Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Caring about the ‘infinitesimal points’


One of the marks of a good editor of the Greek New Testament is a near-obsessive attention to detail. There are so many decisions to be made about the little things like punctuation, paragraphing, spelling, etc. How (or if!) an editor chooses to handle these small details often says a lot about the overall quality of the work. As a famous man once said, “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much.”

Because of this, one of the pleasures of working on Westcott and Hort’s correspondence is watching them discuss the tiniest of details, sometimes at great length. Today, I came across this portion of a letter from Westcott to Hort in July 1880. The edition was entering its final phase before publication the next year. Here, Westcott, more often the one to tire of minutiae, is still thinking about the details. 

I have been growing anxious about our text, but I have no doubt that Macmillan will push on the printers. Just lately it has occurred to me (an infinitesimal point) that in Hebrews 6.7 βοτάνην should be uncial. The reference to Genesis 1 really helps the understanding of a very hard passage more than appears at first and I cannot doubt that there is a reference. If you agree and the change can be made, I should like it; but I can be quite satisfied as things are.

Sure enough, βοτάνην was set in regular type in their privately circulated installment of the Pauline epistles. But Westcott got his way. Hort replied, “I am glad you have mentioned βοτάνην in Hebrews 6.7: of course you would add γῆ: not more I fear can be marked. There will be no difficulty.” The final edition prints the two words in “uncials” to mark them as an OT allusion. What’s the allusion? Westcott’s commentary says that βοτάνην means “the simplest natural produce: Gen. 1:11ff. Hence the word is used in a bad sense for wild plants, weeds.” 

Westcott and Hort’s 1875 installment (left) and 1881 final edition (right)

This is the kind of attention to detail that their correspondence reveals in letter after letter. It nearly pushed their publisher to the edge, I should add. But it did not go unnoticed. Another great editor of the Greek New Testament, Eberhard Nestle, told Westcott after its publication that “I never handled a book made up with so much care and thoughtfulness in the smallest details as your edition.”


  1. That very same "famous man" also said:

    "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel."

    1. He said “strain out a gnat” according to Scrivener.

    2. Lee van Cliff2/25/2021 3:27 am

      Scrivener was mistaken in this instance, understandably though. The subject matter is also too important to try and get cute about something so petty, especially when one is incorrect to begin with.

  2. Matthew M. Rose11/26/2020 12:20 am

    I'm more interested in the camel, Dr. Gurry...but that probably goes without saying.

    And please don't take it personally, it's primarily Hort and his text that I have to do with (in the present context), and not your more reasonable judgement.

    1. MMR,
      You confessional/majority text guys just can’t miss any opportunity to take a shot at W&H🤔

    2. Matthew M. Rose11/26/2020 8:22 pm


      I'm not a "confessional/majority text" guy! And I'm not taking any shot, but simply pushing back at what I consider to be an incorrect assessment. Now...I'd like to know which portion of Scripture that you consider to be a more fitting description of Hort and his text? That quoted by Gurry,–or myself?

      Because that is the only pertinent question at hand.

    3. MMR,
      I am actually with PG on the care of editing which was the point of this post. I am with Wescott and Hort as they understood the development of the text at their time. Obviously, I can only conjecture that W&H would have a text now that relies much more on the early papyri like P46, P75 and P66C than PG or other CBGM advocates and if so, I would be with them.


    4. Matthew M. Rose11/28/2020 1:36 am

      Hi Tim,

      Fair enough. I appreciate careful editing as much as the next man does. My point is that an insignificant tuning ("gnat") of the Greek NT is POINTLESS when the very same editors disfigured the commonly used text on very questionable evidence time and time again ("camel").

      You write:"the development of the text at their time."

      Could you expand on this? You certainly cannot believe that the TRUE TEXT OF THE NT behaved like some kind of unstable rubber ball that bounced all around from generation to generation?–Or worse: That the Church was given an undeveloped and second rate text for the greater portion of it's existence, (meanwhile the true text was apparently playing a game of hide and seek with the children of God,)–could you?

      And is your textual position similar to that of Dr. Comfort?

      Thanks! –MMR

    5. MMR,
      Let me distinguish between the text that was written by the inspired authors, which is the text that I still refer to as the original and the text which we have in the various manuscripts that have existed throughout time and place. The latter text in the various manuscripts is what W&H were attempting to return towards the former original text. This is what I meant by development😎
      Nothing in my position or I would agree in W & H’s position infers that the church was given or had an inferior text for the greater part of her existence.
      The hide and seek analogy is only applicable if you believe that their was always only one perfect text available throughout the church’s history and that our God has to have a perfect text to build His church. I care about the original text because it was the text that was breathed out by God, but I know our God has built His church using an imperfect text because He is able.

      I do hold a position that is much like Dr Comfort’s! While I might vary on some points, he was instrumental in the formation of my view.


    6. Tim,

      "Nothing in my position or I would argue* in W & H’s position infers that the church was given or had an inferior text for the greater part of her existence."

      I obviously cannot speak on your own position, but that is precisely what Hort inferred. Simply put: Hort believed the Byz. text ("Syrian") to be both secondary and inferior. He also allowed that this "secondary" text all but held the field from the second half of the 4th century until the time of the printing press. At which time the printed editions of the Textus Receptus could be looked upon as fair examples of essentially the same text. That would mean that the Church (far and wide) was using an inferior (and secondary) text from the end of the 4th century up until the 19th century, in Hort's veiw. Hence, his attack upon what he deemed "the villainous", "and that vile Textus Receptus." Colwell states that: "Hort organized his entire argument to depose the Textus Receptus."

      Why? Because it was a fair representation (although rough in spots, e.g. Rev.) of the very same "Syrian" text he deplored. Outside of some minute qualification, I don't think anyone would disagree with this assessment.

  3. It may be fine and dandy as a detail in the editing of that printed edition, but does anyone imagine that this text was differently formatted in the autograph?