Westcott and Hort: Their Theory and Text Today

by Giuseppe Guarino

Westcott and Hort

Their theory and text today

If we want to state in one sentence the meaning of the work of the two great scholars Brooke Foss Westcott and Fenton John Anthony Hort, some could say that “they gave the final blow to the Textus Receptus.”

The Textus Receptus is the name with which the Greek critical text published by Erasmus of Rotterdam in 1516 is commonly known and referred to. It was used as an original for the main versions of the New Testament up to the year 1881. In that year Westcott and Hort published their critical edition of the original Greek text of the New Testament. They explained their method and motivated the choices made with great skill and eloquence. Although for years the Textus Receptus had not been well regarded by the world of textual scholars, no one had previously managed to produce a theory that could so easily satisfy the scientific world on the one hand, and convince the average reader of the reliability of the new text on the other. Undoubtedly, they succeeded.

There are several points in favor of the two scholars. Their basic preparation, of course. Historical circumstances also played an important role in the success of their work.

The most significant argument in favor of their thesis, in fact, was provided by the two Codes dating back to the fourth century BC, the Vatican (abbreviated B) and Sinaitic (ℵ, Aleph, first letter of the Hebrew alphabet) manuscripts which became available in that period. These were two extraordinary witness to the Greek text of the New Testament that, given their unique characteristics of completeness and antiquity, jumped to the center of scholars’ attention. Presenting the testimony of B and ℵ already made Westcott and Hort’s text attractive enough.

Since believing that “older” corresponds to “the best” or “more faithful” is an easy concept to support and defend, the theories underlying the new Greek text convinced both scholars and the public. On the one hand, the enthusiasm of the believers was motivated by the fact that a text of the New Testament was finally presented based on documents old enough to silence the criticisms that had been attracted by the relatively late age of the manuscripts on which the Textus Receptus was based. Of course, the community of scholars was quite pleased to attend the funeral of the Textus Receptus .

Westcott and Hort’s claim to have traced a “neutral” text of the Greek New Testament is very convenient to accept. Yet, although their work was intended to be definitive and the two scholars were convinced that they had obtained the closest Greek text to the original that it was possible to retrace, unfortunately this was not the case.

It is my belief that a set of more or less fortuitous circumstances, sometimes only competing with objective merits, are at the basis of the fortune of some ideas and of the individuals who have promoted them.

The exposition of Westcott and Hort is truly captivating: the theories of the scholars are proposed in a convincing, clear, cultured, attentive way, with the right words and the right arguments.

Anyway, sometimes objective truths can be presented in a mediocre way and fail to be sufficiently incisive. But I believe more attention should be paid to substance than to form. When the gospel narratives were introduced to the sophisticated and educated Greek world, they seemed to be too simple and crude to be considered worthy of any consideration – literarily speaking.

Unfortunately, some erroneous theories manage to be well received thanks to the fame and reputation of those who promote them.

Even today the names of Westcott and Hort shine in the firmament of the history of textual criticism, eclipsing far greater scholars than them, less fortunate and less sensationalistic. Their theories are still studied and evaluated with admiration today although it is now clear that very little of what they maintained was based on objective evidence.

There are actually two merits of Westcott and Hort’s work. The first, I have already mentioned, having dethroned the Textus Receptus – if that can truly be called a merit. The second is to have brought to life the Alexandrian text of the New Testament, which was in circulation in Egypt from the second to the fourth century.

I shortly evaluate here some of the conclusions that led them to boldly present to the public the critical edition of the Greek text they published in 1881.

The fourth century official revision of the Greek New Testament. 

They supposed that in the fourth century an official revision of the Greek text must have given life to the “type of text” present in most of the manuscripts of the Greek New Testament. Such presumption was essential in order to be able to nullify the testimony of all the enemies of the text of the oldest manuscripts.

Unfortunately there was and there is no historical evidence for such a revision.

Judging from the objective data of the differences in the text, from the fundamental absence of uniformity in the majority of the manuscripts of the New Testament, although this corresponds to a certain affinity and homogeneity, it is very difficult if not impossible to suppose that these manuscripts are all the result of a deliberate textual revision which took place in Antioch and from there, it was imposed to all Christianity.

To prove their conviction Westcott and Hort isolated eight passages in the New Testament – 8 passages only! – and marked them as the product of a deliberate process which they termed Conflation. These eight readings, are, in their opinion, evidence that the fourth century revisers of the Greek text took two short readings, one belonging to the Western text and another to the Alexandrian and combined them, giving life to a longer reading. The eight passages in question are Mark 6:33, 8:26, 9:38, 9:49; Luke 9:10, 11:54, 12:18, 24:53. Let’s see in practice what we are talking about by examining at least one case.

“And they were always in the temple, blessing God.” (Luke 24:53 – New Revision)

“And they were continually in the temple, praising and blessing God. Amen” (Luke 24:53 – New International Edition)

According to Westcott and Hort, the short text “blessing”, found in manuscripts P75, Codex Vaticanus (B), Codex Sinaiticus (ℵ), the uncial L, would be the original one. The supposed fourth century revision must have altered the original reading adding the other short reading of the Western text “”praising.” Doing so, the revisers gave rise to the Majority text,  Byzantine/TR reading that we find today in most manuscripts.

That a handful of manuscripts, evidently coming from one single tradition, that is, closely related with each other, may be right against the rest of the New Testament handwritten evidence is a paradox that is difficult to prove by virtue of any theory. The simple reality of the facts is that the long, original reading must have been independently abbreviated to give birth the two short versions of it found in the Alexandrian and Western manuscripts respectively. How can the latter statement be made? Simply because such official, phantomatic revision has left no trace in history and no actual, real evidence exists that it ever took place.

The discovery of several Papyri manuscripts (P45, P46, P66, P75) not available in the nineteenth century, forced twentieth century textual critics of the biblical text to revise some paradigms. These Papiry, which were older than ℵ and B, surprisingly showed traces of Byzantine readings at a time when, according to Westcott and Hort’s theory, they should not have existed.

Let’s see an example,

Luke 12:31

TR (KJV): “But seek the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added to you.”

According to the witness of ℵ and B the reading was changed to,

“Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things shall be yours as well.” (Revised Standard Version)

“But seek His kingdom, and these things will be provided to you.” (New American Standard Bible)

The supposed late, fourth century Majority/Byzantine/TR reading was later found in the newly discovered P45. It was also in A, W, 33 and other witnesses. That is why the traditional reading has been restored in newer editions of the New Testament.

Let us have a closer look at the manuscript evidence.

– Seek the kingdom – P75.

– Look for his kingdom – B and ℵ.

P45 significantly agrees with the Majority text. Bruce Metzger adds the testimony of P75 in favor of the Alexandrian reading, because “the scribe of P75 has a tendency to omit personal pronouns.” But he might as well have omitted “of God”, we can’t say for sure.

External, objective evidence is by far in favor of the traditional reading. The certainties in Bruce Metzger’s mind, with all due respect, are not convincing enough: “It is more likely that ‘his’ has been replaced by ‘God’s.’” Objective evidence cannot be discarded in force of personal considerations. Metzger supposes the traditional text is a harmonization of Luke with Matthew 6:33. However, in the Nestle Aland the words “of God”, are questioned and put within square brackets, because, as the note of the same scholar explains, the short reading, which is found in ℵ and B, “Explains better the origin of the others”. Using Rhetoric we can support any view or idea and sound convincing, but suppositions must leave the scene when evidence comes in, and in this case evidence is for the Byzantine reading.

There is another passage that had sufficient evidence during the days of Westcott and Hort, but that the two scholars failed to correctly evaluated because of their blind love for the two fourth century codex.

Matthew 6:33

“But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be provided to you.” (WH – NASB)

“But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (WH – NIV)

“But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.” (TR – NKJV)

Westcott and Hort’s reading is not the original one. It would be supported by ℵ and B were it not for the fact that at this point the two manuscripts do not agree on the same reading; therefore in reality the short reading is found only in the first of the two. This should have suggested the two scholars the simple fact that conflicting witnesses are not reliable.

Against the hypothesis of Westcott and Hort that the Byzantine text originated through revision, as I already mentioned, the fact that second-third century papyri P45, P66 and P75 show a good number of “Byzantine” readings, which, if the English scholars were actually right, could not have existed in the second and third century – long before the revision they imagine, describe, but cannot prove with objective, historical evidence. Today, it is clear enough: it never took place!

I looked in the Nestle-Aland and checked the critical apparatus concerning the Gospel of John.

In John 5:17, “Jesus” is omitted from P75, B, ℵ and of course not found in the Westcott and Hort text. But it is in P66, the oldest and most complete manuscript of John.

In John 5:19 the Greek word ὰν is the Vatican and Sinaitic reading and is therefore adopted by Hort. But the reading of the Majority text εὰν, is now also found in P66 and P75!

In John 5:29 the choice is between:

– οι – P66c, B. It is the reading adopted by Westcott and Hort.

– οι δε  – P75, ℵ. As with the previous reading, in the light of the new evidence, the reading of the Majority text made its way in the Nestle-Aland.

– καὶ οι – P66, W.

Wilbur Pickering collects a series of interesting observations in his book The Identity of the New Testament Text.

Observing 51 variants in the text, this is a table of the times they agree with ℵ, B, and the TR.

ℵ          B          TR

P45               21        25        33

P66               16        32        38

P75               11        36        33

If P45, P66 and P75 had been discovered in the nineteen century, quite probably there would have been no Westcott and Hort theory as we know it.

Even the name “Byzantine” conceived probably to  discredit the witness of the vast majority of Greek New Testament manuscripts, has been replaced today by the more appropriate – and neutral – adjective “Majority” (acknowledged today by all scholars).

Westcott and Hort were wrong, there was no official revision that gave birth to the text found in most of the New Testament manuscripts. The assumption that allowed them to set aside 90% of the handwritten evidence to make room for the supremacy of their Neutral Text mirage was mistaken and must be abandoned.

The Genealogical method applied to the text of the New Testament.

Having set aside the Majority text witness, Westcott and Hort applied the so called genealogical method in order to determine which was the original among the variant readings found in ancient manuscripts. In order for this method to actually give reliable results, some conditions had to occur. A major one is that the manuscripts at our disposal must be so closely related to each other as to allow us to trace the original text through the copying errors made. Furthermore, the text of the manuscripts should not have been polluted by voluntary variations.

The genealogical method is therefore inapplicable to the manuscripts of the Greek New Testament and has never actually been applied. Colwell affirms it and Aland reiterates it.

Deliberate changes to the text are one of the main reasons for most of the variant readings we find in manuscripts, or, to say it more politely, it was an excess of self-esteem of the scribes that gave rise to many changes introduced into the text of the New Testament. The differences among the manuscripts belonging to the Alexandrian- Egyptian tradition are clear evidence of this fact.

Since trying to apply this method to New Testament textual criticism is no longer considered possible, it is not necessary to say more about it. Another fundamental practice behind the creation of the Neutral Text has been proved to be wrong, and if not wrong in itself, inapplicable to the Greek text of the New Testament.

Yet, Westcott and Hort’s fame has been left untouched and the results of their conclusions never radically questioned by the main stream of textual critics, who, basically, follow in their footsteps.

Text Types

For the sake of convenience, I often speak of types of text myself: Alexandrian, Western, Majority. But it is an artificial construction that does not correspond to the reality of the facts. In fact, the manuscripts of the Greek New Testament cannot, in a definite and scientific way, be placed within such artificial categories as what we define “text types.”

The truth is that, for the Greek New Testament we have too much manuscript evidence and that it is too heterogeneous to allow such a rigid classification. The text that Westcott and Hort imagined to have brought back to light was what they termed Neutral, the purest form, closest to the originals, that could be found in the manuscripts available. Hort stated: “We are convinced that (1) the readings of ℵ and B must be accepted as authentic as long as valid internal evidence proves the opposite, and that (2) no reading of ℵ and B can be definitively rejected…”

The theory of these two scholars is convenient. It would be easy to embrace and defend it for the plausibility it brings with it and which makes it seductive both for the believer and for the scholar: the oldest manuscripts are the most reliable, just follow them and we will have the original text. Unfortunately, the evidence and the love of textual truth cannot make right the wrong.

Let me be a bit more radical. There is just one text type, and that is the Majority Text. It is the result of the faithful copying tradition of the autographs down to the invention of moving type printing. All the other manuscripts which do not belong to this category, are simply editions, revisions and deviations from the reliable line of transmission of the text of the New Testament.

Western Non-Interpolations.

The Western Non-Interpolations are nine New Testament passages considered spurious by Westcott and Hort. They are omitted only by some manuscripts cataloged as witnesses of the “Western Text” but present in the rest of the New Testament manuscripts. They are Matthew 27:49, Luke 22:19b-20, 24:3, 6, 12, 36, 40, 51, 52.

This detail of the W-H theory and text is absurd. It shows how the two scholars overestimated their personal judgment as much as the (isolated) scribes who deliberately dared to manipulate the text of the Gospels. Supposing that a few, otherwise considered inferior manuscripts altogether, are the only recipient of the truth of the Gospel means to invalidate the reliability of the Greek New Testament manuscript evidence itself and goes beyond the boundaries of sound, objective textual criticism.

“…scholars have been critical of the apparently arbitrary way in which Westcott and Hort isolated nine passages… whereas they did not give similar treatment to other readings that also are absent from Western witnesses.” Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition, p. 165.

Westcott and Hort is not “apparently”, but totally arbitrary and the same remark can be made concerning their theory in general.

There are no signs of voluntary alteration of the text.

This is another false assumption on which the Westcott and Hort’s theory stands.

Objective evidence, coming from various patristic writings, but also by observing the variant readings of some manuscripts show that deliberate changes to the text are a fact the textual critic must seriously evaluate among the other causes behind the birth of differences among manuscripts.

But, we wonder: why did the two scholars come up with such a principle? Because if it is believed that there have been attempts to deliberately alter the biblical text, the genealogical method is no longer applicable to the New Testament and their whole theory falls apart.

The main reason for voluntary changes are doctrinal. What may seem absurd to one’s mind must have looked as necessary to another. The case of Origen, the famous father of the Church, is a clear example of this. He believed that Jesus could have never said, “Get behind Me, Satan!” (Matthew 16:23) and that therefore there must have been a primitive error in the manuscripts with this reading – which is, all! Origen was a textual critic too: would he not erase such phrase from the manuscripts he would copy?

There are also open accusations of early believers who write of heretics of corrupting the Scriptures in order to substantiate their wrong doctrines. The so called Western non-interpolations must have originated because of the beliefs of gnostics following the famous heretic Marcion, who did not believe in Jesus being a true man and actually suffering on the cross.

There are traces of peculiar attempts to alter the text in the manuscripts themselves.

P45 is a very ancient manuscript, but not so reliable. For reasons that we do not know the scribe of this papyrus shortened the text by removing here and there whatever he thought unnecessary, keeping, anyway, the readability of the text.

Intentional variations to the text introduce elements that disturb the practice of textual criticism, because they present us with modifications due to circumstances that we probably ignore. However, neglecting this possibility exposes you to trivial errors.

Colwell said it plainly, “Most of the variant readings in the New Testament were created for theological or dogmatic reasons… In the New Testament manuscripts most of the variations, I am convinced, were deliberately introduced.”


Nothing to argue about the objective merits of Westcott and Hort, their credentials and academic achievements. But time and new discoveries have proved the inconsistency of their textual theories for the Greek New Testament.

Their contribution still remains in history as the most glamorous and popular result of textual criticism. Yet, it is doubtful that their results meant a real progress in the search for the original text of Scripture. Much more correct were the observations of those who, already at the time of Westcott and Hort, less popular, defended the text of the majority of manuscripts. Pillars like Burgon, Scrivener, Miller are ignored and falsely accused of being blind defenders of the Textus Receptus in the academic circles.

The truth is that Westcott and Hort dethroned the Textus Receptus only to revive a less reliable “type” of text, a text fabricated in Egypt, influenced by the school of Alexandria. Their theory has fallen miserably against the weight of evidence, but their fame and, more important, their text still remains standing. It is a wrong that sound textual criticism of today’s many scholars who support the Majority Text (Robinson, Pierpont, Pickering, Farstad, Hodges) will, in time, I am sure, correct, giving new assurance of the reliability and accountability of the Greek text so well and miraculously preserved to both the average Bible reader and the diligent student of the Word.


This article is taken from my book on the Majority Text.





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