Arguments of Westcott and Hort

For more than a century, Christians have been warring over which existing Greek text of the New Testament is closest to the original. The text at the basis of the King James Version is known as the Received Text or Textus Receptus (TR), which the great Renaissance scholar Erasmus assembled from the small number of Greek manuscripts available to him. All these originated in the Byzantine Empire and exhibited the same kind of text, now known as the Byzantine Text (BT). The text at the basis of most modern translations is known as the critical text or eclectic text (CT), which modern scholars have developed using the principles of textual criticism laid down by the nineteenth-century scholars B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort. Westcott and Hort believed that the kind of text exhibited in early manuscripts from Egypt, known as the Alexandrian Text (AT), is superior to BT.

The Alexandrian Text (AT) rests primarily upon four ancient codices—Codex Sinaiticus (aleph), fourth century; Codex Vaticanus (B), fourth century; Codex Alexandrinus (A), fifth century; and Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus (C), fifth century. Westcott and Hort gave greatest weight to aleph and B, especially B. Their main arguments for the superiority of AT over BT were three (1):

  1. BT includes some readings that appear to be the result of conflation. That is, in each case, it looks as though an editor has combined a reading he found in AT with a reading he found in the Western Text (WT), another ancient textual tradition. For example, in John 10:19, where AT has "a division again" and WT has "a division therefore," BT has "a division therefore again." Thus, if BT has conflated readings, BT must have arisen later than AT.
  2. The manuscripts supporting AT are the oldest available copies of the New Testament. Moreover, the writings of the church fathers who lived before the fourth century fail to attest any reading peculiar to BT. So, at every point of variance in the New Testament text, AT supplies the oldest, and therefore most reliable, reading.
  3. BT is conspicuously fuller, smoother, and simpler than AT. The stylistic character of BT is evidence that it is not the original text, but a text polished by editors. Westcott and Hort referred to BT as the Syrian Recension, supposing that it was produced in Syria during the fourth century A.D.

Current Standing of These Arguments

As a springboard for reevaluating Westcott and Hort's case in favor of AT and for reassessing the relative values of the various textual traditions, we will consider three fairly recent discussions of the textual issue, all from a different point of view. The King James Version Debate: A Plea for Realism, by D. A. Carson, Professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, ably defends CT (2). The Byzantine Text-Type and New Testament Textual Criticism, by Harry A. Sturz, former Professor Of Greek and Chairman of the Theology Department at Biola University, maintains that BT is an important independent witness to the original text (3). In reviewing this book, George D. Kilpatrick, Professor Emeritus of New Testament at Oxford, says,

His conclusions can have revolutionary consequences for the text of the Greek New Testament. The Byzantine text is not just a later recension, but contains distinctive readings, going back to the second century, which may sometimes prove original. We now need editions of the Greek New Testament which will reflect Sturz's views (4).

And last, affirming that the Majority text (essentially the same as BT) is correct, is Wilbur Pickering's The Identity of the New Testament Text (5).

We will review the case that Sturz and Pickering have developed against the main arguments of Westcott and Hort.


Sturz shows that the supposed conflates in BT do not mark it as secondary to AT (6).

  1. These conflates are exceedingly few in number. Westcott and Hort offered only eight examples.
  2. Since the late nineteenth century, when Westcott and Hort dominated textual criticism, scholars have discovered many dozen papyri containing portions of the Greek New Testament. These papyri, dating from the second and third centuries A.D., are much older than the Alexandrian codices that Westcott and Hort relied upon. Although most of these papyri are fragmentary, they contain several of the readings that Westcott and Hort identified as late conflates.
  3. Several readings in AT look like conflates of WT and BT.
  4. It is impossible to tell whether an apparent conflate is truly a conflate or simply an original reading that was later shortened in different ways in different traditions.

Pickering's broader study of conflates is even more conclusive. He finds 39 readings in all textual traditions that might have arisen through simple conflation. Of the sixteen Alexandrian readings (each appearing to combine BT with something else), only three have early papyrus support. Of the ten Byzantine readings, six have early papyrus support. Such results are hardly congenial to the hypothesis that the editors of BT systematically conflated AT and WT (7).

Carson apparently does not think the argument from conflates to be worth reviving, for he says, "I am not here arguing for or against a theory that sees the genesis of the Byzantine text as a systematic conflation of other texts, even though some conflation certainly occurred" (8).

Antiquity of readings peculiar to BT

Sturz shows that BT is early, not late.

  1. The early church fathers do verify some readings of BT (9).
  2. Their failure to verify more is exactly what we would expect, since none of them was active in Syria, the only region where BT prevailed (10).
  3. The papyri show that hundreds of BT readings which Westcott and Hort rejected as late and worthless are much older than aleph and B. Among these readings are about 150 found otherwise only in BT and about 170 found otherwise both in BT and WT. The papyri also contain about 275 BT readings that Westcott and Hort rejected despite some manuscript support from AT (11).

Pickering concludes, "Extrapolating from the behavior of those [papyri] in hand, if we had at least 3 papyri covering all parts of the New Testament, almost all the 5000+ Byzantine readings rejected by the critical (eclectic) texts would be vindicated by an early papyrus" (12). Carson does not dispute this conclusion. "As we have seen, Pickering admits what is generally agreed, that most variants existed before the end of the second century, including most of the worst corruptions" (13). And he responds with, "True enough" (14), to E. F. Hills's comment, "Even on Hort's own admission only about ten percent of the readings of the Byzantine text are late readings, and since Hort's day the number of these allegedly late Byzantine readings has been gradually dwindling" (15).

Yet to salvage the supremacy of AT, Carson counters with the argument that even though the Byzantine readings may be ancient, the Byzantine text-type is late. "There is no unambiguous evidence that the Byzantine text-type was known before the middle of the fourth century" (16). By "no unambiguous evidence," he means that the Byzantine text-type has no single exemplar in the Greek manuscripts, the early versions, or the early church fathers. Presumably, then, the Byzantine text-type is not lineally descended from the autographs or from a source close to them, but is the creation of fourth-century editors who, from the many variants already circulating, selected those that seemed best. Two replies are in order.

  1. As one trained in statistics, I find Carson's claim impossible to evaluate. Just how many samples of text before the mid-fourth century are long enough to be classified as to text-type? How many of those which qualify exhibit AT, or WT, or no tradition, or a mixture of traditions? What is the provenance of these samples? The only papyrus Carson can bring forward as an exemplar of AT is p75 (17). He says also that AT is found in "some biblical quotations by ante-Nicene fathers" and in "some of the early version witnesses" (18). Evidently, we are dealing here with very small numbers. Given that most of the cited exemplars have an Egyptian provenance and, according to Sturz, all have a non-Syrian provenance (19), we can by no means suppose that these numbers have great importance. They may simply be a chance outcome consistent with the hypothesis that BT existed and circulated as early as, or even earlier than, AT.
  2. In defense of BT as the true text, it would not be difficult to devise a historical scenario explaining why BT has no exemplars from the first three centuries of church history. Indeed, the period is so shadowy that there are few constraints on imaginative reconstruction. Given any tally of text-type exemplars, we could invent a story to justify viewing any of the text types as the oldest. Let me illustrate. From a few reasonable assumptions, I will account for the late appearance of BT.
    1. Frequently when we speak of the original text, we suppose that each book had a single autograph. Perhaps not. Realizing that he was creating a legacy for the church, perhaps Paul made several authorized copies of each of his letters. Perhaps the other authors of the New Testament did likewise. That is to say, each book of the New Testament may derive from several autographs.
    2. It is possible that Paul and the other authors of the New Testament deposited copies of their writings with leading churches, such as the one in Antioch.
    3. The first copies of the autographs in permanent care of the church may have been made hastily and carelessly, with the introduction of many faulty readings. Perhaps in the process all the variants now known quickly entered into wide circulation.
    4. If multiple copies were made by the same person or group of persons, they would have been prone to repeat the same mistakes. Yet in each new copy they might also have corrected earlier mistakes, or even have introduced new ones. In short, a first-generation copy might have exhibited almost any combination of faulty readings. This would account for the mixed text-type found in many early samples of text.
    5. In certain centers of Christianity, a single copy might have become established as the dominant parent of succeeding copies. The result would have been a clearly marked family of manuscripts belonging to a single text-type. This would account for the distinctive character of the manuscripts within the Alexandrian tradition, for example.
    6. For whatever reasons, most of the churches holding autographs never made better copies, and these autographs were eventually lost. Any original copies kept in Rome, for instance, may have been destroyed during a time of intense persecution.
    7. We can imagine that in Antioch, however—if Antioch was indeed one repository of autographs—the original copies survived for several centuries. Perhaps there too, as in other places holding autographs, no exact copies were made during this period. Perhaps the church saw no need to make exact copies until the originals became old and decayed. Only when faced with the danger that the originals might soon be gone forever did the church commission scribes to produce exact copies, which then became the basis of a new generation of manuscripts. If BT is the true text, the result would have been an explosion of new manuscripts conforming to BT.

      These assumptions are consistent with the known fact that BT is first prominent in the writings of John Chrysostom, a popular preacher in Antioch and Constantinople during the fourth century. I do not insist that this historical reconstruction is true. I merely offer it to show that tallies of early text-types prove nothing. The history of the period is plastic enough to serve any side of the debate. To decide whether AT or BT is earlier, we must consider other kinds of evidence, as we will do in the next lesson.
Stylistic features of BT

Sturz shows that the style of BT places it in the first century.

  1. The Greek of BT is fully consistent with everyday Greek in the days of the apostles (20).
  2. AT contains many "Atticisms"—antique words and expressions that became fashionable in the second century (21).
  3. In some places where BT and AT disagree, the reading in AT seems like an attempt to convert something awkwardly Semitic into idiomatic Greek (22).
  4. There is not one scrap of historical evidence that a recension was produced in fourth-century Syria (23).

Carson believes that the most important stylistic feature of BT is its tendency to harmonization, especially in the Synoptics. He means that many variants in BT reproduce or approximate the parallel reading in another Gospel. "Fee points out a particular section in which the Byzantine text contains some thirty-eight major harmonizations, as compared with one harmonization in the Alexandrian text" (24). Carson has no doubt that harmonization is a secondary process. He feels it is obvious to anyone who actually pores over the primary data (the manuscripts or their reproductions) that scribes were much more likely to make a text agree better with another text than they were to introduce a novelty. He does not accuse them of deliberate tampering. Rather, he says that a harmonizing error was normally unintentional (25).

It follows from Carson's premises that BT must have been derived from earlier texts. Again, however, more than one reply can be set against his conclusions.

  1. The kind of scribal behavior that Carson blames for harmonizing errors could not have given rise to BT. As he admits, the entire corpus of BT readings must have existed by the end of the second century. The occasional introduction here and there of an unintentional harmonization could not, within little more than a century, have created many hundreds of harmonizations in wide circulation. To explain all these errors of one kind, we would have to imagine that at least one group of copyists deliberately sought greater harmony among the Gospels. Yet in that case the errors would be clustered in certain manuscripts rather than dispersed throughout the whole field of manuscripts.
  2. Just because A is sometimes the cause of B does not mean that B has no other causes. Agreement between parallel passages can arise as a scribal error, but it can also arise from faithful transmission of the original, if the original displays the same agreement. As many have argued, it is impossible to know whether a particular instance of supposed harmonization is really secondary unless we look at the original. All of the 38 harmonizations noticed by Fee could be authentic.
  3. Corruption is undoubtedly a secondary process. Every departure from harmony could be viewed as a corruption due to haste and carelessness in copying. Relying upon memory is especially conducive to substitution of personal vocabulary and idiom for the original. Such distortion appears in just about every memory quiz in a Bible class. I am sure that if I tested my students after they had attempted to memorize a passage in the Synoptics, they might produce every kind of departure from harmony exhibited in Alexandrian readings. I would not likely get many harmonization errors unless I asked them to memorize parallel passages concurrently.


  1. Harry A. Sturz, The Byzantine Text-Type and New Testament Textual Criticism (Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1984), 24-31.
  2. D. A. Carson, The King James Version Debate: A Plea for Realism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1979).
  3. Sturz.
  4. Ibid., back cover.
  5. Wilbur N. Pickering, The Identity of the New Testament Text, rev. ed. (Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1980).
  6. Sturz, 82-9.
  7. Pickering, 171-82.
  8. Carson, 51.
  9. Sturz, 79.
  10. Ibid., 80-1.
  11. Ibid., 61-2.
  12. Pickering, 77.
  13. Carson, 116.
  14. Ibid., 111.
  15. Pickering, 71.
  16. Carson, 44.
  17. Ibid., 53.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Sturz, 80.
  20. Ibid., 107-14.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Ibid., 122-6.
  24. Carson, 52.
  25. Ibid.