THE TEXT OF THE GREEK BIBLE - A STUDENT'S HANDBOOK by Frederick G Kenyon, late Director & Principal Librarian of the British Museum. First published 1937 New edition 1949 Reprinted 1953. (Prepared for katapi by Paul Ingram 2015).
HOME | contents | << | introduction | 15-16th cent | 17th cent | 18th cent | 19th cent | westcott & hort | bibliography | >> |

Chapter V. THE PRINTED TEXT 1516-1881

From their origins until the sixteenth century the books of the Bible circulated solely in manuscript, each copy being to some extent a different unit; and in the preceding chapters the attempt has been made to describe the various forms of manuscripts and the most important individual manuscripts that survive out of the many thousands that must have once existed. With the invention of printing about the year 1450 a radical change was brought about, since thenceforth all copies printed from a single setting of type could be counted on to be identical. From this point we have to deal not with single manuscripts but with editions; and the history of these, which is the history of the Bible text as known to us and as handled by scholars, can be carried somewhat rapidly through the centuries down to our own time.

The Mazarin Bible

The earliest printed book that has come down to us ← Fragments remain of the grammatical work of Donatus, much in use in schools, which is believed to have been printed by Gutenberg about 1450. is, very appropriately, the Bible; but naturally this was the Latin Vulgate, since that was then the Bible of the Western world. It is the great folio Bible in large type, commonly known as the Gutenberg (from the name of its supposed printer) or Mazarin (from the name of the owner of the copy which first attracted attention in later times) Bible, but now believed to have been printed by Fust and Schoefier at Mainz and issued early in 1456. The original Greek of the New Testament did not appear until the sixteenth century was well advanced, although the Hebrew Old Testament had already been published in 1488. In 1502 Cardinal Ximenes began to prepare an elaborate edition of the whole Bible, the Old Testament in Hebrew, Greek and Latin, the New Testament in Greek and Latin, and by January, 1514, the New Testament, edited mainly by Lopez de Stunica, was finished. Publication was, however, postponed until the Old Testament should also be ready, which it was by July, 1517, so that Ximenes, who died in November of that year, was able to see the completion of his great undertaking. His death perhaps delayed the obtaining of the papal permission to publish, for this was not given until March, 1520; and the five volumes do not seem to have been actually issued until 1522. This great work is known as the Complutensian Polyglot, from Complutum, the Latin name of Alcala, where it was printed; and it remains one of the outstanding landmarks in the history of the Bible.

Erasmus Greek NT

The delay in publication had, however, lost it the honour of primacy. The printer Froben, of Basle, in the autumn of 1515, who had probably heard of Ximenes' undertaking, commissioned the first Biblical scholar of the day, Erasmus, to prepare a Greek New Testament for immediate publication. Erasmus had long been studying and commenting on the Bible, and had been anxious to produce an edition of the original Greek; accordingly he readily accepted the invitation. Speed, however, being necessary, he could only use such manuscripts as he had at hand; and on the basis of these the first printed Greek New Testament appeared in March, 1516. Erasmus used only a handful of MSS., which happened to be at Basle, but had previously examined MSS. in England. For the Gospels he made some use of minusc. 1, which is a good MS., but mainly depended on 2, which is a very late copy of the ordinary Byzantine text. For the Acts and Epistles he mainly used 2ap, and for Revelation 1r; and since this MS. lacked the last six verses, he retranslated these as best he could from the Latin. In this uncritical form, therefore, the Greek New Testament was given to the world, and its influence endures to the present day.

Erasmus himself produced four more editions of the New Testament (1519, 1522, 1527, 1535), for which he made some use of other MSS. In that of 1522 he introduced the passage in 1 Jn. v.7, 8 relating to the Three Witnesses in Heaven (see p. 106), and in that of 1527 he made some use of the Complutensian, but not much. Other editions were produced by other editors, notably by Robert Estienne or Stephanus at Paris (1546, 1549, 1550, 1551) and Beza (9 editions between 1565 and 1605). The most important, historically, of these is Stephanus' of 1550, because it became the Received Text which was reprinted, with very slight alteration, in all Greek New Testaments (with negligible exceptions) down to the nineteenth century, and still is the standard text in general use. It is therefore material to understand what sort of a text it is. In the main it is Erasmus, somewhat revised from the Complutensian and from fifteen MSS. then at Paris. One of these was Codex Bezae, but of this little use was made, no doubt because of its marked divergences from the common type. Substantially the textus receptus ← The term textus receptus first appears in the Elzevir edition of 1633. The Elzevirs of Leyden printed many editions for commercial purposes from 1624 onwards, and that of 1624 became the standard text on the Continent; but it differs little from Stephanus. of Stephanus is the common Byzantine text in its latest form. In the edition of 1551 the division into verses (made by Stephanus himself while travelling from Paris to Lyons) appears for the first time.

For English readers it is important to note that the first English printed New Testament, produced by Tyndale in 1526, was translated from the text of Erasmus; and this, with Latin and German Bibles, was the basis of Coverdale's successive Bibles from 1535 to 1541. For the Geneva Bible (1557 and 1560) and the Authorized Version of 1611 Stephanus' text of 1550 was available. Stephanus' verse-division was adopted in both of these.

By 1550, therefore, scholars in Western Europe possessed the Greek New Testament substantially in the form which had become standardized in the Eastern Church during the later Middle Ages. From this point the history of the text consists of the record of the labours of scholars in collecting material for its revision, and of the attempts from time to time made to revise it—labours and attempts which continue to the present day.

For a century and more after the pioneer work of Ximenes and Erasmus very little was done to test the authenticity of the printed text by comparison with other manuscripts, and no stress was laid on the comparative age of these manuscripts. How many MSS. were consulted for the Complutensian is not known. Erasmus, as we have seen, used very few. Neither of them gave any apparatus of various readings. Stephanus in 1550 did give in his margin variants from his fifteen MSS.; but this remained a solitary exception for over a hundred years.

The first great impulse towards the collection of materials and the recognition of the value of ancient MSS. came in 1627, when the great Codex Alexandrinus (A) reached England as a gift to Charles I from Cyril Lucar, Patriarch of Constantinople. Brian Walton, afterwards bishop of Chester, printed readings from it at the foot of the pages of his great Polyglot Bible, ← The example of Ximenes led to a series of Polyglot Bibles in immense volumes. These are the Antwerp Polyglot in eight volumes (1569-72), the Paris Polyglot in ten (1629-45), and Walton's London Polyglot in eight (1655-57); but none of these except the last has any critical importance. the New Testament volume of which was published in 1657; and a supplementary volume contained collations of fifteen other MSS., in addition to those reported by Stephanus. This is the real beginning of the textual criticism of the New Testament. Among the new witnesses adduced by Walton, the most important after A were D and D2; all the rest were minuscules of no outstanding merit.

The next step forward was made by Dr. John Fell, Dean of Christ Church, who in 1675 printed the Elzevir text of 1633 with an apparatus drawn, as he claimed, from over 100 MSS.; but far more important was the edition which, with the encouragement and pecuniary help of Fell, was produced by John Mill, Fellow of Queen's College, in 1707, as the result of thirty years' labour. It consisted of the text of Stephanus, with an apparatus drawn from 78 MSS. in addition to those used by Stephanus, from the Old Latin, Vulgate and Peshitta versions, and from patristic quotations. Among the MSS. cited are the uncials A, B, D, D2) E, E2, E3, and K, and the minuscules 28, 33, and 69. In addition, in his valuable Prolegomena Mill laid down the principles of the textual criticism of the New Testament for the first time. It was a great work, and remained for a long time the foundation of all subsequent textual study.

It might have been expected that this great collection of evidence would have been followed by an attempt to utilize it for the revision of the printed text; and in fact the foremost classical scholar of the day, Richard Bentley, who had corresponded with Mill and defended him against criticism, made preparations for a critical edition of both the Greek and the Vulgate New Testament, by the comparison of which he believed that " the true exemplar of Origen " might be recovered with almost complete certainty. Proposals for such an edition were issued by him in 1720, and collations were obtained of many manuscripts, including the great uncials B and C; but whether by reason of Bentley's other preoccupations, or because he found the determination of the primitive text less demonstrable than he had hoped, the work never came to birth. Two other English scholars of lesser note, relying almost wholly on the evidence collected by Mill, did however achieve what Bentley failed to achieve. Edward Wells, an Anglican clergyman, produced between 1709 and 1719 a New Testament in a revised text, and a Presbyterian minister, Daniel Mace, followed his example in 1729. Both of these editors introduced many emendations which have been accepted by modern criticism, but in their own day their work had no effect. General opinion regarded the " received text " as sacrosanct, and any attempt to alter it as sacrilegious, while even the collection of various readings was deprecated as tending to throw doubt on the authenticity of the Scriptures. The policy of the ostrich held the field.

Up to this point English scholarship had led the way, but it now was silent for over a century, and the primacy passed to the Continent, and especially to Germany.

J. J. Wetstein, of Basle, who had worked for Bentley, had been preparing a new edition, the prolegomena to which appeared in 1730 and the edition itself in 1751-2. This "made no contribution to text-revision, the Elzevir text being printed with little change; but it is noteworthy as having laid the foundations of the numeration of MSS. by letters (for uncials) and numbers (for minuscules) described above (p. 66). A new departure, however, was made by J. A. Bengel, of Tübingen, who in 1734 produced an edition of the text into which a few emendations were introduced, with an apparatus in which the various readings were classified according to their merit; but more important than this was his proposal to divide the textual witnesses into groups or families, and to establish their interrelation and characters. He made a division into two families: in one, which he called African, he placed the Codex Alexandrinus and such few Greek and Latin MSS. as generally agreed with it, together with the Latin, Coptic, and Ethiopic versions; in the other, which he called Asiatic, he placed the great mass of later Greek MSS., which he regarded as of altogether lesser value. The principle of discrimination according to age and quality, and of weighing authorities instead of merely numbering them, was thus introduced for the first time. It was developed by J. S. Semler of Halle, who, after a first division into two classes, Oriental, which he ascribed to Lucian, and Occidental or Egypto-Palestinian, which he ascribed to Origen, in 1767 propounded a triple classification: (1) Alexandrian, used by Origen and his disciples, and including the Coptic, Syriac, and Ethiopic versions,
(2) Oriental, centred at Antioch and Constantinople, (3) Occidental. The mass of later MSS. he regarded as having mixed texts, and as possessing little importance.

A pupil of Semler's, J. J. Griesbach, elaborated this analysis in a classification which held the field until the days of Westcott and Hort. In an edition of the New Testament, published in 1775-7, he classified the authorities into three classes, substantially the same as Semler's, but in more detail: (1) Alexandrian, including the uncials C L K (it will be remembered that B was almost unknown and א undiscovered), the minuscules 1,13, 33, 69 and a few others, the Bohairic, Harkleian Syriac, Armenian and Ethiopic versions, and the quotations in Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Eusebius and others; (2) Western, including D with some support from 1, 13 and 69, the Latin versions (especially the OL.) and Fathers, and the Peshitta Syriac; (3) Constantinopolitan, including A (which he thought Bengel had rated too high) and the mass of later Greek MSS.; and this third class he regarded, like Bengel and Semler, as of altogether inferior value. In his text (the final form of which appeared in 1805) he introduced a few corrections, but in his apparatus he indicated many more as more or less probable.

The principle of disregarding the mass of later MSS. in comparison with the few earlier authorities, thus laid down by these three scholars, did not commend itself to general opinion. Matthaei, Birch, and Scholz, who continued and amplified the catalogue of MSS. begun by Wetstein, adhered to the received Byzantine text and repudiated the doctrine of Griesbach; and that was the attitude of Biblical scholars in general. ← Thus in 1815 the Rev. F. Nolan wrote an elaborate Inquiry into the Integrity of the Greek Vulgate or Received Text of the New Testament, in which he classified the authorities as representing three ancient editions : (1) Egyptian,, made by Hesychius under the influence of Origen and of apocryphal works, represented chiefly by the MSS. D of Gospels and Acts, D E F G of Epistles, the Codex Vercellensis (a) of the Old Latin, the Bohairic and Sahidic, and the margin of the Harkleian Syriac ; (2) Palestinian, made by Eusebius of Caesarea, influenced by Marcion and Valentinus, and represented by B, A (in Acts and Epistles), 157, the Vulgate (generally), and the Syriac versions ; (3) Vulgate or Byzantine, made by Lucian and reproducing the authentic originals with little error, represented by the great mass of Greek MSS. headed by G, V, and A (in Gospels), and the Brixianus (f) of the Old Latin. A is regarded as having been written before 367, when the Epistles of Clement were declared uncanonical by the Council of Laodicea ; it probably represents the text of Athanasius under whose influence this type of text superseded that supplied by Eusebius to Constantinople, and became the Received Text of the Byzantine Church. B was evidently little known, and not much is said of it. The importance attached to the Brixianus is noteworthy. It was not until 1831 that a new departure was made, and the revision of the text from the materials collected by Mill and his successors down to Scholz was seriously taken in hand. This new departure, which marks the beginning of the modern period of textual criticism, stands to the credit of C. Lachmann. Lachmann, who was one of the first classical scholars of his day, applied to the text of the New Testament the same critical principles as he applied to the texts of classical authors, ignoring the mass of later MSS., and relying wholly on the more ancient. He did not hope to do more than recover the text current in the Church in the latter part of the fourth century, and for this purpose he relied mainly on the uncials A, B, C, H3, P, Q, T, Z, and the quotations in Origen; but since of these B was only imperfectly known to him through the collations made for Bentley, C is imperfect, and the others only fragments, sufficient evidence sometimes failed him, and in such cases he had recourse to Western evidence, the bilinguals D D2 E2 G3, the Old Latin a b c g, A and F of the Vulgate, and the early Latin Fathers. In order to eliminate the element of personal predilection, he followed always the majority of his authorities; and on these lines he produced a revised text in 1831, and again, with a fuller statement of the principles which he had followed, in 1842-50.

Lachmann's methods were by no means wholly satisfactory, and his materials were not as adequate as could be wished; but in spite of adverse criticism he had given a much-needed impulse towards the treatment of the New Testament text on sound critical principles. Interest in the subject was now aroused, and the middle of the nineteenth century saw an epoch-making advance, both in the collection of evidence and in the development of textual theory. The former is mainly connected with the names of Tischendorf and Tregelles, the latter with those of Westcott and Hort. From this point English scholarship comes back into the front line, but the first achievements to be recorded are those of a German. Constantin Tischendorf (1815-74), immediately after taking his degree, set himself to search for early manuscripts or fragments of manuscripts of both Testaments, to publish them, and to utilize the results in the preparation of revised texts. The list of his achievements, as recorded by his editor, C. R. Gregory, is amazing. He discovered 18 uncial MSS. (13 being only fragments) and 6 minuscules; he edited for the first time 25 uncials (all fragments) and re-edited 11 more; he transcribed 4 more and collated 13; finally he brought to light the Codex Vaticanus (B) and he discovered the Sinaiticus (א). The story of these two crowning achievements has been told above (pp. 76, 87). Meanwhile, in addition to his publications of these manuscripts, he found time to produce eight editions of the Greek New Testament, four of the Latin, and four of the Greek Old Testament, besides apocryphal gospels and epistles. His texts, though all superior to the Received Text, varied too much under the influence of his latest discoveries to command full confidence, nor had he the necessary equipment in Biblical scholarship other than textual; but his final edition of the Greek New Testament (1869-72), with full critical apparatus, remains, so far as the apparatus is concerned, the standard edition for the use of scholars, and only needs to be brought up to date by the incorporation of the results of later discoveries. This work, as will be recorded later, is now in hand.

Meanwhile an English contemporary, S. P. Tregelles, had been working in the same field with equal devotion. He, reacting against Scholz's rejection of the earlier evidence in favour of the numerically preponderant later witnesses, set himself about 1838 (without knowledge of the work of Lachmann, whose exposition of his principles had not yet appeared) to prepare an edition " on the authority of ancient copies, without allowing the ' received text ' any prescriptive rights." He began by publishing an edition of the Apocalypse on those lines in 1844, but thereafter, in pursuit of his larger project, he travelled over Europe, collating all the MSS. he could find. He collated in all 13 uncials and 4 minuscules, together with A of the Vulgate: and by comparison of his collations with Tischendorf's, each scholar was able to improve or confirm his results. Only at the Vatican did he fail, being refused access to B and to other MSS.; and he was obliged to content himself with the collations made for Bentley and an earlier one made in 1669 by Bartolocci and preserved at Paris, all of which showed many omissions and divergences. His edition (in which use was also made of the versions and Fathers) was published in parts between 1857 and 1872; it shows a text revised on scholarly principles, but its lasting influence is impaired by the fact that the Gospels were published before Tischendorf's discovery of א and his edition of B.

It was the revelation of these two outstanding authorities, earlier in date than any previously known, and supporting one another in evidence for a text markedly different from the received Byzantine text, that gave the decisive impulse for a revision both of the Greek text in common use and of the English Authorized Version. The latter task was taken in hand by the Convocation of Canterbury in 1870, and resulted in the Revised Version of 1881. With that we are not here concerned; but it largely reflects the influence of two of its members, B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort, who were simultaneously engaged on an edition of the Greek text. Since their work, which appeared in 1881, consisting of a revised text without apparatus criticus, but with elaborate prolegomena and notes on special passages, has formed the basis of all subsequent textual criticism of the New Testament, it is necessary to describe it at some length.

The Prolegomena (written by Hort, but embodying the joint conclusions of the two colleagues) set out a theory which is in the direct line of descent from Bengel and Griesbach, but which deals with a far larger body of material and is argued with greater elaboration. After briefly explaining the origin of various readings, it discusses the methods by which a choice can be made among them. The first is the instinctive preference felt by the critic: but this needs great caution, partly as being too subjective, but still more because the reading which at first sight appears preferable may be due to a correction by a scribe of a reading which presented some difficulty to him. This point was crystallized by Bengel in an aphorism, " Difficilior lectio potior." It is necessary to look further, and to see which reading best accounts for the variants that occur, and which can be explained as due to the observed proclivities of scribes, as to which long experience has evolved certain recognized canons. Apparent superiority and latent inferiority are the normal marks of scribes' corrections; and the real superiority of readings is often perceptible only after close study. The next step is to observe which documents most often offer superior readings, and so to obtain a comparative estimate of documents. In cases of doubt a preference may then be given to readings attested by the documents found to be usually superior. Next it will become possible to classify documents in groups, by observing which are commonly found in combination in support of certain readings. This will generally imply descent, more or less remote, from a common ancestor, and so carries back the testimony to a date which may be a century or more earlier than the documents themselves. On this basis Hort proceeds to a classification of the New Testament documents into the following four main families: (a ) the later uncials and the great mass of the cursives, which, because he believes it to descend from a revision begun at Antioch towards the end of the fourth century, he calls Syrian; (β ) the group headed by the great uncials B and א which, because on examination he believes it to have come down in relative purity without editorial revision, he labels Neutral; (γ ) a small group, not embodied wholly in any one MS. or group of MSS., but consisting of readings found in MSS. normally akin to the Neutral family but differing from the leading representatives of that family, which, because they show signs of stylistic revision likely to have arisen in a centre of scholarship, he calls Alexandrian; (δ ) the group headed by D, the Old Latin version and the Latin fathers, characterized by wide divergence from the other families, which, because of its predominantly Latin attestation, he denominates Western.

As between these four groups, a basis of choice may be found in the evidence of the Fathers, which shows what type of text was in use at particular times and places; and a cardinal point in Hort's theory is his affirmation that no reading strictly belonging to the a family is found in any Father before Chrysostom. Moreover, this family, on examination, shows all the signs of a revision which aims at smoothing away difficulties by verbal alterations, such as the substitution of conventional phrases for unusual ones, or the modification of readings which might be misunderstood or cause offence, the insertion of names or pronouns in the interests of intelligibility, the harmonization (by amalgamation or substitution) of parallel narratives in the synoptic Gospels, and the like. On these grounds he rules out (as Bengel, Griesbach, Lachmann, Tischendorf and Tregelles had done before him) the great mass of later authorities, and no reading resting on purely Syrian attestation would be accepted by him. The δ group is of minor importance. Its attestation is variable, and it appears to be due to stylistic revision on a small scale, or to represent sporadic readings, early in date but lacking authority.

As between the β and δ groups the choice is more difficult and must be made on other grounds. The Western readings cannot be ruled out on the ground of comparative lateness, for the evidence of the Fathers, which was decisive against the Syrian group, may be adduced rather in favour of the Western. Nearly all the early Fathers, notably Justin Martyr, Tatian, Irenaeus, Tertullian and Cyprian, but including at times even Clement of Alexandria, Origen and Eusebius, who are generally associated with the Neutral group, offer readings which are more or less Western in character. The Old Latin and Old Syriac versions are also witnesses of great antiquity, and the former is decidedly Western and the latter shows many Western readings. Here the decision must rest on grounds of intrinsic probability; and in Hort's judgment the comparison is definitely unfavourable to the Westerners. He considers that the characteristic Western readings (of which many examples have been given above in the description of D and the Latin and Syriac versions and more are given in Chapter VII below) are due to a licentious handling of the text by early scribes, when fidelity of transcription was little accounted of, and in comparison with the ft family to lack authority and probability. Hort's verdict is therefore emphatically in favour of the β group, in which he finds none of the marks of deliberate or licentious alteration, and which he therefore feels justified in labelling as Neutral. Above all he pins his faith to B. Where א and B agree, as they very frequently do, their evidence is almost decisive; and where they differ he would give the preference to B, The only exception he would, with some hesitation, make is in the case of a few notable passages, mainly in Lk. [e.g., the Word from the Cross, " Father forgive them," and several phrases in chapter xxiv, enumerated above in the description of D), which occur in B but are omitted in D and the authenticity of which he doubts in all cases and definitely condemns in some. These he labels "Western non-interpolations"; a simpler designation would be " Neutral interpolations."

Such is, in brief outline, the theory of Westcott and Hort, which has been the battle-ground of all subsequent criticism. How far it can be considered to have held its ground must be discussed when the evidence that has come to light since their day and the argument's of later scholars have been put before the reader. Its promulgation closes one period in the history of textual criticism, and begins another.


Gregory and Scrivener, opp. citt., S. P. Tregelles, Account of the Printed Text of the Greek New Testament ; Barlow and Moule, Historical Catalogue of the printed editions of Holy Scriptures in the Library of the British and Foreign Bible Society ; B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort, The New Testament in the original Greek. Introduction (1882).

[katapi ed: In recent years, much attention has been given to digitizing MSS., and a good place to search on-line is the CSNTM website. The source MSS websites can accessed through their Manuscripts list. They deal in the main with NT mss., but they are worth checking out none-the-less. (Your might also try the Wikipedia website for more background on individual MSS.)