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Reference group
New Testament revision company (act. 1870–1881) was a group of biblical scholars commissioned by the convocation of Canterbury in 1870 to produce a revision of the English New Testament in the light of scholarship since the time of the Authorized Version of the Bible of 1611.

Although the Authorized Version was treasured as a classic of the English language, many scholars through the nineteenth century increasingly came to recognize its archaisms, as well as the inaccuracies of some of the translations. More important, textual scholarship pointed to the deficiencies of the Hebrew and Greek sources. In 1828, for instance, Herbert Marsh, Lady Margaret professor of divinity at Cambridge (and bishop of Peterborough), published lectures outlining the shortcomings of the Authorized Version. Although a motion calling for modest revision presented to convocation in 1856 by William Selwyn, Lady Margaret professor at Cambridge, met with little success, through the 1850s and 1860s there were several attempts at revision as well as a number of translations offered in commentaries on the basis of improved Greek texts. Although as late as 1868 Brooke Foss Westcott, one of the leading textual scholars, did not feel that an adequate Greek text yet existed to improve on the Authorized Version, he nevertheless felt that the ‘beautiful music’ of the Authorized Version should yield to ‘the fundamental principle of fidelity to which the revisers were pledged’ (Lessons from Work, 171). At the same time Henry Alford, dean of Canterbury, published an influential article in the Contemporary Review in July 1868 calling for revision, and offering a set of guiding principles.

Samuel Wilberforce, bishop of Winchester, seconded by Charles Ellicott, bishop of Gloucester and Bristol, submitted a motion to the upper house of the province of Canterbury on 10 February 1870 to set up a committee to
report upon the desirableness of a revision of the Authorized Version of the New Testament, whether by marginal notes or otherwise, in all those passages where plain and clear errors, whether in the Hebrew or Greek text originally adopted by the translators, or in the translations made from the same, shall, on due investigation, be found to exist.
Connop Thirlwall, bishop of St David's, added an amendment, which was accepted, to include the Old Testament in the proposal. The convocation of York was invited to contribute, but refused on the grounds that the time was not favourable and the risk was greater than the probable gain. The committee consisted of a number of members of the upper house: bishops Wilberforce, Arthur Charles Hervey (Bath and Wells), Thirlwall, Ellicott, Edward Browne (Ely), and Christopher Wordsworth (Lincoln). The lower house appointed the deans of Lichfield (Edward Bickersteth), Canterbury (Alford), Lincoln (James Jeremie), and Westminster (Arthur Penrhyn Stanley), as well as the archdeacons of Bedford (Henry John Rose), Exeter (Philip Freeman), and St Albans and Rochester (Anthony Grant). A further nine members were appointed to represent the lower house.

A first report presented to convocation on 3 May 1870 consisted of five resolutions, which indicate the conservative nature of the proposed revision. Although affirming the desirability of a revision of the Authorized Version of the holy scriptures, they did ‘not contemplate any new translation of the Bible, or any alteration of the language, except when in the judgment of the most competent scholars such change is necessary’. Where changes were necessary, they were to follow the style of the Authorized Version. The revision was to be undertaken by a body of nominated members of convocation, who were, however, to be free to consult eminent scholars of any nationality or religious affiliation.

A second committee of convocation was appointed to draw up a method for procedure; it decided to separate the work of translating the two testaments and to set up two distinct revision ‘companies’. The New Testament company was to begin with the synoptic gospels. Although efforts were made to restrict the membership solely to Anglicans, these failed and nonconformists were invited to participate in accordance with the final point. Given the status of the Authorized Version, and the extreme caution with which the text of scripture was approached at the time, anything but a highly conservative set of principles would have been impossible to steer through convocation. Consequently those adopted commenced with a statement ‘To introduce as few alterations as possible into the Text of the Authorized Version consistently with faithfulness’. Such alterations were to be expressed, as far as possible, in the language of the Authorized and earlier English versions. Each portion to be revised was to be gone over twice, and no final change was to be made except upon a two-thirds majority of those members of the committee present. Despite these conservative principles, there was a breadth of scholarship represented in the composition of the company that went beyond the bounds of protestant orthodoxy: an invitation was even sent to John Henry Newman, the leading English Roman Catholic scholar, though he declined.

The New Testament company met for 407 days with a total number of attendances of 6426 (in this and the following paragraphs the numbers in brackets indicate the number of days each member attended). The company was composed solely of ordained men: from the upper house of convocation were Samuel Wilberforce (who attended only once for a couple of hours), Charles John Ellicott (405 days), and George Moberly (bishop of Salisbury, 121). From the lower house were deans Edward Bickersteth (352), Henry Alford (16), and Arthur Penrhyn Stanley (253), as well as Joseph Williams Blakesley (canon of Canterbury and later dean of Lincoln, 297). The following Anglicans were co-opted as members: Fenton J. A. Hort (vicar of St Ippolyts-cum-Great Wymondley, near Hitchin, later fellow of Emmanuel College and Hulsean professor of divinity, Cambridge, 362); William G. Humphry (vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, 385); Benjamin H. Kennedy (regius professor of Greek, Cambridge, 165); William Lee (archdeacon of Dublin, 283); Joseph Barber Lightfoot (Hulsean professor of divinity, Cambridge, later bishop of Durham, 290); Robert Scott (master of Balliol College, Oxford, later dean of Rochester, 337); Frederick H. A. Scrivener (vicar of St Gerrans, later of Hendon, 399); Richard Chenevix Trench (archbishop of Dublin, 63); Charles John Vaughan (master of the Temple, later also dean of Llandaff, 302); and Brooke Foss Westcott (canon of Peterborough, later regius professor at Cambridge and bishop of Durham, 304).

Three Scottish Presbyterians were represented: John Eadie (professor of biblical literature, United Presbyterian College, Glasgow, 135); William Milligan (professor of biblical criticism, Aberdeen, 182); and Alexander Roberts (professor of humanity, St Andrews, 94). There was one Baptist, Joseph Angus (principal of Regent's Park College, London, 199); one Congregationalist, Samuel Newth (professor of classics, New College, London, 373); one Methodist, William Fiddian Moulton (professor of classics, Richmond College, 275); and one Unitarian, George Vance Smith (later principal of the Presbyterian College, Carmarthen, 245). Samuel Tregelles of the Plymouth Brethren also accepted an invitation to join the company, but failing eyesight prevented him from attending any of the meetings.

During the revision process several other scholars were added to the company: Charles Wordsworth (bishop of St Andrews, 109); Charles Merivale (dean of Ely, who resigned in 1871); Edwin Palmer (1824–1895; Corpus professor of Latin, Oxford, and afterwards archdeacon of Oxford, 255); and David Brown (1803–1897; Free Church College, Aberdeen, 209). Three members of the company died before completion (Wilberforce, Alford, and Eadie) and one resigned (Merivale). The university presses agreed on 10 December 1872 to meet the costs up to £20,000 in return for the copyright.

Given the broad make-up of the company it is hardly surprising that there was a degree of controversy. At the first meeting on 22 June 1870 Stanley invited the company to holy communion in the King Henry VII chapel in Westminster Abbey. Since the members included the Unitarian Vance Smith this created a stir, leading Wilberforce to present a motion to the upper house of convocation (which was passed) condemning the appointment of anybody ‘who denies the Godhead of our Lord’. However, since the lower house rejected a similar resolution Vance Smith was able to continue. The company met in the Jerusalem chamber at Westminster under the chairmanship of Ellicott, who attended all but two meetings. John Troutbeck, precentor of the abbey, served as secretary. There was an average attendance of 15.8 at the meetings, which lasted from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. for just over four days per month (apart from August and September) over ten and a half years.

Proceedings began with brief prayers, followed by the reading of the minutes and correspondence before moving into the work of revision. According to various reports Hort (a supporter, with Westcott, of the Vatican and Sinaitic codices) and Scrivener (a conservative textual critic and defender of the ‘Byzantine text’, which was close to the textus receptus of the Authorized Version) began by presenting evidence for textual variants, usually taking opposing views. It was said of Hort that he spoke for three of the ten years during which the company met. When textual matters had been settled there was a discussion of various English readings. Probably to avoid controversy and under the influence of Stanley, the minute books do not record the discussions that led to the various changes nor who made the suggestions, but only the decisions themselves. By all accounts, however, the meetings were conducted in a spirit of harmony and humility. The two-thirds majority rule was strictly adhered to with simple majority decisions being relegated to the margins. The average number of verses covered per day was a mere thirty-five.

The first revision was completed on 20 April 1877, and the second on 13 December 1878. The remaining sessions discussed issues of harmonization as well as consultations with the American revision company. The final version was finished on 17 March 1880, with the proofreading completed on 11 November 1880. This was followed by a special service held at 5 p.m. in St Martin-in-the-Fields. The Revised Version was published on 17 May 1881. Westcott and Hort continued their work of textual criticism throughout the revision process, producing their Greek New Testament five days beforehand.

From the outset there was co-operation with American scholars who engaged separately on a translation that made use of similar though marginally less strict principles. Angus visited New York in 1870, and Philip Schaff (1819–1893), chairman of the American revision company, attended one of the meetings of the New Testament company in 1871. He particularly admired the ecumenical dimension of the translation. The Protestant Episcopal church declined to participate in the American revision. An agreement with the British copyright holders meant that the American Standard Version was not published until 1901. Before that date an appendix of different readings between the Revised Version and the American Standard Version was included in the British edition.

Although the Revised Version was purportedly a ‘revision’ of the Authorized Version, in practice it amounted to a re-translation, with over 36,000 changes grouped under five headings: those that were due to the adoption of a different underlying Greek text; those where the Authorized Version had been incorrect; those where it was ambiguous; those where it was inconsistent in its renderings of parallel passages; and those made necessary by the changes already made. What emerged was a highly consistent rendering characterized principally by literal equivalence, the hallmark of the Cambridge method that dominated the revision company. Given that this model had been used by the Authorized Version translators and had shaped the English language, it made a more dynamic and idiomatic translation problematic, as proved the case with the New English Bible in the mid-twentieth century. The Revised Version provoked much criticism, including a vigorous and popular rebuttal by the redoubtable textual scholar J. W. Burgon, dean of Chichester, who questioned the textual principles used by Westcott and Hort. Although it initially sold well, such criticisms meant that the Revised Version did not establish itself widely in public worship but was used primarily in academic circles.

Mark D. Chapman


F. F. Bruce, The English Bible (1961), chapter 11 · J. W. Burgon, The revision revised (1883) · C. J. Cadoux, ‘The revised version and after’, The Bible in its ancient and English versions, ed. H. Wheeler Robinson (1940), 235–74 · O. Chadwick, The Victorian church, vol. 2 (1987), pp. 40–57 · S. Hemphill, A history of the Revised Version of the New Testament (1906) · W. G. Humphry, A commentary on the revised version of the New Testament (1882) · J. B. Lightfoot, On a fresh revision of the English New Testament (1871) · H. Marsh, Lectures on the criticism and interpretation of the Bible (1828) · S. Newth, Lectures on Bible revision (1881) · F. H. A. Scrivener, ed., The authorized edition of the English Bible (1611): its subsequent reprints and modern representatives (1884) · B. F. Westcott, Lessons from work (1901)