The Empty Shell of Westcott & Hort

by Yuri Kuchinsky

Dr. Fenton John Anthony Hort (1828-1892) has been a highly influential figure in biblical history, although very few of today's Christians have even heard about him. He and his partner Brooke Foss Westcott (1825-1903) were responsible for the greatest feat in biblical textual criticism. They were responsible for undermining the text of the Authorised Version (the KJV), which led to its eventual abandonment by all mainstream Christian Churches.

KJV New Testament was, of course, based on the Greek text that is known as the Majority/Byzantine text. This is the traditional text that the Church copied and preserved throughout the centuries. And yet, mainly because of Hort (who was the guiding light of this dynamic duo), this traditional text was abandoned, and it was replaced... with Hort's own creation! So this was published first in 1881, and it took the world by storm. As a result, almost every modern translation of the gospels (such as the RSV, NIV, NASB, etc.) is based essentially on Hort's Greek text -- the text that did not even exist before the 19th century!

So then what was the basis of Hort's 1881 edition? It was based on a small handful of Egyptian Greek manuscripts dated to the 4th and 5th centuries. But there are many problems with these manuscripts, because they constantly disagree with each other -- in thousands of passages... So how did he decide which of them to use for any particular verse of his brand-new text that he was building up? Essentially, when all is said and done, he based his decisions upon his own authority.

As a result, within the New Testament, Hort's text has about 6000 substantial differences from the traditional Byzantine text (according to the count made by Dr. Sanday). And many of these are very substantial indeed, and affect all sorts of matters of biblical interpretation. And it is all based on the authority of Hort (plus a few other scholars who collaborated with him).

So this is what the overwhelming majority of biblical scholars, as well the majority of the rank-and-file Christians, of course, still use today...

Now, to be sure, the overwhelming majority of today's biblical scholars don't really know all that much about NT textual criticism (and this fact is well known among the actual text critical specialists, of which there are very few indeed). Most NT scholars simply follow in the footsteps of those who taught them, and they of course also relied on Westcott & Hort's Greek text in their interpretative work. So this is a new "tradition" that Hort created, and it is very rarely if at all questioned today in the halls of academe. But I'm saying that the whole thing was nothing but a MASSIVE DELUSION.

After studying these matters for years, I've concluded that the "improved text", so-called, that Hort & Co. introduced was not an improvement at all, but a total and unqualified DISASTER -- far inferior to the traditional Majority/Byzantine text.


So, in the final analysis, this whole attempted "improvement", which resulted in all these "modern" translations of the gospels, was really based on Hort's own personal authority. He was the leader in that late 19th century movement to dump the traditional text of the gospels. As I say, there are many thousands of disagreements among these 4 or 5 Egyptian manuscripts that he was primarily using and, in each single one of these cases, it was Hort, himself, who had to make a decision as to what goes into his text, and what stays out of it.

Of course, in his many writings, Hort did try to offer some sort of a scientific justification for all these editorial changes that he was making -- thousands upon thousands of them. He did try to formulate a variety of theories about the Majority text; about his beloved Egyptian manuscripts; about how all of these derived; their hypothetical sources; their interrelationships, and about the historical settings for all these developments. But the problem is that, over the years... virtually all of his theories have now been completely abandoned by the mainstream textual critics!

And so, nobody is any longer taking seriously his "Neutral text" theory, or his "Alexandrian text" theory, or his "Syrian recension" theory... It is generally known that he never actually applied his vaunted genealogical method to real manuscripts (as opposed to the hypothetical ones)... The criticisms that he levelled at the Majority text, such as his theories about the supposed "conflations" and "harmonisations" within it have all been answered very competently by highly skilful textual scholars such as Robinson and Pickering...

Thus, it is very clear by now that Hort didn't have the history of the text -- all of his explanations as to how and in what historical circumstances our earliest manuscripts and text-types originated are now universally rejected. He never produced a general stemma of the earliest Greek manuscripts -- in fact, no such stemma has been produced even up to the present day. (A stemma is a diagram that shows the parent/child relationships between various manuscripts of an ancient work.)

There's virtually nothing left out there of Hort's original theorising, what actually paved the way for that big 19th century take down of the Majority text... There's nothing left there at all but an Empty Shell!

So this is what we have left then, ladies and gentlemen -- the Empty Shell of Hort's theories... And yet, in some strange and miraculous way, his Greek text still lingers on in academic circles, as if there were nothing wrong with it at all! (As Robinson notes, the latest edition of Nestle/Aland, this mainstream academic Greek NT, is still 99.5% identical to Hort's original creation.) So, by now, this brazen impostor has acquired the status of something like a new "Received Text" -- a hollow effigy that everybody is afraid to touch. Like some sort of a man-made idol, it is sitting there on its grand pedestal, and staring at all of us with its beady eyes... There's really nothing there but one big and empty DELUSION!

What an amazing failure that was -- a "Splendid Failure"!

It was not I, of course, who first came up with this "Splendid Failure" sobriquet in regard to Hort's Greek text -- it was none other than Prof. Kirsopp Lake, a highly respected textual critic. Lake said this all the way back in 1904, after considering many of these same matters that I've already mentioned above. According to Lake, Hort's text "was one of those failures which are more important than most successes". (I suppose what he meant was that Hort's was a worthwhile attempt at assembling a modern critical text of the NT, and yet, in the end, it failed spectacularly.)


In any case, in this article, I will not try to get into any of those technical details of why Hort failed, and how he failed. Competent critics have already written whole books about these matters, and some of them can even be read for free on the Net.

Here are some relevant links for those who want to confirm these matters for themselves. While, myself, as a supporter of the Semitic textual tradition, I don't necessarily agree with all of the arguments that Pickering and Robinson are making, I find that most of their criticisms of Hort are right on target.
"The Identity of the New Testament Text II", by Wilbur N. Pickering, ThM, PhD; see especially Chapters 4 and 6,

Dr. M. Robinson, The case for Byzantine priority,

What I will do now instead is focus on one specific quote from Hort that seems extremely revealing... This quote alone shows quite well that Hort really was a Fraud.

Either he was a fraud or severely deluded -- it doesn't really matter which... The following quote really goes a long way to demonstrate just how spectacularly wrong he was in his theorising about his "original text of the gospels" -- about his attempts to reconstruct such a text. This matter has to do with the fundamental question of what motivated the ancient scribes when they introduced changes to the text of the gospels.

Everybody who has ever bothered to read anything about NT textual criticism will of course know that even our best ancient manuscripts show massive variations among them. It is only the late medieval manuscripts that are relatively free of variations. As has been noticed by critic after critic, the earliest manuscripts are particularly rife with variation.

So what sorts of variations are they? There are many types of them, of course. A lot of them just seem like scribal mistakes, or perhaps some minor attempts at stylistic improvement. But there are also many  attempted theological corrections and emendations of all sorts, that one can see there...

There's nothing surprising in this, of course, because, in the early centuries, there had been many well-attested theological disputes among various orthodox and proto-orthodox factions. Some early fathers like Tertullian were first seen as orthodox, but then they became "heretics". Some "heretics" repented of their heresies, and became orthodox. And some commentators, like Origen, were seen as fully orthodox by some Christians of their time, but as "heretics" by others. All of that is part of history. It is clear that the theology of the young movement was still evolving, so naturally there were disputes, and many of these disputes found their reflection in early gospel manuscripts.

So one would assume that it is very important to be sensitive to these things, right? A serious scholar cannot fail but pay attention to these early theological disputes, and how they may have affected the copying and editing of various gospel passages... Seems only logical.

But what if a textual critic refused even to acknowledge such a possibility, i.e. that some of the variations in our early manuscripts were due to theological considerations? Well, I, for one, wouldn't trust such a critic much... In my view, to all intents and purposes, such a critic has already disqualified him or herself as an objective commentator on these matters. But this is exactly what Drs. Westcott & Hort have done!

So this is what they said in their famous 1881 edition of the New Testament; here is the quote that exposes them as out and out frauds and/or incompetents,

"It will not be out of place to add here a distinct expression of our belief that even among the numerous unquestionably spurious readings of the New Testament there are no signs of deliberate falsification of the text for dogmatic purposes." (Westcott and Hort, "The New Testament in the Original Greek", London: Macmillan and Co., 1881, Vol. 2, p. 282)
What an amazing blooper! The meaning of this, essentially, is that there was NO EDITING OF THE GOSPELS AT ALL BASED ON THEOLOGICAL CONSIDERATIONS!

And in order to show just how bizarre this statement is, here are the views of some other eminent textual critics -- some of the great TC authorities commenting on this same matter,


"The New Testament abounds in more losses, additions, and interpolations, purposely introduced, than any other book."
"the New Testament has had the peculiar fate of suffering more by intentional alterations than the works of profane literature"
"The majority of the variant readings in the New Testament were created for theological or dogmatic reasons."

Ehrman's recent book on the subject is entitled "The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture". Its title speaks for itself.

So preposterous is this "belief" that Hort had expressed that it came to be attacked from all sides -- both by the conservative KJV supporters, and by the textual scholars of a more liberal bent. As far as the criticism from the conservatives goes, they were very eager to point to the "heretics" who were certainly known to corrupt the Scriptures in order to suit their doctrinal purposes, as the statements of numerous early fathers indicate. Such statements were made, for example, by Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Eusebius, and by quite a few others. Marcion was probably the first such heretic who was widely accused of remodelling the Gospel of Luke, and the epistles of Paul according to his own preferences. Origen also noted how often all sorts of scribes in his time corrupted the scriptures.

And the more liberal scholars, who of course all warmly accept Hort's baby, his reconstruction of the "Original Greek New Testament" (while at the same time rejecting most of the theories that served as the foundation for it!), were only too happy to point to the orthodox editors and scribes as the ones with a certain penchant for "fine-tuning" the Scriptures. The above mentioned study by Ehrman is a case in point -- a whole volume filled to the brim with examples of such tampering.

But we don't really need the modern scholars to alert us to such a tendency on the part of orthodox scribes (Ehrman's book can by no means be seen as any sort of a big radical breakthrough in this area). This phenomenon was already commented upon specifically even by the fifth century Church father Epiphanius, for example, who stated that some Orthodox copiers of his time deleted "he wept" from Luke 19:41 "out of jealousy for the Lord's divinity".

And so, what Hort said above was simply a denial of history -- an attempt to filter reality, and to fit it into his own private mould, so it doesn't conflict with his own peculiar ideology. It sure seems like his ideology included a belief that the Christian faith is immutable, and that the Christian doctrine had never undergone any significant historical development at all... Only under such conditions can his words begin to make any sense at all... Indeed, only if the Christian doctrine is immutable, and has always been so -- only then it would never occur to anyone to change anything about its particulars in a deliberate way, such as by trying to "fine-tune" the text of the gospels...

So this is the scholar who had the final authority in deciding how our "modern" text of the gospels is supposed to read today... This is the scholar who had to make big decisions about which manuscript reading to adopt in thousands upon thousands of passages!

Is this really the authority that anyone should trust with the work of reconstructing the earliest text of the gospels? Not I. I don't trust Hort at all.


So this one sure does seem like a truly bizarre story... The whole thing really does look mighty strange... The traditional text of the gospels had been hijacked by a severely deluded (if not a completely fraudulent) ideologue, and replaced by a manifestly inferior product of his own creation! And in spite of the warnings from many highly reputable biblical commentators about Hort's failure (such as from Prof. Lake above), this misbegotten fraud still rules our academic New Testament studies today in a completely arbitrary and dictatorial way!

As an experiment, try to ask any mainstream biblical scholar about any of these matters, and see what you get in reply. My bet is that he or she will stare at you in a totally blank way, as if you've just fell on earth from Planet Zircon. It never even occurred to them that something might be wrong with their beloved Nestle/Aland's Greek text, which is of course 99.5% identical to Hort's creation!

Dear, oh dear... I don't think that the world has seen such a blatant and manifest imposture since that day long ago when Caligula made his favourite horse a Roman senator.

And hundreds of millions Christians around the world today still rely upon this text to teach them about the True Religion... A strange and bizarre story, this one...

You know how it is in biblical studies... Scholars often argue till blue in the face about the correct interpretation of one single word in the Bible. They write whole books about some difficult phrase, that they are trying to explain. And here we have the whole 6000 words and phrases that Hort has changed around in one fell swoop... And nobody seems to care about it much!

Strange and weird.



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