The Majority Text vs.
The Critical Text

Part Three

This article is continued from The Majority Text vs. the Critical Text - Part Two.

"Weighed Rather than Counted"

To evade the vast numerical superiority of the Byzantine manuscripts, CT scholars will try to "lump" them together so that they are in effect only one witness rather than many.

Metzger explains this point as one of his criteria in evaluating manuscript evidence:
The genealogical relationship of texts and families of witnesses. Mere numbers of witnesses supporting a given variant reading do not necessarily prove the superiority of that reading. For example, if in a given sentence reading x is supported by twenty manuscripts and reading y by only one manuscript, the relative numerical support favoring x counts for nothing if all twenty manuscripts should be discovered to be copies made from a single manuscript, no longer extant, whose scribe first introduced that particular variant reading.
Metzger summarizes this point by saying "Witnesses are to be weighed rather than counted" (p.xxvi).
However, Hodges and Farstad write:
Any reading overwhelmingly attested by the manuscript tradition is more likely to be the 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….

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" (pp.xi-xii).

Hodges and Farstad’s mention of "a narrow strand of the tradition" is similar to Robinson and Pierpont’s point about the problem of "localized texts" discussed above.
Moreover, Clark writes:
If a score or two score manuscripts have a single ancestor, it implies that a score or two score copyists believed that ancestor to be faithful to the autographs. But if a manuscript has not a numerous progeny … one may suspect that the early scribes doubted its value. Possibly the early Christians knew that Beta was corrupt, while the later heretics were less interested in wasting time copying their own altered text.

Furthermore, the argument that pits weight against number, if it were to have much force, would require a far more extensive knowledge of manuscript genealogies than anyone now has. Even in the case of the Byzantine text alone, while the manuscripts are basically similar, a true genealogy has never been completed (p.15).

Robinson and Pierpont add:
An important consideration is that, except for a few small "family" relationships which have been established, the bulk of the Byzantine-era documents are not closely-related in any genealogical sense. A presumption, therefore, is toward their relative INDEPENDENCE from each other rather than their dependence upon one another. This makes the Byzantine majority of manuscripts highly individualistic witnesses which cannot be summarily lumped together as one "mere" texttype, to be played off against other competing texttypes (p.xix; emphasis in original).

So "number" most definitely does matter as one criteria in determining the text.

"Transcriptional Probabilities"

In addition to the external evidence of the manuscripts, CT scholars also utilize what they call the "Internal Evidence" of "Transcriptional Probabilities."

Metzger outlines these "Transcriptional Probabilities"

1. In general, the MORE DIFFICULT READING is to be preferred....

2. In general the SHORTER READING is to be preferred....

3. Since scribes would frequently bring DIVERGENT PASSAGES INTO HARMONY with one another, in parallel passages.... that reading which involves VERBAL DISSIDENCE is usually to be preferred to one which is verbally concordant.

4. Scribes would sometimes: a) REPLACE an unfamiliar word with a more familiar synonym. b) ALTER a less refined grammatical form or less elegant expression IN ACCORD WITH CONTEMPORARY ATTICIZING PREFERENCES; or c) ADD pronouns, conjunctions, and expletives TO MAKE A SMOOTHER TEXT (pp. xxvi, xvii).

Metzger's description of the Byzantine text-type further illustrates these ideas. He was previously quoted as saying, "It is characterized by lucidity and completeness. The FRAMERS of this text sought to SMOOTH AWAY ANY HARSHNESS OF LANGUAGE, to COMBINE TWO OR MORE DIVERGENT READINGS into one expanded reading (called conflation), and to harmonize divergent parallel passages."

Several comments on these "probabilities" and this description of the Byzantine text-type are in order:

1) Metzger claim about "framers" has already been discussed under "Origin of Byzantine Text" above.

2) The assumption seems to be Christian scribes were in the habit of deliberately altering the text in order to "improve" it. Furthermore, in his book, Metzger never mentions the possibility of a variant being the result of a heretic writing a corrupted manuscript. But this is the exact opposite of the known evidence as indicated by the above extended quote and other statements of the Church Fathers.

3) It is claimed, "the shorter reading is to be preferred." The reason for this is the assumption that a scribe, if he had two manuscripts before him with two different readings, would combine them.

But, Clark relates in this regard, "Having suffered at the hands of typists, I cannot accept this criteria. They more often omit words and phrases than make additions. The critics will reply: The typist copies only one manuscript; those who copied manuscripts have several copies in front of them. Did they? Maybe sometimes. Maybe not. Who knows?" (pp.16, 23).

Furthermore, Robinson and Pierpont write, "Conflation is not exclusive to the Byzantine-era manuscripts; the scribes of Alexandrian and Western manuscripts conflate as much or more than what has been imputed to Byzantine-era scribal habits" (pp.xxiii, xxiv). So supposed conflation of two readings into one cannot be used as an argument against Byzantine texts per se.

4) Two additional assumption running through these quotes need to be addressed. First, it is assumed the autographs were written in a difficult style of Greek, one with "verbal dissidence." But later (Byzantine) scribes would "smooth away any harshness of language."

Second, it is assumed the NT originally had "divergent passages" which were "harmonized" by scribes to eliminate the supposed contradictions.

So the CT scholars seem to assume the autographs were written in a difficult language style and had contradictions in them, but Christian scribes later tried to "fix" these problems. But, as Gordon Clark writes, "No evidence supports this conjecture." Moreover, "Indeed, there is no evidence that any copyist assimilated anything to anything. The critic's argument is mainly unsupported speculation" (pp. 34, 28).

But there are two other possibilities. First, these problems could simply be due to accidental, scribal mistakes. As Clark writes about a scribe, "But it is also possible, for a number of reasons, - fatigue, brilliance [bad lighting?], the mispronunciation of a reader - that he changed an easy reading into something more difficult" (p.16).

The other possibility is maybe the heretics, who were known to write corrupted manuscripts, purposely tried to introduce contradictions into the Scriptures and make them difficult to read. Metzger never mentions this possibility. But this scenario concurs better with the known historical facts than the one posed by the CT people.

Davis elaborates:
The Byzantine text is said by its most ardent critics to be smooth and complete Koine Greek and harmonious in the Gospels as an argument against its character. One has to ask the question of why it is assumed that the apostles and other NT writers could not have written in smooth complete Koine Greek, and that their accounts could not have had very close consistency with each other?

When along with the Alexandrian testimony, the NA [Nestle-Aland] and UBS texts omit the phrase "who is in heaven" from the text of John 3:13 describing it as a "later Christological development," one has to ask the question of why the apostle John, reporting what Jesus said could not have had a high view of Christology.

When, along with the Alexandrian testimony, the NA and UBS texts omit "yet" from the text of John 7:8 (tending to portray Jesus as not telling the truth) describe it as introduced to "alleviate inconsistency," one has to ask the question on why John couldn’t have written portraying Jesus’ statements as consistent with what he did.

When the Alexandrian texts introduce Amos and Asaph as Judean kings, one has to ask the question of why Matthew a Jew himself couldn’t have written the historically correct reading of Asa and Amon (Matt 1:7,10). Character and reliability appear to be in the eye of the beholder! (p.3).

In line with the above, Metzger says, "textual criticism is AN ART as well as a science" (p.xxxi). Given the attitudes of the CT people and these subjective rules, Clark declares, "THERE MAY BE RHYME TO ALL THIS, BUT THERE IS NO REASON" (p.45).

Majority Text Criteria

So what criteria does MT scholarship utilize? As the name implies, MT scholarship puts an emphasis on the reading found in the vast majority of the manuscripts. However, this is not the sole criteria that is utilized.

As Robinson and Pierpont write about their Greek text,, "… no stemmatic approach is utilized in this edition, nor is ‘Number’ a sole or necessary criterion" (p.xli). And further, "No procedures are utilized which rely upon mere numerical ‘nose-counting,’ nor are hypothetical stemmatic or genealogical principles employed. The leading criteria for textual selection have been [John] Burgeon’s seven canons of textual criticism, carefully applied …" (p.liii).

Burgeon’s "seven canons of textual criticism" (or as he called them "The Seven Notes of Truth") are:
1. Antiquity, or Primitiveness.
2. Consent of Witnesses, or Number.
3. Variety of Evidence, or Catholicity [i.e. geographical distribution].
4. Respectability of Witnesses, or Weight.
5. Continuity, or Unbroken Tradition.
6. Evidence of the Entire passage, or Context.
7. Internal Considerations, or Reasonableness (UnHoly, Vol. I, p.15).
Most of these points have been addressed in one fashion or another above. But a few observations would be helpful here.

Looking these "canons" over, it can be seen there is some overlap between MT and CT criteria. However, MT scholars will put more of an emphasis on "Number" and less of an emphasis on "Antiquity" than CT scholars for reasons articulated above. Related to this point, MT scholars consider the Byzantine manuscripts to have more "Respectability" than the Alexandrian manuscripts whereas CT scholars "respect" Aleph and Beta and the early papyri more.

Also, MT scholars start with different presuppositions. As indicated above, they begin with the presupposition that the NT could be written in a smooth style without divergent passages whereas CT scholars assume later scribes "smoothed" over the text to make it more readable and consistent. So the scholars would differ as to what is the most "Reasonable" reading in a particular context.


John Burgeon mentioned above lived in the late 1800’s. The Greek text he was defending was the Textus Receptus while the text he was writing against were those by Tischendorf and Westcott and Hort. Today’s MT is in the tradition of the Textus Receptus and today’s CT in the tradition of Tischendorf and Westcott-Hort. However, today’s texts are not identical to these earlier texts. In fact, the two sides have moved closer together over the years.

Farstad writes in the Introduction to the NKJV Interlinear, "The Majority Text is similar to the Textus Receptus, but it corrects those readings which have little or (occasionally) no support in the Greek manuscript tradition." And further, "Those readings in the Textus Receptus which have weak support are indicated in the textual notes as being opposed by both Critical and Majority Texts" (pp. x, ix).

So in some places today’s MT is closer to the CT than the TR was. Note: The same footnotes seen in the Interlinear are also included in the NKJV. Also, for a discussion of the most important places where the Textus Receptus differs from both the MT and CT, see Significant Textual Variants - TR vs. MT.

Meanwhile, Robinson and Pierpont relate, "… all Greek New Testament editions since Westcott-Hort have increasinlgy adopted Byzantine readings to replace those advocated by Westcott and Hort" (p.xxiv). The primary reason CT editions have adopted more Byzantine readings is due to the "distinctively Byzantine readings" found in the early papyri, as was discussed previously.

So how much of a difference is there now between these three published Greek texts?

Daniel B. Wallace writes in this regard:
There are approximately 300,000 textual variants among New Testament manuscripts. The Majority Text differs from the Textus Receptus in almost 2,000 places. So the agreement is better than 99 percent. But the Majority Text differs from the modern critical text in only about 6,500 places. In other words the two texts agree almost 98 percent of the time. Not only that, but the vast majority of these differences are so minor that they neither show up in translation nor affect exegesis. Consequently the majority text and modern critical texts are very much alike, in both quality and quantity (p.38).
A couple of comments are in order. First, "300,000 textual variants among New Testament manuscripts" may sound like a lot. But this number is so high since there are such a great number of manuscripts to compare: more than 5,000. And in these thousands of manuscripts are seen a great number of "singular readings" as Robinson and Pierpont call them (p.xxxi). These are readings that appear in only one manuscript and are obvious mistakes. So they would not be reproduced in any published Greek text.

The ease at which such mistakes can be eliminate is shown by the extreme agreement in textual decisions in the three cited texts. A 1-2% difference between them is very small indeed. And of those differences that are seen, as Wallace points out, the vast majority of these are very insignificant. The point is, the overall textual integrity of the NT is NOT called into question by this debate.

However, dispute this narrowing of the differences between the two sides, there still remain some important differences between the MT and CT that continue to fuel this heated debate. Some of these variants are discussed in the article, Significant Textual Variants - MT vs. CT.

Note: Unless otherwise indicated, all emphases in quotes are added.
Aland, Kurt & Barbara Aland. The Text of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1987.
Carson, D.A. The King James Version Debate. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979.
Clark, Gordon. Logical Criticisms of Textual Criticism. Jefferson, MD: The Trinity Foundation, 1986.
Davis, James F. "Galilaia or Ioudaia in Luke 4:44." Dallas, TX: The Majority Text Society, n.a.
Farstad, Arthur L. The NKJV Greek-English Interlinear New Testament (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1994).
Fee, Gordon and Douglas Stuart. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1982.
Goodrick, Edward, W. Is My Bible the Inspired Word of God. Portland, OR: Multnomah, 1988.
Green, J.P. Best Books in Print. Lafayette, IN: Sovereign Grace Trust Fund, 1993.
  The Interlinear Greek-English New Testament. Lafayette, IN: Sovereign Grace Publishers, 1996.
  Press releases for The Literal Translation of Bible (LITV) and The Modern King James Version (MKJV).
  Unholy Hands on the Bible. 2 Volumes. Lafayette, IN: Sovereign Grace Trust Fund, 1990, 1992.
Hodges, Zane C. and Arthur L. Farstad. The Greek New Testament According to the Majority Text. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1985.
Lightfoot, J.B. & J.R. Harmer. The Apostolic Fathers. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988.
MacLean, W. "Providential Preservation of Greek Text of NT." Gisborne, N.Z.: Westminster Standard, 1977.
MacRae, Allan & Robert Newman. "Facts on the Textus Receptus & KJV." Hatfield, PA: Biblical School, 1975.
Metzger, Bruce. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. New York: United Bible Societies, 1975.
Moyer, Elgin. The Biographical Dictionary of the Church. Chicago: Moody Press, 1982.
Robinson, Maurice A. and William G. Pierpont. The New Testament in the Original Greek According to the Byzantine/ Majority Textform. Atlanta: Original Word Publishers, 1991.
Sturz, Harry. The Byzantine Text-Type and New Testament Textual Criticism. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984.
Wallace, Daniel B. "The Majority Text and the Original Text: Are They Identical?" in Bibliotheca Sacra. April-June 1991, pp.157-158. Quoted in Bob and Gretchen Passantino. "New Age Bible Versions: A Critical Review." Cornerstone. Vol. 23, Issue 104.

The above article was posted on this Web site December 9, 1996 and revised and expanded June 16, 1998.
It is adapted from Chapter Seven of the book Differences Between Bible Versions, published in 1994.

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