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Older is Not Always Better: Remembering Wescott and Hort



By James D. Tabor
Chair,Dept. of Religious Studies,
University of North Carolina at Charlotte

Tabor Blogs http://jamestabor.com

October 2009



I began my study of the Greek New Testament as a college freshman at Abilene Christian University. Almost all the advanced Greek courses were taught by the legendary Paul Southern, and mainly consisted of sitting with Dr. Southern around a table and reading aloud and translating without notes or English versions, from a straight copy of the 2nd edition of Wescott and Hort’s The New Testament in the Original Greek (1896).


That was my first introduction to B. F. Westcott (1825-1901) and F. J. A. Hort (1828-1892), the towering pioneers of the textual criticism of the Greek New Testament. Generally speaking Wescott and Hort favored the Alexandrian text, which they called the “Neutral Text,” namely based on the two chief 4th century witnesses Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus. Today, with the addition of the Bodmer Papyri and other even earlier witnesses, that take the Alexandrian type of text to the early 2nd century, the essential judgment of Wescott and Hort seems to be upheld.


In contrast, the more traditional Byzantine text (that Wescott & Hort called the Syrian text), upon which the King James version and most all translations until the 20th century were based, was considered inferior, characterized by numerous additions, interpolations, and theologically motivated changes in what was considered to be the original.



Wescott & Hort, to this day, draw the ire and condemnation of more conservative Christian believers as “infidels,” who attempted to change the text of God’s word. I just did a Google search “Wescott and Hort” and most of the top Web sites that popped up are devoted to proving that these amazing scholars were basically involved in a “plot from hell” to destroy God’s truth. The passion on this issue is widespread and heated.


One of the more fascinating aspects of Westcott and Hort’s work was their upholding of certain readings from the so-called Western textual tradition, based on manuscripts like Codex Bezae (designated D). Generally scholars are agreed that the Western text is heavily interpolated with loose paraphrasing and lots of traditional and even apocryphal material added. However, at the end of Luke in particular, as well as a few other scattered places, the Western text is strangely shorter than the Neutral/Alexandrian text, with some surprising omissions that Wescott and Hort judged to be closer to the original.

Wescott and Hort identified nine of these passages, which they labeled by the rather cumbersome term “Western non-interpolations.” They put them as brackets as secondary additions to the original in their edition of the New Testament. I am a great fan of the original Revised Standard Version and to this day prefer it to the New Revised Standard Version (1989), which seems to be the scholarly preference today. The RSV New Testament was published in 1946–the year of my birth. It was roundly condemned as the “Devil’s Bible” and actual book burnings were reported in some circles. The passion and hatred was fueled by any number of features of this impressive new translation but I think the most widespread charge was that the scholars were trying to destroy God’s revelation by a subtle removal of key passages, including the secondary ending of Mark (16:9-20), which was printed in smaller text to mark it as an addition to the original text. In fact, the protest was so great that eventually subsequent printings of the RSV put the text size back to normal and just added a note indicating that these verses were likely secondary to the original.


The RSV also, for the most part, removed and added to footnotes at the bottom of the page, most of the nine “Western non-interpolations” that Wescott and Hort had identified from the Western text:


Matthew 27:49: And another took a spear and pierced his side, and out came water and blood


Luke 22:19b-20: “…which is given for you, Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after supper, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”


Luke 24:3: (they did not find the body) of the Lord Jesus


Luke 24:6: he is not here, he is risen


Luke 24:12: But Peter rose and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; and he went home wondering at what had happened.


Luke 24:36: and said to them, “Peace be to you!


Luke 24:40: And when he said this, he showed them his hands and his feet


Luke 24:51: and was carried up to heaven


Luke 24: 52: worshiped him, and


When I first encountered this list of passages in Dr. Southern’s Greek classes, now over 40 years ago, I was quite surprised. I had grown up on the King James Version of the Bible and this introduction to textual criticism of the Greek New Testament came as a bit of a shock to me–much like the experience Bart Ehrman describes in his book, Misquoting Jesus. But it seemed to me, even at the young age of eighteen, that these additions to Luke, not to mention the three interpolated endings of Mark, were self-evidently secondary additions that the theologically motivated scribes had added to the text over the centuries. It also seemed quite telling to me that with the exception of Mathew 27:49, all of these “Western non-interpolations” were inserted into the last chapters of Luke, and each of them either serves to harmonize the text of Luke with that of John and Paul, and thus to reinforce a growing Christian Orthodoxy regarding the Lord’s Supper and Christology in ways that the original text of Luke does not support. I suppose you could say I was a fairly “instant convert” to the view that such readings were secondary.


Interestingly enough, that is far from the end of the story. I was noticing recently that the English Standard Version, that purports to be a kind of Evangelical Christian, but scholarly update of the old RSV, has put all of these verses at the end of Luke back into the text! The late and much beloved, Bruce Metzger, in his A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (2nd Edition, 1994) notes that a sharp disagreement arose among members of the committee regarding Wescott and Hort’s so-called “Western non-interpolations.” A majority of the scholars, including obviously Metzger himself, were convinced that the traditional longer readings were original and should stay, while a minority maintained that there is such an obvious Christological-theological motivation that accounts for this material having been added they should continue to be footnoted but not included as part of what was considered to be the original Greek version of Luke. Of course the majority prevailed, and translators of a more conservative bent were jubilant that the RSV decision to footnote these interpolations had not been questioned by leading scholars. The issue is such a major one in the eyes of editor Metzger that he includes a special note, at the end of the Gospel of Luke, defending the committee’s decision (pp. 164-166).


Basically the defense rests upon the assertion that the subsequently discovered Bodmer Papyri (particularly the fragment P75), unknown to Wescott and Hort, has allowed us to project the Alexandrian type of text, with these interpolations, back to the second century, so they should no longer be considered late and secondary additions.


Here I find myself in strange agreement with those “conservatives” who argue that “older is not necessarily better,” in defending the Byzantine textual traditions, the manuscripts of which tend to be much later than the Alexandrian textual tradition. Given the early practice of freely editing and interpolating all our textual traditions, the antiquity of a text, even a late 2nd century text, can not be the determining factor in forming judgments about the most likely “original” readings.


First, from an historical point of view The New Testament text itself in the original, which we do not have, is already a series of interpolations. Matthew and Luke offer their expansions on the core text Mark, John, as we have it today, is an expansion of the earlier “Signs Source,” and the so-called Deutero-Pauline letter take authentic Paul material and expand, interpolate, and even recast them. Admittedly, this phenomenon makes the enterprise of sorting out the authentic from the inauthentic a more subjective process, but it is in no way without sense or method.


For example, I would take the last phrase in the saying of Jesus, regarding John the Baptizer in the Q source (Luke 7:28/Matthew 11:11) as an obvious gloss:


I tell you among those born of women none is greater than John; yet he who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.


I would judge the same to be the case for the Trinitarian baptismal formula at the end of Matthew “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19) Yet all our major Greek manuscripts, early or late, contain these phrases. There is some indication that both Eusebius and Origen knew of texts of Matthew that lacked the baptismal formula, and strangely, the very late 15th century text of Hebrew Matthew preserved by Rabbi Ibn Shaprut in his work Even Bohan, omits the Q gloss about those “least in the kingdom” as well as the baptismal formula. This fascinating text, which George Howard argued was not based on a translation of Greek Matthew, may indeed preserve some earlier stream of textual tradition now largely lost to us.


Recovering the original text of any ancient document requires a number of related approaches, and one is clearly the careful dating of the sequence of manuscript witnesses and variants. But the “older” is surely not the more original, and judgments of content and substance must finally prevail. I remain convinced, after all these years, that my initial judgment that Wescott and Hort’s position on the Western non-interpolations was self-evident remains the case and I am pleased to give tribute to these two remarkable scholars to my students today.