologions, that Lucian of Antioch personally made a manuscript of the entire Bible, written in three columns per page, can be believed.  But can it be believed that a novel edition of the books of the New Testament, based on Lucian’s work, spread throughout Greek-speaking Christendom in the 300’s, and that although it contained remarkable anecdotes previously not contained in the Gospels, the bishops raised no objections and meekly embraced these previously unknown passages, and quietly set aside the manuscripts which their predecessors had risked their lives to protect?  At a time when authors were willing to threaten copyists with severe curses if they failed to make accurate copies of their uninspired compositions, what bishops would find it “natural” to set aside their old exemplars, and replace them with new ones that contained new anecdotes – and not just any anecdotes, but one in which Jesus forgives an adulteress who shows no signs of repentance, and another in which Jesus states that believers will survive snake-handling and poison-drinking?
          When one looks into the question of where the churches in Asia, Greece, Cyprus, and Syria obtained their Greek New Testament manuscripts in the early 300’s, in light of several factors such as the tendency toward vigilance exemplified by Spyridon, it seems rather unlikely that the bishops in those areas quietly standardized their Gospels-text.  It seems far more likely that they basically kept on using the same texts that their predecessors had used. 
          If so, then this would indicate that when we see essentially Byzantine text-forms of the Gospels in the Gothic version (in the mid-300’s), in the Peshitta (no later than the late 300’s), in the writings of Gregory of Nyssa (in the late 300’s), in the writings of Basil of Caesarea (in the mid/late 300’s), in the writings of Epiphanius (also in the late 300’s), and in the writings of John Chrysostom (late 300’s/very early 400’s), this is not because a relatively novel text-form had suddenly become dominant in each of their far-removed locales.  Rather, it is because the manuscripts used in those witnesses’ locales echoed an ancient text-form (perhaps known to Lucian, but pre-dating him) that was at least 70% Byzantine.  This early stratum of the Byzantine Text, though it lacked the favorable climate-conditions that allowed manuscript-preservation in Egypt, had the advantage of a different sort of climate:  the climate of Christian bishops’ tenacious resistance to textual novelty in the 300’s.  


Archepoimenfollower said...

Assuming you choose to actually post this comment, again I find it interesting that you give great value to an anecdotal story recounted over a hundred years after it was supposedly spoken rather than relying on actual manuscript evidence that is presented in our earliest manuscripts. As it applies to the PA, we have actual evidence for the Pericope not being present in the 200's, P75 and possibly earlier in P66. So, even if this story is true, we have evidence that is much earlier that shows the PA was not present before the 300's. Yes, I read the part of your post which claims that it is just a matter of climate that allowed the Egyptian manuscripts to be preserved and that this is not evidence that manuscripts in other areas did not include the PA. But, as usual, you would rather draw information from what we do not possess than from the actual evidence.
I can understand your position if you are a Majority Text advocate since that would mean you make your text critical decisions based on plurality of manuscripts. Yet, you have disavowed such a position previously and even here you argue for equitable eclectism. What is equitable about arguing for a variant that is not present in the actual evidence in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th century?


James E. Snapp, Jr. said...


Although you've read the statement that the evidence from Egypt shows us what the Gospels-text was like in Egypt, it doesn't seem to be registering that the evidence from Egypt does *not* necessarily show us what the text was like in the 100's-300's in Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, and Syria.

Regarding the PA: I didn't intend to focus only on the PA, but on Byzantine readings collectively. But let's pursue this point since that's where your statement was anchored. As you note, p66 and p75 show that the PA was not part of the text of John 7-8 -- *in Egypt.* You said, "We have evidence that is much earlier that shows the PA was not present before the 300's" -- but you're treating evidence of the text in Egypt as if it is evidence of the text that was used everywhere. That's not a sound extrapolation.

>> But, as usual, you would rather draw information from what we do not possess than from the actual evidence. <<

First, dialing down the sass-o-meter can improve the survival-rate of comment-posts.
Second, if you think I'm drawing information out of the clear blue sky, you don't understand my approach. I'm looking at the sources I specifically named near the end of the post (the Gothic version, the Peshitta, Basil, Epiphanius, Greg-Nyssa) and others, and noticing that their Gospels-text is 70% Byzantine (or higher). In the transmission-model used by Hort -- the model upon which the rise of the Alexandrian Text depended in the late 1800's -- such a text did not exist until someone in the late 200's made it. In Hort's model, the text of the Lucianic Recension was rapidly adopted in the century after it was made. This runs contrary, however, to the vigilant mindset displayed by Spyridon. Instead of picturing the Byzantine Text (or, more precisely, the earliest stratum of the Byzantine Text) as a compilation freshly made in the late 200's, we ought to consider it a local text that had wide use in the areas where we see it in use in the late 300's.

>> I can understand your position if you are a Majority Text advocate since that would mean you make your text critical decisions based on plurality of manuscripts. <<

That is true; as I have said repeatedly, I am not a Majority-Text advocate or a Byzantine Prioritist.

>> What is equitable about arguing for a variant that is not present in the actual evidence in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th century? <<

I'm not sure what variant you are referring to, inasmuch as there is plenty of evidence for the PA in the 300's (i.e., the fourth century). Perhaps if I rephrase the question my point will become more clear:

"What is equitable about arguing for variants for which there is no manuscript-evidence in the 2nd and 3rd century?" --

Easy: it is not equitable to demand that the papyrus manuscripts in high-humidity climates do something that they were physically incapable of doing -- namely, surviving. We see a 70% Byzantine Text in wide use in the late 300's. Where did it come from? Hort thought that it descended from an edition made in the late 200's. But if one is going to ask for historical evidence, then /where is the historical evidence for that/?? Where is the evidence that bishops in the 300's were spontaneously setting aside their own manuscripts, in favor of a new Gospels-text with novel readings on every page? There is no such evidence, and so one has to choose between theories. And considering the vigilance exhibited by Spyridon (as well as many other factors, some of which Hort could not take into consideration because they had not yet been discovered), Hort's theory seems less likely than the alternative that the bishops in Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, and Syria basically kept on using the Gospels-text that had been handed down to them, and that this text was at least 70% Byzantine, and this is why we see such a text in wide use in the late 300's.