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Issues with Reasoned Eclecticism Textual Criticism: The Tors/Costa New Testament Text Debate

Updated: May 26

Part 2 of 2


On the evening of Saturday, April 22, 2017, I debated Dr. Tony Costa on the topic of “the methodology of the reconstruction of the Greek New Testament [1].” I was contending for the Majority Reading/Byzantine text Approach, while Dr. Costa argued for Reasoned Eclecticism, the dominant approach that was used to produce the Nestle-Aland (NA) Greek text. This was my first formal debate and it was certainly a learning experience.

It quickly became obvious that there are insurmountable limitations of time. I composed my opening 35-minute talk trying to keep it as succinct as possible, saying only what needed to be said – and it ran for 1 hour 19 minutes. I had to make several passes at editing it down in order to get it into the 35-minute period allowed, and each time I had to jettison content I did not want to lose. So, as much as I would have liked, some issues simply could not be addressed.

Second, it is a definite advantage to be the second speaker and so get the “last word,” and there doesn’t seem to be a way to level this particular playing field. Posting follow-up articles, such as this one, by each participant seems to be the only way that each can simultaneously have the “last word.”

Finally, I made a major tactical blunder. The debate was scheduled to end with a five-minute conclusion from each party, and I wrote mine in advance. When my turn came, I gave that prepared conclusion, rather than using the opportunity to respond to Dr. Costa’s final arguments and drive my points home, which is what I should have done.

Therefore, I am offering a series of articles in lieu of the extemporaneous conclusion I should have given. (Of course, in this format, I can go into far more detail than I would have in the debate conclusion.) Naturally, I would not have been able to respond to everything Dr. Costa had said, but there were three things that I should have emphasized. They are:

  • Modern mainstream textual criticism destroys any meaningful concept of Biblical inerrancy.

  • Modern mainstream textual criticism has no viable explanation for the dominance of the Byzantine text.

  • Objecting to the Majority Reading Approach does not justify continuing to use Reasoned Eclecticism, in light of the fact that Reasoned Eclecticism had been shown to be not just fundamentally wrong but backwards.

The first is by far the most important of these, and it was discussed in detail in our earlier article [2]. In this article we examine the other two points.

Modern Mainstream Textual Criticism Has No Viable Explanation for the Dominance of the Byzantine Text

The overwhelming majority of extant New Testament manuscripts, 95-98%, are of the Byzantine text type [3]. If the Alexandrian text type is closest to the original (so that the best text is preserved in a small handful of corrupt Egyptian manuscripts), how did the Byzantine text come to have such an overwhelming numerical majority? Anyone who argues for Alexandrian priority must give a reasonable answer to this.

Dr. Costa gave a two-part response:

  1. The Alexandrian manuscripts were actually the majority until the 9th century, when the Byzantine manuscripts overtook them in numbers.

  2. The decline in the writing of Alexandrian manuscripts was due to

    1. The destruction of manuscripts during the Roman persecution of Christians

    2. The fact that Latin supplanted Greek as the language of the Western Christian world

    3. The Islamic invasions, which conquered North Africa, including Egypt, which made it unsafe for Christians to have scriptoria for reproducing manuscripts

    4. Byzantium, however, was shielded from the Islamic invasions and continued to produce manuscripts in large numbers until Constantinople finally fell to the Turks in 1453.

Upon examination, however, these explanations utterly fail to justify the idea that the Alexandrian text type was the original and, accordingly, the majority, only to be supplanted much later by the Byzantine text.

First, it is not justified to claim that the Alexandrian text type was the majority until the 9th century (or ever, for that matter). This claim is based on the papyri [4] and the uncials [5] through the 8th century, and they fall far short of proving Dr. Costa’s contention.

There are two problems with appealing to the papyri. First, as was pointed out during the debate, the papyri are not, in fact, Alexandrian; their text is a mix of all different types, and not classifiable according to the traditional text-types:

Rather than lining up in ‘clear streams’ or ‘text-types’ … the earliest manuscripts are dotted helter-skelter over a wide spectrum of variation [6].
For example, p66 is not fully Alexandrian nor fully Western nor fully Byzantine. Scholars are hard-pressed to give p66 a fitting label [7].

In fact, the nature of the text in the papyri led Dr. Kurt Aland, editor of the Nestle-Aland text, no less, to conclude that,

It is impossible to speak of mixed texts before recensions [8] have been made (they can only follow them), whereas, the NT manuscripts of the second and third centuries which have a ‘mixed text’ clearly existed before recensions were made … The simple fact that all these papyri, with their various distinctive characteristics, did exist side by side, in the same ecclesiastical province … is the best argument against the existence of any text-types, including the Alexandrian and the [Byzantine]. We still live in the world of Westcott and Hort with our conception of different recensions and text-types … We can no longer take their conception as valid [9].

Second, any claims about the text type used by Christians in those centuries requires a statistically significant sample of manuscripts that is properly stratified i.e. representing all areas of the Christian world. Due to the fragile nature of papyrus, we do not have that; they can survive such long periods only in hot, dry climates, such as the desert regions of Egypt. It is not surprising, therefore, that, as far as we can tell, all of our NT papyri come from the region of Alexandria, Egypt. At most, then, all they could tell us is what text type was used in that area.

But they cannot even tell us that; all of the papyri whose provenance we know came from a garbage dump at Oxyrhynchus – where they were discarded by their Christian owners who tore them up prior to throwing them into the garbage [10]. Fairly, all the NT papyri could tell us is what sort of text was considered so corrupt by Christians in those centuries that they were not worth keeping [11].

Regarding the uncials, here, too, the situation is not what Dr. Costa believes. On the contrary: Aland classifies a total of 162 pre-ninth century uncials as to text-type, and while he describes only twenty-three as Byzantine, he lists only six as Alexandrian! As I have pointed out elsewhere,

In fact the majority (84) are classified as Category III, which Aland describes as “Manuscripts with a small but not a negligible proportion of early readings, with … a relatively strong Byzantine influence” while forty-four are classed as Category II i.e. “manuscripts with a considerable proportion of the early text — marred by alien influences — and in the late periods by infiltration by the Byzantine text.” Given that Aland offers Codex Koridethi as an example of a Category II manuscript, while Metzger writes that “in Matthew, Luke, and John the text [of Codex Koridethi] is similar to the type of text in most Byzantine manuscripts”, one wonders how many of Aland’s Category II and especially Category III manuscripts might be better classified as Byzantine [12].

It seems quite clear that the Byzantine text was in the majority all along, and Dr. Costa’s statement in contradiction of this is unsustainable.

The appeal to the destruction of manuscripts during the period of Roman persecutions does nothing to help the case for the Alexandrian texts. Romans certainly destroyed New Testament manuscripts, but they were not targeting any particular text type, so, while the total number of manuscripts went down, the ratio of the text types would not have changed. Roman persecutors got their hands on manuscripts randomly, and so whatever was the majority originally among the manuscripts would have remained the majority after the destructions, and in approximately the same ratio. That should be obvious.

The appeal to the Islamic invasions does not help either. Dr. Costa said the Muslim armies conquered north Africa by AD 750 [13]. But Christianity was legalized in the Roman Empire by the Edict of Milan issued by Constantine in AD 313, and so the persecutions ceased. By AD 380, Christianity was the state religion of the Empire.

This means that Christians had more than three full centuries during which they could freely and openly compare manuscripts, determine the best ones, and copy and distribute them. So the best Greek manuscripts would have come to dominate everywhere in the Greek-speaking Christian world.

It was during this period that the Roman Empire came to an end in the West in AD 476, but it carried on in the East as the Byzantine Empire, which quickly recaptured much of the former Western territory of the Roman Empire. Mainstream textual critics usually try to undermine the Byzantine text by claiming that “The Byzantine text type was produced in a corner [14],” but this is a statement of appalling ignorance; the Byzantine Empire was not a “corner,” nor was it simply the city of “Byzantium,” but was a huge empire (about 70% of the size of the original Roman Empire at its greatest extent). It comprised the entire Greek-speaking Christian world.

It was this entire Greek-speaking Christian world that produced large numbers of manuscripts of the best quality Greek NT text. The unstated idea of Dr. Costa that each part of the Empire produced only its own regional text during those centuries is unsustainable; there was consultation and communication among the church leaders who discussed, inter alia, textual variants in search of the best New Testament text, that is, the original.

Christianity was legalized in the Roman Empire in AD 313 and the Muslim invasions began in AD 634. That means, as we have said, that the church had over three centuries to collate the best Greek NT text using manuscripts from all over the entire Greek-speaking Christian world, which was the Byzantine Empire. And it should be noted that the empire included Alexandria and the rest of Egypt, so the church leaders and scholars certainly had access to the Alexandrian manuscripts. Had those had the best text, the Alexandrian would have “become” the Majority textand it did not.

It is also not even remotely correct to say that “Byzantium” was shielded from the Islamic invasions unlike the West. On the contrary, the Byzantine Empire underwent the earliest and most sustained and implacable attacks by the Muslim armies. Israel and Egypt, which were taken almost immediately, and North Africa were part of the Byzantine Empire, not of the West, as Dr. Costa seemed to think.

Muslims did not invade the West until AD 711. They were checked at the Battle of Tours in AD 732, and shortly after AD 800 ceased to be a significant threat to the West, whereas the Byzantine Empire was under attack for centuries, losing territory throughout until the fall of Constantinople in AD 1453. But through all that time, the people of the Empire continued to produce copies of the best NT Greek text that had been established centuries before the Muslim attacks began. For its part, the West was copying the Bible in Latin, which was by this time the language of the intelligentsia there, and so what they did was irrelevant to the text of the Greek New Testament.

In sum, then, the majority text of the Byzantine Empire was the majority text of the entire Greek speaking Christian world, which had had plenty of time and opportunity to assemble the best text of the Greek New Testament, and that is what they did: the Majority, Byzantine Text.

Questions about the Majority Reading Approach Do Not Justify Continuing to Use a Method (Reasoned Eclecticism) That Was Shown to Be Fatally Flawed

In this debate, I was arguing for the Majority Reading Approach, which was founded upon statistical analysis, while Dr. Costa was arguing for Reasoned Eclecticism, which was based fundamentally upon Griesbach’s canons of textual criticism and the Westcott-Hort Theory.

What I showed was that the linchpin of Reasoned Eclecticism is the claim that scribes freely took it upon themselves to alter the text of the NT that they were copying, and that if this claim is untrue, the entire edifice of Reasoned Eclecticism collapses. I went on to show that this claim is indeed false, as shown by two independent lines of evidence, viz. the self-testimony of the early Christian leaders and the study of actual scribal habits in the manuscripts. Any deliberate alterations were rare and would not affect many manuscripts, and, inadvertently, Dr. Costa demonstrated my point here, as the examples of deliberate alteration he adduced were all confined to a very few, or even only one, manuscript.

The upshot of all this was that the Reasoned Eclecticism is wrong – completely wrong – and will lead to the wrong choice of variant in almost all, if not all, cases. Its product, the Nestle-Aland text, is dead (though I do not expect mainstream textual critics to face that fact).

In response, Dr. Costa attacked the Majority Reading Approach, and he did so in two ways, saying (1) the majority is not always right; and (2) the Majority Reading Approach would not work for compiling the original text of the Old Testament.

Regarding (1), that is axiomatic of course. That does not mean that minority is more likely to be right however, and in this case the point is moot; I showed by means of statistical analysis that the majority is certainly right in this case.

Regarding (2), this is also a moot point, since we are discussing recovering the original text of the New Testament, not the Old, and the data set profile is quite different for the two. Whether or not the Majority Reading Approach would work for the Old Testament, it certainly works with the New Testament, for which we have a stratified data sample an order of magnitude larger than what is needed for statistical significance.

The key point here, however, is this: If one does not like the Majority Reading Approach, he is free to propose another method. But not liking the Majority Reading Approach is not a licence to continue using Reasoned Eclecticism; that method has definitely been shown to be not just wrong but backwards.



1. The debate was held at Toronto Free Presbyterian Church in Toronto, Canada. It can be seen at

2. See Tors, John. “Textual Criticism and the End of Biblical Inerrancy: Follow-up Comments on the Tors/Costa New Testament Text Debate (Part 1)”

3. I use the term “text type” for convenience. As was explained in the debate, the concept can no longer properly be maintained, and virtually all manuscripts must be seen as independent witnesses to the original text of the New Testament.

4. Manuscripts written on papyrus paper, dating from the second to the early 8th century AD. These include the earliest manuscripts.

5. Manuscripts written on vellum, using all capital letters, dating from the third to the 11th century AD. (Codex 0189 may be from the late 2nd century.)

6. Pickering, Wilbur N. The Identity of the New Testament Text. Revised Edition. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1980, p. 57

7. Comfort, Philip W. Early Manuscripts and Modern Translations of the New Testament. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1990, p. 14

8. That is, edited collations of the text. The Alexandrian and Byzantine text-types are both alleged to be recensions, with the Alexandrian being prepared long before the Byzantine.

9. Kurt Aland. “The Significance of the Papyri for Progress in New Testament Research,” in Hyatt, J. Philip. ed. The Bible in Modern Scholarship. New York: Abingdon Press, 1965, pp. 325-346. (Bolding and underlining added.)

10. Luijendijk, AnneMarie. “Sacred Scripture as Trash: Biblical Papyri from Oxyrhynchus.” Vigiliae Christianae 64 (2010), pp. 217-254

11. See Tors, John. “GIGO: Unearthing a Decisive New Tipping Point for Textual Criticism”

12. Tors, John. “The Westcott-Hort Theory Reexamined.” Master of Divinity Thesis, Ontario Theological Seminary, 1996. (Mutatis mutandis)

13. It was actually earlier than that. The Muslims conquered Egypt in AD 634, and by AD 711 they had crossed the Straits of Gibraltar and suborned the Iberian peninsula.

14. Wallace, Daniel. “The Majority-Text Theory: History, Methods and Critique.” JETS 37:2, 1994, pp. 209

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