Alexandrian Text by Tommy Wasserman

The New Testament came into being over a long period of time. Before there was the printed Bible as we know it, scrolls and manuscript fragments were scattered from the East to the West, copied from earlier sources by scribes, or translated from material in different languages. Inevitably, textual changes and errors crept into the tradition: some were corrected, others perpetuated, with the result that scholars, editors, and translators are faced with thousands of textual variants. For example, one manuscript of 1Cor 2:1 speaks of the ”mystery” of God, whereas another refers to the ”testimony” of God, with the root word in Greek being remarkably similar (the difference between the two residing in three letters). Which one is correct?

J. A. Bengel, an eighteenth-century scholar, was one of the pioneers who took on the task of sorting out the wealth of source materials in order to reconstruct the earliest text of the New Testament: manuscripts; ancient translations into Latin, Coptic, and Syriac; and the many citations of the New Testament by Christian authors (church fathers) like Origen, John Chrysostom, Jerome, and Augustine. Since the relationship between these varied textual witnesses was (and is) so complex, Bengel divided them into groups that he called “nations” and ”families.”

Later in the eighteenth century, J. S. Semler and J. J. Griesbach refined Bengel’s scheme by connecting these textual groupings to geographical areas where the text might have been revised (apart from the normal copying). The divisions were as follows: Alexandrian (used by the famous Christian intellectual Origen); Western (Latin translations); and Eastern (used by Antiochian and Constantinopolitan churches). Griesbach added the fourth-century Codex Vaticanus, as well as additional Alexandrian church fathers, to the Alexandrian text type. The work required a keen understanding of language and an eye for detail; texts were grouped with others based on the presence (or absence) of certain words or phrases, and in a couple of cases, entire passages—the famous Gospel pericope of the adulteress (John 7:53-8:11) or the longer ending of Mark’s Gospel (Mark 16:9-20)—both absent from the chief manuscripts of the Alexandrian text.

The two Cambridge professors, B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort, preferred to label the ancestor of the Alexandrian text type the “Neutral text,” meaning that it was relatively unchanged and successively became the more corrupt type of text that they identified as the Alexandrian text. The so-called Neutral text, chiefly represented by the fourth-century codices Vaticanus and Sinaiticus, formed the basis of their The New Testament in the Original Greek (1881). This edition—which in Westcott and Hort’s view represented the most accurate and authentic version of the New Testament in the original language available in their day—furnished the death blow to the traditional text published by Erasmus in 1516, also known as Textus Receptus (the “received text”), which had dominated Greek editions and, indirectly, Bible translations (most famously the King James Version) for hundreds of years.

Although the theory of text types still prevails in current text-critical practice, some scholars have recently called to abandon the concept altogether in light of new computer-assisted methods for determining manuscript relationships in a more exact way. To be sure, there is already a consensus that the various geographic locations traditionally assigned to the text types are incorrect and misleading. Thus, “Western text” is not the only misnomer: the geographical labels of the other text types should be considered with suspicion, too. Some scholars prefer to refer to the text types as “textual clusters.”

Tommy Wasserman, "Alexandrian Text", n.p. [cited 4 Dec 2022]. Online:


Tommy Wasserman

Tommy Wasserman
Dean and Lecturer, Örebro School of Theology

Tommy Wasserman is academic dean and lecturer in New Testament at Örebro School of Theology in Sweden. His latest book is The Epistle of Jude: Its Text and Transmission (Almqvist & Wiksell International, 2006), and he has contributed to Mark and Matthew I: Comparative Readings: Understanding the Earliest Gospels in their First-Century Settings (Mohr Siebeck, 2011), The Early Text of the New Testament (Oxford University Press, 2012), and to The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research: Essays on the Status Questionis (Brill, 2013). 

Genuine; historically accurate.

Influential theologians and writers from the first few centuries of Christianity.

An abbreviated reference to the source of a piece of information.

A text of pages bound leaf style, like a modern book—as opposed to a scroll, which has no discrete pages.

The final stage of the Egyptian language, which also lent its name to the Coptic Church, the Egyptian branch of Orthodox Christianity.

Evaluating its subject carefully, rigorously, and with minimal preconceptions. "Critical" religious scholarship contrasts with popular and sectarian studies.

A gospel is an account that describes the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

A Christian priest and theologian from around 400 C.E.; his translation of the Bible into Latin, called the Vulgate, became the definitive Bible translation for over a thousand years.

An English translation of the Christian Bible, initiated in 1604 by King James I of England. It became the standard Biblical translation in the English-speaking world until the 20th century.

Textual documents, usually handwritten.

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

an early Christian writer who lived in the second–third centuries CE

A discrete unit of biblical text, usually coherent as a story or explanation.

A dialect of Aramaic, common among a number of early Christian communities.

1Cor 2:1

Proclaiming Christ Crucified
1When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom.

John 7:53-8:11

53Then each of them went home,Chapter 81while Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.2Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him an ... View more

Mark 16:9-20

Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene
9[Now after he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom ... View more

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