Text-Types Of The New Testament Manuscripts: Alexandrian ("Neutral"), Western, Caesarean & Byzantine

M S M Saifullah

© Islamic Awareness, All Rights Reserved.

First Composed: 15 April 2000

Last Updated: 15 April 2000

Assalamu-`alaykum wa rahamatullahi wa barakatuhu:

1. Introduction

The "local texts" of the New Testament gradually developed in the early centuries of the expansion of Christian Churches. In and near the large cities such as Antioch, Alexandria, Rome, Carthage, Constantinople etc., the newly established Churches were provided with the copies of the scriptures in the form which were current in that area. As additional copies were made to cope with the expansion of the Christianity, the number of special readings and renderings would be both conserved and, to some extent, increased, so that eventually a type of text germinated which was typical of that locality.

Modern scholars have identified the type of text preserved in the New Testament manuscripts by comparing their characteristic readings with the quotations of those passages in the writings of the Church Fathers who live near or in the chief ecclesiastical centres.

The characteristics of the local text did dilute when it got mixed with other types of the text. However, in the earliest manuscripts, the tendency to develop and preserve a peculiar type of the text prevailed over the tendencies leading to a mixture of texts.

Here we will describe some of the most important distinctive kinds of the New Testament texts. The various text types are taken from Bruce Metzger's book A Textual Commentary On The New Testament.[1]

2. Alexandrian Text (or "Neutral" Text)

The Alexandrian text, which Westcott and Hort called the Neutral text (a question-begging title), is usually considered to be the best text and the most faithful in preserving the original. Characteristics of the Alexandrian text are brevity and austerity. That is, it is generally shorter than the text of other forms, and it does not exhibit the degree of grammatical and stylistic polishing that is characteristic of the Byzantine and, to a lesser extent, of the Caesarean type of text. Until recently, the two chief witnesses to the Alexandrian text were codex Vaticanus (B) and codex Sinaiticus (), parchment manuscripts dating from about the middle of the fourth century. With the acquisition, however, of the Bodmer Papyri, particularly P66 and P75, both copied about the end of the second or beginning of the third century, evidence is now available that the Alexandrian type of the text goes back to an archetype that must be dated early in the second century. The Sahidic and Boharic versions frequently contain typically Alexandrian readings.

3. Western Text

The Western text, which was widely current in Italy and Gaul as well as in North Africa and elsewhere (including Egypt), can also be traced back to the second century. It was used by Marcion, Tatian, Irenaeus, Tertullian and Cyprian. Its presence in the Egypt is shown by the papyri P38 (about A.D. 300) and P48 (about the end of the third century). The most important Greek manuscripts that present a Western type of text are codex Bezae (D) of the fifth or sixth century (containing the Gospels and Acts), codex Claromontanus (D) of the sixth century (containing the Pauline Epistles), and, for Mark 1:1 to 5:30, codex Washingtonianus (W) of the late fourth or early fifth century. Likewise the old Latin versions are noteworthy witness to a Western type of text; these fall into three main groups, the African, the Italian, and the Hispanic forms of Old Latin texts.

The chief characteristics of Western readings is fondness for paraphrase. Words, clauses, and even whole sentences are freely changed, omitted or inserted. Sometimes the motive appears to have been harmonization, while at other times it was the enrichment of the narrative by the inclusion of the traditional or apocryphal material. Some readings involve quite trivial alterations for which no special reason can be assigned. One of the puzzling features of the Western text (which generally is longer than the other forms of text) is that at the end of the Luke and in few other places in the New Testament certain Western witnesses omit words and passages that are present in other forms of text, including the Alexandrian. Although at the close of the last century certain scholars were disposed to regard these shorter readings as original (Westcott and Hort called them "Western non-interpolations"), since the acquisition of the Bodmer Papyri many scholars today are inclined to regard them as aberrant readings.

In the book of Acts, the problems raised by the Western text become most acute, for the Western text of Acts is nearly ten percent longer than the form which is commonly regarded to be the original text of that book.

4. Caesarean Text

The Caesarean text, which seems to have originated in Egypt (it is attested by Chester Beatty Papyrus P45), was brought, perhaps Origen, to Caesarea, where it was used by Eusebius and others. From Caesarea it was carried to Jerusalem, where it was used by Cyril and by Armenians who, at an early date, at a colony at Jerusalem. Armenian missionaries carried the Caesarean text to Georgia, where it influenced the Georgian version as well as an uncial Greek manuscript of about the ninth century (Q, codex Koridethi). Furthermore, perhaps Euthalius's scholarly edition of Pauline Epistles was made at Caesarea.

Thus it appears that Caesarean type of text has had a long and checkered career. According to the view of most of scholars, it is an Eastern text, dating from the early part of the third century, and is characterized by a distinctive mixture of Western readings and Alexandrian readings. One may also observe a certain striving after elegance of expression, a feature that is especially typical of the Byzantine type of text.

Another Eastern type of text, current in and near Antioch, is preserved today chiefly in Old Syriac witnesses, namely the Sinaitic and the Curetonian manuscripts of the Gospels and in the quotations of Scripture contained in the works of Aphraates and Ephraem.

5. Byzantine Text

The Byzantine text, otherwise also called the Syrian text (so Westcott and Hort), the Koine text (so von Soden), the Ecclesiastical text (so Lake), and the Antiochian text (so Ropes) is, on the whole, the latest of the several distinctive types of text of the New Testament. It is characterized chiefly by lucidity and completeness. The framers of this text sought to smooth away any harshness of language, to combine two or more divergent readings into one expanded reading (called conflation) , and to harmonize divergent parallel passages. This conflated text, produced perhaps at Antioch in Syria, was taken to Constantinople, whence it was distributed widely throughout the Byzantine Empire. It is best represented today by codex Alexandrinus (in the Gospels; not in Acts, the Epistles, or Revelation), the later uncial manuscripts, and the great mass of minuscule manuscripts. Thus, except for an occasional manuscript that happen to preserve an earlier form of the text, during the period from about the sixth to seventh century down to the invention of printing with moveable type (A.D. 1450-56), the Byzantine form of text was generally regarded as the authoritative form of text and was one of the most widely circulated and accepted.

After the Gutenberg's press made the production of books more rapid and therefore cheaper than was possible through copying by hand, it was the debased Byzantine text that made the standard form of the New Testament in printed editions. This unfortunate situation was not altogether expected, for the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament which were reaadily available to early editors and printers were those than contain corrupt Byzantine text.

6. Appendix: Note On Western Non-Interpolations[2]

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, 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 . Nine such reading were designated by Westcott and Hort as "Western non-interpolations," 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 t his 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 P75 and the stage represented by codex Vaticanus. Furthermore, scholars have been critical of the apparebtly arbitrary way in which Westcott and Hort isolated nine passages for special treatment (enclosing them within double brackets), whereas they did not give similar treatement to other readings which are also absent from Western witnesses.


[1] B. M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary On The New Testament: A Companion Voume To The United Bible Societies' Greek New Testament, 1971, United Bible Societies, London & New York, pp. xvii-xxi.

[2] Ibid., pp. 191-192.

The New Testament Manuscripts