Alpha & Omega Ministries Apologetics Blog
Dean Burgon and His Phantom Manuscripts
04/19/2007 - Alan KurschnerOne of the most bizarre arguments made from King James Only advocates is the claim made popular by the late 19th century Dean Burgon. Attempting to explain why there are no extant Greek manuscripts with distinct KJV readings (or more specifically, distinct readings from a Greek Byzantine form of text) from the first 300 years of church history, he claimed that because these manuscripts were so popular and were used extensively in the early church, they became "worn out."
Given that KJVO advocates since Burgon have not advanced any substantial arguments up to this day, you will often hear this "worn out manuscripts" argument from many KJVO even today. (Btw, since their arguments have not substantially advanced in over 100 years since Burgon, it is the reason why they continue to invoke their hackneyed arguments against Westcott and Hort.)
Let me preface my comments for some by explaining that there is substantially about only six very late manuscripts that were used to create the Greek edition which is the basis behind the King James Version. They are contrasted with the host of early better Greek manuscripts (Alexandrian text-type) that make up the Greek edition behind modern translations such as the NIV, NASB, ESV, to name a few. It should also be noted that the two forms of the Byzantine Greek text--the Majority Text and the Textus Receptus (KJV)--have 1,838 differences between them! In other words, the Textus Receptus is a very poor reflection of the Byzantine text-type. (To be sure, the differences between the Byzantine and Alexandrian text-types are not two separate New Testaments; and no cardinal doctrine is affected in the differences, albeit, a good number of significant exegetical texts are affected in one’s textual choices.)
Since KJVO advocates want to claim legitimacy and antiquity to their Greek Byzantine textual tradition that is behind their KJV, they will assert that the Greek Byzantine line of transmission goes back to the early church, even to the first century to the autographs themselves.
There are fundamental empirical-historical problems with such a claim: The most glaring problem is that there is not a single Greek manuscript, papyrus, or early version for the first 300 years of church history that contains a distinct KJV (or Byzantine) reading from a manuscript that reflects a Byzantine text.
How did Dean Burgon—and today, KJVO advocates—respond to these historical facts? They claim that because the Byzantine manuscripts were highly valuable in the early church they were “used so much that they wore out." If you ever witness such an explanation from a KJVO advocate, the following responses should correct their claim quickly:
1) If the Byzantine text was so "highly valuable that they wore out," then why do we find all of the early church fathers for 300 years using other texts such as the Alexandrian text-type, mix-types, etc., but absolutely no Byzantine texts? In other words, nowhere is there to be found any Byzantine texts used in the voluminous writings of any early church fathers for the first 300 years of church history!
If the early orthodox fathers were not using Byzantine texts, then who were? Heterodox teachers and heretics? Who was using these phantom texts? There is no evidence that anyone possessed or used this phantom “popular” and “highly valued” Byzantine text. So, not only do we have phantom manuscripts in the early church we have all these phantom believers who were using these manuscripts extensively, and consequently they "wore out."
2) Dan Wallace makes a great point on the utter improbability that the Byzantine text existed in the early church. He writes, "what is to explain their complete nonexistence before the late fourth century? Are we to suppose that every single ‘good’ NT somehow wasted away—that no historical accident could have preserved even one from the first 350 years? The quaint analogy that a used Bible gets worn out might work in individual cases. But to argue this on a grand scale stretches the credibility of the theory far beyond the breaking point. Would one not expect to see at least some early papyri...with a distinctively Byzantine text form? It will not do to say that all the early papyri represent the local text of Egypt, because every text-type is apparently found in the papyri—except the Byzantine" (See his "The Majority Text Theory: History, Methods, and Critique").
3) Related to the previous point, KJVO advocates evidently do not recognize an obvious flaw in their argument when they assert that the Byzantine text was very popular and therefore many copies were produced. If this Byzantine form of text was copied so many times, then we would expect to find many extant copies—not zero. So this argument only self-refutes and demonstrates the opposite conclusion.
In Sum, The emergence of the Byzantine text (again, what is roughly the basis behind the King James Version) can be explained as a conflation around the turn of the fourth century in the corner of the Byzantine region. And given the supplanting of the Greek language for Latin in the West, and the expansion of Islam, it explains why Byzantine Greek manuscripts continued to be copied in the Byzantine sector and eventually became the majority Greek text not until the ninth century onwards; and why the early Greek text-types such as the Alexandrian, which is the basis of modern superior translations, were not copied during later times in other areas of the Christian world.
So when confronted with this unavoidable historical-empirical evidence, where does the KJVO advocate then find recourse to further their fideism? They will flee from this historical reality to Biblical proof-texting such as Ps. 119:89; John 10:35; and Isa. 40:8. These Biblical texts are somehow supposed to prove that a 17th century Anglican English translation (KJV) is the fulfillment of God preserving his Word.
In due course, I will be responding to the eisegetical claims in the book Thou Shalt Keep Them: A Biblical Theology of the Perfect Preservation of Scripture edited by Kent Brandenburg with contributions by Thomas M. Strouse who is a founding member and executive member of the Dean Burgon Society.
For further reading on this subject I recommend,
"Inspiration, Preservation, and New Testament Textual Criticism" and
"Why I Do Not Think the King James Bible Is the Best Translation Available Today" by Dan Wallace.