What is the Majority Text?

by Luke Wayne
10/31/18
Return to King James Onlyism

The term "Majority Text" is used in multiple ways. Often, people use the term simply to mean what the majority of all manuscripts say in a particular passage. In the technical vocabulary of textual criticism, the "majority text" is a large group of manuscripts which all read very similarly to one another and which constitute the majority of all known manuscripts. These are primarily later manuscripts found in the regions of the Byzantine Empire (the eastern remnant of the Roman Empire that lasted through the Middle Ages). Thus these manuscripts are often called the Byzantine Textform (or Text Type). Majority Text manuscripts are not identical to each other. Indeed, no two biblical manuscripts are identical in every word and letter. That is simply the nature of hand copying large documents. But there is a striking similarity between manuscripts within the Majority/Byzantine Textform that do set it apart as a distinctive group from other manuscripts. While most textual scholars believe that greater weight should be given to the older and more diverse manuscripts of the earliest centuries, there are a minority of serious scholars who hold to the Majority Text as the best reflection of the original. Because there are differences between the Majority/Byzantine manuscripts, there are disagreements even among Majority Text advocates about what the proper reading in individual passages ought to be, and a variety of methods have been proposed to determine the original reading of the text, but all Majority Text advocates would agree that the original reading of each passage is found within Byzantine manuscripts.

A Brief History of the Majority Text

Majority Text advocates claim that the Byzantine Textform is the original form of the New Testament and thus goes back to the very beginning. Critics note, however, that none of the earliest manuscripts or translations were Byzantine in form. While some contain so-called "Byzantine readings" in individual verses, they are not Byzantine manuscripts. Similarly, the earliest citations of the New Testament in the early church fathers do not reflect a Byzantine Textform (even if, again, they occasionally quote a particular verse in a way closer to the Byzantine form.) Thus, the earliest physical evidence we have of the Byzantine Textform on which the Majority Text derives is from the fifth century AD. Even then, the earliest Byzantine manuscripts (and the earliest quotes from it in men like John Chrysostom) differ in notable ways from the later majority. Thus, most textual Scholars today view the Majority Text as a form that developed over time. It is also noteworthy that, while large in number, the Byzantine Textform comes to us almost exclusively from a narrow geographical region where Greek remained the dominant language. As Dr. Gordon Fee notes:

"It is a matter of fact that the great majority of manuscripts of the Greek NT come from the monasteries and churches of the Byzantine empire - not from anywhere else."1

The "Majority Text," as we know it today, is a scholarly achievement that began in the 19th-century and has advanced through the 20th and 21st. In response to those scholars who, based on the discovery of very early and diverse manuscripts, were producing critical texts of the Greek New Testament, other scholars began to invest their effort in the study of the Byzantine manuscripts and developing a more precise and accurate printed text to reflect the readings found in those manuscripts. Today, the Majority Text has been published in two primary critical versions. "The Greek New Testament according to the Majority Text," edited by Zane C. Hodges and Arthur L. Farstad, and "The New Testament in the Original Greek: Byzantine Textform" edited by Maurice Robinson and William G. Pierpont. The scholars who produced these volumes utilized quite different methodologies in deciding on individual readings and their texts differ in places, so they cannot be lumped together the way that we often do the two Modern Critical Texts (Nestle-Aland and UBS). These two major camps within the Majority/Byzantine priority position must be fairly distinguished from one another. Still, both arrive (through very different methods) at the same overarching conclusion that the later Byzantine majority among surviving manuscripts represents the original text and that the manuscripts that happen to survive from the earliest centuries are, in fact, less accurate than this later mass. Still, the difference between the camps (and between the manuscripts that they use) demonstrate what these scholars would themselves readily admit: the "majority text" is a family of texts. It is not one exact word-for-word form of the New Testament. It is a category, and even within that category, much work is required to arrive at one's estimate of the original text.

The Majority Text and the Textus Receptus

King James Only advocates often rhetorically equate the Majority Text and the Textus Receptus tradition on which the KJV was based, but this is not an accurate equation. Whichever form of the Majority Text one uses, the TR differs from that text in many places. As Textual Critic Dan Wallace observes:

"the TR is hardly identical with the majority text, for the TR has numerous places where it is supported by few or no Greek manuscripts"2

Likewise, Maurice Robinson, one of the leading scholars advocating of the Byzantine Priority/Majority Text movement explains:

"Certainly the Textus Receptus had its problems, not the least of which was its failure to reflect the Byzantine Textform in an accurate manner. But the Byzantine Textform is not the TR, nor need it be associated with the TR or those defending such in any manner."3

Thus, when King James Onlyists defend the Majority Text, they are actually undermining their own position. If one were to conclude that the Majority Text was, indeed, the original New Testament, they would have to take issue with all the places where the KJV differs from that text. The KJV is not a translation of the Majority Text. It may agree with the Majority Text in places, but so does the Modern Critical Text! Indeed, sometimes the Modern Critical text agrees with the Majority text against the TR, and sometimes the TR and the Modern Critical Text actually agree against the Majority Text. So, even if you are convinced that the Majority Text is the closest to the original, that is not a reason to go back to the KJV. In fact, since no major translation is based on the Majority Text, it is perhaps a reason to call for a new translation! In the meantime, something like the New King James that at least lists many of the major Majority Text readings in the footnotes would be a better place to start than would the KJV. The point is, the Majority Text is not the TR, and thus Majority Text arguments do not support the TR.

 

  • 1. Gordon Fee, "Modern Textual Criticism and the Majority Text: A Rejoinder," (Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Vol 21, June, 1978) 158
  • 2. Dan Wallace, The Majority Text and the Original Text: Are They Identical? https://bible.org/article/majority-text-and-original-text-are-they-identical (Accessed 7/16/2018)
  • 3. Dr. Maurice Robinson, New Testament Textual Criticism: The Case for Byzantine Priority, Introduction, Section 2 http://rosetta.reltech.org/TC/v06/Robinson2001.html (Accessed 3/28/18).