Is the Critical or Majority Greek Text the Best?

(Article from the  Greek Majority Text by Farstad and Dunkin, 2nd Editon)


The New Testament was originally written by its inspired authors in the Greek language. Through many centuries, until the invention of printing (about a.d. 1450), it was handed down in handwritten copies. Of these there now survive approximately 5,000 complete or partial manuscripts. The available witnesses to the text of the New Testament are far more numerous than for any other ancient book.

The process of reconstructing the original wording of the Greek New Testament is known as textual criticism. The history of this discipline is long and complicated. But the most basic question that must be answered has always remained the same. That question is: How should the surviving materials be used in order to recover the exact wording of the autographs?

The two most popular editions of the Greek New Testament in use today are those produced by the United Bible Societies (Third Edition) and by the Deutsche Bibelstiftung (the Nestle-Aland Text, Twenty-sixth Edition). These two texts are nearly identical. Although eclectic, both rely heavily on a relatively small number of ancient manuscripts that derive mainly from Egypt. Among these, Codex Vaticanus (B) and Codex Sinaiticus (א) are the most famous uncial (large letter) manuscripts. The most important papyrus witnesses in this group of texts are the Chester Beatty papyri (P45 46 47) and the Bodmer papyri (P66 75). The text which results from dependence on such manuscripts as these may fairly be described as Egyptian. Its existence in early times outside of Egypt is unproved.

In contrast to this kind of text stands the form of text found in the vast majority of the remaining documents. This text is recognizably different from the Egyptian text and has been appropriately designated the Majority Text. It is true that the documents that contain it are on the whole substantially later than the earliest Egyptian witnesses. But this is hardly surprising. Egypt, almost alone, offers climatic conditions highly favorable to the preservation of very ancient manuscripts. On the other hand, the witnesses to the Majority Text come from all over the ancient world. Their very number suggests that they represent a long and widespread chain of manuscript tradition. It is necessary, therefore, to postulate that the surviving documents are descended from non-extant ancestral documents of the highest antiquity. These must have been in their own time as old or older than the surviving witnesses from Egypt.

It follows from this that the Majority Text deserves the attention of the Christian world. When all the issues are properly weighed, it has a higher claim to represent the original text than does the Egyptian type. The latter is probably a local text which never had any significant currency except in that part of the ancient world. By contrast, the majority of manuscripts were widely diffused and their ancestral roots must reach back to the autographs themselves. In the light of this consideration, it is important for the Church to possess a critical edition of the majority form. It is precisely this need that the present edition is designed to fill.

The editors do not imagine that the text of this edition represents in all particulars the exact form of the originals. Desirable as such a text certainly is, much further work must be done before it can be produced. It should therefore be kept in mind that the present work, The Greek New Testament According to the Majority Text, is both preliminary and provisional. It represents a first step in the direction of recognizing the value and authority of the great mass of surviving Greek documents. The use made of those documents in this edition must be subjected to scrutiny and evaluation by competent scholars. Such scrutiny, if properly carried out, can result in further progress toward a Greek New Testament which most accurately reflects the inspired autographs.


In modern times, the popularity that has been attained by the Egyptian form of text is due chiefly to the labors of B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort. Their work on the Greek text of the New Testament was a watershed event in the history of textual criticism.

In 1881, Westcott and Hort published their two-volume work, The New Testament in the Original Greek. To produce this text they relied heavily on the witness of א and B, but especially B. Both of these documents come from the fourth century and were the oldest available manuscripts in their day. The kind of text found in them was described as “neutral.” By this term Westcott and Hort meant to indicate a kind of text largely untouched by editorial revision. In their view the Neutral Text had descended more or less directly from the autographs and was exhibited in its purest form in B.

A key element in the scheme presented by Westcott and Hort was their theory of a Syrian recension of the Greek New Testament. It was their opinion that the great mass of surviving Greek manuscripts descended from an authoritative ecclesiastical revision of the text produced sometime about the fourth century. The locale where the revision might have been made was Syrian Antioch. As a result they held that the majority of the Greek manuscripts were of secondary character and should be accorded little weight in determining the original text.

Subsequent scholarship has wisely discarded the term “neutral” to describe the Egyptian group of texts. The theory of a Syrian recension has also been widely abandoned. In spite of this, the critical texts in current use differ relatively little from the text published by Westcott and Hort a hundred years ago. In fact, the discovery of the papyri has been thought by some to strengthen the claims of Westcott and Hort about the superiority of א and B. This point has especially been urged in connection with P75, a third-century text substantially similar to B. But actually P75 proves nothing more than that the kind of text found in B is earlier than B itself.

Today scholars generally do not argue that the Majority Text stems from a revision of earlier texts. Instead it is often viewed as the result of a long-continued scribal process. But this view is usually presented in vague and general terms. This is not surprising, because it is virtually impossible to conceive of any kind of unguided process which could have resulted in the Majority Text. The relative uniformity within this text shows clearly that its transmissional history has been stable and regular to a very large degree.

It is often suggested that the intrinsic character of the Majority Text is inferior to the Egyptian. This too was one of Westcott and Hort’s arguments. But this approach usually partakes of an unduly large element of subjectivity. The fact is that excellent reasons almost always can be given for the superiority of the majority readings over their rivals. In sum, therefore, the Westcott-Hort tradition in textual criticism has failed to advance convincing objections to the authenticity of the Majority Text.


The premises which underlie the present edition and determine its methodology are two. Both of these premises need to be clearly understood by the users of this text.

(1) Any reading overwhelmingly attested by the manuscript tradition is more likely to be original than its rival(s). This observation arises from the very nature of manuscript transmission. In any tradition where there are not major disruptions in the transmissional history, the individual reading which has the earliest beginning is the one most likely to survive in a majority of documents. And the earliest reading of all is the original one. Unless an error is made in the very first stages of copying, the chances of survival of the error in extant copies in large numbers is significantly reduced. The later a reading originates, the less likely it is to be widely copied.

It should be kept in mind that by the time the major extant papyrus texts were copied, the New Testament was well over a century old. A reading attested by such a witness, and found only in a small number of other manuscripts, is not at all likely to be a survival from the autograph. On the contrary, it is probably only an idiosyncrasy of a narrow strand of the tradition. The only way in which the acceptance of a substantial number of minority readings could be justified is to reconstruct a plausible transmissional history for them. This was, of course, precisely what Westcott and Hort tried to do in defense of א and B. But the collapse of their genealogical scheme under scholarly criticism has nullified their most essential argument. Nothing has replaced it.

In the present edition, wherever genealogical considerations could not be invoked, readings overwhelmingly attested among the manuscripts have been printed in the text. But this leads to a second premise.

(2) Final decisions about readings ought to be made on the basis of a reconstruction of their history in the manuscript tradition. This means that for each New Testament book a genealogy of the manuscripts ought to be constructed. The data available for this in the standard sources is presently inadequate, except for the Apocalypse. In this edition, therefore, a provisional stemma (family tree) of manuscripts is offered for that book only. Textual decisions in Revelation are made on the basis of this genealogical reconstruction. Also, a provisional stemma is offered for John 7:53–8:11; and here, too, decisions about the text are based on stemmatic factors.

It is true, of course, that most modern textual critics have despaired of the possibility of using the genealogical method. Nevertheless, this method remains the only logical one. If Westcott and Hort employed it poorly, it is not for that reason to be abandoned. In fact, the major impediment to this method in modern criticism has been the failure to recognize the claims of the Majority Text. Any text-form with exceedingly large numbers of extant representatives is very likely to be the result of a long transmissional chain. All genealogical reconstruction should take this factor into account. If persistent preference for a small minority of texts cannot be surrendered, then naturally genealogical work will prove impossible. Its impossibility, however, will rest on this preference and not on the intrinsic deficiencies of the method itself. The present edition is in no way fettered by a predilection for a small handful of manuscripts, whether very ancient or somewhat later. It seeks to track the original text in the vast body of the surviving documents. Where possible, this has been done stemmatically.

B Codex Vaticanus

אԠCodex Sinaiticus

P Papyrus

45 Papyrus 45: third century (extensive portions of the four gospels and Acts)

46 Papyrus 46: ca. 200 (extensive portions of the Pauline corups and Hebrews)

47 Papyrus 47: third century (extensive portions of Revelation)

66 Papyrus 66: ca. 200 (extensive portions of John)

75 Papyrus 75: third century (extensive portions of Luke and John)

Hodges, Z. C., Farstad, A. L., & Dunkin, W. C. (1985). The Greek New Testament according to the Majority Text (2nd ed.) (ix). Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers.


© 2010, Matt. All rights reserved.