CAN WE TRUST THE WESTCOTT AND HORT 1881 GREEK TEXT?: Were Westcott and Hort Occultist Unbelievers?

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Edward D. Andrews
EDWARD D. ANDREWS (AS in Criminal Justice, BS in Religion, MA in Biblical Studies, and MDiv in Theology) is CEO and President of Christian Publishing House. He has authored over 100 books. Andrews is the Chief Translator of the Updated American Standard Version (UASV).

Before delving into whether Westcott and Hort were Occultists or unbelievers, let us look at their work first.

Brooke Foss Westcott (1825–1901) and Fenton John Anthony Hort (1828–1892) were nineteenth-century theologians and Bible and textual scholars. Together, they produced The New Testament in the Original Greek of 1881, the pinnacle of textual studies by dozens of textual scholars since the days of Erasmus in 1536. This critical Greek text is the foundation text of the Nestle-Aland Greek Text and the United Bible Societies Greek text.

Westcott’s and Hort’s 1881 Master Text

The climax of this restoration era goes to the immediate successors of these men, the two English Bible scholars B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort, upon whose text the United Bible Society is based, which is the foundation for all modern-day translations of the Bible. Westcott and Hort began their work in 1853 and finished it in 1881, working for twenty-eight years independently of each other, yet frequently comparing notes. As the Scottish biblical scholar Alexander Souter expressed it, they “gathered up in themselves all that was most valuable in the work of their predecessors. The maxims which they enunciated on questions of the text are of such importance.” (Souter 1913, 118) They took all imaginable factors into consideration in laboring to resolve the difficulties that conflicting texts presented, and when two readings had equal weight, they indicated that in their text. They emphasized, “Knowledge of documents should precede final judgment upon readings” and “all trustworthy restoration of corrupted texts is founded on the study of their history.” They followed Griesbach in dividing manuscripts into families, stressing the significance of manuscript genealogy. In addition, they gave due weight to internal evidence, “intrinsic probability” and “transcriptional probability,” that is, what the original author most likely wrote and wherein a copyist may most likely have made a mistake.

Westcott and Hort relied heavily on what they called the “neutral” family of texts, which involved the renowned fourth-century vellum Vaticanus and Sinaiticus manuscripts. They considered it quite decisive whenever these two manuscripts agreed, particularly when reinforced by other ancient uncial manuscripts. However, they were not thoughtlessly bound to the Vaticanus manuscript as some scholars have claimed, for by assessing all the elements they frequently concluded that certain minor interpolations had crept into the neutral text that was not found in the group more given to interpolations and paraphrasing, i.e. the Western manuscript family. E. J. Goodspeed has shown that Westcott and Hort departed from Vaticanus seven hundred times in the Gospels alone.

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According to Bruce M. Metzger, “the general validity of their critical principles and procedures is widely acknowledged by scholars today.” In 1981 Metzger said,

The international committee that produced the United Bible Societies Greek New Testament, not only adopted the Westcott and Hort edition as its basic text but followed their methodology in giving attention to both external and internal consideration.

Philip Comfort offered this opinion:

The text produced by Westcott and Hort is still to this day, even with so many more manuscript discoveries, a very close reproduction of the primitive text of the New Testament. Of course, I think they gave too much weight to Codex Vaticanus alone, and this needs to be tempered. This criticism aside, the Westcott and Hort text is extremely reliable. (…) In many instances where I would disagree with the wording in the Nestle / UBS text in favor of a particular variant reading, I would later check with the Westcott and Hort text and realize that they had often come to the same decision. (…) Of course, the manuscript discoveries of the past one hundred years have changed things, but it is remarkable how often they have affirmed the decisions of Westcott and Hort.[1]

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Critical Rules of Westcott & Hort

The following summary of principles is taken from the compilation in Epp and Fee, Studies in the Theory and Method of New Testament Textual Criticism (1993, pages 157-8). References in parentheses are to sections of Hort’s Introduction, from which the principles have been extracted.

  1. Older readings, manuscripts, or groups are to be preferred. (“The shorter the interval between the time of the autograph and the end of the period of transmission in question, the stronger the presumption that earlier date implies greater purity of text.”) (2.59; cf. 2.5-6, 31)
  2. Readings are approved or rejected by reason of the quality, and not the number, of their supporting witnesses. (“No available presumptions whatever as to text can be obtained from number alone, that is, from number not as yet interpreted by descent.”) (2.44)
  3. A reading combining two simple, alternative readings is later than the two readings comprising the conflation, and manuscripts rarely or never supporting conflate reading are text antecedent to mixture and are of special value. (2.49-50).
  4. The reading is to be preferred that makes the best sense, that is, that best conforms to the grammar and is most congruous with the purport of the rest of the sentence and of the larger context. (2.20)
  5. The reading is to be preferred that best conforms to the usual style of the author and to that author’s material in other passages. (2.20)
  6. The reading is to be preferred that most fitly explains the existence of the others. (2.22-23)
  7. The reading is less likely to be original that combines the appearance of an improvement in the sense with the absence of its reality; the scribal alteration will have an apparent excellence, while the original will have the highest real excellence. (2.27, 29)
  8. The reading is less likely to be original that shows a disposition to smooth away difficulties (another way of stating that the harder reading is preferable). (2.28)
  9. Readings are to be preferred that are found in a manuscript that habitually contains superior readings as determined by intrinsic and transcriptional probability. Certainty is increased if such a better manuscript is found also to be an older manuscript (2.32-33) and if such a manuscript habitually contains reading that prove themselves antecedent to mixture and independent of external contamination by other, inferior texts (2.150-51). The same principles apply to groups of manuscripts (2.260-61).[2]
APOSTOLIC FATHERS Lightfoot APOSTOLIC FATHERS I AM John 8.58
J. W. Burgon
J. W. Burgon

Setting Straight the Indefensible Defenders of the Textus Receptus

While Karl Lachmann was the one to overthrow the Textus Receptus, it would be B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort in 1881 who would put the nails in the coffin of the Textus Receptus. The 1881 British Revised Version (RV), also known as the English Revised Version (ERV) of the King James Version, and the 1881 New Testament Greek text of Westcott and Hort did not sit well with the King-James-Version-Only[3] advocate John William Burgon (1813–1888), E. H. A. Scrivener (1813–1891), and Edward Miller (1825–1901), the latter authoring A Guide to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament (1886). We do not have space nor the time to offer a full-scale argument against the King James Version Only and the Textus Receptus Only groups. However, we will address what amounts to their main arguments. This should help the reader to see how desperate and weak their arguments are.

Bible scholar David Fuller brings us the first argument in his book, Which Bible, where he writes, “Burgon regarded the good state of preservation of B (Codex Vaticanus) and ALEPH (Codex Sinaiticus) in spite of their exceptional age as proof not of their goodness but of their badness. If they had been good manuscripts, they would have been read to pieces long ago. We suspect that these two manuscripts are indebted for their preservation, solely to their ascertained evil character …. Had B (Vaticanus) and ALEPH (Sinaiticus) been copies of average purity, they must long since have shared the inevitable fate of books which are freely used and highly prized; namely, they would have fallen into decadence and disappeared from sight. Thus, the fact that B and ALEPH are so old is a point against them, not something in their favour. It shows that the Church rejected them and did not read them. Otherwise, they would have worn out and disappeared through much reading.”

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Thus, Vaticanus and Sinaiticus, leading representatives of the Alexandrian family of manuscripts, are in such great condition because they are full of errors, alterations, additions, and deletions so they would have had little chance of wear and tear, never having been used by true believers. This argument is simply the weakest and most desperate that this author has ever heard. First, many of the papyrus Alexandrian manuscripts are in terrible shape, some being 200 years older than codices Vaticanus and Sinaiticus, which would mean that they must have been read very often by true believers. Second, a number of old Byzantine and Western manuscripts are in good condition as well, which by this argument would indicate that they are also guilty of never having been read because they were full of errors, alterations, additions and deletions, so they would have had little chance of wear and tear. Third, the size of Sinaiticus with the Old Testament, the New Testament, and apocryphal books, among other books would have weighed about 50+ lbs. This book was not read in the same manner that Christians would read their Bibles today. The same would be true of Codex Vaticanus as well. Fourth, both were written on extremely expensive and durable calfskin. Fifth, the period of copying the Byzantine text type was c. 330 – 1453 C.E. and it progressed into the most corrupt period for the Church (priests to the popes: stealing, sexual sins, torture, and murder); so much so, it ends with the Reformation. Thus, the idea of true believers wearing out manuscripts is ludicrous. Sixth, the Bible was locked up in Latin. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate, produced in the 5th century to make the Bible accessible to all, became a means of keeping God’s Word hidden. Almost all Catholic priests were biblically illiterate, so one wonders who these so-called true believers were and how were they reading God’s Word to the point of wearing it out. For centuries, manuscripts were preserved, even when the Catholic priests could no longer understand them.

Burgon, Miller, and Scrivener in their second argument maintained that the Byzantine text was used by the church for far more centuries, which proved its integrity, as God would never allow the church to use a corrupt text. B. F. Westcott wrote, “A corrupted Bible is a sign of a corrupt church, a Bible mutilated or imperfect, a sign of a church not yet raised to complete perfection of the truth.” (The Bible in the Church, 1864, 1875) The reader can determine for himself or herself if it is mere coincidence that as the church grew corrupt, the most corrupt manuscript of all grew right along with it for a thousand years.

As was stated earlier, Lucian produced the Syrian text, renamed the Byzantine text. About 290 C.E., some of his associates made various subsequent alterations, which deliberately combined elements from earlier types of text, and this text was adopted about 380 C.E. At Constantinople, it became the predominant form of the New Testament throughout the Greek-speaking world. The text was also edited, with harmonized parallel accounts, grammar corrections, and abrupt transitions modified to produce a smooth text. This was not a faithfully accurate copy. As we had just learned earlier under the corruption period, after Constantine legalized Christianity, giving it equal status with the pagan religions, it was much easier for those possessing manuscripts to have them copied. In fact, Constantine had ordered 50 copies of the whole of the Bible for the church in Constantinople. Over the next four centuries or so, the Byzantine Empire and the Greek-speaking church were the dominant factors as to why this area saw their text becoming the standard. It had nothing to do with it being the better text, i.e., the text that more accurately reflected the original. From the eighth century forward, the corrupt Byzantine text was the standard text and had displaced all others; it makes up about 95 percent of all manuscripts that we have of the Christian Greek Scriptures.

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Burgon, Miller, and Scrivener in their third argument continued with the belief that it would be foolish to set aside thousands of manuscript witnesses (the Byzantine text-type) for a few supposedly early manuscript witnesses (the Alexandrian text-type). But in truth, the majority of anything does not automatically mean that it is the best or even correct. Today we can easily produce thousands of copies of a faulty manuscript with a machine, and every copy displays the same errors. If we were to hand-copy the same manuscript a thousand times, obvious errors probably would be corrected in many copies, but new errors would be introduced, many of them probably the result of a well-intended “correction.” A textual criticism principle that has been derived from this observation is that manuscripts should be weighed (i.e. for value), not counted.

In their fourth argument, Burgon, Miller, and Scrivener maintained that the Byzantine text-type was actually older and superior to the Alexandrian text-type. To refute this, we can go back to our patristic quotations, which reveal the Alexandrian text-type as earlier than the Byzantine text-type. Greenlee writes, “The fallacy in this argument was that the antiquity of a ‘Syrian’ (i.e., Byzantine) reading could be shown only when the Byzantine text was supported by one of the pre-Byzantine texts, which proved nothing in favor of the Byzantine, since WH maintained that Syrian readings were largely derived from the pre-Syrian texts. That the traditional text was intrinsically superior was more nearly a matter of subjective opinion; but extensive comparison of text-types has left most scholars convinced that the late text [Byzantine] is in general inferior, not superior.”[4]

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Metzger (whom I cite at length) writes,

The Alexandrian text, which Westcott and Hort called the Neutral text (a question-begging title), is usually considered to be the best text and the most faithful in preserving the original. Characteristics of the Alexandrian text are brevity and austerity. That is, it is generally shorter than the text of other forms, and it does not exhibit the degree of grammatical and stylistic polishing that is characteristic of the Byzantine type of text. Until recently the two chief witnesses to the Alexandrian text were codex Vaticanus (B) and codex Sinaiticus (א), parchment manuscripts dating from about the middle of the fourth century. With the acquisition, however, of the Bodmer Papyri, particularly P66 and P75, both copied about the end of the second or the beginning of the third century, evidence is now available that the Alexandrian type of text goes back to an archetype that must be dated early in the second century. The Sahidic and Bohairic versions frequently contain typically Alexandrian readings …. It was the corrupt Byzantine form of text that provided the basis for almost all translations of the New Testament into modern languages down to the nineteenth century. During the eighteenth-century scholars assembled a great amount of information from many Greek manuscripts, as well as from versional and patristic witnesses. But, except for three or four editors who timidly corrected some of the more blatant errors of the Textus Receptus, this debased form of the New Testament text was reprinted in edition after edition. It was only in the first part of the nineteenth century (1831) that a German classical scholar, Karl Lachmann, ventured to apply to the New Testament the criteria that he had used in editing texts of the classics. Subsequently other critical editions appeared, including those prepared by Constantin von Tischendorf, whose eighth edition (1869–72) remains a monumental thesaurus of variant readings, and the influential edition prepared by two Cambridge scholars, B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort (1881). It is the latter edition that was taken as the basis for the present United Bible Societies’ edition. During the twentieth century, with the discovery of several New Testament manuscripts much older than any that had hitherto been available, it has become possible to produce editions of the New Testament that approximate ever more closely to what is regarded as the wording of the original documents.[5]

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The Occult and Unbelief Accusations

There are quite a number of conservative Bible scholars who might disagree with the Greek text of Westcott and Hort and there favoring the Alexandrian family of Greek texts. Some of those who stand out the most are from the fundamentalists of the late 19th and the early 20th centuries. The most radical within the fundamentalist movement are known as the King James Version Onlyist. Gail Riplinger quotes them in her book New Age Bible Versions.[6] In her book, she accuses Westcott of being involved in the occult. Nevertheless, it was Westcott himself who wrote,

Many years ago, I had occasion to investigate “spiritualistic” phenomena with some care, and I came to a clear conclusion, which I feel bound to express in answer to your circular. It appears to me that in this, as in all spiritual questions, Holy Scripture is our supreme guide. I observe, then, that while spiritual ministries are constantly recorded in the Bible, there is not the faintest encouragement to seek them. The case, indeed, is far otherwise. I cannot, therefore, but regard every voluntary approach to beings such as those who are supposed to hold communication with men through mediums as unlawful and perilous. I find in the fact of the Incarnation all that man (so far as I can see) requires for life and hope.[7]

We should note that the above quote was made much later in the life of Wescott. He clearly infers that he ‘had occasion to investigate “spiritualistic” phenomena with some care,’ which would indicate that much earlier in his life he had some fascination with spiritualism and the occult. This is consistent with Riplinger’s claim; however, it had no bearing on his ability or skills as a textual scholar to produce and publish The New Testament in the Original Greek, a Greek-language version of the New Testament, which, again, published in 1881. Of course, the motivation behind the King James Version Onlyist would certainly argue otherwise. The irony is, these fundamentalist worshippers of the Textus receptus would never call into question John Calvin or Calvinism, who was guilty of having Michael Servetus killed for believing differently about the Trinity and was a proponent of persecuting anyone who dared to believe differently than he. The difference with Westcott and Hort is, they had an interest and the subject of the called that they investigated and then rejected later in life, which we would call repentance and turning away from the wrongdoing, while John Calvin held onto his radical beliefs up until the time of his death.

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False claim #1: “Writing that his father had a lifelong “faith in what for lack of a better name, one must call Spiritualism,” the son of famed biblical Greek text editor B. F. Westcott admits to considerable public alarm at his father’s activity.” (Jack Chick, Battle Cry, July/August 1993 issue)

This combination of claim and quote comes from the July/August 1993 issue of “Battle Cry”, the newspaper put out by Jack Chick. The quote above still appears on Chick’s website at the time of this writing. Similarly, Gail Riplinger writes “Westcott’s son writes of his father’s lifelong “faith in what for lack of a better name, one must call Spiritualism. . .” ” (Riplinger, New Age Bible Versions, p.407). The context is from where Westcott’s son discusses Westcott’s short-lived involvement in the “Ghostlie Guild” when he was a young man still in university (see James May’s article and Robert L. Sumner’s article for more information), and the entire paragraph the quote is lifted from is as follows (bold added):

“What happened to this Guild in the end I have not discovered. My father ceased to interest himself in these matters, not altogether, I believe, from want of faith in what, for lack of a better name, one must call Spiritualism, but because he was seriously convinced that such investigations led to no good.” (Life and Letters of Brooke Foss Westcott, Vol. I, p.119)

There are several problems with the claim as made by Chick and Riplinger. First, and most importantly, notice that the quote had “want of” (lack of, e.g. Psalm 23:1) chopped off the front.. Westcott did not have “faith” in Spiritualism, he had “want of [(lack of)] faith” in Spiritualism. Secondly, it was one of two reasons he ceased to interest himself in the the matters the Guild was involved in, shortly after it was formed (notice Chick and Riplinger both falsely use the word “lifelong”). Thirdly, nothing in the quote (or surrounding material) even hints at “public alarm”, let alone “considerable” or even Westcott’s son admitting such. Chick’s claim is completely fabricated, and the quote he chopped to support his claim actually says the exact opposite when the context is examined. The entire quote is somewhat difficult to parse as it stands, but it’s easier to breakdown if viewed as follows: “Westcott ceased, not altogether (not entirely) from want (lack) of faith in Spiritualism, but also because such investigations led to no good.” Was the reason that Westcott ceased due to want (lack) of faith in Spiritualism? Yes, but it was “not altogether” the reason – it was also because “he was seriously convinced that such investigations led to no good.”—Ray McIntyre

The King James Onlyist, Textus Receptus, Majority Text, byzantine disciples love to point to Westcott and Hort’s orthodoxy. Again, they need not pull quotes from when Westcott and Hort were young men but rather show one unorthodox belief in their commentaries, which have been listed below.

  • Brooke Foss Westcott and John Maurice Schulhof, eds., Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians: The Greek Text with Notes and Addenda, Classic Commentaries on the Greek New Testament (London; New York: The Macmillan Company, 1909), v.
  • Brooke Foss Westcott and Arthur Westcott, eds., The Gospel according to St. John Introduction and Notes on the Authorized Version, Classic Commentaries on the Greek New Testament (London: J. Murray, 1908), v.
  • Brooke Foss Westcott, ed., The Epistles of St. John: The Greek Text with Notes and Essays, 4th ed., Classic Commentaries on the Greek New Testament (London; New York: Macmillan, 1902), v.
  • Brooke Foss Westcott, ed., The Epistle to the Hebrews the Greek Text with Notes and Essays, 3d ed., Classic Commentaries on the Greek New Testament (London: Macmillan, 1903).

The final conclusion here is simple, Westcott and Hort had some missteps spiritually as young men, they were not perfect as to their beliefs as young men, and they are under attack because they were the producers of the text that undermined the Textus Receptus that had been worshipped for centuries. I would venture to say that every King James Version Onlyist doctrinally believes differently than the other. I would venture to say that their doctrinal positions are not perfect, especially when they were younger because no one has perfect doctrinal positions. If Westcott and Hort were the only textual scholars to endorse, defend, recommend, validate their critical text, we might be more critical of them and they’re younger days; however, their work has been reviewed or about 140 years now and literally hundreds upon hundreds of textual and translation scholars have adopted their scholarship, their work, and their product as the foundation for their translation: NIV, TEV, NASB, CEV, NLY, ESV, CSB, UASV, HCSB, and on and on.

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[1] Philip Comfort, Encountering the Manuscripts: An Introduction to New Testament Paleography & Textual Criticism, (Nashville, 2005), p. 100.

[2] Studies in the Theory and Method of New Testament Textual .., https://www.logos.com/product/46572/studies-in-the-theory-and-method-of-new-test (accessed June 12, 2016).

[3] A connected group of Christians promotes the King James Only movement. It is their position that the King James Version of the Bible is superior to all other English translations and that all English translations based on the Westcott and Hort text of 1881 (foundation text of UBS5 and NA28) are corrupt due to the influence of the Alexandrian Greek manuscripts.

[4] (Greenlee, Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism 1995, 76-7)

[5] Bruce Manning Metzger, United Bible Societies, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition a Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament (4th Rev. Ed.) (London; New York: United Bible Societies, 1994), xx, xxv.

[6] Riplinger, G. A. (1993). New Age Bible Versions. A.V. Publications. ISBN 978-0-9635845-0-2.

[7] Westcott, B.F. (July 1893). “The Response to the Appeal”. Borderland. Vol. I no. 1. p. 11. cited in May, James. “Westcott and the Ghostly Guild”. King James Only Resource

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