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Biblical Manuscripts - Are Byzantine Readings "Late?" - The Papyri (2)

"In the eyes of many naturalistic critics the history of the Traditional (Byzantine) New Testament Text has become a puzzling enigma that requires further study. "It is evident," says Birdsall (1956), "that all presuppositions concerning the Byzantine text— or texts—except its inferiority to other types, must be doubted and investigated de novo." (39) One wonders, however, why Birdsall makes this single exception. Every other presupposition concerning the Traditional (Byzantine) Text must be doubted. But there is one presupposition, Birdsall says, which must never be doubted, namely, the inferiority of the Traditional (Byzantine) Text to all other texts. Yet it is just this presupposition which makes the history of the Traditional Text so puzzling to naturalistic textual critics. If the Traditional Text was late and inferior, how could it have so completely displaced earlier and better texts in the usage of the Church. Westcott and Hort said that this was because the Traditional Text was an official text, put together by influential ecclesiastical leaders and urged by them upon the Church, but this view has turned out to be contrary to the evidence. Why, then, did the Traditional Text triumph?

"Naturalistic textual critics will never be able to answer this question until they are ready to think "unthinkable thoughts." They must be willing to lay aside their prejudices and consider seriously the evidence which points to the Traditional (Byzantine) Text as the True Text of the New Testament. This is the position which the believing Bible student takes by faith and from which he is able to provide a consistent explanation of all the phenomena of the New Testament."

HILLS, Edward F. 1956. The King James Version Defended, 148.

By Unknown author - P. Bodmer II, Papyrus 66 (Gregory-Aland), Public Domain,

Papyrus 66 contains

John 1:1–6:11, 6:35b–14:26, 29–30; 15:2–26; 16:2–4, 6–7;

16:10–20:20, 22–23; 20:25–21:9, 12, 17

The papyri (puh·pai·rai) are some of the most important witnesses to the text of Holy Scripture. We have papyri dating back to the second century (100-199 A.D.). They were mostly written in Uncial (Capital) script. There are no word divisions and very little punctuation. Papyri Support for every New Testament book (excerpts) has been found. These documents provide a very powerful testimony to the original autographs of the scriptures. Remember, there is a vocabulary page, here (NT), and here (OT) to help you with the terminology.

There are generally four categories of papyri:

  1. The Oxyrhynchus Papyri are so named because they were found in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. About one-half of all the papyri we have (around 115) come from this find. The discovery of these manuscripts began in 1898.

  2. The Chester Beatty Papyri - The exact circumstances of this find are unclear. It is known that Chester Beatty purchased this collection around 1931. It consists of eleven manuscripts.

  3. The Bodmer Papyri - The Bodmer papyri are named after their owner, Martin Bodmer - There are 22 manuscripts in this collection, that were again discovered in Egypt.

  4. Other.... Like 𝔓52, 𝔓4, and 𝔓32

As we wrote in an earlier post, the majority of the manuscripts found are of the Byzantine tradition. However, when one looks at the listing of the papyri with descriptions, it is observed that most (pre-300) manuscripts are classified according to the Alexandrian category. This is somewhat misleading.

Let me explain.

Part of the argument over the Bible revolves around whether the bulk of the manuscripts (Byzantine type) are to be superseded by the minority of manuscripts. It is believed by some that Byzantine readings are a late find in biblical manuscripts, therefore we should better trust the Alexandrian readings (the "oldest is best" idea). However, it is not true that Byzantine readings are "late."

On page 85 of Pickering's book, The Identify of the New Testament Text, the following question is asked and answered.

Why Are There No Early "Byzantine" MSS?

"Why would or should there be? To demand that a MS survive for 1,500 years is in effect to require both that it have remained unused and that it have been stored in Egypt (or Qumran). Even an unused MS would require an arid climate to last so long. But is either requirement reasonable? Unless there were persons so rich as to be able to proliferate copies of the Scriptures for their health or amusement, copies would be made on demand, in order to be used. As the use of Greek died out in Egypt the demand for Greek Scriptures would die out too, so we should not expect to find many Greek MSS in Egypt.

"It should not be assumed, however, that the "Byzantine" text was not used in Egypt. Although none of the early Papyri can reasonably be called "Byzantine", they each contain "Byzantine" readings. The case of P66 is dramatic. The first hand was extensively corrected, and both hands are dated around A.D. 200. The 1st hand is almost half "Byzantine" (a. 47%), but the 2nd hand regularly changed "Byzantine" readings to "Alexandrian" and vice versa, i.e. he changed "Alexandrian" to "Byzantine", repeatedly. This means that they must have had two exemplars, one "Alexandrian" and one "Byzantine"—between the two hands, the "Byzantine" text receives considerable attestation.

"Consider the case of Codex B (Vaticanus) and P75; they are said to agree 82% of the time (unprecedented for "Alexandrian" MSS, but rather poor for "Byzantine"). But what about the 18% discrepancy? Most of the time, if not always, when P75 and B disagree one or the other agrees with the "Byzantine" reading. If they come from a common source, that source would have been more "Byzantine" than either descendant. Even the Coptic versions agree with the "Byzantine" text as often as not."

Again, the following is taken from the book, THE IDENTITY OF THE NEW TESTAMENT TEXT III by Wilbur N. Pickering, ThM, Ph.D. (pages 41-42)

"Each of the early Papyri (300 A.D. or earlier) vindicates some "Byzantine" readings. G. Zuntz did a thorough study of P46 and concluded:

To sum up. A number of Byzantine readings, most of them genuine, which previously were discarded as 'late', are anticipated by P46. . . . 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.

"Colwell takes note of Zuntz's statement and concurs. He had said of the 'Byzantine New Testament' some years previous, 'Most of its readings existed in the second century.'

Hills claims that the Beatty papyri vindicate "Byzantine" readings in the Gospels, in Acts, and in Paul’s epistles. He says concerning P66:

To be precise, Papyrus Bodmer II contains thirteen percent of all the alleged late readings of the Byzantine text in the area which it covers (18 out of 138). Thirteen percent of the Byzantine readings which most critics have regarded as late have now been proved by Papyrus Bodmer II to be early readings.

"Many other studies are available, but that of H. A. Sturz sums it up. He surveyed

'all the available papyri' to discover how many papyrus-supported 'Byzantine' readings exist. In trying to decide which were 'distinctively Byzantine' readings he made a conscious effort to 'err on the conservative side so that the list is shorter than it might be.

"He found and lists the evidence for, more than 150 'distinctively Byzantine' readings that have early (before 300 A.D.) papyrus support. He found 170 'Byzantine-Western' readings with early papyrus support. He found 170 'Byzantine-Alexandrian' readings with early papyrus support. He gives evidence for 175 further 'Byzantine' readings but which have scattered 'Western' or 'Alexandrian' support, with early papyrus support. He refers to still another 195 readings where the Byzantine reading has papyrus support."

He concludes by stating...

"The magnitude of this vindication can be more fully appreciated by recalling that only about 30 percent of the New Testament has early papyrus attestation, and much of that 30 percent has only one papyrus. Where more than one covers a stretch of text, each new MS discovered vindicates added Byzantine readings. Extrapolating from the behavior of the data in hand, if we had at least 3 papyri covering all parts of the NT (we have only 30 % of the NT with early Papyri support), almost all the 6000+ Byzantine readings rejected by the critical texts would be vindicated by an early papyrus."


Chester Beatty Papyri collection - early 3rd century - Quite often agrees with the Byzantine text. P45 (250), P46 (200), P47 (250)

Bodmer Papyri - Several Byzantine readings - P66 (200), p72 (300), P74 (650), P75 (175-225)

What is the significance of this information? Traditional (Byzantine) Text readings are found very early (Chester Beatty, Bodmer) and therefore cannot be a late corruption as some text critics tell us. The date of the manuscript is not the date of the text. All the minuscules (of which the majority are of the traditional Byzantine text) are not a late corruption or a late arrival.

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