Over the past two millennia, two families of texts have been at odds, with supporters asserting their preference constitutes the genuine New Testament text. The laity is hardly aware of this debate, let alone easily able to appreciate it. Nonetheless, for those scholars (and sometimes those who think they are), there exists a genuine dispute about which lineage of the two text-types should be declared the winner, containing the most accurate readings of the true New Testament text. In this article, at a high level, I will walk the reader through the essence of the debate.

The New Testament canon (which books would be included in the Bible) wasn’t decided until AD 367 when the Church Father Athanasius sent his ‘Easter Epistle’ identifying the 27 books that were (already) acknowledged throughout the Church as the genuine testimony ‘once delivered to the Saints.’ Citing Jude 1:3, “Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.” (King James Version)

Aside from the issue of inspiration and the timing of Apostolic blessing to the New Testament readings (the letter of Jude asserting it already existed in some form even in the first century), looking back from roughly the seventeenth century, church leaders have strained to determine the most authentic text.  Scholars were aware that there were at least two (almost fully) complete Greek Bibles (the Alexandrian and Vaticanus codices) that included the acknowledged books of the New Testament with few exceptions (later, a third codex, the Codex Sinaiticus, would be discovered which would include an exceedingly rare copy of the Shepherd of Hermas).  All of these codices were scribed in the fourth and fifth centuries (Sinaiticus likely was scribed as early as the late third century). The Old Testament in all of these codices was based on the Alexandrian Septuagint to the satisfaction of all the active churches (even Coptic and Syriac believers based their Bibles, at least partly on the original LXX). However, the New Testament’s canonized texts were not officially settled until Athanasius’ pronouncement in 367.

Now, scholarship generally divides the New Testament manuscripts into two families. There are several different names for these two families, but I like to lump them into the (1) Antiochian and the (2) Alexandrian.  These category names refer to two cities: Antioch in ancient Syria/Turkey and Alexandria in Egypt, west of the Nile Delta. For convenience, let’s distinguish them with the simple abbreviations AC for Antiochian and AX for Alexandrian. In some instances, extant texts, whether a tiny piece of a manuscript or a complete book, might be distinguished based on no more than particular words used by its author. However, most of the cases were determined due to the readings of certain passages within those manuscripts. Identifying the text-type of a manuscript could be easily identified by, for instance, if it included the story of the woman taken in adultery (in Johns’ gospel). The earliest forms of John’s gospel do not have the story. Likewise, I point out another clue to distinguish the two text-types in the passage below from my book, A Biography of the Christian Bible, which deals with these issues in earnest:

A good example would be the statement offered by Jesus when He says, “But of that date and hour, no man knows, nor the angels which are in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Mark 13:32) The Antiochian text type will include “the Son,” suggesting that the copyists did not wish to question the Son’s omniscience (the Alexandrian does not). Once more, this hints that the reading came later when theologians had settled the doctrine of Christology.[1]

Today’s scholars generally assert that the so-called Byzantine text-type stems from the AC tradition.  And as stated earlier, not only is ‘Byzantine text-type’ another name for the Antiochian text-type, but a third appellation also exists, which is frequently misunderstood when applied to this text-type, i.e., the ‘Majority Text,’ presuming that its being in the majority makes it the winner.

Ancient Alexandria – The Center of the Intellectual World for 700 years.

Why does it matter? The issue creates division among believers. The two cities and the ‘text-types’ reflect what the respective advocates consider the purer language of the gospel. Advocates for the AC text-type base its authenticity on the historical seniority of Antioch over Alexandria since it (1) was founded by Paul and Barnabas, where they taught for over a year; (2) was the first city where followers of Christ were called Christian, and (3) as the early Church grew, served as the base of operations for numerous Christian leaders. Names like Polycarp, Irenaeus, Ignatius, and later John Chrysostom come to mind. Today’s proponents for the AC text-type cite the voices in a later phase of Antioch’s life who challenged the AX text-type due to Alexandria’s allegorical method of scripture interpretation (which evolved in the third century). It is argued (rightfully) that such an approach comprises an unacceptable biblical hermeneutic. Instead, the historical-grammatical interpretation approach is strongly favored by conservative Christians as it’s deemed essential to understanding God’s Word rightly.

On the other hand, the primacy of the AX text-type stands on the basis of Alexandria (1) as the home of the Septuagint, (2) the location of the revered Bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius, who was the quintessential advocate for the Trinity at Nicaea and the final arbiter of the New Testament canon, (3) as well as the fact that the oldest complete Bible was the Alexandrian Codex, likely scribed by Thecla, Athanasius’ dutiful assistant midway through the fourth century. Other names from North Africa include the predecessor to Athanasius, Alexander of Alexandria, Clement, Cyprian, Didymus the Blind, Augustine, and Cyril of Alexandria. It is also believed that John Mark founded the first Christian ‘seminary’ there. The AX argument asserts that the scriptorium in Alexandria created copies based on the most accepted manuscript of the Bible, being the most widely used in the Church of that day. Detractors claim that the AX version must have been corrupted by the platonic philosophy of Origen. Origen originally lived and taught in Alexandria during the third century before fleeing after his ‘excommunication.’ Additionally, those in Antioch feared other pagan Greek influences celebrated in Egypt were corrupting God’s Word there. Likewise, today opponents to this older text-type still besmirch the AX text because of its origin in ‘allegorical Alexandria,’ even though its clear meaning and simple reading to many indicate authenticity.

On the other hand, the AC argument supposes that the ‘Constantine-approved copy’ of the New Testament held by Eusebius of Caesarea would lead logically to the fastest spread of New Testament manuscripts (its copying does appear to have had a big head start compared to Athanasius’ efforts in his much smaller Egyptian scriptorium). Indeed, we know that in AD 331, Constantine ordered and funded Eusebius of Caesarea to create 50 copies of this Bible, ornately decorated and bound in leather. Perhaps, these Bibles may have been copies of the AC text-type.[2] But remember that Eusebius was Origen’s number one fan, having written a defense of his position in 307 (Origen died in 253). Might his bias influence the readings of the text copied in Caesarea?

Furthermore, we should ask, “Did the funded replication of the New Testament in Caesarea increase the acceptance of this text-type in the early Church?” Not necessarily. There are scholars who argue that remnants of the Bibles copied at Caesarea don’t exist today, while some suggest that only a handful were ever created as the task may have stalled. Detractors of the AC text-type insist that most present-day scholars judge AX manuscripts genuine, preferring the AX text-type since they judge the AX textual family to be far older than the extant manuscripts and manuscript fragments of the AC textual tradition.  ‘Less means more’ in this circumstance. That is, fewer words suggest an older reading – closer to the original. In contrast, more words with doctrinal comments in the text of AC texts indicate that its scribing came much later, anywhere from the fifth through twelfth centuries. Indeed, it seems apparent that copyists likely added words to reinforce orthodox doctrines and add emphasis as it seemed right to them.

Regardless, the debate still rages among those who press for ‘the received text’ of Erasmus, the root of the Byzantine, i.e., majority text-type, believing that his 1513 Greek version of the New Testament comprises the proper lineage and legacy of the authentic New Testament.  When affixed with this text-type’s frequent label – ‘the majority text’ – advocates wrongly infer that ‘more is better’ – presuming more extant copies of this majority text mean it was more widely accepted as the genuine New Testament Word of God. The opposing view contends that the Antiochian text-type has more manuscripts because it was copied much closer to today, perhaps only a few hundred to a thousand years ago. Additionally, being the preferred Bible of the Eastern Orthodox Church (which had an uninterrupted history in Constantinople until its downfall to the Ottoman Empire in 1453), many more copies would naturally exist.

To reiterate, the Alexandrian text-type has far fewer extant manuscripts (since the older the manuscripts, the more likely they would decay and deteriorate) but contains simpler words and phrases. Complete manuscripts, such as the three extant codices mentioned above, are at least 1,600 years old. Others, like the Chester Beatty collection of manuscript fragments (created in Egypt), date to the second through fourth centuries. As scholar Daniel Wallace asserts, Christendom has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to extant New Testament manuscripts. These texts number in the thousands. Other ancient texts usually have less than a few dozen (if that) dating well after their composition.

In the final analysis: Many don’t find choosing just one of these two textual traditions critical to our doctrinal beliefs. I, for one, am more inclined to prize the oldest manuscripts, believing the age of the Alexandrian textual family logically undergirds its authenticity. However, for those who believe they should hold fast to the Antiochian or Byzantine tradition, I have no problem. I advise them just to be cautious to insist on a particular textual tradition of the New Testament manuscripts while shunning others who see things differently. God’s WORD always finds its way to us no matter what channel we choose. It is “living and active, sharper than any a two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12). In this regard, both the Antiochian and Alexandrian textual traditions are reliable guides to both faith and practice.


[1] Woodward, S. Douglas. (2018) A Biography of the Christian Bible: And How We Defend the Protestant Scriptures in the 21st Century (p. 90). Kindle Edition.

[2] The subject was the delicate issue of how Jesus could be both man and God without confusing the essence of either. Origen’s position tended toward making the Father superior to the Son while the final decision at the council at Nicaea was crafted carefully to assure that the Son was indeed obedient to the Father, without making Him inferior. Christ was co-equal with God as was the Holy Spirit. Arianism, which was the major heresy of the day, asserted that the Son was lower than the Father in status and in essence. Eventually, Origen would be condemned as a heretic in 522 by Justinian – a posthumous humiliation affecting those who favored Origen’s view.

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