Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Byzantine Manuscripts: Where Were They Before the 300s?

            Occasionally the question comes up, Why is there no clear evidence for the Byzantine Text prior to the 300s?  Let’s take some time today to address that question.  

Factor #1 is climate  as in, the humidity-level, which in Egypt specially favors manuscript-preservation better than the humidity levels elsewhere (barring rare cases such as a bog in Ireland). Before the use of parchment codices, New Testament manuscripts were written on papyrus, and papyrus naturally decomposes and rots away in pretty much all other locales where Christians were located in the 100s and 200 except in Egypt. So it should be no surprise that when we focus on Egypt, we find, primarily, papyrus manuscripts that contain the Alexandrian Text, i.e., a local text there. 
            Can evidence from Egypt tell us anything about the localized text-forms used in other locales? Perhaps a little, if a manuscript from elsewhere happened to find its way into a library in Egypt and that library’s remains happened to be preserved.  Consider, for example, Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 405, which I mentioned in my previous post.  It shows that a copy of Book Three of Irenaeus’ Against Heresies – written in the 180’s in France – found its way to Egypt just a few decades after the work itself was produced.  However, the main current of the evidence is against the idea.  The manuscript-evidence from Egypt tells us very little about the text that was being used outside the borders of Egypt in the 100s-200s. 
            Again: Reason Numero Uno for why we do not have strong evidence of the Byzantine Text in the 100s and 200s is the weather.  Everywhere but Egypt, we do not have papyrus manuscripts of the New Testament from the 100s-200s for the same reason that we do not have papyrus receipts, papyrus letters, papyrus classical works, etc., from the 100s-200s anywhere else.  It all rotted away. This is why appeals to patristic evidence  the original appeal used by Hort, who did not have the papyrus evidence to consider – are essentially appeals to an absence of evidence, rather than to evidence of absence: we do not have patristic writings the 100s and 200s, from vast swaths of territory, not because nobody there knew how to write, but because of the papyrus-destroying high-humidity level. 
Vincent of Saragossa -
one of the many martyrs
tortured and killed during
the Diocletian Persecution.
He refused to hand over
his Bible manuscripts.
Factor #2: The Diocletian Persecution.  When Roman persecution of Christians occurred (which it did in waves, so to speak, rather than as a constant non-stop oppression; the Romans often had bigger fish to fry), it was bad, but the Diocletian Persecution (303-311) was particularly bad.  It was undertaken with the intent not to just promote emperor-worship but to eliminate Christianity. 
            Eusebius of Caesarea described the persecution:  An imperial decree was published everywhere, ordering that the churches were to be demolished to the ground, and that the Scriptures were to be destroyed by fire.  And notice was given that those in places of honor would lose their positions, and those in ordinary vocations, if they did not give up their Christianity, would be deprived of their liberty.”  So it is no wonder that in the area where the Diocletian Persecution was the most intense, copies of Scriptures from before that time are scarce.      
            Christian leaders and Christian Scriptures were especially targeted.  Embedded in a text from AD 320 called the Gesta Apud Zenophilum, there is an account of Roman persecution of Christians that occurred on May 19, 303, in Cirta, a city in Numidia.  (The History of Information website also has some data about it.) 
            How many manuscripts were seized by the Romans in Cirta, Numidia, in one day, in 303?  Under Roman interrogation, Catullinus the Deacon initially handed over just one very large codex.  But as the interrogation continued, more codices were surrendered:  a man named Eugenius was confronted at his house, and he handed over four codices.  Felix the Lector handed over five codices.  Victorinus, another lector, was also confronted at his house, and he handed over eight codices.  Next, Projectus the Lector handed over five large codices and two small codices.  Victor the Grammarian was confronted at his house, and he handed over two codices, and four quinions (that is, loose book-sections consisting of five parchment sheets folded together).  The Romans also confronted Euticius of Caesarea, who denied having any manuscripts.  The Romans went on to the house of Coddeo, who, it seems, was not at home, but his wife was present, and she handed over six codices.    
            The total: 33 codices, and four segments of codices.  Needless to say, if we had those manuscripts from 303, our textual apparatuses would look very different.  And that’s just one city in Numidia.  Nicomedia (an early target of the Diocletian persecution, in what is now Turkey) had many more manuscripts than that, and so, I suspect, did the churches in Corinth, Ephesus, Rome, Athens, Philippi, Berea, Smyrna, Pergamum, and throughout Turkey (Asia, Bithynia, Lydia, Galatia, Pamphylia, Cilicia, Cappadocia, etc.).  My point here is not that those 34 manuscripts (and the multitudes of other manuscripts destroyed during the Diocletian Persecution) must have had the Byzantine Text written on their pages, but simply that the repetition of similar scenes throughout the Roman Empire explains, to a large extent, our lack of New Testament manuscript-evidence from large swaths of Roman territory.
Factor #3: Overuse. Some of the papyri found in Egypt were excavated from trash-heaps; i.e., at some point, they were thrown away, and we only have them today because those particular trash-heaps decomposed very slowly. Trash-heaps elsewhere decomposed more rapidly – taking us back to factor #1. But why were manuscripts put in trash-heaps in the first place? One reason is that manuscripts wore out. This would not be the case with manuscripts that achieved status as relics; we see for example that the Saint Augustine’s Gospels (at the Parker Library) has survived because it is seldom used. But the manuscripts that received day-to-day use in churches wore out, in a manner not unlike the way in which much-used books wear out today. 
            How is it that a person who graduated from high school in 2001 can have, in the same library, a copy of “Devotions for Graduates, 2001 edition” in pristine condition, while his college mathematics textbook from 2003 is worn to bits?  It is because one was used more than the other.  And likewise, the more often manuscripts were used, the sooner they tended to need to be replaced.  This is just a general tendency, of course:  now and then one might find a book-reader who treated his manuscripts with meticulous reverence, but on the other hand there were book-readers who reckoned that if one manuscript got damaged they could just get a new one. 

Factor #4: Manuscript-recycling.
Overwritten text from the Gospel of Luke
can be seen on this page
of Codex 024.
Sometimes, when the economy was booming, or where a bishop’s brother was a butcher, parchment was plentiful and there was no lack of materials with which to make manuscripts.  But at other times and places, parchment could become scarce, and then and there, it was tempting to recycle old manuscripts by gentle scraping and washing the ink off the parchment, creating a fresh and usable page.  There are quite a few examples of this; 024 and 026, for example, consist of the scraped-off Gospels-text on pages of a copy of Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies.  Codex Climaci Rescriptus (0250) also consists of recycled pages.  (This kind of manuscript is called a palimpsest.)  The danger of ancient Greek copies being recycled in this way was particularly high when and where Greek was no longer read or understood.
            Recycling was not only done to intact pages.  Damaged pages, or pages separated from the volumes in which they belonged, could also be recycled as binding-material for more recent manuscripts, and even some pages from Codex Sinaiticus were not exempt from this fate.

More factors could be listed as causes of the loss of manuscripts – plain neglect in some areas, by monks who no longer could read Greek, resulted in the loss of many manuscripts during the Middles Ages, and so did destructive Islamic conquests, which at different times reached not only northern Africa and Turkey but also Sicily and Austria.  But the four factors listed here are probably the main ones, as far as manuscripts from the 100
s-200s are concerned.

In addition, something else must be said:  to an extent, I deny the premise that there is no evidence of the use of the Byzantine Text before the 300s.  Consider for example the text of Matthew used by Clement of Alexandria.  In a detailed study published in 2008, Carl Cosaert listed 15 readings in Clement’s text of Matthew that agree with the Textus Receptus and disagree with B – compared with 14 readings in Clement’s text of Matthew that agree with B and disagree with the TR.  And if the uncorrected first hand of Sinaiticus, rather than Vaticanus, is made the flagship for the Alexandrian Text, then (if we accept Cosaert’s data) Clement agrees with Sinaiticus while simultaneously disagreeing with TR 15 times, but Clement agrees with the TR while simultaneously disagreeing with Sinaiticus 36 times.
            And that’s from a writer in Alexandria, where one would expect the local Alexandrian Text to dominate.
            It should be noted that a form of the Byzantine Gospels-Text – not “fully developed,” but considerably more Byzantine than anything else – is observed in the Gothic Version, in the Peshitta, in Gregory of Nyssa, and Basil of Caesarea.  If it is valid to extrapolate (as Westcott and Hort did in 1881, and as some textual critics such as Daniel Wallace still do), from the agreements in Vaticanus and Sinaiticus, a distant ancestor, then how much more ought the agreements of these witnesses (and one could add more, such as the Byzantine sections of Codex W, and the consensus-readings of the Purple Uncials) be regarded as echoes of a very ancient, primarily Byzantine, ancestral text-form.
           In the late 1800s, influential textual critics proposed that in the decades after the Diocletian Persecution, church-leaders suddenly stopped using the text-forms that had previously circulated in their locales, and started using a new edition of the New Testament text that contained many readings which up to that point had scarcely ever been encountered.  A better, more plausible explanation of the sudden appearance of a predominantly Byzantine form of the text of the Gospels in multiple locales in the mid-late 300s is that the church-leaders there continued to use the same text-form that they had used prior to the Diocletian Persecution.  The text in these locales was not what changed; what changed was the durability of the material that was used to make the manuscripts, and the friendliness of the government. 


Timothy Joseph said...

Ah yes, when there is not any evidence for something the safest bet is to argue that there was, but it has disappeared! Or more likely,that the unique portions of the Byzantine text did not exist before 300!

Ken Ganskie said...

As always, I enjoyed the textual history lesson, James. Please keep up the good work of telling it like it is and letting the textual chips fall where they may.

In my uneducated opinion, if now, in the 21st century, we're still not sure as to the reason for the rapid post 3rd century promotion of the Byz text to majority status, are we not better served to shift our focus and studies from the 1st-4th century and make the 5th century forward on our focus.

Until and unless we come up with more 1-4 century evidence, that is conclusive one way or the other, I'm sticking with the conclusion that since God said that the gates of Hell would not prevail against the Chruch; and that scripture cannot be broken; and that the church is the pillar of the truth; we will not stray too far from the truth re: which form of the Greek text should be preferred, by adopting the text kept by the Greek-speaking Orthodox Church through the centuries.

James Snapp Jr said...

Timothy Joseph,

TJ: "Or more likely,that the unique portions of the Byzantine text did not exist before 300!"

That was precisely the thinking of Hort. But then numerous distinctly Byzantine readings showed up in the early papyri -- not one of which readings should have existed if Hort's theory was correct.

TJ: "when there is not any evidence for something" --

(When Hort wrote, there was no manuscript-evidence from the 100's or 200's. Why *now* is this the goalpost, and not then?)

There *is* evidence for the earlier 80% Byzantine Text: the agreements of witnesses in the late 300's and early 400's that support it. WH proposed that two witnesses - Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, produced at the same scriptorium, echo an ancient ancestor in their agreements. Well, we've got a lot more than two witnesses agreeing on Byzantine Gospels-readings -- the Gothic version, Codex A, parts of W, Gregory of Nyssa, Basil of Caesarea, the Peshitta -- so how far back does /their/ ancestry go? If B and Aleph, in 325 and 350, echo the second century, on what basis do you claim that these only-slightly-later witnesses echo 300, rather than the 100's or 200's?

James Snapp, Jr.

John Podgorney said...

Thanks for the great post James. Don't ever give up. The consensus keeps hacking that they are right, but their subjectivity and methodology is in some respect disturbing. I think you re on the right track.

Cris de Souza said...

It is a wonderful Post, James. Very useful and as clear as water. Except for Timothy Joseph, all comments clarify as well. Good job! GOD bless you.

Unknown said...

I am very grateful for your explanation of the historicity the New Testament Byzantine text.

I would dearly like to know to what extent historically Greek Orthodox Church liturgy and the preservation of the text done on Mount Athos has preserved the ancient koine text?

Allan Ashurst

Unknown said...

Allan Ashurst again. Is there anyone out there who can usefully comment on to what extent, through the ages, the Greek Orthodox liturgy an the folk on Mount Athol have preserved the New Testament Greek Text

Michael K. Singer said...

Agreeing with Mr. Ashurst, it would also be helpful if you, Dr. Snapp, could review the Greek Orthodox GNT of 1904/1912. Although published relatively recently, it would seem that this version should have ancient enough roots to challenge the “darlings” of the Critical Text camp?

Mike Singer