Wednesday, September 07, 2016

In Praise of Westcott and Hort’s Uncertainty

It’s not uncommon today to read criticisms of past textual scholars for their overconfidence. First among the guilty in this regard is often Westcott and Hort who titled their edition The New Testament in the Original Greek. Eldon Epp recently referred to this title as “arrogant” and one that, along with their term “Neutral” text were “soon considered overstatements and have been abandoned.”*

Of course, Westcott and Hort did not think they could always attain the original Greek text of the NT and this fact explains many of their marginal readings, especially those discussed in the Appendix.

What I find interesting is that the charge of overconfidence seems to be of recent vintage. Closer to their own time, the much maligned editors were actually praised on occasion for their hesitance and uncertainty about attaining the original text. Here is Edward A. Hutton, for example, writing in 1911:
Our final text must therefore often be difficult of determination, and here Drs Westcott and Hort have shown their wisdom in giving a much larger number of alternative readings than any other critic, and thus better representing the present state of New Testament criticism. In other words, while the principles of criticism are satisfactory enough, the paucity of authorities makes it unsafe to be too confident in all cases. Hesitation is the truest wisdom, and in the New Testament best represents the present state of the case. Infallibility is the mark of the ignoramus, or of the charlatan. (An Atlas of Textual Criticism, p. 9).
So which is it? Were Westcott and Hort arrogant and overstated in their edition or wise and rightfully hesitant? Whatever your answer, it can't be because they thought they could always identify the original text.

*Eldon J. Epp, “Critical Editions and the Development of Text-critical Methods, Part 2: From Lachmann (1831) to the Present,” in The New Cambridge History of the Bible: From 1750 to the Present, edited by John Riches (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), p. 27.


  1. They were arrogant to believe that the right answer could only be found in their favorite handful of manuscripts. They were rightly hesitant to choose any given reading among them, as few as those manuscripts were: there were, after all, so many readings among the few of them.

  2. To say that someone was mistaken is one thing. To say that a great scholar was mistaken takes something else. But to say that men we have never met before were arrogant is a behavior that I think should be avoided in most cases. I think W&H is one of those cases. After all, someone could say that it is terribly arrogant for a person living in our generation to say that someone they have never met before in their entire life was arrogant. Maybe we should just say that we think their approach in certain areas was not as informed or accurate as it could have been or perhaps would be today in light of the information we possess.

  3. One should note carefully that W-H did not call their edition The Original New Testament in Greek, but quite properly The New Testament in the Original Greek -- a phrase that permits various disputed points regarding authenticity within an otherwise comprehensive framework based on their particular theory and methodology.

    If Epp and others don't get the nuance (which also applies to another recent edition), that perhaps reflects more their own failure to comprehend rather than any blame to be placed upon W-H.

  4. The parts where they admit uncertainty is fine, but I wonder about the parts where they appear to us to be certain: what are we assuming about their level of certainty? Everyone who has taken first year philosophy class has probably done that thing with the chair: how can we demonstrate with certainty that we know that the chair will support our weight? And of course, the point of the exercise is to blow the students' minds by getting them to realise that, if they think about it, they really have no way to know whether they can be certain of that; we don't have access to absolute certainty. And yet the kicker is that we go ahead and sit in the chair anyway. Because sometimes you're tired and you really just need to sit down, and so even though you acknowledge that you cant be truly certain, you figure you're certain enough for what you need.

    I'm reminded of a story I've told many times. Richard Hays was presenting a paper at SBL one year on Matthew's use of some verse from the psalms. I don't really remember the paper, but in the question period after someone jumped up and said "hey, you keep saying 'Matthew', but the gospel text in question is a Q text, so shouldn't you have been saying 'Q'?" Hays hemmed and hawed for a minute, and finally said "you know what, I get that this is still an argument, and that's fine, but I just don't believe in Q, and sooner or later I just need to stop thinking about it and proceed on the basis of my conclusion." Or something to that effect. Now, obviously I disagree with his specific conclusion there, and I don't think he'd even argue that he could prove that conclusion beyond a reasonable doubt, but I was impressed with how he recognised that he felt sufficient certainty to move on in his work: he was willing to sit in his chair.

    I wonder if a lot of W&H's moments of "certainty" would actually go in the same category. Sure, they say things that can sound kind of arrogant, like how every pairing of aleph and B shows a stronger reading than any other, and in cases where aleph and B disagree, aleph is invariably wrong. And then they go ahead and act on such conclusions: editing a critical text that favours B's readings. But was that really the arrogance of absolute certainty? Or was it just them saying "this is our best scholarly conclusion, and sooner or later we need to proceed on that basis." I mean, what really is the scholarly virtue of sitting on the fence for ever? Sooner or later you need to take a step forward, and you'll do that on the basis of your best conclusion. But that doesn't necessarily mean you have some arrogant certainty in your conclusion, it just means you're sufficiently certain to try moving ahead. You're willing to sit in the chair.

    In other words, if W&H were alive today and we went to them and said something like "Hey! Your choice of B is nothing but your best scholarly conclusion! You can't prove that you're absolutely correct! If new evidence came along, you might have to revise your work!" If you said all that, I suspect they'd say "well, um, of course."

    1. To be fair to Westcott and Hort, it's probably best to think of their method as a variety of the copy-text one: i.e. use the text of B and look for places to reject it. This is actually a sensible and quick way of creating an edition of any text (and we would scarcely have wanted them to take more time). But it should therefore be unsurprising that most of the variants that people will take issue with are where they think there is a reason why Westcott and Hort ought to have rejected the reading of B.

  5. Or they would reply just as per Gordon Fee in the present day, that their position indeed was correct and that B does represent "a very pure line of very ancient text" -- and that with regard to the autograph.

  6. But most scholars accept that both Vaticanus and Sinaiticus are best