Brooke Foss Westcott (1825 – 1901) World Renowned New Testament Textual Scholar

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westcottBROOKE FOSS WESTCOTT, “renown for [his] studies of New Testament manuscripts and the publication of their critical edition of the New Testament. In 1881, after twenty-eight years of work, Westcott and Hort published the text of the Greek New Testament (with an introduction and appendixes) titled The New Testament in the Original Greek.” (Wegner, 2006, p. 215)

(January 12, 1825 – July 27, 1901), English divine and bishop of Durham, was born on the 12th of January 1825 in the neighborhood of Birmingham. His father, Frederick Brooke Westcott, was a botanist of some distinction. Westcott was educated at King Edward VI. school, Birmingham, under James Prince Lee, where he formed his friendship with Joseph Barber Lightfoot (q.v.). In 1844 Westcott obtained a scholarship at Trinity College, Cambridge. He took Sir William Browne’s medal for a Greek ode in 1846 and 1847, the Members Prize for a Latin essay in 1847 as an undergraduate and in 1849 as a bachelor. He took his degree in January 1848, obtaining double-first honors. In mathematics, he was the twenty-fourth wrangler, Isaac Todhunter being senior. In classics, he was senior, being bracketed with C. B. Scott, afterward headmaster of Westminster.

After obtaining his degree, Westcott remained for four years in residence at Trinity. In 1849, he obtained his fellowship; and in the same year, he was ordained deacon and priest by his old headmaster, Prince Lee, now bishop of Manchester. The time spent at Cambridge was devoted to the most strenuous study. He took pupils; and among his pupils, there were reading with him, almost at the same time, his school friend Lightfoot and two other men who became his attached and lifelong friends, E. W. Benson and F. J. A. Hort (qq.v). The inspiring influence of Westcott’s intense enthusiasm left its mark upon these three distinguished men; they regarded him not only as their friend and counselor but as in an especial degree their teacher and advisor. He devoted much attention to philosophical, patristic and historical studies, but it soon became evident that he would throw his strength into New Testament work. In 1851, he published his Norrisian prize essay with the title Elements of the Gospel Harmony.

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In 1852 he became an assistant master at Harrow, and soon afterward he married Miss Whithard. He prosecuted his school work with characteristic vigor, and succeeded in combining with his school duties an enormous amount both of theological research and of literary activity. He worked at Harrow for nearly twenty years under Dr. C. J. Vaughan and Dr. Montagu Butler, but while he was always conspicuously successful in inspiring a few senior boys with something of his own intellectual and moral enthusiasm, he was never in the same measure capable of maintaining discipline among large numbers. The writings which he produced at this period created a new epoch in the history of modern English theological scholarship. In 1855 he published the first edition of his History of the New Testament Canon, which, frequently revised and expanded, became the standard English work upon the subject. In 1859 there appeared his Characteristics of the Gospel Miracles.

In 1860 he expanded his Norrisian essay into an Introduction to the Study of the Gospels, a work remarkable for insight and minuteness of study, as well as for reverential treatment combined with considerable freedom from traditional lines. Westcott’s work for Smiths Dictionary of the Bible, notably his articles on “Canon”, “Maccabees”, “Vulgate”, entailed most careful and thorough preparation, and led to the composition of his subsequent valuable popular books, The Bible in the Church (1864) and a History of the English Bible (1869). To the same period belongs The Gospel of the Resurrection(1866). As a piece of consecutive reasoning upon a fundamental Christian doctrine, it deservedly attracted great attention. Its width of view and its recognition of the claims of historical science and pure reason were thoroughly characteristic of Westcott’s mode of discussing a theological question. At the time when the book appeared his method of apologetic showed both courage and originality, but the excellence of the work is impaired by the difficulty of the style.

In 1865 he took his B.D. and in 1870 his D.D. He received in later years the honorary degrees of DC.L. from Oxford (1881) and of D.D. from Edinburgh (1883). In 1868 Westcott was appointed examining chaplain by Bishop Connor Magee (of Peterborough); and in the following year, he accepted a canonry at Peterborough, which necessitated his leaving Harrow. For a time, he contemplated with eagerness the idea of a renovated cathedral life, devoted to the pursuit of learning and to the development of opportunities for the religious and intellectual benefit of the diocese. But the regius professorship of divinity at Cambridge fell vacant, and Lightfoot, who was then Hulsean professor, declining to become a candidate himself, insisted upon Westcott’s standing for the post. It was due to Lightfoot’s support almost as much as to his own great merits that Westcott was elected to the chair on the 1st of November 1870.

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This was the turning-point of his life. He now occupied a great position for which he was supremely fitted, and at a juncture in the reform of university studies when a theologian of liberal views, but universally respected for his massive learning and his devout and single-minded character, would enjoy a unique opportunity for usefulness. Supported by his friends Lightfoot and Hort, he threw himself into the new work with extraordinary energy. He deliberately sacrificed many of the social privileges of a university career in order that his studies might be more continuous and that he might see more of the younger men. His lectures were generally on Biblical subjects. His Commentaries on St Johns Gospel (1881), on the Epistle to the Hebrews (1889) and the Epistles of St. John (1883) resulted from his public lectures.

One of his most valuable works, The Gospel of Life (1892), a study of Christian doctrine, incorporated the materials upon which he was engaged in a series of more private and esoteric lectures delivered on week-day evenings. The work of lecturing was an intense strain to him, but its influence was immense: to attend one of Westcott’s lectures, even to watch him lecturing–was an experience which lifted and solemnized many a man to whom the references to Origen or Rupert of Deutz were almost ludicrously unintelligible.

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Between the years 1870 and 1881 Westcott was also continually engaged in work for the revision of the New Testament, and, simultaneously, in the preparation of a new text in conjunction with Hort. The years in which Westcott, Lightfoot, and Hort could thus meet frequently and naturally for the discussion of the work in which they were all three so deeply engrossed formed a happy and privileged period in their lives. In the year 1881, there appeared the famous Westcott and Hort text of the New Testament, upon which had been expended nearly thirty years of incessant labor. Bruce M. Metzger explains the immense impact that the critical text of Westcott and Hort,

It was the corrupt Byzantine form of text that provided the basis for almost all translations of the New Testament into modern languages down to the nineteenth century. During the eighteenth century scholars assembled a great amount of information from many Greek manuscripts, as well as from versional and patristic witnesses. But, except for three or four editors who timidly corrected some of the more blatant errors of the Textus Receptus, this debased form of the New Testament text was reprinted in edition after edition. It was only in the first part of the nineteenth century (1831) that a German classical scholar, Karl Lachmann, ventured to apply to the New Testament the criteria that he had used in editing texts of the classics. Subsequently, other critical editions appeared, including those prepared by Constantin von Tischendorf, whose eighth edition (1869–72) remains a monumental thesaurus of variant readings, and the influential edition prepared by two Cambridge scholars, B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort (1881). It is the latter edition that was taken as the basis for the present United Bible Societies’ edition. During the twentieth century, with the discovery of several New Testament manuscripts much older than any that had hitherto been available, it has become possible to produce editions of the New Testament that approximate ever more closely to what is regarded as the wording of the original documents.—Bruce Manning Metzger, United Bible Societies, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition a Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament (4th Rev. Ed.) (London; New York: United Bible Societies, 1994), xxiv.

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The reforms in the regulations for degrees in divinity, the formation and first revision of the new theological tripos, the inauguration of the Cambridge mission to Delhi, the institution of the Church Society (for the discussion of theological and ecclesiastical questions by the younger men), the meetings for the divinity faculty, the organization of the new Divinity School and Library and, later, the institution of the Cambridge Clergy Training School, were all, in a very real degree, the result of Westcott’s energy and influence as Regius professor. To this list should also be added the Oxford and Cambridge preliminary examination for candidates for holy orders, with which he was from the first most closely identified. The success of this very useful scheme was due chiefly to his sedulous interest and help.

The departure of Lightfoot to the see of Durham in 1879 was a great blow to Westcott. Nevertheless, it resulted in bringing him into still greater prominence. He was compelled to take the lead in matters where Lightfoot’s more practical nature had previously been predominant. In 1883 Westcott was elected to a professorial fellowship at Kings. Shortly afterward, having previously resigned his canonry at Peterborough, he was appointed by the crown to a canonry at Westminster and accepted the position of examining chaplain to Archbishop Benson.

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His little edition of the Paragraph Psalter (1879), arranged for the use of choirs, and his admirable lectures on the Apostles Creed, entitled Historic Faith (1883), are reminiscences of his vacations spent at Peterborough. He held his canonry at Westminster in conjunction with the Regius professorship. The strain of the joint work was very heavy, and the intensity of the interest and study which he brought to bear upon his share in the labors of the Ecclesiastical Courts Commission, of which he had been appointed a member, added to his burden.

Preaching at the Abbey gave him a valued opportunity of dealing with social questions. His sermons were generally portions of a series, and to this period belong the volumes Christus Consummator (1886) and Social Aspects of Christianity (1887).

In March 1890, he was nominated to the see of Durham, there to follow in the steps of his beloved friend Lightfoot, who had died in December 1889. He was consecrated on the 1st of May at Westminster Abbey by Archbishop Thompson (of York), Hort being the preacher, and enthroned at Durham Cathedral on the 15th of May. The change in work and surroundings could hardly have been greater. But the sudden immersion in the practical administration of a northern diocese gave him new strength. He surprised the world, which had supposed him to be a recluse and a mystic, by the practical interest he took in the mining population of Durham and in the great shipping and artisan industries of Sunderland and Gateshead.

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Upon one famous occasion in 1892 he succeeded in bringing to a peaceful solution a long and bitter strike which had divided the masters and men in the Durham collieries; his success was due to the confidence which he inspired by the extraordinary moral energy of his strangely prophetic personality, at once thoughtful, vehement and affectionate. His constant endeavor to call the attention of the Church to the religious aspect of social questions was a special note in his public utterances. He was a staunch supporter of the co-operative movement. He was practically the founder of the Christian Social Union. He continually insisted upon the necessity of promoting the cause of foreign missions, and he gladly gave four of his sons for the work of the Church in India. His energy was remarkable to the very end. But during the last two or three years of his life, he aged considerably. His wife, who had been for some years an invalid, died rather suddenly on the 28th of May 1901, and he dedicated to her memory his last book, Lessons from Work (1901). He preached a farewell sermon to the miners in Durham cathedral at their annual festival on the 20th of July. Then came a short, sudden illness, and he passed away on the 27th of July.

Westcott was no narrow specialist. He had the keenest love of poetry, music, and art. He was himself no mean draughtsman and used often to say that if he had not taken orders he would have become an architect. His literary sympathies were wide. He would never tire of praising Euripides, while few men had given such minute study to the writings of Robert Browning. He followed with delight the development of natural science studies at Cambridge. He spared no pains to be accurate, or to widen the basis of his thought. Thus, he devoted one summer vacation to the careful analysis of Comte’s Politique positive. He studied assiduously The Sacred Books of the East, and earnestly contended that no systematic view of Christianity could afford to ignore the philosophy of other religions. The outside world was wont to regard him as a mystic, and the mystical, or sacramental, view of life enters, it is true, very largely into his teaching. He had in this respect many points of similarity with the Cambridge Platonists of the 17th century, and with F. D. Maurice, for whom he had profound regard. But in other respects he was very practical, and his strength of will, his learning and his force of character made him really masterful in influence wherever the subject under discussion was of serious moment. He was a strong supporter of Church reform, especially in the direction of obtaining larger powers for the laity.

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He kept himself aloof from all party strife. He describes himself when he says,

“The student of Christian doctrine because he strives after exactness of phrase because he is conscious of the inadequacy of any one human formula to exhaust the truth, will be filled with sympathy for every genuine endeavor towards the embodiment of right opinion. Partial views attract and exist in virtue of the fragment of truth be it great or small which they include, and it is the work of the theologian to seize this no less than to detect the first spring of error. It is easier and, in one sense, it is more impressive to make a peremptory and exclusive statement, and to refuse to allow any place beside it to divergent expositions, but this show of clearness and power is dearly purchased at the cost of the ennobling conviction that the whole truth is far greater than our individual minds. He who believes that every judgment on the highest matters different from his own is simply a heresy must have a mean idea of the faith; and while the qualifications, the reserve, the lingering sympathies of the real student make him in many cases a poor controversialist, it may be said that a mere controversialist cannot be a real theologian” (Lessons from Work, pp. 84-85).

His theological work was always distinguished by the place which he assigned to Divine Revelation in Holy Scripture and in the teaching of history. His own studies have largely contributed in England to the better understanding of the doctrines of the Resurrection and the Incarnation. His work in conjunction with Hort upon the Greek text of the New Testament will endure as one of the greatest achievements of English Biblical criticism. The principles which are explained in Hort’s introduction to the text had been arrived at after years of elaborate investigation and continual correspondence and discussion between the two friends. The place which it almost at once took among scientific scholars in Great Britain and throughout Europe was a recognition of the great advance which it represented in the use and classification of ancient authorities. His commentaries rank with Lightfoot as the best type of Biblical exegesis produced by the English Church in the 19th century.

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The following is a bibliography of Westcott’s more important writings, giving the date of the first editions: Elements of the Gospel Harmony (1851); History of the Canon of First Four Centuries (1853); Characteristics of Gospel Miracles (1859); Introduction to the Study of the Gospels (1860); The Bible in the Church (1864); The Gospel of the Resurrection (1866); Christian Life Manifold and One (1869); Some Points in the Religious Life of the Universities (1873); Paragraph Psalter for the Use of Choirs (1879); Commentary on the Gospel of St John (1881); Commentary on the Epistles of St John (1883); Revelation of the Risen Lord (1882); Revelation of the Father (1884); Some Thoughts from the Ordinal (1884); Christus Consummator (1886); Social Aspects of Christianity (1887); The Victory of the Cross: Sermons in Holy Week (1888); Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (1889); From Strength to Strength (1890); Gospel of Life (1892); The Incarnation and Common Life (1893); Some Lessons of the Revised Version of the New Testament (1897); Christian Aspects of Life (1897); Lessons from Work (1901). Lives by his son B. F. Westcott (903), and by J. Clayton (1906).

Theories of Westcott and Hort

In 1881 two English scholars, B.F. Westcott and F.J.A. Hort published a very influential edition of the Greek Testament: The New Testament in the Original Greek (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1881). The Introduction and Appendix of Notes on Select Readings volume of the original edition were written by Dr. Hort, and in it, he set forth the arguments and general theories upon which the text was reconstructed and provided explanations for many specific textual decisions.

Westcott and Hort brought the main tendency of nineteenth-century textual criticism—the exaltation of the oldest Greek copies—to its culmination. They firmly set aside the Latin witnesses along with the later Greek manuscripts; but the oldest known Greek copies, Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus, they elevated to a pristine class called “Neutral,” and very nearly identified them with the original manuscripts. It cannot be said, however, that Westcott and Hort were simply following a tendency here, for they realized that if such weight were to be given to only two manuscripts, a theory must be offered to explain how the text given in them had so early disappeared from the manuscript tradition. And so Hort offered in the Introduction of their text a theoretical history of the manuscript tradition that met the needs of the case, or at least so it seemed to many scholars.

They theorized that the “Neutral” text was the most primitive type, carefully copied for use in the worship services of the churches. The “Western” text-type arose early on as an uncontrolled popular edition and persisted mainly in the Latin witnesses after Greek copies were no longer being produced in Italy. The “Byzantine” group, which includes the mass of later copies, began in the fourth century as an official church-sponsored edition of the New Testament, written probably in Antioch, which combined the various readings of the Western and Neutral groups. This edition was so effectively propagated throughout Europe that both the older “Neutral” and “Western” text-types ceased to be copied in the European scriptoriums, and eventually decayed. The Neutral text survived for a while in Egypt, but then suffered corruption and became the “Alexandrian” type. Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus are relics of the Neutral type. A considerable amount of speculation is involved in this argument, but Westcott & Hort further bolstered their text with detailed arguments from two other directions, presenting “external” arguments (from the oldest manuscripts, as in Lachmann) and “internal” arguments (from the tendencies of scribes, as in the rules of Griesbach). External and internal arguments were also made to support one another by the principle, “Readings are to be preferred that are found in a manuscript that habitually contains superior readings:” superior, that is, as determined by the rules of internal criticism. The text of Westcott & Hort, therefore, had the appearance of resting firmly upon three-legged arguments, and it was considered by many scholars to be the best possible text.

Whatever may be the merits of Westcott and Hort’s theory, the success of their text was largely due to personal influence and advantageous timing. In the 1860s the two most ancient copies, Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, were both published for the first time, creating a public sensation. At about that time, Westcott and Hort began work on their text, and so in 1870, the year that a critical revision of the King James version was commissioned by the church authorities in England, they were able to distribute to the members of the revision committee a draft copy of their text. They both served on the revision committee, and they published their text in 1881, the same year that the revision was published. For ten years, then, Westcott and Hort continually advocated their views in favor of the texts of Sinaiticus and Vaticanus in regular meetings of the most influential scholars of Great Britain and America, and it is hardly surprising that their text should be so well regarded when it appeared. In fact, two generations passed before most scholars would recognize that the genealogical theories of Westcott and Hort were without adequate empirical foundation.

The text of Westcott & Hort was most vigorously assailed by John William Burgon, Dean of Chichester, and more temperately criticized by many others. The common theme of criticism was the lack of historical basis for their hypothesis of an early “Byzantine” recension in Antioch.

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Critical Rules of Westcott & Hort

The following summary of principles is taken from the compilation in Epp and Fee, Studies in the Theory and Method of New Testament Textual Criticism (1993, pages 157-8). References in parentheses are to sections of Hort’s Introduction, from which the principles have been extracted.

  1. Older readings, manuscripts, or groups are to be preferred. (“The shorter the interval between the time of the autograph and the end of the period of transmission in question, the stronger the presumption that earlier date implies greater purity of text.”) (2.59; cf. 2.5-6, 31)
  2. Readings are approved or rejected by reason of the quality, and not the number, of their supporting witnesses. (“No available presumptions whatever as to text can be obtained from number alone, that is, from number not as yet interpreted by descent.”) (2.44)
  3. A reading combining two simple, alternative readings is later than the two readings comprising the conflation, and manuscripts rarely or never supporting conflate reading are text antecedent to mixture and are of special value. (2.49-50).
  4. The reading is to be preferred that makes the best sense, that is, that best conforms to the grammar and is most congruous with the purport of the rest of the sentence and of the larger context. (2.20)
  5. The reading is to be preferred that best conforms to the usual style of the author and to that author’s material in other passages. (2.20)
  6. The reading is to be preferred that most fitly explains the existence of the others. (2.22-23)
  7. The reading is less likely to be original that combines the appearance of an improvement in the sense with the absence of its reality; the scribal alteration will have an apparent excellence, while the original will have the highest real excellence. (2.27, 29)
  8. The reading is less likely to be original that shows a disposition to smooth away difficulties (another way of stating that the harder reading is preferable). (2.28)
  9. Readings are to be preferred that are found in a manuscript that habitually contains superior readings as determined by intrinsic and transcriptional probability. Certainty is increased if such a better manuscript is found also to be an older manuscript (2.32-33) and if such a manuscript habitually contains reading that prove themselves antecedent to mixture and independent of external contamination by other, inferior texts (2.150-51). The same principles apply to groups of manuscripts (2.260-61).

From the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica

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