Hort's Theory of 'Western Non-Interpolations' and its Influence on English Versions of the New Testament

by Michael Marlowe
Posted Feb. 2006

F.J.A. Hort (1828-92) made some valuable contributions to textual scholarship, but at least one aspect of his work is now rejected by most textual critics—his theory of 'Western Non-Interpolations.' Under this theory (which was widely accepted up to about 1970) certain verses and phrases which are present in virtually all the ancient Greek manuscripts are regarded as interpolations because they are absent from a group of 'Western' witnesses (primarily the Greek-Latin Codex Bezae and manuscripts of the Old Latin versions), and because their absence in these witnesses cannot readily be explained in terms of the usual scribal tendencies. These 'Western' witnesses are not ordinarily thought to be reliable when they disagree with other ancient sources, but Hort's idea was that because the usual tendency of these witnesses is to expand the text, their omissions should receive special consideration. And so he wrote in the Introduction to his edition of the Greek text:

They are all omissions, or, to speak more correctly, non-interpolations, of various length: that is to say, the original record has here, to the best of our belief, suffered interpolation in all the extant Non-Western texts. The almost universal tendency of transcribers to make their text as full as possible, and to eschew omissions, is amply exemplified in the New Testament. Omissions of genuine words and clauses in the Alexandrian and Syrian texts are very rare, and always easy to explain. [Hort uses the word 'Syrian' to denote the large class of later manuscripts now more commonly called 'Byzantine.'] In the Western text, with which we are here concerned, they are bolder and more numerous, but still almost always capable of being traced to a desire of giving a clearer and more vigorous presentation of the sense. But hardly any of the omissions now in question can be so explained, none in a satisfactory manner. On the other hand the doubtful words are superfluous, and in some cases intrinsically suspicious, to say the least; while the motive for their insertion is usually obvious. With a single peculiar exception (Matt. xxvii 49), in which the extraneous words are omitted by the Syrian as well as by the Western text, the Western noninterpolations are confined to the last three chapters of St Luke. [B.F. Westcott and F.J.A. Hort, The New Testament in the Original Greek, vol. II, Introduction and Appendix (Cambridge and London, 1881; 2nd ed., 1896), p. 176.]

It should be noticed that this theory involves a rather pessimistic view of the preservation of the original text of the New Testament—virtually all of the manuscripts of the New Testament, including the oldest uncials, are thought to reproduce a text which was corrupted by interpolations at a very early period. It is claimed that among the Greek manuscripts Codex Bezae alone indicates the original text in several places, despite the fact that in other respects this codex is clearly one of the most unreliable witnesses that has come down to us from ancient times. The determination of the original text is made to depend upon critical speculation to a high degree, rather than simply resting upon the direct testimony of ancient documents.

Its Influence on English Versions

The following table gives English translations of the sentences and phrases that Hort regarded as interpolations on the basis of his theory. In the columns to the right I indicate whether these items are omitted (O) or retained (R) in several English versions: the American Standard Version (ASV); the first edition of the Revised Standard Version (RSV1); the New English Bible (NEB); the second edition of the Revised Standard Version (RSV2); the first edition of the New International Version (NIV); the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV); and the English Standard Version (ESV). It will be seen that the theory was accepted by the translators of the RSV and the NEB, but generally abandoned by the time the NIV was published in 1973.

Mat. 27:49. Some ancient authorities add, "And another took a spear and pierced his side, and there came out water and blood."OOOOOOO
Luke 22:19b-20. "which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me. And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood."ROORRRR
Luke 24:3. "of the Lord Jesus."ROOOROR
Luke 24:6. "He is not here, but has risen."ROOORRR
Luke 24:12. "But Peter rose and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; and he went home marveling at what had happened."ROOORRR
Luke 24:36. "and said to them, Peace to you."ROOORRR
Luke 24:40. "And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet."ROOORRR
Luke 24:51. "and was carried up into heaven."ROORRRR
Luke 24:52. "And they worshiped him."ROOORRR

All of the variants in these places are noted in the margins of the ASV, the RSV (both editions), and the NRSV. The NEB gives a note for all but Mat. 27:49 and Luke 24:3. The NIV does not have a marginal note for any of them, and the ESV notes only the variant in Luke 22:19b-20.

What Happened after 1971?

The textual scholars who edit the Greek New Testament published by the United Bible Societies have great influence upon English Bible translations in matters pertaining to the Greek text. By 1970 the UBS committee was working on a revision of their text in which they omitted none of the sentences or phrases listed above, with the exception of the variant in Mat. 27:49. Their decisions were reported by Bruce Metzger (a senior member of the committee) in the Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament published by the UBS in 1971. It is evident that the abandonment of Hort's theory in the versions published after 1971 was due largely to the influence of the UBS Committee.

In 1989 Kurt Aland, who was a very influential member of the Committee, described the state of opinion in these terms:

"Whole generations of textual critics (especially in the English literature) were trained in this perspective, which can only be regarded today as a relic of the past." (Kurt Aland, The Text of the New Testament: An Introduction to the Critical Editions and to the Theory and Practice of Modern Textual Criticism, translated by Erroll F. Rhodes, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), p. 236.)

The following explanation of the Committee's thinking is reproduced from Metzger's Textual Commentary (London: United Bible Societies, 1971), p. 191-92.

Note on Western Non-Interpolations

One of the features of the Western text is the occasional omission of words and passages that are present in other types of text, including the Alexandrian. How should one evaluate such omissions from a form of text which is generally much fuller than other text-types? According to one theory, popularized at the close of the last century by Westcott and Hort, 1 such readings, despite their being supported by the generally inferior Western witnesses, ought to be preferred rather than the longer readings, though the latter are attested by the generally superior manuscripts, B and א. Nine such readings were designated by Westcott and Hort as "Western non-interpolations," 2 on the assumption that all extant witnesses except the Western (or, in some cases, some of the Western witnesses) have in these passages suffered interpolation.

In recent decades this theory has been coming under more and more criticism. With the acquisition of the Bodmer Papyri, testimony for the Alexandrian type of text has been carried back from the fourth to the second century, and one can now observe how faithfully that text was copied and recopied between the stage represented by Papyrus 75 and the stage represented by codex Vaticanus. Furthermore, scholars have been critical of the apparently arbitrary way in which Westcott and Hort isolated nine passages for special treatment (enclosing them within double square brackets), whereas they did not give similar treatment to other readings that also are absent from Western witnesses. 3

With the rise of what is called Redaktionsgeschichte (the analysis of the theological and literary presuppositions and tendencies that controlled the formation and transmission of Gospel materials), scholars have begun to give renewed attention to the possibility that special theological interests on the part of scribes may account for the deletion of certain passages in Western witnesses. In any case, the Bible Societies' Committee did not consider it wise to make, as it were, a mechanical or doctrinaire judgment concerning the group of nine Western non-interpolations, but sought to evaluate each one separately on its own merits and in the light of fuller attestation and newer methodologies.

During the discussions a sharp difference of opinion emerged. According to the view of a minority of the Committee, apart from other arguments there is discernible in these passages a Christological-theological motivation that accounts for their having been added, while there is no clear reason that accounts for their having been omitted. Accordingly, if the passages are retained in the text at all, it was held that they should be enclosed within square brackets. On the other hand, the majority of the Committee, having evaluated the weight of the evidence differently, regarded the longer readings as part of the original text. For an account of the reasons that the majority felt to be cogent in explaining the origin of the shorter text, see the comments on the several passages.

1. B.F. Westcott and F.J.A. Hort, The New Testament in the Original Greek, vol. II, Introduction and Appendix (Cambridge and London, 1881; 2nd ed., 1896), pp, 175-177.

2. The nine passages are Mt 27.49; Lk 22.19b-20; 24.3, 6, 12, 36, 40, 51, and 52.

3. E.g. Mt 9.34; Mk 2.22; 10.2; 14.39; Lk 5.39; 10.41-42; 12.21; 22.62; 24.9; Jn 4.9. In all these passages the consensus of textual opinion (including that of Westcott and Hort) is almost unanimous that the Western text, though shorter, is secondary.

Metzger's comments on the several passages are as follows:

Matt. 27:49. Although attested by א B C L al the words ἄλλος δὲ λαβὼν λόγχην ἔνυξεν αὐτοῦ τὴν πλευράν, καὶ ἐξῆλθεν ὕδωρ καὶ αἷμα must be regarded as an early intrusion derived from a similar account in Jn 19.34. It might be thought that the words were omitted because they represent the piercing as preceding Jesus' death, whereas John makes it follow; but that difference would have only been a reason for moving the passage to a later position (perhaps at the close of ver. 50 or 54 or 56), or else there would have been some tampering with the passage in John, which is not the case. It is probable that the Johannine passage was written by some reader in the margin of Matthew from memory (there are several minor differences, such as the sequence of "water and blood"), and a later copyist awkwardly introduced it into the text. [p. 71]

*    *    *

Luke 22:17-20. The Lukan account of the Last Supper has been transmitted in two principal forms: (1) the longer, or traditional, text of cup-bread-cup is read by all Greek manuscripts except D and by most of the ancient versions and Fathers; (2) the shorter, or Western, text (read by D ita,d,ff2,i,l) omits verses 19b and 20 (τὸ ὑπὲρ ὑμῶν ... ἐκχυννόμενον), thereby presenting the sequence of cup-bread. 1 Four intermediate forms of text, which appear to be compromises between the two principal forms, are the following: (a) two Old Latin manuscripts (itb,e) modify the shorter text by placing ver. 19a before ver. 17, thus securing the customary order of bread-cup; (b) the Curetonian Syriac reads the same, but is enlarged with the wording of 1 Cor 11.24 added to ver. 19a; (c) the Sinaitic Syriac is still further expanded, chiefly by the insertion of "after they had supped" at the beginning of ver. 17 and "this is my blood, the new covenant" (ver. 20b) between verses 17 and 18; and (d) the Peshitta Syriac lacks (perhaps due to homoeoteleuton) verses 17 and 18, as do also l32, two Sahidic manuscripts, and one Bohairic manuscript. For convenience of comparison the six forms of the text are set forth in parallel columns on p. 175.

It is obvious that the chief problem is concerned with the merits of the two principal forms of text, since each of the others can be accounted for more or less satisfactorily as modifications of either the shorter or the longer form.

Considerations in favor of the originality of the longer text include the following: (a) The external evidence supporting the shorter reading represents only part of the Western type of text, whereas the other representatives of the Western text join with witnesses belonging to all the other ancient text-types in support of the longer reading. (b) It is easier to suppose that the Bezan editor, puzzled by the sequence of cup-bread-cup, eliminated the second mention of the cup without being concerned about the inverted order of institution thus produced, than that the editor of the longer version, to rectify the inverted order, brought in from Paul the second mention of the cup, while letting the first mention stand. (c) The rise of the shorter version can be accounted for in terms of the theory of disciplina arcana, i. e. in order to protect the Eucharist from profanation, one or more copies of the Gospel according to Luke, prepared for circulation among non-Christian readers, omitted the sacramental formula after the beginning words.

Considerations in favor of the originality of the shorter text include the following: (a) Generally in New Testament textual criticism the shorter reading is to be preferred. (b) Since the words in verses 19b and 20 are suspiciously similar to Paul's words in 1 Cor 11.24b-25, it appears that the latter passage was the source of their interpolation into the longer text. (c) Verses 19b-20 contain several linguistic features that are non-Lukan.

The weight of these considerations was estimated differently by different members of the Committee. A minority preferred the shorter text as a Western non-interpolation (see the Note following 24.53). The majority, on the other hand, impressed by the overwhelming preponderance of external evidence supporting the longer form, explained the origin of the shorter form as due to some scribal accident or misunderstanding. 2 The similarity between verses 19b-20 and 1 Cor 11.24b-25 arises from the familiarity of the evangelist with the liturgical practice among Pauline churches, a circumstance that accounts also for the presence of non-Lukan expressions in verses 19b-20. [pp. 173-77]

1. The same sequence also occurs in the Didache, ix, 2-3; cf. also 1 Cor. 10.16.

2. Kenyon and Legg, who prefer the longer form of text, explain the origin of the other readings as follows: "The whole difficulty arose, in our opinion, from a misunderstanding of the longer version. The first cup given to the disciples to divide among themselves should be taken in connection with the previous verse (ver. 16) as referring to the eating of the Passover with them at the reunion in Heaven. This is followed by the institution of the Sacrament, to be repeated continually on earth in memory of Him. This gives an intelligible meaning to the whole, while at the same time it is easy to see that it would occasion difficulties of interpretation, which would give rise to the attempts at revision that appear in various forms of the shorter version" (Sir Frederick G. Kenyon and S.C.E. Legg in The Ministry and the Sacraments, ed. by Roderic Dunkerley [London, 1937], pp. 285 f.).

*    *    *

Luke 24:3. A minority of the Committee preferred the shortest reading, supported by D ita,b,d,e,ff2,l,r1 (see the Note on Western non-interpolations following 24.53). The majority, on the other hand, impressed by the weight of P75 א A B C W Θ f1 f13 33 565 700 al, regarded the reading of D as influenced by ver. 23, and the omission of κυρίου in a few witnesses as due to assimilation to Mt 27.58 or Mk 15.43. The expression "the Lord Jesus" is used of the risen Lord in Ac 1.21; 4.33; 8.16. [p. 183]

*    *    *

Luke 24:6. A minority of the Committee preferred to follow the evidence of D ita,b,d,e,ff2,l,r1 geoB and to omit the words οὐκ ἔστιν ὧδε, ἀλλὰ ἠγέρθη as an interpolation (see the Note following 24.53), derived from Mt 28.6 and/or Mk 16.6, and cast into antithetic form (... ἀλλά ...). The majority of the Committee, on the other hand, interpreted the antithesis as evidence of independence of the Lukan formulation from that of Matthew and Mark (which lack ἀλλά). In any case, the reading of C* al is obviously a scribal assimilation to the Synoptic parallels. [pp. 183-4]

*    *    *

Luke 24:12. Although ver. 12 is sometimes thought to be an interpolation (see the Note following 24.53) derived from Jn 20.3, 5, 6, 10, a majority of the Committee regarded the passage as a natural antecedent to ver. 24, and was inclined to explain the similarity with the verses in John as due to the likelihood that both evangelists had drawn upon a common tradition. [p. 184]

*    *    *

Luke 24:36. The words ἐγώ εἰμι, μὴ φοβεῖσθε, either before εἰρήνη ὑμῖν (as in W 579) or after (as in G P itc vg syrp,h,pal, copbo-mss arm eth geo Diatessarona,i,n), are undoubtedly a gloss, derived perhaps from Jn 6.20. The Committee was less sure concerning the origin of the words καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς, Εἰρήνη ὑμῖν, which, as the regular form of Semitic greeting, might well be expected on this occasion. When the passage is compared with Jn 20.19 ff. the question arises: have the two evangelists depended upon a common tradition, or have copyists expanded Luke's account by adding the salutation from John's account? A majority of the Committee, impressed by the presence of numerous points of contact between Luke and John in their Passion and Easter accounts, preferred to follow the preponderance of external attestation and to retain the words in the text. (See also the Note on Western non-interpolations, following 24.53.) [pp. 186-7]

*    *    *

Luke 24:40. Was ver. 40 omitted by certain Western witnesses (D ita,b,d,e,ff2,l,r1 syrc,s) because it seemed superfluous after ver. 39? Or is it a gloss introduced by copyists in all other witnesses from Jn 20.20, with a necessary adaptation (the passage in John refers to Jesus' hands and side; this passage refers to his hands and feet)? A minority of the Committee preferred to omit the verse as an interpolation (see the Note following 24.53); the majority, however, was of the opinion that, had the passage been interpolated from the Johannine account, copyists would probably have left some trace of its origin by retaining τὴν πλευράν in place of τοὺς πόδας (either here only, or in ver. 39 also). [p. 187]

*    *    *

Luke 24:51. Here א* and geo1 join D and ita,b,d,e,ff2,j,l in supporting the shorter text. (The Sinaitic Syriac condenses ver. 51 by omitting διέστη and εἰς τὸν οὐρανόν, reading ܘܟܕ ܒܪܟ ܐܢܘܢ ܐܬܪܝܡ ܡܢܗܘܢ "And while he blessed them, he was lifted up from them"; thus, though shortened, syrs still alludes to the ascension.) A minority of the Committee preferred the shorter reading, regarding the longer as a Western non-interpolation (see the Note following 24.53).

The majority of the Committee, however, favored the longer reading for the following reasons. (1) The rhythm of the sentence seems to require the presence of such a clause (compare the two coordinate clauses joined with καί in ver. 50 and in verses 52-53). (2) Luke's opening statement in Acts ("In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up [ἀνελήμφθη]") implies that he considered that he had made some reference, however brief, to the ascension at the close of his first book. (3) If the shorter text were original, it is difficult to account for the presence of καὶ ἀνεφέρετο εἰς τὸν οὐρανόν in so many and such diversified witnesses, beginning with P75 about A.D. 200. (4) If the clause were a copyist's addition, prompted by his noticing the implications of Ac 1.1-2 (see point (2) above), one would have expected him to adopt some form of the verb ἀναλαμβάνειν, used in Ac 1.2 and other passages referring to the ascension, rather than the less appropriate ἀναφέρειν, which in the New Testament ordinarily has the specialized meaning "to offer up." Finally, (5) the omission of the clause in a few witnesses can be accounted for either (a) through accidental scribal oversight occasioned by homoeoarcton (καια ... καια ...) or (b) by deliberate excision, either (i) in order to relieve the apparent contradiction between this account (which seemingly places the ascension late Easter night) and the account in Ac 1.3-11 (which dates the ascension forty days after Easter), or (ii) in order to introduce a subtle theological differentiation between the Gospel and the Acts (i. e., the Western redactor, not approving of Luke's mentioning the ascension twice, first to conclude the earthly ministry of Jesus, and again, in Acts, to inaugurate the church age, preferred to push all doxological representations of Jesus to a time after the ascension in Acts, and therefore deleted the clause in question as well as the words προσκυνήσαντες αὐτόν from ver. 52 — for when the account of the ascension has been eliminated, the mention of Jesus being worshipped seems less appropriate). 2 [pp. 189-90]

2. For other instances of what appear to be doctrinal alterations introduced by the Western reviser, see the comments on Ac. 1.2 and 9 as well as the references mentioned in Group D in footnote 12, p. 263 below. Cf. also Eldon J. Epp, The Theological Tendency of Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis in Acts (Cambridge, 1966).

*    *    *

Luke 24:52. Although a minority of the Committee preferred the shorter reading, regarding the others as interpolations (see the Note following 24.53), the majority considered it more probable that the words προσκυνήσαντες αὐτόν had been omitted either accidentally (the eye of the copyist passing from αυτοι ... to αυτον) or, perhaps, deliberately (so as to accord better with the shorter reading in ver. 51; see the concluding comments on the previous variant reading). [p. 190]

It should be noted that the Committee's confidence in these explanations apparently increased over time, as indicated by the "degree of certainty" letter assigned to the readings adopted in the text.

The Introduction of the UBS third edition explains these grades as follows: "In order to indicate the relative degree of certainty in the mind of the Committee for the reading adopted as the text, an identifying letter is included within braces at the beginning of each set of textual variants. The letter {A} signifies that the text is certain, while {B} indicates that the text is almost certain. The letter {C}, however, indicates that the Committee had difficulty in deciding which variant to place in the text. The letter {D}, which occurs only rarely, indicates that the Committee had great difficulty in arriving at a decision. In fact, among the {D} decisions sometimes none of the variant readings commended itself as original, and therefore the only recourse was to print the least unsatisfactory reading." (p. xxviii.)

In the third edition of their text (1975) the grades for the nine places were: B ("almost certain") for Mat. 27:49; C ("difficulty in deciding") for Luke 22:19b-20, and D ("great difficulty in arriving at a decision") for the seven places in chap. 24. But in the fourth edition (1993) they are all B, "almost certain."

Thus we see that from 1946 to 1971 English versions prepared by committees of mainline scholars omitted words which in 1993 were deemed to be almost certainly authentic by a committee of mainline textual critics.

The Theory Persists

A minority of scholars continue to believe that Hort's theory was correct. Most notably, Bart Ehrman has defended it in his recent book The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture (1993). Ehrman adds a whole new dimension to the subject by maintaining that in these nine places "the corruption in each case represents an early interpolation (outside of the Western tradition) that works against a docetic form of Christology" (p. 217). And so he brings the "Western Non-Interpolations" under the main subject of his book, in which he ventures to explain many variations of the manuscripts in connection with theological trends and reactions of the early years of the Church. It must be said, however, that Ehrman tends to see anti-docetic motives (along with various other doctrinal motives) lurking in variations where few other scholars have ever seen them.