SBLGNT, Robinson/Pierpont, and the Majority Text

One thing that I commonly hear repeated in discussions between Textus Receptus and Critical Text advocates is the idea that modern text critics always, or nearly always, favor the readings found in the oldest manuscripts as opposed to the readings found in the majority text.

Now, it’s not an exact study, but this generally means that the Robinson/Pierpont text represents the majority text while Critical Texts represent a different reading.

I contacted Michael Holmes, who is arguably an heir of Bruce Metzger, and the publisher of the recent Society of Biblical Literature Greek New Testament. He is also a friend and was my Greek professor in college.

The SBLGNT apparatus is slightly different from other critical apparatuses in that rather than explain which manuscripts contain which readings, it instead shows which major Critical Texts contain which readings. The four major Critical Texts he compares are Westcott-Hort, Tregelles, NA28/27, and Robinson/Pierpont. Generally speaking the RP favors the majority/Byzantine text type. The WH, Treg, and NA28/27 tend to favor the Alexandrian text type. For this reason the RP tends to be closer to the TR, while the other three usually depart from the TR.

Back to the original claim. The original claim is that modern Text Critics always, or nearly always, favor the oldest texts. This is the case, so says the TR advocate, even when there is a vast majority of readings in the manuscript traditions which differ.

However, as is always the case with sweeping statements, a single exception disproves a universal claim. While it is true that the careful TR advocate will not claim this as a universal fact, I have far too often interacted with TR advocates who are not quite so careful.

Back to Dr Holmes and the SBLGNT. Because of his unique apparatus, it is quite easy to see instances where Holmes chooses the same reading as the Robinson/Pierpont do, as opposed to WH, Treg, and NA28/27. There are 56 such instances.

Now, I know that this doesn’t prove conclusively that Holmes ever favors the Majority/Byzantine text type over the Alexandrian (which presumably represents the earliest manuscripts in most cases) it does serve as a handy response to the sweeping claims of the TR advocate. If Holmes and RP chose the Byzantine, then Holmes —IE a modern text critic in the tradition of Metzger— has chosen the Byzantine text type over the Alexandrian. If Holmes and RP chose the Alexandrian text type, then WH, Treg, and NA28/27 —IE modern text critics in the tradition of Metzger— have chosen the Byzantine text type over the Alexandrian. In either case it disproves the sweeping claim.

Although most of the instances consist of a single word, of particular importance is Romans 16:24 where WH, Treg, and NA28/27 omit the verse entirely while Holmes and RP include it. According to Bruce Metzger.

The earliest and best witnesses omit v. 24.[1]

So here we have an explicit instance of a modern Text Critic (Holmes) siding with the Majority/Byzantine text as opposed to simply siding with the earliest witnesses.

Beyond that, there are also a number of cases where one of the three critical texts agree with RP against the other two, and 46 instances where Holmes prefers a reading that all four other editions reject.

This conclusively disproves the claim that modern Text Critics always opt for the oldest reading, even in the face of overwhelming numbers of manuscripts in the Byzantine text type.

  1. Roger Omanson, A Textual Guide to the Greek New Testament (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2006), 324.