I had to bow out of a conversation several times the other night because I knew it would do no good. An elderly relation was proclaiming the superiority of the KJV not on the grounds I would give — sonorous beauty, a sense of the English language, and a reliable rendering of the text used — but on the grounds that the KJV, unlike all the modern translations, was based “on the ancient manuscripts themselves”, whereas modern translations are based on Westcott and Hort “who weren’t even believers.”
Honestly — this person has been told that the Rt Rev. Brooke Foss Westcott, Bishop of Durham, and the Rev. Fenton John Anthony Hort (a Church of England priest) weren’t believers. Astonishing. And, even if they weren’t, I do not see how the technical skill of textual criticism and editing is influenced by one’s faith. But, then, I’m a textual critic.
In fact, Westcott and Hort acknowledge the fact that no critical doctrine of the Christian faith is affected by the emendations they made to the work of earlier scholars such as Erasmus and Tischendorff.
I am more astonished by this sort of argument because it argues for the superiority of Erasmus’ and Stephanus’ texts as well as Codex Bezae — not to mention the fact that somehow a few early printed editions and a manuscript are worth more than all the mss of Westcott and Hort combined.
I must say, first of all, that as philologists, few of us today will be as naturally attuned to the ancient Latin and Greek languages as people like Erasmus and Stephanus. This simple fact is both blessing and curse to early modern editors, however. The more interventionist among them were willing to change the Latin and Greek so that it was “correct” by textbook standards. To my knowledge, neither Erasmus more Stephanus did that sort of thing.
Second, however good Erasmus and Stephanus may have been as text editors, the greatest problem facing their text was a lack of earlier, reliable manuscripts, which Westcott and Hort had — including two fourth-century pandects known as Sinaiticus and Vaticanus. They used what they had available — fairly recent, late Byzantine manuscripts.
Third, the idea that we should trust Erasmus and Stephanus with the so-called Textus Receptus always comes from unlikely corners — anti-traditionalists. If we are to accept that late mss of the Textus Receptus are superior to the papyri of Egypt and the mss Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, we must therefore accept that the tradition of the Byzantine Church was so good at textual transmission that the true line of descent from the Apostles was maintained by it — and accept this in the face of older texts that differ from the Byzantine world.
Aside: Even accepting the “better not older” dogma of textual criticism, we need at least to know about the older before we can judge whether they are better.
Fourth, Westcott and Hort produced a critical edition of the New Testament of the variety that any Classicist would recognise. This means that if any preacher or translator disagrees with their readings, they can check and see what the Textus Receptus has to say on the matter. The careful user of a critical edition does not simply read the redacted text in large type up top, but the notes at the bottom as well.
Fifth, even if Lancelot Andrewes and his team had had an edition such as Westcott and Hort at hand, the English language has had some shifts in 419 years. As a result, for those unused to Jacobean English, it can be misread and misinterpreted.
Sixth, Lancelot Andrewes would probably have been happy to use Westcott and Hort.
Seventh, to return to the point about tradition, I find myself continually astonished that low church, non-conformists who reject Anglicanism and tradition not only prefer a traditionalist Greek text, but an English translation produced by Anglican priests.
Eighth, there are unbelievers who know this stuff. And they know it well. Propagating this nonsense is damaging to Christian witness in two ways. First, it makes our religion look like the faith of simpletons and morons that has no room for people interested in the life of the mind and serious inquiry. Second, it makes us look like the bunch of cantankerous, in-fighting idiots we are.