What is the Majority Text?
Question: "What is the Majority Text?"
Answer: The Majority Text, also known as the Byzantine and Ecclesiastical Text, is a method of determining the original reading of a Scripture by discovering what reading occurs in a majority of the manuscripts. As the Greek New Testament was copied hundreds of times over 1500 years, the scribes, as careful as they were, occasionally made mistakes. The vast majority of these mistakes are in misspellings, or in whether "the" or a preposition occurs. It is important to remember, though, that no doctrine of the Christian faith is put into doubt by these textual questions. The testimony of the thousands of manuscripts over 1500 years is entirely consistent on all the key issues of the Christian faith.
It is vital, though, that our Bibles are as accurate as possible. The accuracy of the manuscripts plays a large role in determining the accuracy of the translation. While the presence of a the is not usually vital to the meaning of a verse, there are times when it can be. This is where the science of “textual criticism” comes in. The goal of textual criticism is to examine all of the available manuscripts, and by comparison and contrast, to determine what the original text truly was.
The Majority Text method within textual criticism could be called the “democratic” method. Essentially, each Greek manuscript has one vote, all the variants are voted on by all the manuscripts, and whichever variant has the most votes wins. At first glance, the Majority Text method would seem to be the most likely to result in the correct original reading. The problem is that the Majority Text method does not take into account two very important factors: (1) The age of the manuscripts, and (2) the location of the manuscripts.
(1) The age of the manuscripts. The more times a manuscript is copied, the more likely it is that errors will occur. A first-generation copy——one that was copied directly from the original——is very likely to be closer to the original than a tenth-generation copy (a copy that was copied from a copy, from a copy . . . from the original). Manuscripts from the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th centuries should be far closer to the originals than manuscripts from the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries. The problem is that the majority of the manuscripts are from the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries. To illustrate, let’s say there is a man named James Smith. Let’s say you are attempting to discover James Smith’s middle name. Who would be a better source, James Smith’s one thousand great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren, or James Smith’s son? Of course it would be James Smith’s son. Similarly, a 2nd- or 3rd-generation copy of the New Testament is far more likely to be correct than a 12th- or 13th-generation copy.
(2) The location of the manuscripts. The vast majority of Christians through the centuries have lived in western and eastern Europe. For cultural, theological, and political reasons, the western and eastern churches split. The western church became the Roman Catholic Church while the eastern church become the Orthodox Church. A few centuries after the start of Christianity, the western church began using Latin as its primary language. The eastern church continued using Greek as its primary language for another thousand years (and in some places, even to today). Textual critics have discovered that the manuscripts discovered in one part of the world tend to be very similar to other manuscripts from that part of the world, likely due to originating from the same source. Since the eastern church continued using Greek as its primary language for 1000+ years longer than the western church, there are significantly more Greek manuscripts that were discovered in eastern Europe than in western Europe. And, these eastern Greek manuscripts (the Byzantine manuscripts) are all very similar to each other. When the Majority Text is applied, this results in the eastern manuscripts having far greater weight than the western manuscripts. However, if the thousands of Latin manuscripts from the western church were thrown into the Majority Text “equation,” the results of the voting would be far more balanced, and would actually tilt away from the eastern / Byzantine reading.
Perhaps another illustration will help. Let’s say that there are two copies of a document, document A and document B, with minor differences between them due to copying mistakes. Document A is copied 100 times, while Document B is copied three times. If you used the Majority Text method, the Document A copies would have 100 votes, while the Document B copies would only have 3 votes. The Document A copies would win every vote. However, since Document A and Document B are both first-generation copies of another document, Document A and Document B and their "descendants" should be given equal weight in determining the most likely original reading.
The principles of age and location, then, result in “the majority rules” not being the best method in textual criticism. What, then, is the best method? The best method would seem to be taking into account all factors: majority, age, location, difficulty of the reading, and which variant best explains the origin of the other variants. This method is known as the “Eclectic Text” or “Critical Text.” Other than the King James Version and New King James Version, all of the modern English translations are based on the Eclectic Text. Most assume that the King James Version and New King James Version are based on the Majority Text. This is not correct.
The King James Version and New King James Version are based on the Textus Receptus. The Textus Receptus is very similar to the Majority Text, but there are in fact hundreds of differences between the Majority Text and the Textus Receptus. The Textus Receptus was compiled and edited by Erasmus in the 16th century. Erasmus used several Greek manuscripts, which were eastern / Byzantine in nature. This explains why the Textus Receptus is very similar to the Majority Text. However, Erasmus by no means had access to all of the Greek manuscripts, so there was no way he could develop a true Majority Text. The Textus Receptus is based on a very limited number of manuscripts, all of them eastern, and all of them dating to around the 12th century. As a result, compared to the Electic Text and the Majority Text, the Textus Receptus is far less likely to have the most accurate reading.
To summarize, the Majority Text is a method within textual criticism that uses the “majority rules” to determine which variant is most likely to be original. While the Majority Text method does result in the most likely original reading in most instances, it should not be employed universally or exclusively. There are many other important factors in determining which variant is most likely to be original.
Recommended Resource: A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament by Bruce Metzger
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What is the Majority Text?