King James Version Onlyism

Exactly why are we making other translations beyond the King James Version of 1611? The King James Version has been the primary translation of the Christian community for 400 years (1611-2011). There is no doubt that this Bible alone has affected the lives of hundreds of millions and has influenced the principles in Bible translation for the past four centuries.

Before we delve into what makes for a good translation, let us pause to consider the translation policy of the KJV translation committee. We can hardly talk about the KJV without looking at the translator William Tyndale (1494-1536), the man who published the first printed New Testament from the original language of Greek. In the face of much persecution, William Tyndale of England followed with his English translation of Erasmus’ Greek New Testament text, completing this while in exile on the continent of Europe in 1525.

Tyndale respected and treasured the Bible. However, in his days, the religious leaders insisted on keeping it in Latin, a language that had been dead for centuries. Therefore, with the purpose of making it available to his fellow citizens, Tyndale was determined to translate the Bible into English. While the idea of Bible translation being against the law may be unfamiliar to the modern mind, this was not the case in Tyndale’s day. He was educated at Oxford University and became an esteemed instructor at The Cambridge University. Because of his desire to bring the common man the Bible in English, he had to flee from his academic career, escaping the Continent. His life became one of a fugitive, but he managed to complete the New Testament and some of the Old Testament, before he was finally arrested, imprisoned for heresy, and strangled at the stake, with his body being burned afterward.

Tyndale’s work sparked a widespread translation project that produced a new revision every couple of years, or so it seemed. The Coverdale Bible of 1536, the Matthew’s Bible of 1537, the Great Bible of 1539, the Taverner’s Bible of 1539, the Geneva Bible of 1560 (went through 140 editions), the Edmund Becke’s Bible of 1549, the Bishop’s Bible of 1568, and the Rheims-Douay Bible of 1610. The King James Version is a revision of all these translations, as they too were of their predecessor, the Tyndale translation. The KJV translation committee was ordered to use the Bishop’s Bible as their foundation text and was not to alter it unless Tyndale, Coverdale, Matthew, Cranmer or the Great Bible, and the Geneva agreed, and then they were to assume that reading. Thus, the King James Version is unquestionably 90 percent William Tyndale’s translation.

There is no other translation, which possesses more literary beauty than the King James Version. However, there are several reasons as to why there was a need to revise the King James Version. The first reason is the King James Version’s textual basis, which is from the period of 1611. The Greek text behind the KJV New Testament is what is known as the Textus Receptus, a corrupt Greek text produced by a scholar in the 16th-century, Desiderius Erasmus. Concerning this text, Dr. Bruce Metzger wrote that it was “a handful of late and haphazardly collected minuscule manuscripts and in a dozen passages its reading is supported by no Greek witnesses.” (Metzger 2003, 106) While most of the corruptions are considered insignificant, others are significant, such as 1 Timothy 3:16; 1 John 5:7; John 7:53-8:11; and Mark 16:9-20. However, we cannot lay the blame at the feet of the translation committee of the KJV, for they did not have the textual evidence that we possess today.

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The second reason is that the KJV comes from the 17th-century and contains many archaic words that either obscure the meaning or mislead its reader: “howbeit.” “thee,” “thy,” “thou,” “thine,” and “shambles.” An example of misleading can be found in the word “let,” which meant to “stop,” “hinder” or “restrain” in 1611, but today means “to allow” or “to permit.” Therefore, when the KJV says that Paul ‘let the great apostasy come into the church,’ it is completely misleading to the modern mind. In 1611 “let” meant that he ‘restrained or prevented the apostasy.’ (2 Thess. 2:7) The KJV at Mark 6:20 inform us “Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just man and an holy, and observed him.” Actually, the Greek behind “observed him” means that Herod “kept him safe.”

The third reason is that the KJV contains translation errors. However, like the first reason, it is not the fault of the translators, as Hebrew and Greek were just resurfacing as subjects of serious study after the Dark Ages. The discovery of papyrus writings in Egypt, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, has helped us better to understand the common (Koine) Greek of the first century C.E. These discoveries have shown that everyday words were not understood as well as had been thought. The KJV at Matthew 5:22 informs the reader “whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council …” The ESV renders it, “whoever insults his brother will be liable (a term of abuse) to the council …” Scholar Walter C. Kaiser has said, “the actual insult mentioned by Jesus is the word ‘Raca’ as it stands in the KJV. The precise meaning of ‘Raca’ is disputed; it is probably an Aramaic word meaning something like ‘imbecile’, but was plainly regarded as a deadly insult.”

The fourth reason is that the KJV has over a thousand words in it that do not mean today what they meant in 1611. Words change over time, some even meaning the opposite. For example, the word “let,” as used in the King James Version, meant ‘to stop,’ ‘to prevent,’ or ‘to restrain’ in 1611. Today “let” means ‘to allow,’ ‘to permit,’ or ‘consent to. Thus, in 1611, when the KJV was published, 2 Thessalonians said that Paul “let” the great apostasy come into the church, which meant that Paul actually “stopped” or “restrained” the great apostasy from coming into the church. Now, those who do not know that in 1611 “let” meant, “prevent,” “stop,” and “restrain” in 1611, it was correctly translated. However, today, the English reader would be getting the opposite meaning from that 2 Thessalonians 2:7.

2 Thessalonians 2:7 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

For the mystery[1] of lawlessness is already at work; but only until the one who is right now acting as a restraint is out of the way.

2 Thessalonians 2:7 King James Version (KJV)

For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way.

The translators that have come after the King James Version can draw much direction in what makes a worthy translation by considering the principles of translation that were followed in the production of the world’s most influential Bible. The translators endeavored to discover the corresponding English word for the actual original language word of Hebrew and Greek.

According to Alister McGrath, the translators felt obligated to . . .

  • Ensure that every word in the original was rendered by an English equivalent;
  • Make it clear when they added any words to make the sense clearer, or to lead to better English . . .
  • Follow the basic word order of the original wherever possible.[2]

Do We Still Need a Literal BibleThere is any number of ways that each one of us may have been drawn into the field of Bible translation differences, the translation process, and textual criticism. It might be that some have been using the King James Version their entire life and with all of these new translations reading differently, especially in the New Testament, they began investigating why. Maybe it is the opposite, and we are using a more recent English translation such as the NASB, ESV, HCSB, LEB or the UASV. Then, maybe we have had a number of persons, who are commonly called the King James Version Only tell us that the KJV is based on the best and oldest Greek manuscripts, saying our translation is corrupt. Thus, in either of the above scenarios, we began by comparing the King James Version with some of the New Translations. We began to discover many differences between the new translations and the King James Version, which made us wonder, which is correct? We wonder, “Is the Bible that I have been using even accurate?” or “How can I know which Bible translation is most accurate?” Below are but a few examples out of hundreds of what would be discovered upon such an investigation. In our examples, we have chosen to compare the King James Version (KJV, 1611) against the Updated American Standard Version (UASV, 2016). Keep in mind that the 1901 ASV, the 1952 RSV, the 1995 NASB, and the 2001 ESV are going to read similar to the UASV because they too are literal translations based on the latest and best evidence. (some not as literal as the UASV, e.g., the ESV, RSV) The Textus Receptus (i.e., received text) is the name given to the printed Greek text of the New Testament, which served as the basis for the original German Luther Bible (1522), the translation of the New Testament into English by William Tyndale (1526), the King James Version (1611), and most other New Testament translations of the Reformation era. The critical Greek texts of the New Testament, which has served as the basis for modern day translations, including the ESV, are the Westcott and Hort Text of 1881, the United Bible Society (UBS5, 2014), and the Nestle-Aland (NA28, 2012).[3] Material within brackets [   ] means the reading was not in the original text.

Matthew 5:44

KJV: But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;

UASV: But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,

[do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;] The shorter reading in the ESV is found in the more trusted manuscripts from the fourth century while the longer reading of the KJV is found in manuscripts of the fifth century and beyond. The shorter reading is found in the citation of earlier church fathers while later church fathers cited the longer reading. It seems a copyist borrowed the above words from Luke 6:27-28, adding them to Matthew.

Matthew 6:13

KJV: And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.

UASV: And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

[For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.] The manuscript evidence is against the longer reading being original. It likely came from the Didache (aka, The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles) which is a brief early Christian source on traditions of the church, dated by most scholars to the early second century.

Matthew 17:21

KJV: Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting.

UASV: The verse was omitted because of the substantial manuscript evidence led to the conclusion that this verse was not in the original text.

Bruce M. Metzger observes, “There is no satisfactory reason why the passage, if originally present in Matthew, should have been omitted in a wide variety of witnesses, and … copyists frequently inserted material derived from another Gospel …”[4]

Matthew 18:11

KJV: For the Son of man is come to save that which was lost.

UASV: The verse was omitted because it was absent from several important and diverse manuscripts, evidencing that this verse was not in the original text.

On this verse, Metzger writes, “There can be little doubt that the words [from the longer reading] are spurious here, being absent from the earliest witnesses representing several textual types (Alexandrian, Egyptian, Antiochian), and manifestly borrowed by copyists from Lk 19:10. The reason for the interpolation was apparently to provide a connection between ver. 10 and verses 12–14.”[5]

What Was a Pim?

1 Samuel 13:21 King James Version (KJV)

21 Yet they had a file [Heb., pim] for the mattocks, and for the coulters, and for the forks, and for the axes, and to sharpen the goads.

1 Samuel 13:21 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

21 The charge was a pim[6] for the plowshares and for the mattocks, for the three-pronged fork, for the axes, and for fixing the oxgoad.

1 Samuel 13:21 English Standard Version (ESV)

21 and the charge was two-thirds of a shekel for the plowshares and for the mattocks, and a third of a shekel for sharpening the axes and for setting the goads.

1 Samuel 13:21 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

21 The charge was two-thirds of a shekel for the plowshares, the mattocks, the forks, and the axes, and to fix the hoes.

What was a pim? It would not be uncovered until 1907 when archaeology discovered the first pim weight stone at the ancient city of Gezer. The translation, like the above King James Version, struggled in their translation of the word “pim.” Today, translators know that the pim was a weight measure of about 7.82 grams, or as the English Standard Version has it, “two-thirds of a shekel,” a common Hebrew unit of weight that the Philistines charged for sharpening the Israelites plowshares and mattocks.


Weight inscribed with the word pym Z. Radovan/[7]

What is the Mystery of Godliness?

1 Timothy 3:16 King James Version (KJV)

16 And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.

1 Timothy 3:16 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

16 And confessedly, great is the mystery of godliness:

He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated in the Spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up in glory.

The word translated God was originally abbreviated ΘC (the nomen sacrum for θeός), which had originally looked like the Greek word OC (i.e., ὅς), the latter meaning “who.” Metzger makes the following observation, “The reading θeός arose either (a) accidentally, through the misreading of OC as ΘC, or (b) deliberately, either to supply a substantive for the following six verbs or, with less probability, to provide greater dogmatic precision.” (p. 574) Point (a) that it was an accidental misreading of OC as ΘC and that it was unlikely to be intentional, for doctrinal purposes, seems a bit dismissive. Nevertheless, this has long been the position of many scholars.

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In fact, Johann Jakob Wettstein (1693-1754) noticed that ΘC, had originally looked like OC, but felt that a horizontal stroke had faintly shown through the other side of the uncial manuscript page, contributing to a later hand adding a horizontal line to OC, giving us the contraction ΘC (“God”). However, this author believes that Philip W. Comfort makes a valid point, when he writes, “It is difficult to imagine how several fourth-and-fifth-century scribes, who had seen thousands of nomina sacra, would have made this mistake. It is more likely that the changes were motivated by a desire to make the text say that it was “God” who was manifested in the flesh.” (P. W. Comfort 2008, 663) If we believe that doctrinal considerations were not behind the scribal changes, all we have to do is investigate what took place when it was understood that the actual reading was “He who was manifested in the flesh,” as opposed to “God was manifested in the flesh.” The battle in the nineteenth century was as though the loss of the reading in the Textus Receptus (θeός KJV) would undermine the doctrine of the Trinity. Doctrinal motivations have always played a role in the copying of the Bible, but the truth is these are actually few in number. Considering the number of manuscripts that were copied, if this were a major problem, we should see more.

Scribal Interpolations

1 John 5:7-8 (WHNU)

οτι τρεις εισιν οι μαρτυρουντες

το πνευμα και το υδωρ και το αιμα και οι τρεις εις το εν εισιν

1 John 5:7-8 (TR)

οτι τρεις εισιν οι μαρτυρουντες εν τω ουρανω ο πατηρ ο λογος και το αγιον πνευμα και ουτοι οι τρεις εν εισιν

και τρεις εισιν οι μαρτυρουντες εν τη γη το πνευμα και το υδωρ και το αιμα και οι τρεις εις το εν εισιν

1 John 5:7-8 (ESV)

For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree.

1 John 5:7-8 (KJV)

For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.

And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.

In verse 7 of 1 John 5, after μαρτυροῦντες (testify), the Textus Receptus adds, ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ, ὁ Πατήρ, ὁ Λόγος, καὶ τὸ Ἅγιον Πνεῦμα· καὶ οὗτοι οἱ τρεῖς ἔν εἰσι (in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one). In verse 8, the Textus Receptus has καὶ τρεῖς εἰσιν οἱ μαρτυροῦντες ἐν τῇ γῇ (And there are three that bear witness in earth). There is no doubt that these words are an interpolation into the text, which textual scholarship has long known.

These additional words are missing from every Greek manuscript except eight, the earliest being from the tenth century. Metzger offers that these eight

After μαρτυροῦντες, the Textus Receptus adds the following: ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ, ὁ Πατήρ, ὁ Λόγος, καὶ τὸ Ἅγιον Πνεῦμα· καὶ οὗτοι οἱ τρεῖς ἔν εἰσι. (8) καὶ τρεῖς εἰσιν οἱ μαρτυροῦντες ἐν τῇ γῇ. That these words are spurious and have no right to stand in the New Testament is certain in the light of the following considerations. “Contain the passage in what appears to be a translation from a late recension of the Latin Vulgate. Four of the eight manuscripts contain the passage as a variant reading written in the margin as a later addition to the manuscript.” (TCGNT, 649)

In addition, the added words were not quoted by any of the Greek Fathers. Certainly, had they been aware of these words, there is little doubt that they would have referenced them repeatedly in the fourth century Trinitarian debates. Metzger tells us that “Its first appearance in Greek is in a Greek version of the (Latin) Acts of the Lateran Council in 1215.” (TCGNT, 649)

The interpolation is also missing from all the manuscripts of the ancient versions, with the exception of the Latin (Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Ethiopic, Arabic, and Slavonic). However, it is not found in the Old Latin in its earliest form (Tertullian Cyprian Augustine). Moreover, it is not present in “the Vulgate (b) as issued by Jerome (codex Fuldensis [copied a.d.541–46] and codex Amiatinus [copied before a.d. 716]) or (c) as revised by Alcuin (first hand of codex Vallicellianus [ninth century]).” (TCGNT, 649)

This interpolation had its beginning in Latin, in the treatise Liber Apologetics, which was written by the Spanish heretic Priscillian (d. c. 385), bishop of Ávila, or his follower, Bishop Instantius. Metzger writes, “Apparently the gloss arose when the original passage was understood to symbolize the Trinity (through the mention of three witnesses: the Spirit, the water, and the blood), an interpretation that may have been written first as a marginal note that afterward found its way into the text. In the fifth century the gloss was quoted by Latin Fathers in North Africa and Italy as part of the text of the Epistle, and from the sixth century onwards it is found more and more frequently in manuscripts of the Old Latin and of the Vulgate.” (TCGNT, 649)

Think about it, if these interpolations were original, there would be no reason to remove them, and they would be found in our earliest and best manuscripts, as well as hundreds of years of copying. Moreover, there would be no reason for their being missing from the versions either. Lastly, the interpolation also interrupts the sense.

Both a Science and an Art

We said at the outset that New Testament textual criticism is both a science and an art. Throughout almost all of this publication, we have used the science aspect, in that we have spoken of and applied many of the rules and principles. However, we will offer one verse here where the art aspect comes into play; we must not be rigid in our application of the rules and principles, meaning that we must be balanced.

Mark 1:41 (TR WHNU)

σπλαγχνισθεις εκτεινας την χειρα αυτου ηψατο

(א A B C L W f1,13 33 565 700 syr cop Diatessaron)

Mark 1:41 (LEB NEB REB)

οργισθεις εκτεινας την χειρα αυτου ηψατο

(D a, d, ff2)


Mark 1:41 (NASB)

41 Moved with compassion [splanchnon], Jesus stretched out His hand and touched him

Mark 1:41 (LEB)

41 And becoming angry [orgistheis], he stretched out his hand and touched him

The reason that this text is considered difficult is because of one having to go against the grain of the textual principles: Which reading is it that the other reading(s) most likely came from? Well, it is certainly easy to see how “moved with anger” would have been changed to “move with pity.” In that case, the scribe would have been softening the reading. It is very difficult to understand why a scribe would be tempted to go from “move with pity” to “moved with anger.” On the other hand, the textual evidence for “moved with pity” is very weighty, while the textual evidence “moved with anger” has no real weight at all. Most persons who define textual criticism say, ‘it is an art and a science.’ What they mean is that it is a science in that there are rules and principles, like the ones above, and it is an art, because one needs to be balanced in the application of those rules and principles. The textual rule of which reading is it that the others came from is not to be rigidly applied; there are times that it does not apply, this being one of them.


First, the Western text D, which gives us the reading of “moved with anger,” is notorious for making “significant” changes to the text. Comfort and Metzger, as well as others,  offer a very real reason as to why the scribe may have chosen to do so. “He may have decided to make Jesus angry with the leper for wanting a miracle–in keeping with the tone of voice Jesus used in 1:43 when he sternly warned the leper.” (P. W. Comfort 2008, 98) However, as Comfort goes on to point out, this would have been a misunderstanding on the part of the scribe, because Jesus was not warning him about seeking a miracle, it was rather “a warning about keeping the miracle a secret.” Another motive for the scribe to alter the text to the harder reading is because he felt the man was slow to believe that Jesus was serious about healing him (v. 40) In addition, why would the scribes soften the text here from “move with anger” to “moved with pity,” but not do the same at Mark 3:12 and 10:14?

Desiderius Erasmus and the Greek Text

I WOULD have these words translated into all languages, so that not only Scots and Irish, but Turks and Saracens too might read them . . . I long for the ploughboy to sing them to himself as he follows his plough, the weaver to hum them to the tune of his shuttle, the traveler to beguile with them the dullness of his journey. (Clayton 2006, 230)

Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus penned those words in the early part of the 16th century. Like his English counterpart, William Tyndale, it was his greatest desire that God’s Word be widely translated and that even the plowboy would have access to it.

Much time has passed since the Reformation, and 98 percent of the world we live in today has access to the Bible. There is little wonder that the Bible has become the bestseller of all time. It has influenced men from all walks of life to fight for freedom and truth. This is especially true during the Reformation of Europe throughout the 16th century. These leading men were of great faith, courage, and strength, such as Martin Luther, William Tyndale, while others, like Erasmus, was more subtle in the change that he produced. Thus, it has been said of the Reformation that Martin Luther only opened the door to it after Erasmus picked the lock.

There is not one historian of the period, who would deny that Erasmus was a great scholar. Remarking on his character, the Catholic Encyclopedia says: “He had an unequalled talent for form, great journalistic gifts, a surpassing power of expression: for strong and moving discourse, keen irony, and covert sarcasm, he was unsurpassed.” (Vol. 5, p. 514) Consequently, when Erasmus went to see Sir Thomas More, the Lord Chancellor of England, just before Erasmus made himself known, More was so impressed with his exchange that he shortly said: “You are either Erasmus or the Devil.”

The wit of Erasmus was evidenced in a response that he gave to Frederick, elector of Saxony, who asked him what he thought about Martin Luther. Erasmus retorted, “Luther has committed two blunders; he has ventured to touch the crown of the pope and the bellies of the monks.” (Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature: Vol. 3 – p, 279) However, we must ask what type of influence did the Bible have on Erasmus and, in turn, what did he do to affect its future? First, let us look at the early years of Erasmus’ life.

Erasmus’ Early Life

He was born in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, in 1466. He was not a happy boy living in a home as the illegitimate son of a Dutch priest. He was faced with the double tragedy of his mother’s death at seventeen, and his father shortly after that. His guardians ignored his desire to enter the university; rather they sent him to the Augustinian monastery of Steyn. Erasmus gained a vast knowledge of the Latin language, the classic as well as the Church Fathers. In time, this type of life was so detestable to him; he jumped on the opportunity, at the age of twenty-six, to become secretary to the bishop of Cambrai, Henry of Bergen, in France. This afforded him his chance to enter university studies in Paris. However, he was a sickly man, always ill, suffering from poor health throughout his entire life.

It was in 1499 that Erasmus was invited to visit England. It was here that he met Thomas More, John Colet and other theologians in London, which fortified his resolution to apply himself to Biblical studies. In order to understand the Bible’s message better, he applied himself more fully in his study of Greek, soon being able to teach it to others. It was around this time that Erasmus penned a treatise entitled Handbook of the Christian Soldier, in which he advised the young Christian to study the Bible, saying: “There is nothing that you can believe with greater certitude than what you read in these writings.” (Erasmus and Dolan 1983, 37)

While trying to escape the plague, make a living in an economy that had bottomed worse than our 20th-century Great Depression, Erasmus found himself at Louvain, Belgium, in 1504. It was here that he fell in love with the study of textual criticism while visiting the Praemonstratensian Abbey of Parc near Louvain. Within the library, Erasmus discovered a manuscript of Italian scholar Lorenzo Valla: Annotations on the New Testament. Textual criticism is an art and science that studies manuscripts, evaluating internal and external evidence, especially of the Bible or works of literature, in order to determine which readings are the original or most authentic. Erasmus had commissioned himself toward the task of restoring the original text of the Greek New Testament.

Erasmus moved on to Italy and subsequently pushed on to England once again. It is this trip that brought to mind his original meeting with Thomas More, meditating on the origin of More’s name (moros, Greek for “a fool”); he penned a write or satire, which he called Praise of Folly. In this work, Erasmus takes the abstract quality “folly” as being a human being and pictured it as encroaching in all aspects of life, but nowhere is folly more in obvious than amid the theologians and clergy. This is his subtle way of exposing the abuses of the clergy. It is these abuses that had brought on the Reformation, which was now festering. “As to the popes,” he wrote, “if they claim to be the successors of the Apostles, they should consider that the same things are required of them as were practiced by their predecessors.” Instead of doing this, he perceived, they believe that “to teach the people is too laborious; to interpret the scripture is to invade the prerogative of the schoolmen; to pray is too idle.” There is little wonder that it was said of Erasmus that he had “a surpassing power of expression”! (Nichols 2006, Vol. 2, 6)

The First Greek Text

While teaching Greek at Cambridge University in England, Erasmus continued with his work of revising the text of the Greek New Testament. One of his friends, Martin Dorpius, attempted to persuade him that the Latin did not need to be corrected from the Greek. Dorpius makes the same error in thinking that the “King James Only” people make, arguing: “For is it likely that the whole Catholic Church would have erred for so many centuries, seeing that she has always used and sanctioned this translation? Is it probable that so many holy fathers, so many consummate scholars would have longed to convey a warning to a friend?”  (Campbell 1949, 71) Thomas More joined Erasmus in replying to these arguments, making the point that the importance lies within having an accurate text in the original languages.

In Basel, Switzerland, Erasmus was about to be hassled by the printer Johannes Froben. Froben was alerted that Cardinal Ximenes of Toledo, Spain, had been putting together a Greek and Latin Testament in 1514. However, he was delaying publication until he had the whole Bible completed. The first printed Greek critical text would have set the standard, with the other being all but ignored. Erasmus published his first edition in 1516, while the Complutensian Polyglot (many languages) was not issued until 1522.

The fact that Erasmus was rushed to no end resulted in a Greek text that contained hundreds of typographical errors alone.[8] Textual scholar Scrivener once stated: ‘[It] is in that respect the most faulty book I know,’ (Scrivener 1894, 185) This comment does not even take into consideration the blatant interpolations (insert readings) into the text that were not part of the original. Erasmus was not lost to the typographical errors, which corrected a good many in later editions. This did not include the textual errors. It was his second edition of 1519 that was used by Martin Luther in his German translation and William Tyndale’s English translation. This is exactly what Erasmus wanted, writing the following in that edition’s preface: “I would have these words translated into all languages. . . . I long for the ploughboy to sing them to himself as he follows his plough.”

Sadly, the continuous reproduction of this debased Greek New Testament, gave rise to it becoming the standard, being called the Textus Receptus (Received Text), taking over 400 years before it was dethroned by the critical Text of B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort in 1881. Regardless of its imperfection, the Erasmus critical edition began the all-important work of textual criticism, which has only brought about a better critical text, as well as more accurate Bible translations.

As was true with many other early Bibles in the early days of the Reformation, it had its detractors. Like the Geneva Bible, but on a much tamer note, Erasmus was critical of the clergy in his notes. For instance, the text of Matthew 16:18, which says, “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.” (Douay) Very plainly, he rejects the idea that this text is applied to primacy Peter, and that the pope is a successor of such. Imagine writing such a thing in the very edition you are going to dedicate to the pope! We can certainly see why Erasmus’ works were prohibited, even in the universities.

Erasmus was not only concerned with ascertaining the original words; he was just as concerned with achieving an accurate understanding of those words. In 1519, he penned Principles of True Theology (shortened to The Ratio). Herein he introduces his principles for Bible study, his interpretation rules. Among them is the thought of never taking a quotation out of its context nor out of the line of thought of its author. Erasmus saw the Bible as a whole work by one author, and it should interpret itself.

Erasmus Contrasted With Luther

Erasmus penned a treatise called Familiar Colloquies in 1518, where again he was exposing the corruptions on the Church and the monasteries. Just one year earlier, in 1517, Martin Luther had nailed his 95 theses on the church door at Wittenberg, denouncing the indulgences, the scandal that had rocked numerous countries. Many folks were likely thinking that these two could bring change and reform. This was not going to be a team effort, though, as they both were at opposite ends of the spectrum on how to bring this reform about. Luther would come to condemn Erasmus, because he was viewed as being too moderate, seeking to make change peacefully within the Church. Many have viewed it as Erasmus thinking and writing, while Luther appeared to go beyond that with his actions.

The seemingly small bond they may have shared (by way of their writings against the Church establishment), was torn down the middle in 1524 when Erasmus penned the essay On the Freedom of the Will. Luther believed that salvation results from “justification by faith alone” (Latin, sola fide) and not from priestly absolution or works of penance. In fact, Luther was so adamant on his belief of “justification by faith alone” that in his Bible translation, he added the word “alone” to Romans 3:28. What Luther failed to understand was that Paul was writing about the works of the Mosaic Law. (Romans 3:19, 20, 28) Thus, Luther denied the notion that man possesses a free will. However, Erasmus would not accept such faulty reasoning, in that it would make God unjust because this would suggest that man would be unable to act in such a way as to affect his salvation.

As the Reformation was growing throughout Europe, Erasmus saw complaints from both sides. Many of the religious leaders who supported the reform movement chose to leave the Catholic Church. While they could not predict the result of their decision, they moved forward, many ending in death. This would not be true of Erasmus though, for he withdrew from the debate, yet he did refuse to be made cardinal. His approach was to try to appease both sides. Thus, Rome saw his writings as being that of a heretic, prohibiting them, while the reformers denounced him as refusing to risk his life for the cause. Here was a man, emotionally broken over criticism, but in fear of rocking the boat with Rome, so he cautiously sat on the sideline.

The affairs of Erasmus to the Reformation can be summarized as follows: “He was a reformer until the Reformation became a fearful reality; a jester at the bulwarks of the papacy until they began to give way; a propagator of the Scriptures until men betook themselves to the study and the application of them; depreciating the mere outward forms of religion until they had come to be estimated at their real value; in short, a learned, ingenious, benevolent, amiable, timid, irresolute man, who, bearing the responsibility, resigned to others the glory of rescuing the human mind from the bondage of a thousand years. The distance between his career and that of Luther was therefore continually enlarging, until they at length moved in opposite directions, and met each other with mutual animosity.”— (McClintock and Strong 1894, 278).

The greatest gain from the Reformation is that the common person can now hold God’s Word in his hand. In fact, the Englishperson has over 100 different translations from which to choose. From these 16th-century life and death struggles, in which Erasmus shared, there has materialized dependable and accurate Bible translations. Consequently, the ‘plowboy’ of 98 percent of the world can pick up his Bible, or at least part of it.

The Textus Receptus

The Dark Ages (5th to 15th centuries C.E.), was a time when the Church had the Bible locked up in the Latin language, and scholarship and learning were nearly nonexistent. However, with the birth of the Morning Star of the Reformation, John Wycliffe (1328-1384), and more officially in the 16th-century Reformation, and the invention of the printing press in 1455, the restraints were loosened, and there was a rebirth of interest in the Greek language. Moreover, with the fall of Constantinople to the Turks 1453 C. E., many Greek scholars and their manuscripts were scattered abroad, resulting in a revival of Greek in the Western citadels of learning.

About fifty years later, or at the beginning of the sixteenth century, Ximenes, archbishop of Toledo, Spain, a man of rare capability and honor, invited foremost scholars of his land to his university at Alcala to produce a multiple-language Bible—not for the common people, but for the educated. The outcome would be the Polyglot, named Complutensian corresponding to the Latin of Alcala. This would be a Bible of six large volumes, beautifully bound, containing the Old Testament in four languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin) and the New Testament in two (Greek and Latin). For the Greek New Testament, these scholars had only a few manuscripts available to them, and those of late origin. One may wonder why this was the case when they were supposed to have access to the Vatican library. This Bible was completed in 1514, providing the first printed Greek New Testament, but did not receive approval by the pope to be published until 1520 and was not released to the public until 1522.

Froben, a printer in Basel, Switzerland became aware of the completion of the Complutensian Polyglot Bible and of its pending consent by the pope to be published. Immediately, he saw a prospect of making profits. He at once sent word to the Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus (1469-1536), who was the foremost European scholar of the day and whose works he had published in Latin, beseeching him to hurry through a Greek New Testament text. In an attempt to bring the first published Greek text to completion, Erasmus was only able to locate, in July of 1515, a few late cursive manuscripts for collating and preparing his text. It would go to press in October of 1515 and would be completed by March of 1516. In fact, Erasmus was in such a hurried mode he rushed the manuscript containing the Gospels to the printer without first editing it, making such changes, as he felt was necessary on the proof sheets. Because of this great rush job, this work also contained hundreds of typographical errors. Erasmus himself admitted this in its preface that it was “rushed through rather than edited.” Bruce Metzger referred to the Erasmian text as a “debased form of the Greek testament.” (B. M. Metzger 1964, 1968, 1992, 103)

Needless to say, Erasmus was moved to produce an improved text in four succeeding editions of 1519, 1522, 1527, and 1535. Erasmus’ editions of the Greek text, we are informed, ended up being an excellent achievement, a literary sensation. They were inexpensive, and the first two editions totaled 3,300 copies, in comparison to the 600 copies of the large and expensive six-volume Polyglot Bible. In the preface of his first edition, Erasmus stated, “I vehemently dissent from those who would not have private persons read the Holy Scriptures, nor have them translated into the vulgar tongues.” (Baer 2007, 268)

Except for everyday practical consideration, the editions of Erasmus had little to vouch for them, for he had access to five (some say eight) Greek manuscripts of reasonably late origin and none of these were of the whole Greek New Testament. Rather, these comprised one or more sections into which the Greek texts were normally divided: (1) the Gospels; (2) Acts and the general epistles (James through Jude); (3) the letters of Paul; (4) Revelation. In fact, of the 5,750 Greek New Testament manuscripts that we now have, only about fifty are complete.

Consequently, Erasmus had but one copy of Revelation (twelfth-century). Since it was incomplete, he merely retranslated the missing last six verses of the book from the Latin Vulgate back into Greek. He even frequently brought his Greek text in line with the Latin Vulgate; this is why there are some twenty readings in his Greek text not found in any other Greek manuscript.

Martin Luther would use Erasmus’ 1519 edition for his German translation, and William Tyndale would use the 1522 edition for his English translation. Erasmus’ editions were also the foundation for further Greek editions of the New Testament by others. For instance, the four published by Robert Estienne (Stephanus, 1503-59). According to Bruce Metzger, the third of these, published by Stephanus, in 1550, became the Textus Receptus or Received Text of Britain and the basis of the King James Version. This took place through Theodore de Beza (1519-1605), whose work was based on the corrupted third and fourth editions of the Erasmian text. Beza would produce nine editions of the Greek text, four being independent (1565, 1589, 1588-9, 1598), and the other five smaller reprints. It would be two of Beza’s editions, that of 1589 and 1598, which would become the English Received Text.

Beza’s Greek edition of the New Testament did not even differ as much as might be expected from those of Erasmus. Why do I say, as might be expected? Beza was a friend of the Protestant reformer, John Calvin, succeeding him at Geneva, and was also a well-known classical and biblical scholar. In addition, Beza possessed two important Greek manuscripts of the fourth and fifth century, the D and Dp (also known as D2), the former of which contains most of the Gospels and Acts, as well as a fragment of 3 John and the latter containing the Pauline epistles. The Dutch Elzevir editions followed next, which were virtually identical to those of the Erasmian-influenced Beza text. It was in the second of seven of these, published in 1633 that there appeared the statement in the preface (in Latin): “You therefore now have the text accepted by everybody, in which we give nothing changed or corrupted.” On the continent, this edition became the Textus Receptus or the Received Text. It seems that this success was in no small way due to the beauty and useful size of the Elzevir editions.

The Restoration Period

For the next 250-years, up until 1881, textual scholarship was enslaved to the Erasmian-oriented Received Text. As these textual scholars[9] became familiar with older and more accurate manuscripts and observed the flaws in the Received Text, instead of changing the text, they would publish their findings in introductions, margins, and footnotes of their editions. In 1734, J. A. Bengle of Tübingen, Germany, made an apology for again printing the Received Text, doing so only “because he could not publish a text of his own. Neither the publisher nor the public would have stood for it,” he complained. (Robertson 1925, 25)

The first one to break free from this enslavement to the Textus Receptus, in the text itself, was Bible scholar J. J. Griesbach (1745-1812). His principal edition comes to us in three volumes, the first in Halle in 1775-7, the second in Halle and London in 1796-1806, and the third at Leipzig in 1803-7. However, Griesbach did not fully break away from the Textus Receptus. Nevertheless, Griesbach is the real starting point in the development of classifying the manuscripts into families, setting down principles and rules for establishing the original reading, and using symbols to indicate the degree of certainty as to its being the original reading.

Karl Lachmann (1793-1851) was the first one fully to get out from under the influence of the Textus Receptus. He was a professor of ancient classical languages at Berlin University. In 1831, he published his edition of the Greek New Testament without any regard to the Textus Receptus. As Samuel MacAuley Jackson expressed it: Lachmann “was the first to found a text wholly on ancient evidence; and his editions, to which his eminent reputation as a critic gave wide currency, especially in Germany, did much toward breaking down the superstitious reverence for the textus receptus.”  Bruce Metzger too had harsh words for the era of the Textus Receptus as well:

So superstitious has been the reverence accorded the Textus Receptus that in some cases attempts to criticize it or emend it have been regarded as akin to sacrilege. Yet its textual basis is essentially a handful of late and haphazardly collected minuscule manuscripts, and in a dozen passages, its reading is supported by no known Greek witnesses. (B. M. Metzger 1964, 1968, 1992, 106)

Subsequent to Lachmann came Friedrich Constantine von Tischendorf (1815-74), best known for his discovery of the famed fourth-century Codex Sinaiticus Manuscript, the only Greek uncial manuscript containing the complete Greek New Testament. Tischendorf went further than any other textual scholar to edit and made the evidence accessible contained in leading as well as less important uncial manuscripts. Throughout the time, Tischendorf was making his treasured contributions to the field of textual criticism in Germany; one Samuel Prideaux Tregelles (1813-75) in England made other valued contributions. Aside from other things, he was able to establish his concept of “Comparative Criticism.” This establishes that the age of a text, like Vaticanus 1209, may not necessarily be that of its manuscript, which was copied in 350 C.E., as it may be a faithful copy of an earlier text, like the second-century and P75. Both Tischendorf and Tregelles were determined defenders of divine inspiration of the Scriptures, which likely had much to do with the productivity of their labors. If you have an opportunity to read about the lengths that Tischendorf went to in his discovery of the Codex Sinaiticus, you will be moved by his steadfastness and love for God’s Word.


The Climax of the Restored Text

The critical text of Westcott and Hort of 1881 has been commended by the leading textual scholars over the last one hundred and forty years, and still, stands as the standard. Numerous additional critical editions of the Greek text came after Westcott and Hort: Richard F. Weymouth (1886), Bernhard Weiss (1894–1900); the British and Foreign Bible Society (1904, 1958), Alexander Souter (1910), Hermann von Soden (1911–1913); and Eberhard Nestle’s Greek text, the Novum Testamentum Graece, published in 1898 by the Württemberg Bible Society, Stuttgart, Germany. The Nestle in twelve editions (1898–1923) to be then taken over by his son, Erwin Nestle (13th–20th editions, 1927–1950), followed by Kurt Aland (21st–25th editions, 1952–1963) and lastly, it was coedited by Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland (26th–27th editions, 1979–1993).

Many of the above scholars gave their entire life to God and the Greek text. Each of these could have an entire book penned about them and their work alone. The amount of work they accomplished before the era of computers is nothing short of astonishing. Rightly, the preceding history should serve to strengthen our faith in the authenticity and general integrity of the Greek New Testament. Unlike Bart D. Ehrman, men like Professor Kenyon have been moved to say that the Greek New Testament has, “come down to us substantially as they were written.” And all this is especially true of the critical scholarship of the almost two hundred years since the days of Karl Lachmann upon which all today can feel certain that what they hold in their hands is a mirror reflection of the Word of God that was penned in twenty-seven books, some two thousand years ago. SEE ALSO:

The Arrival of the Critical Text


[1] Mystery; Secret: (Gr. mystērion) A sacred divine mystery or secret doctrine that lies with God alone, which is withheld from both the angelic body and humans, until the time he determines that it is to be revealed, and to those to whom he chooses to make it known.–Mark 4:11; Rom. 11:25; 16:25; 1 Cor. 2:1; 4:1; 13:2; 14:2; 15:51; Eph. 1:9; 6:19; Col. 1:26; 2:2; 2 Thess. 2:7; 1 Tim. 3:9; Rev. 17:5.

[2] McGrath, Alister. In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture. New York: Anchor, 2002, p. 250.

[3] The primary difference between the UBS5 and the NA28 is that translators primarily use the latter, while textual scholars primarily use the former.

[4] Bruce Manning Metzger, United Bible Societies, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition a Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament (4th Rev. Ed.) (London; New York: United Bible Societies, 1994), 35.

[5] IBID, 36

[6] I.e. An ancient weight, approximately two-thirds of a shekel.


[8] In fact, his copy of Revelation being incomplete, Erasmus simply retranslated the missing verses from the Latin Vulgate back into Greek.

[9] Brian Walton (1600-61), Dr. John Fell (1625-86), John Mill 1645-1707), Dr. Edward Wells (1667-1727, Richard Bentley (1662-1742), John Albert Bengel (1687-1752), Johann Jacob Wettstein (1693-1754), Johann Salomo Semler (1725-91), William Bowyer Jr. (1699-1777), Edward Harwood (1729-94), and Isaiah Thomas Jr. (1749-1831)