The question remains to be resolved: how shall we define textus receptus? It has been customary in England to employ the 1550 text of Stephanus as the exemplar of the textus receptus (just as an Elzevir text was so adopted on the continent of Europe), and so we will follow this custom. For our purposes here, the term textus receptus means the 1550 edition of the Greek New Testament published by Robertus Stephanus.
The Westcott and Hort text is much simpler to define. This is the Greek New Testament edited by B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort and first published in 1881, with numerous reprints in the century since. It is probably the single most famous of the so-called critical texts, perhaps because of the scholarly eminence of its editors, perhaps because it was issued the same year as the English Revised Version which followed a text rather like the Westcott-Hort text.
It needs to be stated clearly that the text of Westcott and Hort was not the first printed Greek Testament that deliberately and substantially departed from the textus receptus on the basis of manuscript evidence. Westcott and Hort were preceded in the late 1700s by Griesbach, and in the 1800s by Lachmann, Alford, Tregelles, and Tischendorf (and others), all of whose texts made numerous revisions in the textus receptus on the basis of manuscript evidence; these texts, especially the last three named, are very frequently in agreement with Westcott and Hort, against the textus receptus.1
Likewise, it is important to recognize that the English Revised New Testament which came out in 1881 was not directly based on the text of Westcott and Hort, although in many particulars they are the same. The Greek text followed by the Revisers was compiled and published in 1882 in an edition with the KJV and ERV in parallel columns.2 It is true that the Westcott-Hort text and the English Revised New Testament of 1881 are rather similar to each other, but they are not identical.
Though the Westcott-Hort text was the “standard” critical text for a generation or two, it is no longer considered such by any one, and has not been for many years. The “standard” text or texts today are the Nestle or Nestle-Aland text (1st edition, 1898; 27th edition, 1993) and/or the various editions of The Greek New Testament published by the United Bible Societies (1st edition, 1966; 4th edition, 1993). The last two editions of each of these sport an identical text, a new “received text,” so to speak.
It is true that the Westcott-Hort text is part of the heritage of both the Nestle texts and the UBS texts. Eberhard Nestle originally used as his text the consensus reading of three editions of the Greek New Testament in his day, Tischendorf, Westcott and Hort, and Weymouth, later substituting Weiss for Weymouth.3 The UBS editors used the Westcott-Hort text as their starting point and departed from it as their evaluation of manuscript evidence required.4
None of the major modern English Bible translations made since World War II used the Westcott-Hort text as its base. This includes translations done by theological conservatives—the New American Standard Bible, the New International Version, the New King James, for examples—and translations done by theological liberals—the Revised Standard Version, the New English Bible, the Good News Bible, etc. The only English Bible translation currently in print that the writer is aware of which is based on the Westcott-Hort text is the New World Translation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.5
In a very real sense, the question of which is superior, Westcott and Hort, or the textus receptus, is passé, since neither is recognized by experts in the field as the standard text. However, since modern printed Greek texts are in the same respective families of text, namely the Alexandrian (Nestle, et al.) and the Byzantine (majority text), it is suitable to ask, “which one is superior, i.e., which comes closest to presenting the Greek text in its original form?”
What is perhaps the strongest argument in favor of the Westcott-Hort text vis-à-vis the textus receptus, is the fact that it has firm support from the oldest extant Greek manuscripts, plus the earliest of the versions or translations, as well as the early Christian writers of the 2nd through 4th centuries.
Age of manuscripts is probably the most objective factor in the process of textual criticism. When Westcott and Hort compiled their text, they employed the two oldest then-known manuscripts, Vaticanus and Sinaiticus, as their text base. Since their day, a good number of manuscripts as old and in some cases a century and more older than these two manuscripts have been discovered. With a general uniformity, these early manuscripts have supported the Alexandrian text-type which the Westcott-Hort text presents.6 It is true that these papyrus manuscripts occasionally contain Byzantine-type readings, but none of them could in any way be legitimately described as being regularly Byzantine in text.7 The agreement of some of the papyri with Vaticanus, especially p75 of the early third century, has been quite remarkable.
From the early versions, the critical texts have strong support in the various Coptic versions of the third and later centuries, plus frequent support in the Old Latin versions and the oldest forms of the Syriac, in particular the Sinaitic and Curetonian manuscripts whose text form dates to the second or third century (though there are also strong Western elements in the Old Latin and the early Syriac).8 Jerome’s revision of the Old Latin, the Vulgate made before 400 A.D., also gives frequent support to the Alexandrian text. Of early Christian writers before the fourth century, the Alexandrian text has substantial support, especially in the writings of Origen, whose Scripture quotations are exceedingly numerous.
On the other hand, the Byzantine text-type, of which the textus receptus is a rough approximation, can boast of being presented in the vast majority of surviving manuscripts, as well as several important versions of the New Testament from the fourth century or later, and as being the text usually found in the quotations of Greek writers in the fifth century and after. The most notable version support for the Byzantine text is in the Peshitta Syriac and the fourth century Gothic version (though each of these versions has significant departures from the Byzantine text). A second-century date for the Peshitta used to be advocated, but study of the Biblical quotations in the writings of Syrian Fathers Aphraates and Ephraem has demonstrated that neither of these leaders used the Peshitta, and so it must date from after their time, i.e., to the late fourth century or after. Therefore, this chief support for a claimed second-century date for the Byzantine text-type has been shown to be invalid.
On the down side, the distinctively Alexandrian text almost disappears from the manuscripts after the 9th century, following, not insignificantly, the violent and destructive Moslem conquest of Mesopotamia, the Holy Land and Levant, and all of North Africa, destroying or enslaving the Christian community in all these locations, destroying churches and Bible manuscripts. On the other hand, the Byzantine manuscripts, though very numerous, did not become the “majority” text until the ninth century, and though outnumbering Alexandrian manuscripts by more than 10:1, are also for the far greater part considerably younger than them, most being 1,000 years and more removed from the originals.
1 See the page notes in The Englishman’s Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1970. Reprint of 1877 edition). Caspar Rene Gregory states that in the Epistle to the Hebrews, when the texts of Tregelles, Tischendorf and Westcott-Hort are compared, Tregelles stands alone in only ten very minor matters, Westcott-Hort in seven, and Tischendorf only four. Canon and Text of the New Testament (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1907), p. 527.
2 The New Testament of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ (Oxford: University Press, 1882).
3 Barbara and Kurt Aland, et al., editors, Novum Testamentum Graece (Stuttgart: Deutsch Bibelgesellschaft, 1993. 27th edition), “Introduction,” p. 44.
4 Kurt Aland, et al., editors, The Greek New Testament (London: United Bible Societies, 1966), preface, p. 5.
5 New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures (Brooklyn: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, 1969. Revised edition). The title page states: “a modern-language translation of the Westcott-Hort Greek Text.”
6 See the listing of papyrus manuscripts in Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968. Second edition), pp.247-256. Metzger characterizes about three-fourths of these manuscripts as Alexandrian, with the rest being called Western or mixed in text; none carries a Byzantine-type text.
7 See Harry A. Sturz, The Byzantine Text-Type & New Testament Textual Crticism (Nashville: Nelson, 1984) for an extended treatment of these Byzantine readings in the papyri and other early manuscripts.
8 For extended treatment of all the translations of the New Testament in the first millennium A.D., see Bruce M. Metzger, The Early Versions of the New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977).
Doug Kutilek is the editor of www.kjvonly.org, which opposes KJVOism. He has been researching and writing in the area of Bible texts and versions for more than 35 years. He has a BA in Bible from Baptist Bible College (Springfield, MO), an MA in Hebrew Bible from Hebrew Union College and a ThM in Bible exposition from Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). His writings have appeared in numerous publications.