For and Against: The Majority Text Approach to Textual Criticism

By Kenneth Berding Mar. 21, 2013 9:30 a.m. Biblical Exposition, New Testament

Which is the best Greek text to use when translating the New Testament?  Some people argue for a “majority text” (a text like the one that lies behind the KVJ or the NKJV but none of the other major translations).  What are the arguments that have been put forth in favor of the superiority of the Byzantine (majority) text of the Greek New Testament?  How would you respond to someone who insisted that the majority text approach is correct?

Following is a sketch of the arguments I drew up some time ago to help me think through this issue.  (The main arguments are listed below by numbers; they are then argued against following the word “response.”) [1]

The Theological Argument [2]

1.     The God who inspired the Scriptures would preserve it.  The numerical superiority of the Byzantine text type proves it.  Orthodox Christians would retain a pure text.  Heretics “alexandrianized” their texts.

Response:

  •  Logically, then, Byzantine texts should not have a single clerical error...
  • Even though the Textus Receptus (basically a Byzantine text) was the basis for the Westminster Confession, there is not a single point in the entire confession that would change if it were based upon a modern eclectic text rather than upon the Byzantine text! [3]
  • Did Athanasius, who used an Alexandrian text, defend the Deity of Christ using an inferior text? [4]

The Methodological Argument [5]

2.     Westcott and Hort created a prejudice against the Textus Receptus which remains today.

Response:

  • Westcott and Hort were not so much innovators as synthesizers of the work done by their predecessors.
  • Some of their predecessors were actually very conservative, like the pietist Johann A. Bengal.  This negates the accusation that their work was theologically motivated.

3.     Genealogical classifications are useless because a) the aim is a hypothetical text, b) the church fathers complained about heretics altering texts, c) the texts are mixed and there are sub-texts [Van Soden saw 17 subgroups under the Western text type].

Response:

  • These secondary factors obscure the fact that the evidence clearly shows in some cases that certain texts were copied from a common ancestor.
  • We would also have to reject other hypotheticals which are used in other areas of study (such as proto-Semitic or proto-European). [6]

4.     Internal Criteria are too subjective—like conjectural emendations. [7]

Response:

  • Byzantine readings are also composite.
  • Even Hodges and Farstad (in their Majority Text) admit that they occasionally have to use internal criteria where the external evidence is ambiguous.  It is unavoidable!

5.     Early manuscripts are poor.  Pickering shows various errors in p75, p45, p66.

Reponse:  Most scribal errors are obvious and easily corrected.

6.     In normal transmission, the earliest texts would be the most numerous.

Response:  The transmission was not normal.

  • Roman persecution probably cut off some text streams.
  • Latin became dominant in many areas (thus the existence of so many Latin texts).
  • The Islamic invasion of Egypt and Syria in the 7th century blunted these streams.  (Asia Minor was conquered much later).

7.     Many Byzantine readings have been found in the early papyri. [8]  Sturz thinks that Byzantine text types should be given equal status with other text families.

Response:

  • This does suggest that Westcott and Hort were too negative toward Byzantine readings.
  • Still, there is no pattern of “Byzantine readings” in the papyri, simply individual readings that happen to agree with the later Byzantine readings.

Conclusion:  Even if we allow that a bit more weight should be given to Byzantine readings than is often allowed (so, Sturz), there is no compelling reason to abandon our commitment to an eclectic text such as undergirds most modern translations of the Bible.



[1] I drew up this summary quite a while ago.  You’ll have to dig up the sources yourself if you want to find a particular source since I have gotten disconnected from my earlier bibliography.
[2] Burgon and Hills.
[3] Silva.
[4] Sturz.
[5] Pickering and Zane Hodges.
[6] Makujina.
[7] Pickering.
[8] Sturz held this, but was much more moderate than, say, Pickering or Zane Hodges.

 

 

 

Comments

  • Gary Manning Mar. 21, 2013 at 11:36 AM

    Good summary! I might add that (as you know) textual criticism has made significant progress since Westcott and Hort. Majority Text proponents usually attack Westcott and Hort, but modern TC is based on the work of many other scholars, and corrects the work of Westcott and Hort in many ways. For example, no one uses W&H's "neutral text" any more.

  • duane dunham Mar. 21, 2013 at 2:13 PM

    Number six is easily refuted by referring to demand for copies. Since earliest documents were not complete testaments, probably only small portions, even individual books, demand for Romans would likely be much greater than for Colossians, or 3 John, etc. Larger Christian communities would need more copies, smaller assemblies fewer; more literate Christians; more affluent ones, greater demand. Hence, earlier copies likely to be FEWER.

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