Self-splicing group II introns are found in bacteria and in the organellar genes in plants, fungi, and yeast. The mechanism for the first step of splicing is generally believed to involve attack of a specific intronic 2'-hydroxyl group on a phosphodiester linkage at the 5'-splice site, resulting in the formation of a lariat intron species. In this paper, we present kinetic and enzymatic evidence that in vitro there are two distinct pathways for group II intron self-splicing: one involves 2'-OH attack and another involves attack of water or hydroxide. These two pathways occur in parallel under all reaction conditions, although either can dominate in the presence of particular salts or protein cofactors. Both pathways are followed by a successful second step of splicing, and either pathway can be highly efficient. We find that the hydrolytic pathway prevails under physiological ionic conditions, while branching predominates at molar concentrations of ammonium ion. The intron is observed to adopt two major active conformations. In order to quantify their individual reaction rates, we applied a mechanistic model describing biphasic parallel kinetic behavior. Kinetic analysis throughout the investigation reveals that there is no coupling between the unproductive "spliced-exon-reopening" reaction (SER) and hydrolysis during the first step of splicing. Conditions that stimulate branching can promote the SER reaction just as efficiently as conditions that stimulate the hydrolytic pathway. Although there is little evidence that it exists in vivo, a hydrolytic splicing pathway for group II introns has important implications for the translation of intron-encoded proteins and the inhibition of intron migration into new genomic positions.