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Who were Westcott and Hort, and what did they have to do with the text of the Bible?

Westcott and Hort audio

Brooke Westcott and Fenton Hort were 19th-century theologians and Bible scholars. Together, they produced The New Testament in the Original Greek, one of the earliest examples of modern textual criticism. Since its publication in 1881, Westcott and Hort’s work has proved to be impressively accurate, though far from perfect. Their approach not only advanced the science of textual criticism, but it added considerable weight to the claim that the Bible had been preserved from tampering and corruption.

The goal of textual criticism is removing changes, errors, and additions to a text in order to determine the original words. The King James translators, for example, generated their work from a series of manuscripts, none of which exactly matches their final product. They chose between variant readings or spellings, deciding what was most likely original through various techniques. Recognizing the need to use prior scholarship combined with new discoveries, the KJV translators made a good faith effort to improve upon what had already been done. This process continues today, albeit with a much greater number of manuscripts available. The differences between the various texts are trivial, amounting to less than one half of one percent of the words in the New Testament.

Not all textual critics use the same methods or give the same weight to certain manuscript families. The specific methods used by Westcott and Hort are no longer held as ideal by Bible scholars. Modern research considers their approach overly reliant on two manuscripts, Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, as well as the principle of “shorter is earlier.” For these reasons, though the effective differences are minimal, The New Testament in the Original Greek is not the basis for any modern translation of the Bible. Rather, the United Bible Societies and Nestle-Aland critical texts are typically sourced for English translations today.

Unfortunately, Westcott and Hort are still infamous names with respect to the Bible, despite their text not being the basis of any major modern translations. Most mentions of the pair today are from detractors of their work, particularly those supporting the King James Only movement (KJVO). Such critics tend to focus entirely on Westcott’s and Hort’s non-orthodox spiritual beliefs. In truth, both men held to several ideas that modern conservative Christianity would consider heretical. Then again, the same can be said for church fathers such as Origen, Jerome, and Augustine. And, it’s worth noting that the King James translators themselves were, variously, supporters of Anglicanism, infant baptism, and so forth.

One of the great strengths of the Bible as a sacred text is its manuscript evidence. Even compared to secular works, the Bible exists in more early, preserved copies than any other ancient text. Westcott and Hort’s work is valuable precisely because it can be examined, tested, and corrected where evidence supports that correction. As other Bible scholars such as Erasmus, Wycliffe, and Tyndale had done, Westcott and Hort advanced the work of their predecessors and produced a scholarly resource for the study of the Bible.

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Who were Westcott and Hort, and what did they have to do with the text of the Bible?
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This page last updated: January 4, 2022