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The Majority Text

gothic mThe Byzantine or Majority Text is the text that is found in over 90% of our Greek NT manuscripts. Due to the efforts of a few textual scholars and advocates, the Byzantine/Majority text has made something of a comeback over the past few decades. The arguments made in favour of it by some of these scholars are:

  1. Numerical Superiority: The Majority text has the greatest number of copies witnessing its readings. It therefore deserves to be considered the best text of the NT.
  2. Geographical Superiority: The Majority Text was the NT of the Greek church from (at least) AD350. It would seem more reasonable to trust the NT of the very area - in fact, the heartland of Christianity - where most of the original NT books were originally kept, rather than the areas like Egypt and Latin North Africa where the other Alexandrian and Western Text-types came from.
  3. A Standard Text: In contrast to the MSS supporting the Alexandrian and Western texts which disagree with each other so many times that it is hard to decide what the reading of these text-types is at many points, the text of the vast majority of Greek MSS was a more stable and standard text - there is little divergence among Majority text MSS by comparison with the sometimes wild divergence among the other two Text-types.
  4. Independent Copies: Despite their general uniformity, the vast bulk of the manuscripts of the Byzantine/Majority text (apart from the late Kr group) are each independent witnesses to the NT text. Thus, the large Kx group is so-called because its members show little sign of close relationship. Their origin therefore goes back via independent transmission streams to the original text of the NT itself.

As a result, some textual scholars claim that the Byzantine or Majority text is the original text of the NT.

'Manuscripts must be Weighed not Counted'

The main argument normally used against the Byzantine/Majority text is the slogan that 'manuscripts need to be weighed, not counted'. In other words, scholars argue that textual criticism is not democratic - there is no such thing as majority rule in textual criticism. Although common sense would normally suggest that a reading found in the majority of manuscripts is the correct one, yet scholars argue that a few good quality manuscripts are better than hundreds and thousands of late, corrupted manuscripts.

Another way that this argument is stated is that if the majority of manuscripts were to be found to have descended from a single archetype (not the original autograph, but an early ancestor), then the numerical advantage would boil down to only one witness no more valuable than other witnesses of the same age.

This second 'genealogical' form of the argument was essentially the theory of two Cambridge scholars, B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort, whose Greek New Testament of 1881 contained nearly 6000 changes from the TR, and finally overthrew the dominance of the TR.

Westcott and Hort's theory disposed of the majority of manuscripts, that is the Majority or Byzantine text-type, arguing that the majority of manuscripts did not contain the most reliable form of the Greek text of the NT. They argued that other, earlier forms of the Greek NT, like the Alexandrian and the Western Text-types were more reliable than the majority of later Greek copies. Their reasons for rejecting the 90-95% of the Greek copies in favour of a few earlier copies were:

  1. They argued that the Majority Text was an EDITED text, put together by the Greek church authorities in the 4th Century. In other words, they argued that it was a text PASTED together from earlier Alexandrian and Western texts. They were thus calling it a SECONDARY text. They argued that it only took over from the earlier, purer forms of the Greek NT because of its prestige as the now officially-sponsored version of the Greek Church.
  2. They argued that the Byzantine/Majority Text was a LATE text.    They claimed there was no evidence of Church fathers quoting from it before the 4th Century. Nor did any Greek NT copies that used the standard wording of the Majority Text date before the 4th Century. Nor did any of the other early language Versions use the Majority Text.
  3. As evidence for their theory that the Byzantine text was an edited text, that is, a cut-and-paste job, they argued that there was evidence of the Byzantine text conflating ('joining') different readings found in earlier texts like the Western and Alexandrian. For example, in Luke 24:53, some Alexandrian copies read 'they were BLESSING God'; some Western copies read 'they were PRAISING God'; whilst the Majority Text 'conflated' these two readings together to read 'they were PRAISING AND BLESSING God'. Westcott and Hort gave eight examples of these 'conflations' in the NT and argued that this proved that the Byzantine text was edited and secondary. 
  4. The WH theory also claimed that because the Byzantine Text was an edited text, this also proved the priority of the two Text-types which they claimed it was edited from - the Alexandrian and Western Texts. That is, these two Text-types must have been older than the Byzantine Text-type.
  5. As a result of the Byzantine Text being edited, the WH theory was also able to argue that the Byzantine MSS were NOT INDEPENDENT of each other. As these MSS had all sprung from one revision of the NT, then it did not really matter how many of them there were - even if they were in the majority - because they were all traceable back to the one 'doctored' edition.
  6. They argued that the STYLE of the Majority Text also proved that it was an edited text.

Modern Arguments against the Majority Text

As can be clearly seen, the linchpin of Westcott and Hort's theory and their rejection of the Byzantine text, was the idea that the Byzantine text (their 'Syrian' text) was the result of a recension, an officially-imposed revision of the Greek NT (carried out in Antioch by Lucian, they suggested) which combined elements from earlier Alexandrian and Western texts. This allowed them to ignore the numerical superiority of the Byzantine text, count it as one witness, and dismiss it as secondary and late.

Westcott and Hort's recension theory has never been without its critics. Tregelles, under the heading of 'Results of the Discussion of Recensions, wrote 'Negatively ... first, that there is no proof of any recension of the text having formerly having taken place, or any revision on an extensive scale: it is evident that any correction must have been partial and local, springing from the copyists, and not from authority, ecclesiastical or critical (Prolegomena, xix). Scrivener was even more scathing.

The recension idea has also been challenged over the last few decades in books by Pickering and Sturz. The main problem with Westcott and Hort's recension theory, as has been pointed out, is that there is not the slightest historical evidence of any such thing ever happening - no documented historical evidence of an official 'editing' of the Greek NT by church authorities to produce the Byzantine text. In addition, the evidence from 'conflations' seems dubious when we consider that there are literally hundreds of places where the Byzantine text goes its own third way to the Western and Alexandrian manuscripts. For example, in 1911 E. A. Hutton produced his Atlas of Textual Criticism, in which he showed 800 places where the three main Alexandrian, Western and Byzantine texts went their three separate ways. Worse yet, there are many other places where the Byzantine text does not even follow the combined testimony of the Alexandrian and Western texts, in direct contradiction to the 'conflated' text idea.

Without a recensional origin for the Majority/Byzantine text, it is logically impossible to argue that it is a secondary text and that its manuscripts are not independent witnesses to the original text. Instead of a recensional origin, we are forced to admit a transmissional origin  (the default approach for any text), which means that the MSS of the Byzantine majority of MSS must indeed be traced back to ancestors earlier than the fourth century, and therefore equal to those of the Alexandrian and Western texts. If it is not a secondary text, the Byzantine text-type must be a primary witness to the NT text.

As a result, some modern textual scholars have maintained a strange and evasive attitude towards the Byzantine/Majority text. Instead of defending the idea of a recension or coming clean and admitting that it is historical fiction, modern attempts to discredit the Byzantine/Majority text (like those in the Studies and Documents series by Fee and Wallace, volumes 45 and 46) avoid this central issue. These 'hatchet jobs' (Maurice Robinson's term, based on the fact that other approaches to textual criticism of the NT in these volumes are set out by their advocates, while the Byzantine Text approach is caricatured and attacked by its enemies) claim to respond to books by advocates of the Majority/Byzantine text position, yet they fail to take to the field of battle to engage the central argument of Majority Text advocates (its supposed recensional origin). Instead, (following the old lawyer's adage: if the facts are on your side, hammer the facts, if the law is on your side, hammer the law, if neither are on your side, attack the opposing attorney), they accuse Byzantine text adovocates of theological motivation (the 'doctrine of providential preservation'). They then quit the field of battle continuing to convey the impression that the historical fiction of a recensional origin for the Byzantine text is true (Fee by atributing the Byzantine text's popularisation to Chrysostom without discussing its origin, while Wallace distracts attention by talking about when the Majority text becomes a majority among extant manuscripts). Other scholars pretend that the question of the origin of the Byzantine text is immaterial and have continued to argue that it is late (there are no Byzantine manuscripts, versions or fathers before the fourth century, etc) and that its style is characterised by scribal corruptions: additions, smoothings, harmonizations, and improvements.

The Majority Text's problem of its later age is a serious stumbling-block to most scholars. No MSS of the Majority Text-type have been found dating before the 4th Century. Furthermore, no very early church 'Fathers' quote exclusively from the Majority text. The early 'Fathers' often quote a reading from the Majority Text, but also quote readings from the other Text-types. Majority Text advocates like to emphasise that sometimes a Father quoted from the Majority Text, but it was not until the 4th Century that we find 'Fathers' quoting mostly from a Majority Text-type. Also, many of the early Versions (translations into other languages) are not of the Majority Text-type. Again, many of these contain Majority Text readings, but they also contain the readings of other text-types - often a larger percentage of the time.

Majority Text advocates have sometimes done their cause little good by their response to this objection, some responding by arguing that the reason that we have found no early Majority Text MSS was that they must have been worn out like a well-used Bible. On the other hand, Majority text advocates have claimed that the reason why the early copies that have been found are all of Alexandrian and Western Text-types was because early Christians detected that these MSS were corrupt and threw them out as rubbish. Scholars have been unimpressed by such story-telling, and although this fact hardly proves the story, this is actually where many Egyptian papyri were actually found: buried in the sand among Egyptian rubbish-heaps.

However, the obvious reason for the lack of early Byzantine copies is that we have in our possession only the most vanishingly small percentage of MSS known to have existed in these early centuries. We are hardly in any position to make any more than tentative statements about what the NT looked like in say, Greece, in the first few Centuries if all we have are a few fragmentary MSS from hermitages in upper Egypt. As to the Church 'Fathers' lack of support for the Majority Text before about AD 350, it is admitted by most scholars that very few of these early 'Fathers' actually came from Greece or Asia Minor. Most came from the Latin West or Alexandria - which is one of the reasons that we call the Text-types they used as Alexandrian or Western. So, in one respect, this argument is no different to the one about the MSS above. There are no church fathers of note from the area in question (the Byzantine area of Greece and Asia Minor) before Chrysostom in the fourth century. Absence of direct proof for an early Byzantine Text-type, however, is not a proof of absence.

The second modern argument against the Byzantine Text-type is that its style shows the characteristic marks of scribal corruption: scribes added to, polished up, harmonized and improved the text of earlier manuscripts to produce the later Byzantine manuscripts.  The problem with this argument is that the increasing evidence from studies into scribal habits shows the exact opposite. Scribes did not add to the text, or polish up its style, or harmonize or improve it - they did the very reverse. It is actually the Alexandrian text which shows all the evidence of a text that has suffered the pock-marks of scribal corruption: omission, terse austerity, disharmonization and more difficult readings. By comparison, the Byzantine text has far less of these defects, whether as a result of higher standards of copying or because of the process of correction remedying the sorts of defects we see in the Alexandrian witnesses.

The Main Problems with the Byzantine Text

  1. We have already seen that the Byzantine/Majority Text was either edited (in a recension) or transmitted (by normal copying processes). Since the first option (suggested by Westcott and Hort) has not been substantiated by any historical evidence, its evidence from 'conflations' is flawed, and its argument from style is being increasingly contradicted by evidence from scribal habits, we are left with the second option, transmission, which is in any case to be assumed as the default method of production of any Text-type in the absence of proof to the contrary. This means that the Majority Text was copied from earlier MSS - like all the other text-types.

    However, most Majority Text advocates over-reach themselves at this point and claim that the Majority Text transmitted the Original wording of the NT without any substantial errors. They claim that the true reading at a given point will always be found in some Byzantine MS. This is where a possible flaw in the Majority Text argument is found. Normal transmission involves copying mistakes. But the NT had other problems to contend with - like the occasional severe Roman persecutions (which involved Bible burning) and the fact that much of the early copying process was carried out by individuals and Churches rather than by professional scribes. To claim that the Byzantine MSS escaped any normal mistakes of the copying process as well as the special disasters of the first few centuries is a big claim. Furthermore, the claim that the Byzantine text was transmitted from the originals without substantial error remains unproven for the simple reason that we do not possess any of the Byzantine MSS's ancestors in the first few Centuries.

    All that can be said about the Byzantine or Majority Text is that it has every right to a place at the negotiating table when we sit down to work out the original NT. It is early - like the other text-types (although their evidence is more direct). But it, like all the text-types, has mistakes. All of the evidence must be taken into account when trying to determine the original NT. We cannot rule major areas of the evidence out of court (like the attempt by Westcott and Hort to discredit 95% of the evidence).

  2. The second main problem with the Majority Text argument is that, while we have 5000-plus Greek manuscript witnesses to the text of the NT, we also have nearly 20,000 manuscript witnesses to the NT in other early language versions (for example, there are nearly twice as many Latin manuscripts of the NT as Greek). It is therefore somewhat dubious to claim that the Byzantine Greek text deserves to be considered the original text simply because of the number of manuscripts which we can count belonging to it. While the Greek manuscripts are our primary evidence for the NT text, these other versional witnesses also provide strong evidence for the text in many locations around the Mediterranean world of the first few Christian centuries. Furthermore, the objection raised against versional evidence - that translation procedures mean that we cannot always be certain what the underlying Greek text of a version was - rarely applies in cases where there is a significant case of textual variation, like a glaring addition or omission, for the versional evidence will clearly show these more significant cases of textual variation.

    The fact that these versional witnesses show us what the Greek text underlying them was in certain locations in early Christian centuries means that when we look at the geographical spread of evidence for certain textual variants, the reading of the Byzantine text sometimes looks like it is in a distinctly minority. It would be very strange, for example, if a textual error were perpetuated in regions as geographically far-flung as Egypt, Latin-speaking West Africa, Italy, and Syria in the East. It would be much more likely that a reading that is found, not only in Alexandrian and Western Greek manuscripts, but in versions from all these geographically-remote areas were the original reading of the NT, as opposed to a reading only found in the Byzantine Greek manuscripts confined to one geographically-limited region.

The Old Testament is proof that a Majority Text is not always right.

When we look over at the Old Testament we see another reason why we should not just simply assume that the NT Majority Text is without any errors. The Old Testament equivalent of the Majority Text is the Hebrew Masoretic Text. It is the text of the majority of Old Testament MSS we possess. However, it is often not used when the OT is quoted in the NT.

For example, in Hebrews 1:6 we read 'let all the angels of God worship him'. We search in vain for this in the KJV because the KJV is based on the Hebrew Masoretic Text, which does not have this verse. The verse is only found in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Greek Septuagint (Deut. 32:43). Here we have a case of the NT proving that the Masoretic Majority text is sometimes wrong. Just because a reading has the most number of copies supporting it does not mean it is automatically right. A number of other examples could be shown to prove that the Masoretic text of the OT was not followed all the time by the inspired NT writers - they instead followed other MSS (e.g Acts 15:16-18).

Some Specific Cases where the NT Majority Text seems Wrong

  1. John 5:4 - the angel coming down to stir the water allowing the first person into the water to be healed. We nowhere else read in the NT of angels performing miracles, let alone on the lottery-style basis of the first person to jump into a pool of water after the waters have been stirred by an angel.
  2. The angels in Revelation 4:8 saying 'holy' NINE times!
  3. Matthew 28:9a in the KJV directly contradicts the other Gospel accounts of the Resurrection. The other Gospels tell us that the women who went to the tomb did not meet Jesus on their return from the tomb to the city but after a second visit to the tomb after Peter and John's visit. The Majority Text's inclusion of the first clause of this verse (not found in most other Greek text-types and other language Versions), telling us that the women met Jesus on their way back from finding the empty tomb, thus directly contradicts other scriptures.
  4. The Majority Text places the wonderful doxology at the end of Romans at the end of Chapter 14(!), where it interrupts the flow of Paul's argument about how we should treat other believers. It is also an incredibly ill-suited place for a doxology of any sort (the immediate context is all about sin).
  5. The Majority Text's rendering of James 2:18b is so meaningless that not even the KJV translators followed it. James 2:18b reads 'Show me your faith WITHOUT your works, and I will show you my faith by my works'. However, in the Majority Text this verse reads, 'Show me your faith BY your works, and I will show you my faith by my works'.
  6. In Acts 12:25, the majority of Byzantine manuscripts read that Paul and Barnabus returned to Jerusalem (instead of returned from Jerusalem - to Antioch) at the completion of their famine-relief ministry. This reading, which is also found in some of the so-called 'early and best manuscripts' is nonsensical. So, here the majority of Byzantine manuscripts are wrong and a minority Byzantine reading is correct. But, once we have admitted that - in principle - a minority reading could possibly be the correct reading, then it makes little difference whether that reading is Byzantine or Alexandrian. In other words, if we admit the possibility of minority Byzantine readings being correct (as here), then we have also admitted the possibility that other minority readings (including non-Byzantine readings) could be correct.
  7. In Acts 18:17, the Greeks beat Sosthenes the ruler of the synagogue before the judgement seat, but instead of reading that 'Gallio cared for none of these things', the Majority text reads that 'Gallio was not about to any of these things'. The difference is one letter: EMELEN (he cared, TR, Critical Text) or EMELLEN (he was about to, Maj). The Majority text here appears virtually nonsensical. At least we can say that the Byzantine scribes were faithful to their task and deliberately copied a nonsensical reading rather than trying to improve upon its sense.
  8. In 1 Peter 1:8, the Majority text reads 'whom not knowing you love' rather than 'whom having not seen you love' (EIDOTES for IDONTES). Again, this seems clearly wrong: the believer knows and loves Christ, although he has not seen him, while someone who does not know Christ is not a believer.
  9. In Luke 10:22 and 23 in the Majority text we have virtually the same expression found in two consecutive verses: 'and turning to the disciples he said' (although verse 23 adds 'privately', but that is what the first verse implies). This seems logically nonsensical: how can Jesus turn to say one sentence to his disciples, and then having said it, turn to say something more to them?
  10. In Ephesians 5:9, the Majority text has 'the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness and righteousness and truth' while the critical text has 'the fruit of the light is in all goodness etc'. The expression 'the fruit of the Spirit' is more familiar to our ears (Galatians 5:22), but the context in Ephesians 5 is talking about how we should 'walk as children of light (verse 8), and 'light' seems more in keeping with what follows in the subsequent verses: 'have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness' (verse 11), and 'all things that are convicted are made manifest by the light, for whatever makes manifest is light' (verse 13).


There are other cases that could be shown where the Majority Text seems to have a reading that is virtually impossible to maintain as the original reading. It is therefore likely that the Majority Text is just like the other major early forms of the NT: it developed its own peculiarities over time. Therefore, although the Majority Text seems to deserve more of a hearing than it presently gets in critical circles, it is not true to say that it is the only true text of the NT, or that we can dismiss these other different earlier texts out of hand.

The best analogy for understanding the Byzantine text is that it is the NT equivalent of the Hebrew Masoretic text: it was written in the original language of the NT, it is the standard text of the people who were entrusted with its preservation down through the centuries, it is the text with the overwhelming majority of manuscript evidence on its side, it is the text of the geographical heartland of the church from AD70 onwards, its origins are not recensional but instead transmissional, and its origin is ancient, even though the evidence for this is to be deduced rather than able to be tangibly produced (in terms of actual documents). It therefore ought to be accorded roughly the same respect as the Hebrew Masoretic text of the OT. It certainly deserves a place as one of the foremost witnesses to the text of the NT. But the idea that it is some infallible guide to the original text goes far beyond the evidence. A Byzantine-Priority position is worthy of serious consideration, but a Byzantine-Exclusivity position seems unwarranted. An eclectic approach that includes all the evidence (including the Byzantine text as well as other early Greek manuscript witnesses and evidence from versions and fathers) remains the only valid approach to New Testament textual criticism.

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