in Memoriam: B. F. Westcott

B. F. Westcott was one of the most influential British scholars of the late 19th century, much of his work involving the history of the New Testament canon along with several commentaries on the writings of the Apostle John. His most enduring work was in the area of textual criticism of the New Testament. Along with F. J. A. Hort, he edited a critical edition of the Greek New Testament that set a new course for the study of the New Testament.

Manuscript discoveries in the 18th and 19th centuries had begun to make clear that the Greek copies of the New Testament that had been relied upon since the time of Erasmus (early 16th century) contained a number of readings that did not represent the original text of the biblical writers. The discovery of important New Testament manuscripts from the early 4th century in particular had led to efforts to compare the variations in the text and attempt to explain how those differences had arisen.

Building on that early textual critical work, Westcott and Hort developed several specific principles that could be applied when comparing textual variants, making it possible to determine with a high degree of confidence which was more likely to be earlier and which was more easily explained as a later alteration. The result was the publication in 1881 of The New Testament in the Original Greek, an edition of the Greek New Testament that soon became the primary text used by translators. Most English translations today are translated from a Greek text that uses Westcott and Hort’s edition as its basis, updated in light of further discoveries and study since their time.

For those who regard the Bible to be inspired Scripture, as I do, the degree of confidence in and reliablity of the texts is a significant issue. The importance of the question is demonstrated by the level of attention it gets in popular writings, from the fevered imagination of Dan Brown to the serious questions raised by Bart Ehrman. While names like Dan Wallace, Eldon Epp, Gordon Fee, Kurt and Barbara Aland, and Bruce Metzger (to name a few) are well known in our own period, to a signficant extent the work of B. F. Westcott marks a turning point for the church and the reliability of its charter documents.

Lest we forget.

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