The Syrian Recension

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In many modern versions of the Bible, especially study Bibles containing footnotes and references at the bottom of each page, we may notice that certain passages have a note claiming that they are “not found in the best and most reliable manuscripts.” Also, when reading along in the Bible with others using a different version we may notice that some verses have entirely different meanings, or are even missing from ours. The notes for these types of changes often read something like, “some later manuscripts have …”, followed by the relevant text.

These claims suggest that some parts of our Bible are not inspired by God and shouldn’t be trusted, and that other parts may have been corrupted or twisted in some way. There are actually hundreds of examples like this, most of them in the New Testament. Examples include Mark 16:9-20, John 8:1-11, Romans 8:1, and 1 Timothy 3:16.

Now, when one is inclined to believe whatever their church or pastor teaches, this isn’t such a big deal, but when a soul is actually relying on the Bible to have a right relationship with God, the fact that some Bibles are different from others can be very troubling. Why do some Bibles make these claims? How do we know which Bible to trust? Can any of our Bibles be trusted?

Even though our Bibles are, for all practical purposes, 99% identical, and even though no major teachings of the Bible appear to rely exclusively on disputed readings, I have personally encountered folk so confused and dismayed by this problem that they were refusing to seek God at all. Though I think such a response is unreasonable, I can’t say that I blame them entirely: confident conclusions cannot be drawn from questionable sources. Rather than an uncertain or man-made spirituality, some choose none at all.

Similarly, most professing Christians have come to believe that the ultimate authority in spiritual matters isn’t an actual Bible that we can all read and understand, but in church leaders who hold seminary degrees, and in the scholars teaching in such seminaries: those whose full-time job is studying the Bible in the original languages and explaining it to others. Consequently, most believers in our day will not take a firm stand on a disputed topic simply because they think a certain position is most in line with the Bible, but will instead defer to a church doctrinal statement, a commentary written by a favorite theologian, or to a sermon by their pastor.

Though it might be common for believers in our day to feel this way, I think this mentality is inconsistent with the pursuit of God. God holds each of us accountable for what we believe. In doing so, God implies that we should not rely on others to tell us what the Bible contains or what it means. If we believe wrongly about something we have no one to blame but ourselves, we cannot blame our pastor or our church. We are to search out the truth for ourselves to the best of our ability.

So what are we to do with these claims in our Bibles? Is there a way for a lay person to determine what is true?

Conveniently, and indeed surprisingly, it can be demonstrated rather easily that these claims about disputed readings in our Bible are invalid, and that any related uncertainty in the integrity of Scripture is inappropriate. We simply need to understand the pertinent details of the debate, think intelligently about the evidence, and be willing to stand alone (or perhaps with a small minority) if this evidence suggests that we should. If this is not your own response to the following facts please let me know. I would enjoy knowing why.

The Facts

The New Testament is composed of twenty-seven books, and was completed in the text of Revelation by John the Apostle in about 90 CE. The original letters and writings comprising the New Testament, which we call the autographs, were either originally written in Greek, or promptly translated into Greek, forming a body of manuscripts called the Greek New Testament. (GNT) These books were copied and recopied, by hand, time and time again, and disseminated throughout the known world of the Greco-Roman Empire as the early Church spread, for the next millennium and a half, right up until the invention of the printing press. During that long period of time these original Greek manuscripts were used and reused until they were lost. Scholars believe we no longer have any of these original documents, the autographs, and that we only have copies of them.

As copies were made, and copies of those copies, slight changes occurred in the manuscripts. Some of these changes appear to have been made inadvertently, such as a copying error where a word was spelled differently or perhaps omitted. Most changes are extremely minor, as in the difference between who and whom, or between which and that.

In a few places, however, the differences between the texts are much more significant and pronounced. Errors may have occurred as copyists mistook for scripture comments scribbled into the margin of a text, inadvertently incorporating these into the inspired text, supposedly inserting whole passages into the Bible inappropriately. It is also claimed that deliberate additions and or deletions occurred in certain places of the GNT and were preserved in future copies, corrupting the intent of the original.

About 6000 copies of these ancient manuscripts are still in existence, containing portions or the whole of the GNT, along with about 10,000 ancient manuscripts which were translated from Greek into Latin. All of these manuscripts are studied and compared with great care and diligence to determine exactly what the autographs contained. This study is called Textual Criticism.

These surviving manuscript witnesses are often classified into two broad groups. One group, containing the large majority (80%) of the manuscripts, is often called the Byzantine Text, or the Majority Text, or the Received Text, though there are slight variations in the definitions of these terms and how they are used. This family of manuscripts appears to be more complete or to contain additional material not found in the other manuscripts. These manuscripts have much in common concerning disputed passages, were found over a very broad geographical region comprising most of the old Roman Empire, and appear to be relatively consistent with one another, as though they all spring from a single unique source. These manuscripts are generally much younger than the manuscripts in the other group, their origin most often being estimated at a point later in time than most all of those manuscripts in the other family of texts. These younger manuscripts were used in translating the Authorized King James Bible of 1611 (KJV) and its revisions (the New King James Bible, KJ3, etc.).

The remaining manuscripts can roughly be classified into a second group, called the Alexandrian or Egyptian Text. These are generally older texts, found mainly in the regions surrounding the city of Alexandria, Egypt, where the hot dry climate was more amenable to their preservation. These manuscripts are generally inconsistent with one another and with the Byzantine Text, having the appearance of omissions or implying that the autographs did not contain some of the readings in the Byzantine Text, such as Mark 16:9-20, John 5:3-4, John 8:1-11, Romans 8:1b and others. These manuscripts also contain many variations in readings where words are different from those in the Byzantine Text, such as in 1 Timothy 3:16 where some of the Alexandrian texts do not have the word “God” in them like the Byzantine texts do, but have the article “he” and so have, “He was manifest in the flesh,” instead of, “God was manifest in the flesh.”

The Alexandrian manuscripts have been used in most all Bible translation work since the late 1800’s. It is commonly understood that scholars believe these manuscripts are generally more accurate and authentic because they are older, and therefore more likely to represent the original autographs. Most English translations of the New Testament available today, except the KJV and its revisions as noted above, are based on the Alexandrian text and refer to this family of manuscripts as “the best and most reliable manuscripts.”

The Dispute

Essentially, the dilemma may be summarized as follows: either the Alexandrian Text has incorrect omissions and substitutions of certain words, and/or the Byzantine Text contains incorrect additions and substitutions of certain words. If one accepts either type of text as authentic this implies a rejection of the other type as corrupt. Determining which reading is authentic in each disputed passage is the science and philosophy embedded in the discipline of New Testament Textual Criticism. When a determination is made to accept a reading as authentic a plausible explanation should also be offered for the origin of the rejected reading(s).

The above facts are not generally disputed. What is disputed is the choice of the older set of manuscripts, the Alexandrian text, as the type of text which more accurately reflects the autographs.

In light of the fact that most all Bible scholars now prefer the Alexandrian text, one might suppose that the weight of the manuscript evidence supports this view. Surprisingly, however, a brief review of the actual historical debate (documented in The Revision Revised, Dean John William Burgon, 1883, pp. [235]-[343]), demonstrates that this is not the case.  The salient facts from the debate are evident, and are easily understood by any interested person.

To my knowledge, the following facts, along with the above overview, remain undisputed.

The Actual Historical Debate

In the last half of 19th century numerous scholars from England and the US convened to revise the KJV, which was at that time the only English version of the Bible in popular use in English speaking cultures and was nearing its third century of use. It had been an integral part of two great Christian revivals and was trusted implicitly as the Word of God by the vast majority of Christians. The stated purpose of the convention was to update some of the archaic language, correct some of the known defects in the underlying GNT based on recent discoveries, and standardize some spelling and grammar so as to make the KJV more useful.

However, as these scholars were discussing the best Greek texts to use in their work, certain more influential members of the convention began to promote the Alexandrian texts as superior to the Byzantine. This step, by definition, would radically change the scope of the convention from a mere revision of the KJV to the creation of a completely new translation based on an entirely different type of Greek text.

There is, however, a difficulty inherent in taking this step that the scholars present at this convention understood very well. The difficulty lies is the mere existence of a highly consistent and proportionately large population of GNT manuscripts with a significantly different nature than the Alexandrian text. These Byzantine manuscripts certainly do exist, and they represent a type of manuscript that has been accepted and trusted by Christian leaders since at least the middle of the third century. If one is to reject these manuscripts as an accurate witness of the autographs with any credibility, then one must also propose a rational explanation for their existence.

There is no such difficulty inherent in choosing the Byzantine text as authentic; no Alexandrian manuscript predates the activity of the Gnostics, a heretical group based in Alexandria, Egypt and infamous for their editing of the Scriptures. The Gnostics deleted passages of the New Testament that did not agree with their doctrines and many early Church writers bore witness of this activity. The worst corruptions known to have been introduced into the texts of the GNT were introduced in precisely the areas where the Alexandrian texts were generally found, and predate these manuscripts.

In considering the above facts, these 19th century scholars recognized that the general consistency of the Byzantine text could not have resulted from random and haphazard copying errors occurring over hundreds of years, or the infrequent and inadvertent inclusion of brief comments scribbled into the margins of certain manuscripts. Such random and sparse events would not have generated a family of manuscripts that was largely consistent within itself and spread over a very large geographic region, nor the consistent witness to its authenticity by the earliest Christian writers.

These scholars were in consensus that in order for general consistency to have developed in the Byzantine text that was inconsistent with the original autographs, which must be the case if the Alexandrian manuscripts are more reliable, the inconsistencies must have been introduced rapidly, purposefully, and during a relatively brief period very early in Church history. In effect, they concluded that the mere existence of the Byzantine text implies one of two things: either it is an authentic witness of the autographs, or the early Church fathers deliberately and collaboratively created the Byzantine text, corrupting the autographs and imposing the disputed readings of the Byzantine text on the whole of the early Church.

Since no such event as this is given even scant mention in any historical record of the Church, rather than accept the obvious conclusion that the Byzantine text is the most accurate witness to the original autographs, as scholars in the 17th century had already done when translating the KJV, late 19th century scholars promoting the Alexandrian text proposed a theory — a mere conjecture, actually — called The Syrian Recension. They proposed that in about 250 CE early Church leaders became alarmed at the widespread use of several strains of corrupt versions of the GNT and convened in Antioch, Syria to remedy the situation. They gathered up most all of the copies of the letters and writings comprising the GNT that were available to them and they tried their best to determine which texts were most authentic representations of the autographs. They would have, we must presume, leveraged as many manuscripts as possible, collected from all over the Greco-Roman world, and would have incorporated their knowledge of the witness of prior Christian leaders to the authenticity of disputed readings, to create the purest GNT text possible, based on the best of the manuscript witnesses available to them at the time. The conjecture was that these early Church leaders completed their work as well as they could, and then made many new copies of this corrected GNT containing their edits and revisions, and redistributed these newly created manuscripts back into circulation in the churches replacing the earlier, corrupted manuscripts.

The claim is that the early Church leaders did this in universal cooperation with each other and the churches all over the known world, and left absolutely no record of it, such that no one complained about it or ever even mentioned it in any of the early writings of the Church.

As to the origin of the supposed corrupt strains of the GNT which prompted this supposed crisis in the Church, resulting in the supposed Syrian Recension, this is not explained by these 19th century scholars: they are silent as to the original source of these corrupt manuscripts, who might have initially created them and why, and provide no examples of any ancient manuscripts representing these corrupt strains, nor any reference to this kind of activity in any writings of the early Church fathers.

Further, and perhaps most glaringly, those proposing this Syrian Recension claimed that these early Church fathers, doing their very best to represent the autographs and knowing about manuscripts of the authentic (Alexandrian) type, were so confused by these supposed corrupt strains of the GNT and the misguided witness of earlier Church leaders quoting this corrupted type of text, that they all and with one accord came to the wrong conclusions about which texts were authentic. We must presume from this that the corrupt manuscripts of this Byzantine variety were already so common and widespread in the churches that these early revisionists, sincere as they were, completely missed identifying the most accurate readings (that being, we are to presume, those of the Alexandrian text) and therefore that these forefathers, in trying to restore the authentic witness of the GNT, botched up the entire process.

The Syrian Recension speculation is that the early Church leaders did this unfortunate work so effectively and quietly that they were able to spread their ignorant but well-intentioned corruptions to the inspired Word of God back into use in the churches without notice or controversy: the event did not alarm or concern any of the saints of that day, and hence no record of the event remains.

These misguided men were, we are asked to believe, so successful that the copies descending from their work further supplanted the spread of most all manuscripts true to the original autographs and therefore corrupted the true representation of the original text among the majority of manuscripts which can be found today, which is, we are asked to believe, embodied in the “corrupt” Byzantine Text.

In effect, the 19th century scholars promoting The Syrian Recension, in considering the weight of the evidence in favor of the Byzantine text, conceded that this type of text must have been rooted in manuscripts that were in such widespread and prevalent use in the churches by 250 CE that the pure form of the autographs had already been all but supplanted by them, thus making it nearly impossible for the early Church leaders to determine the correct readings of the GNT. (The only alternative is to presume that these early revisionists deliberately corrupted the GNT, which is evidently unreasonable.) This “insight” places the ultimate source(s) of the Byzantine Text well before any collection of manuscripts available today, including those of the Alexandrian type.

Thus, in choosing to hold to this idea of The Syrian Recension, these 19th century scholars so eager to supplant the KJV were forced to concede that the age or frequency of any particular reading available to them had no bearing on its authenticity. In doing so they exposed their choice of the Alexandrian text as arbitrarily subjective: they were choosing it merely because they had a subjective, predisposed bias to do so, and for no other reason.

This is how 19th century biblical scholars chose to explain the history of the available manuscript witness so that they could hold to the integrity of the Alexandrian Text. The Syrian Recension conjecture initially proposed by these few more influential members of the convention was eventually imposed on and adopted by the majority of the scholars in their biblical translation work. They relied explicitly upon it to discount the Byzantine text, and they eventually crafted an entirely new GNT text, differing from the Byzantine in about 6000 significant readings, and produced the Revised Version of 1881, a completely new English translation of the Bible.

The few scholars (such as John Burgon) who persisted in conflict with this work were eventually discounted, drowned out and ignored. Their objections and reasoning are seldom mentioned in any treatment of the topic today.

Progress Since the Revision

Since the revisers completed their work in 1881, no other theory has been proposed to replace The Syrian Recension as the foundation of modern textual criticism. After more than a century of continued debate, The Syrian Recension is, in fact, the only detailed explanation that has ever been formally proposed by GNT scholarship to explain the existence of the Byzantine text.

Most students of the debate do not seem to be aware of this fact, and persist in thinking that inadvertent copying errors and the inclusion of marginal scribal comments may reasonably account for the Byzantine text. They remain unaware that this concept was firmly discarded by GNT scholars, including men passionately opposed to the KJV, based on commonly known, well documented and readily verifiable facts … well over a century ago. No new data has surfaced to move anyone to formally reconsider this decision and/or to propose a better theory.

The result: although there have been minor enhancements to the new GNT text of 1881, the superiority of the Alexandrian text still remains the foundation of currently accepted and sanctioned perspectives in New Testament textual criticism. Therefore, the accuracy and reliability of these newer translations still rests directly upon the validity of The Syrian Recension and depends explicitly upon it. In claiming that the Byzantine text is inferior to the Alexandrian — which is now generally referred to as “the best and most reliable manuscripts” — we are formally accepting The Syrian Recension conjecture. The only alternative is to provide another explanation for the existence of the Byzantine text. To date, no other formal explanation exists.

Common Sense

In my opinion, it does not take a scholar to understand these details, or to draw a sound conclusion from them. I will state the obvious, and invite anyone thinking otherwise to challenge me.

If there had been such a crisis in the early transmission of the GNT that it called for an organized revision by orthodox Christian leaders by 250 CE, this fact would be very well documented in the early writings of the Church. There is absolutely no evidence of such an event in the entire history of the Church. This is sufficient proof that such a revision did not occur.

Until a rational explanation for the existence of the Byzantine text is made available, the only reasonable response to the facts is to accept the Byzantine text as the most as authentic witness of the original manuscripts, and therefore to reject the Alexandrian text as corrupt. This was the position of all known orthodox Christians from the days of the early Church until the publication of the Revised Version in 1881.

Conclusion

Any and all claims in our modern Bibles relating to the “best” and/or “oldest and most reliable manuscripts” should be ignored. The fallacies inherent in The Syrian Recension conjecture, upon which these claims are based, constitute reasonable proof that these claims are groundless, and therefore also that most all biblical translation work done since the late 19th century is of inferior quality to that of the Authorized King James Bible.

The practical implication of these facts is that, as a general rule, modern English Bible translations should not be trusted where they differ from the Authorized King James Bible, which may be safely trusted as a faithful witness of God’s inspired Word. Common English speaking people may access and understand God’s Word using the KJV and a good English dictionary, right along with the most learned scholars.

For further helpful information on this topic, please refer to:
♦ The Dean Burgon Society
The Providential Preservation of the Greek Text of the New Testament, Rev. W. MacLean, M.A., Westminster Standard, 4th Edition, 1983
Preface to the Edition of 1881

Here are some related articles on this site:
Add Not unto His Words (Pr 30:6) Sufficiency of the written Word
After Easter 
(Acts 12:4) A favorite of KJV critics, defended
♦ Buy the Truth
 (Pr 23:23) 
Identifying, pursuing and keeping truth 
Given By Inspiration (2Ti 3:16-17) The purpose of inspiration leads us to trust the KJV
♦ His Virgin (1Co 7:36) incriminating error in modern Bibles

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