Who is John William Burgon and what are his views on textual criticism?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

Question: Who was John William Burgon? How was he important to textual criticism? Was he a legitimate scholar?

Answer: John William Burgon (aka Dean Burgon, 1813-1888) was an Anglican clergyman, most notably the Dean of the Cathedral of Chichester, England. He was a preeminent textual scholar, perhaps most famous for being an arch critic of the Westcott-Hort New Greek Text and the English Revised Version of the Bible. With such a pedigree, we can see where many who identify with the King-James-Only movement try to attach themselves to him as if he were their founder. This is particularly true of The Dean Burgon Society, but he founded no such organization. Indeed, his writings are at odds with at least some of the organization’s important tenets and exploring this is the best way to see his views on textual criticism. Let us look at a portion of The Dean Burgon Society’s Section A in their Articles of Faith.

We believe that all the verses in the King James Version belong in the Old and the New Testaments because they represent words we believe were in the original texts…

Burgon was not of the opinion that all of the verses in the KJV (King James Version of the Bible, also referred to as the AV, the Authorized Version) represented words that were in the original texts. This means that he did not believe that the KJV was without error. In Burgon’s, The Revision Revised he mentioned at least one KJV “palpable mistranslation” in Luke 23:42 while taking Dr. Hort (of the English Revised Version Bible) to task.

“…Dr. Hort was fortunately unable to persuade the Revisionists to following him in…substituting ‘into thy kingdom’ for ‘in thy kingdom’; and so converting what is in the A.V., is nothing worse than a palpable mistranslation, into what would have been an indelible blot…” 

Nor did Burgon believe that the Textus Receptus (the collection of Greek documents underpinning the New Testament) was inerrant, but stated only that it was “practically identical” to the text “which was in popular use at the end of three centuries from the date of the sacred autographs themselves” (from The Revision Revised).

“But pray, who in his senses,—what sane man in Great Britain,—ever dreamed of regarding the ‘Received,’—aye, or any other known ‘Text,’—as ‘a standard from which there shall be no appeal’? Have I ever done so? Have I ever implied as much? If I have, show me where... I mistake the Received Text, (you imply,) for the Divine Original, the Sacred Autographs,—and erect it into ‘a standard from which there shall be no appeal,’—‘a tradition which it is little else but sacrilege to impugn.’ That is how you state my case and condition: hopelessly confusing the standard of Comparison with the standard of Excellence…

“We must have some standard whereby to test,—wherewith to compare,—Manuscripts. What is more…to the end of time it will probably be the practice of scholars to compare MSS. of the N.T. with the ‘Received Text.’…And,—What standard more reasonable and more convenient than the Text which, by the good Providence of GOD, was universally employed throughout Europe for the first 300 years after the invention of printing? Being practically identical with the Text which…was in popular use at the end of three centuries from the date of the sacred autographs themselves, in other words, being more than 1500 years old.”

“In other words I have not made [the Textus Receptus] ‘the final standard of appeal.’ All critics, — wherever found, — at all times, have collated with the commonly received text: but only as the most convenient standard of Comparison; not, surely, as the absolute standard of Excellence.”

The disparity between Burgon’s actual stand on the inerrancy of the KJV and the Textus Receptus and the Dean Burgon Society’s Articles of Faith gives us a view into the (KJVO) King-James-Version-Only movement. Its representatives come in different flavors. On the softer side, adherents believe that the Textus Receptus is inerrant, leaving some room for the occasional ding in the KJV. On the harder side, many believe that the KJV as it stands is inerrant. This means that in spite of its occasional disagreements with the underlying documents that it has, in effect, been re-inspired to be God’s ultimate and fixed word. Then there are people like me who do not identify with any KJVO tenets, yet believe that an infallible Word of God underpins the aggregate of the good Bible translations and comes through sufficiently for humankind.

The above comments represent some of Burgon’s more famous and far-reaching textual criticisms, but he was prolific, and we have only scratched the surface of his scholarship… which must suffice for this venue. So let me now address the “validity” of his scholarship, because he was both credentialed and accomplished.

In 1845 he took his degree from Worcester College, Oxford. He won the Newdigate Prize for his poem Petra. He was elected to an Oriel fellowship in 1846; He became vicar of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin in 1863. He was appointed Gresham Professor of Divinity in 1867, and he was made the Dean of Chichester in 1876. Additionally, he possessed an extensive collection of transcripts from the Greek Fathers that helped to illustrate the text of the New Testament. These he bequeathed to the British Museum. Burgon also published. Apart from the poem Petra, Burgon's most notable works include The Revision Revised, a critique of the then-new Revised Version of the Bible (1881), The Last Twelve Verses of Mark, The Traditional Text, and Causes of Corruption of the Traditional Text of the Holy Gospels — and he published many more works.

When I consider his insights, his education, his appointments and publishing prowess, I have no problem calling John William Burgon a legitimate scholar.

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