Who Was Desiderius Erasmus and What Is the Textus Receptus?

The Reading Culture of Early Christianity From Spoken Words to Sacred Texts 400,000 Textual Variants 02 4th ed. MISREPRESENTING JESUS
Edward D. Andrews
EDWARD D. ANDREWS (AS in Criminal Justice, BS in Religion, MA in Biblical Studies, and MDiv in Theology) is CEO and President of Christian Publishing House. He has authored over 100 books. Andrews is the Chief Translator of the Updated American Standard Version (UASV).

A Brief Overview of the Textus Receptus

The most commonly used and referred to Textus Receptus today is the 1550 Stephanus New Testament (TR1550)

The biblical Textus Receptus constituted the translation-base for the original German Luther Bible, the translation of the New Testament into English by William Tyndale, the King James Version, the Spanish Reina-Valera translation, the Czech Bible of Kralice, and most Reformation-era New Testament translations.

Erasmus published five editions of the New Testament: 1516, 1519, which Martin Luther used for his German translation. His third, fourth, and fifth followed in 1522, 1527 and 1535.

Robert Stephanus published four editions: 1546, 1549, 1550, and 1551.

Theodore Beza published several editions: 1565, 1582, 1588, and 1598. These were printed in folio, which means a sheet of paper folded once to form four pages of a book. He also published five octavo editions: 1565, 1567, 1580, 1590 and 1604. “Octavo” means a size of book page that results from folding each printed sheet into eight creating sixteen pages. It is Beza’s edition of 1598 and Stephanus edition of 1550 and 1551 that were used as the principal sources by the King James translators.

PAUL AND LUKE ON TRIAL PAUL AND LUKE ON TRIAL PAUL AND LUKE ON TRIAL

The Elzevir brothers published three editions of the Greek New Testament: 1624, 1633 and 1641. They reflected closely the work of Beza, who in turn had followed Erasmus. In the preface to the 1633 edition they coined a phrase in Latin “textum ergo babes, nunc ab omnibus receptum…” ei “According to the text now held from the volume received …” Hence, we end up with the title “Textus Receptus” or “Received Text” was born.

While it is true that the name “Textus Receptus” was coined some twenty-two years after the 1611 King James Bible was translated, it has become interchangeable (synonymous) with the entire history of Desiderius Erasmus’ debased, corrupt, Greek New Testament.

The English word “corrupt” means a text made unreliable by errors or alterations. The English word “corruption” means a word that is changed from its original form and is erroneous. The Textus Receptus had over 1,300 hundred of those changes. In some cases, it was words, in others, it was phrases, while others were entire sentences, as well as whole verses. And it two cases, it was twelve whole verses. The Textus Receptus was clearly made unreliable by errors or alterations by being changed from the original form of the Greek New Testament.

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Going Back to the Beginning When the Manuscripts Separated Into Families

We have textual traditions or families of texts, which grew up in a certain region. For example, we have the Alexandrian text-type, which Westcott and Hort called the Neutral text that came from Egypt. Then, there is the Western text-type, which came from Italy and Gaul as well as North Africa and elsewhere. There was also the Caesarean text-type, which came from Caesarea and is characterized by a mixture of Western and Alexandrian readings (B. M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament 1994, Page xxi). The Byzantine text-type, also called Majority Text, came from Constantinople (i.e., Byzantium).

In short, early Christianity gave rise to what are known as “local texts.” Christian congregations in and near cities, such as Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, Carthage, or Rome, were making copies of the Scriptures in a form that would become known as their text-type. In other words, manuscripts grew up in certain areas, just like a human family, becoming known as that text-type, having their own characteristics. In reality, it is not as simple as this because there are mixtures of text-types within each text-type. However, generally, each text-type resembles itself more than it does the others. It should also be remembered that most of our extant manuscripts are identical in more than seventy-five percent of their texts. Thus, it is the twenty-five percent of variation that identifies a manuscript as a certain text-type, i.e., what one could call “agreement in error.”

From Spoken Words to Sacred Texts From Spoken Words to Sacred Texts From Spoken Words to Sacred Texts

Therefore, the process of classifying manuscripts for centuries was to label them a certain text-type, such as Alexandrian, Western, Caesarean, or Byzantine. However, this practice is fading because technology has allowed the textual scholar to carry out a more comprehensive comparison of all readings in all manuscripts, supposedly blurring the traditional classifications. The new method primarily responsible is the Coherence-Based Genealogical Method (CBGM). In this method, an “initial text” is reconstructed that is considered “relatively close to the form of the text from which the textual tradition of a New Testament book has originated.” (Stephen C. Carlson)

The original New Testament authors were inspired by God, and error-free. The copyists were not inspired, and errors did show up in the texts as a result. These errors help us to place these texts into certain families. Very early in the transmission process copies of the originals worked their way to these four major religious centers and the copying traditions that distinguish these text-types began to take place. The Alexandrian text-type is the earliest and reflects the work of professional and semi-professional scribes who treated the copying process with respect. The text is simple, without added material, and lacking the grammatical, stylistic polish sometimes imposed by Byzantine scribes. The Western text-type is early second century. These manuscripts reflect the work of scribes that were given to paraphrasing. Scribes freely changed words, phrases, clauses, and whole sentences as they felt it necessary. At times, they were simply trying to harmonize the text, or even add apocryphal material to spice it up. The Caesarean text-type is a mixture of Western and Alexandrian readings. The Byzantine text-type shows the hand of scribes who, as noted, attempted to smooth out both grammar and style, often with a view to making the text easier to understand. These scribes also combined differing readings from other manuscripts that contained variants. The period of 50 to 350 C.E. certainly saw its share of errors (variants) entering into the text, but the era of corruption is the period when the Byzantine text would become the standard text.

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The Corruption Period

To round out our understanding of this early history, we need at least a short overview of what happened after 350 C.E. In short, the rise of the Byzantine Empire gave rise to the Byzantine text. After Constantine legalized Christianity, giving it equal status with the pagan religions, it was much easier to have biblical manuscripts copied. In fact, Constantine ordered 50 copies of the whole of the Bible for the church in Constantinople. Over the next four centuries or so, the Byzantine Empire and the Greek-speaking church were the dominant factors in making the Byzantine text the standard. It was not a matter of its being the better, i.e., more accurate text. From the eighth century forward, the Byzantine text had displaced all others.

After the invention of the Guttenberg printing press in 1455, it would be this Byzantine text which would become the first printed edition by way of Desiderius Erasmus in 1516. Thanks to an advertisement by the publishers it was referred to as the Textus Receptus, or the “Received Text.”[1] Over the next four centuries, many textual scholars attempted to make minor changes to this text based on the development of the science of textual criticism, but to no real effect on its status as the Greek text of the church. Worse still, it would be this inferior text what would lay at the foundation of all English translations until the Revised English Version of 1881 and the American Standard Version of 1901. It was not until 1881 that two Cambridge scholars, B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort, replaced the Textus Receptus with their critical text. It is this critical edition of the Westcott and Hort text that is the foundation for most modern translations and all critical editions of the Greek New Testament, UBS5, and the NA28.

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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 thereafter. 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)

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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 Monastery of Parc. 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, which had brought on the Reformation that 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)

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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 is 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.

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The First Greek Text

Whilst 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.[2] 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. As was true of 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.

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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 the 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)

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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 to 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 5,800 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.

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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.

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History of the Transmission of the New Testament Text

In the earliest days of the Christian church, after an apostolic letter was sent to a congregation or an individual, or after a gospel was written to meet the needs of a particular reading public, copies would be made in order to extend its influence and to enable others to profit from it as well. It was inevitable that such handwritten copies would contain a greater or lesser number of differences in wording from the original. Most of the divergencies arose from quite accidental causes, such as mistaking a letter or a word for another that looked like it. If two neighboring lines of a manuscript began or ended with the same group of letters or if two similar words stood near each other in the same line, it was easy for the eye of the copyist to jump from the first group of letters to the second, and so for a portion of the text to be omitted (called homoeoarcton or homoeoteleuton, depending upon whether the similarity of letters occurred at the beginning or the ending of the words). Conversely the scribe might go back from the second to the first group and unwittingly copy one or more words twice (called dittography). Letters that were pronounced alike were sometimes confused (called itacism). Such accidental errors are almost unavoidable whenever lengthy passages are copied by hand, and would be especially likely to occur if the scribe had defective eyesight, or was interrupted while copying, or, because of fatigue, was less attentive to his task than he should have been.

Other divergencies in wording arose from deliberate attempts to smooth out grammatical or stylistic harshness, or to eliminate real or imagined obscurities of meaning in the text. Sometimes a copyist would substitute or would add what seemed to him to be a more appropriate word or form, perhaps derived from a parallel passage (called harmonization or assimilation). Thus, during the years immediately following the composition of the several documents that eventually were collected to form the New Testament, hundreds if not thousands of variant readings arose.

Still other kinds of divergencies originated when the New Testament documents were translated from Greek into other languages. During the second and third centuries, after Christianity had been introduced into Syria, into North Africa and Italy, into central and southern Egypt, both congregations and individual believers would naturally desire copies of the Scriptures in their own languages. And so versions in Syriac, in Latin, and in the several dialects of Coptic used in Egypt were produced. They were followed in the fourth and succeeding centuries by other versions in Armenian, Georgian, Ethiopic, Arabic, and Nubian in the East, and in Gothic, Old Church Slavonic, and (much later) Anglo-Saxon in the West.

The accuracy of such translations was directly related to two factors: (a) the degree of familiarity possessed by the translator of both Greek and the language into which the translation was made, and (b) the amount of care he devoted to the task of making the translation. It is not surprising that very considerable divergencies in early versions developed, first, when different persons made different translations from what may have been slightly different forms of Greek text; and, second, when these renderings in one or another language were transmitted in handwritten copies by scribes who, familiar with a slightly different form of text (either a divergent Greek text or a divergent versional rendering), adjusted the new copies so as to accord with what they considered the preferable wording.

During the early centuries of the expansion of the Christian church, what are called “local texts” of the New Testament gradually developed. Newly established congregations in and near a large city, such as Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, Carthage, or Rome, were provided with copies of the Scriptures in the form that was current in that area. As additional copies were made, the number of special readings and renderings would be both conserved and, to some extent, increased, so that eventually a type of text grew up that was more or less peculiar to that locality. Today it is possible to identify the type of text preserved in New Testament manuscripts by comparing their characteristic readings with the quotations of those passages in the writings of Church Fathers who lived in or near the chief ecclesiastical centers.

At the same time, the distinctiveness of a local text tended to become diluted and mixed with other types of text. A manuscript of the Gospel of Mark copied in Alexandria, for example, and taken later to Rome would doubtless influence to some extent copyists transcribing the form of the text of Mark heretofore current at Rome. On the whole, however, during the earliest centuries, the tendencies to develop and preserve a particular type of text prevailed over the tendencies leading to a mixture of texts. Thus there grew up several distinctive kinds of New Testament text, the most important of which are the following.

BIBLE DIFFICULTIES BIBLE DIFFICULTIES BIBLE DIFFICULTIES

The Alexandrian text, which Westcott and Hort called the Neutral text (a question-begging title), is usually considered to be the best text and the most faithful in preserving the original. Characteristics of the Alexandrian text are brevity and austerity. That is, it is generally shorter than the text of other forms, and it does not exhibit the degree of grammatical and stylistic polishing that is characteristic of the Byzantine type of text. Until recently the two chief witnesses to the Alexandrian text were codex Vaticanus (B) and codex Sinaiticus (א), parchment manuscripts dating from about the middle of the fourth century. With the acquisition, however, of the Bodmer Papyri, particularly 𝔓66 and 𝔓75, both copied about the end of the second or the beginning of the third century, evidence is now available that the Alexandrian type of text goes back to an archetype that must be dated early in the second century. The Sahidic and Bohairic versions frequently contain typically Alexandrian readings.

The so-called Western text, which was widely current in Italy and Gaul as well as in North Africa and elsewhere (including Egypt), can also be traced back to the second century. It was used by Marcion, Tatian, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Cyprian. Its presence in Egypt is shown by the testimony of 𝔓38 (about a.d. 300) and 𝔓48 (about the end of the third century). The most important Greek manuscripts that present a Western type of text are codex Bezae (D) of the fifth century (containing the Gospels and Acts), codex Claromontanus (D) of the sixth century (containing the Pauline epistles), and, for Mark 1:1 to 5:30, codex Washingtonianus (W) of the fifth century. Likewise the Old Latin versions are noteworthy witnesses to a Western type of text; these fall into three main groups, the African, Italian, and Hispanic forms of Old Latin texts.

The chief characteristic of Western readings is fondness for paraphrase. Words, clauses, and even whole sentences are freely changed, omitted, or inserted. Sometimes the motive appears to have been harmonization, while at other times it was the enrichment of the narrative by the inclusion of traditional or apocryphal material. Some readings involve quite trivial alterations for which no special reason can be assigned. One of the puzzling features of the Western text (which generally is longer than the other forms of text) is that at the end of Luke and in a few other places in the New Testament certain Western witnesses omit words and passages that are present in other forms of text, including the Alexandrian. Although at the close of the last century certain scholars were disposed to regard these shorter readings as original (Westcott and Hort called them “Western non-interpolations”), since the acquisition of the Bodmer Papyri many scholars today are inclined to regard them as aberrant readings (see the Note on Western Non-Interpolations, pp. 164–166).

In the book of Acts the problems raised by the Western text become most acute, for the Western text of Acts is nearly ten percent longer than the form that is commonly regarded to be the original text of that book. For this reason the present volume devotes proportionately more space to variant readings in Acts than to those in any other New Testament book, and a special Introduction to the textual phenomena in Acts is provided (see pp. 222–236).

An Eastern form of text, which was formerly called the Caesarean text, is preserved, to a greater or lesser extent, in several Greek manuscripts (including Θ, 565, 700) and in the Armenian and Georgian versions. The text of these witnesses is characterized by a mixture of Western and Alexandrian readings. Although recent research has tended to question the existence of a specifically Caesarean text-type, the individual manuscripts formerly considered to be members of the group remain important witnesses in their own right.

Another Eastern type of text, current in and near Antioch, is preserved today chiefly in Old Syriac witnesses, namely the Sinaitic and the Curetonian manuscripts of the Gospels and in the quotations of Scripture contained in the works of Aphraates and Ephraem.

The Byzantine text, otherwise called the Syrian text (so Westcott and Hort), the Koine text (so von Soden), the Ecclesiastical text (so Lake), and the Antiochian text (so Ropes), is, on the whole, the latest of the several distinctive types of text of the New Testament. It is characterized chiefly by lucidity and completeness. The framers of this text sought to smooth away any harshness of language, to combine two or more divergent readings into one expanded reading (called conflation), and to harmonize divergent parallel passages. This conflated text, produced perhaps at Antioch in Syria, was taken to Constantinople, whence it was distributed widely throughout the Byzantine Empire. It is best represented today by codex Alexandrinus (in the Gospels; not in Acts, the Epistles, or Revelation), the later uncial manuscripts, and the great mass of minuscule manuscripts. Thus, except for an occasional manuscript that happened to preserve an earlier form of text, during the period from about the sixth or seventh century down to the invention of printing with moveable type (a.d. 1450–56), the Byzantine form of text was generally regarded as the authoritative form of text and was the one most widely circulated and accepted.

PAUL AND LUKE ON TRIAL PAUL AND LUKE ON TRIAL PAUL AND LUKE ON TRIAL

After Gutenberg’s press made the production of books more rapid and therefore cheaper than was possible through copying by hand, it was the debased Byzantine text that became the standard form of the New Testament in printed editions. This unfortunate situation was not altogether unexpected, for the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament that were most readily available to early editors and printers were those that contained the corrupt Byzantine text.

The first published edition of the printed Greek Testament, issued at Basel in 1516, was prepared by Desiderius Erasmus, the Dutch humanist scholar. Since Erasmus could find no manuscript that contained the entire Greek Testament, he utilized several for the various divisions of the New Testament. For the greater part of his text he relied on two rather inferior manuscripts now in the university library at Basel, one of the Gospels and one of the Acts and Epistles, both dating from about the twelfth century. Erasmus compared them with two or three others, and entered occasional corrections in the margins or between the lines of the copy given to the printer. For the book of Revelation he had but one manuscript, dating from the twelfth century, which he had borrowed from his friend Reuchlin. As it happened, this copy lacked the final leaf, which had contained the last six verses of the book. For these verses Erasmus depended upon Jerome’s Latin Vulgate, translating this version into Greek. As would be expected from such a procedure, here and there in Erasmus’s reconstruction of these verses there are several readings that have never been found in any Greek manuscript—but which are still perpetuated today in printings of the so-called Textus Receptus of the Greek New Testament (see the comment on Rev. 22.19). In other parts of the New Testament Erasmus also occasionally introduced into his Greek text material derived from the current form of the Latin Vulgate (see the comment on Acts 9.5–6).

So much in demand was Erasmus’s Greek Testament that the first edition was soon exhausted and a second was called for. It was this second edition of 1519, in which some (but not nearly all) of the many typographical blunders of the first edition had been corrected, that Martin Luther and William Tyndale used as the basis of their translations of the New Testament into German (1522) and into English (1525).

In the years following many other editors and printers issued a variety of editions of the Greek Testament, all of which reproduced more or less the same type of text, namely that preserved in the later Byzantine manuscripts. Even when it happened that an editor had access to older manuscripts—as when Theodore Beza, the friend and successor of Calvin at Geneva, acquired the fifth-century manuscript that goes under his name today, as well as the sixth-century codex Claromontanus—he made relatively little use of them, for they deviated too far from the form of text that had become standard in the later copies.

Noteworthy early editions of the Greek New Testament include two issued by Robert Etienne (commonly known under the Latin form of his name, Stephanus), the famous Parisian printer who later moved to Geneva and threw in his lot with the Protestants of that city. In 1550 Stephanus published at Paris his third edition, the editio Regia, a magnificent folio edition. It is the first printed Greek Testament to contain a critical apparatus; on the inner margins of its pages Stephanus entered variant readings from fourteen Greek manuscripts, as well as readings from another printed edition, the Complutensian Polyglot. Stephanus’s fourth edition (Geneva, 1551), which contains two Latin versions (the Vulgate and that of Erasmus), is noteworthy because in it for the first time the text of the New Testament was divided into numbered verses.

Theodore Beza published no fewer than nine editions of the Greek Testament between 1565 and 1604, and a tenth edition appeared posthumously in 1611. The importance of Beza’s work lies in the extent to which his editions tended to popularize and stereotype what came to be called the Textus Receptus. The translators of the Authorized or King James Bible of 1611 made large use of Beza’s editions of 1588–89 and 1598.

The term Textus Receptus, as applied to the text of the New Testament, originated in an expression used by Bonaventura and Abraham Elzevir (Elzevier), who were printers in Leiden. The preface to their second edition of the Greek Testament (1633) contains the sentence: Textum ergo habes, nunc ab omnibus receptum, in quo nihil immutatum aut corruptum damus (“Therefore you [dear reader] have the text now received by all, in which we give nothing changed or corrupted”). In one sense this proud claim of the Elzevirs on behalf of their edition seemed to be justified, for their edition was, in most respects, not different from the approximately 160 other editions of the printed Greek Testament that had been issued since Erasmus’s first published edition of 1516. In a more precise sense, however, the Byzantine form of the Greek text, reproduced in all early printed editions, was disfigured, as was mentioned above, by the accumulation over the centuries of myriads of scribal alterations, many of minor significance but some of considerable consequence.

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It was the corrupt Byzantine form of text that provided the basis for almost all translations of the New Testament into modern languages down to the nineteenth century. During the eighteenth century scholars assembled a great amount of information from many Greek manuscripts, as well as from versional and patristic witnesses. But, except for three or four editors who timidly corrected some of the more blatant errors of the Textus Receptus, this debased form of the New Testament text was reprinted in edition after edition. It was only in the first part of the nineteenth century (1831) that a German classical scholar, Karl Lachmann, ventured to apply to the New Testament the criteria that he had used in editing texts of the classics. Subsequently other critical editions appeared, including those prepared by Constantin von Tischendorf, whose eighth edition (1869–72) remains a monumental thesaurus of variant readings, and the influential edition prepared by two Cambridge scholars, B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort (1881). It is the latter edition that was taken as the basis for the present United Bible Societies’ edition. During the twentieth century, with the discovery of several New Testament manuscripts much older than any that had hitherto been available, it has become possible to produce editions of the New Testament that approximate ever more closely to what is regarded as the wording of the original documents.

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), xvii–xxiv.

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The Restoration Period

For the next 250 years, until 1881, the textual scholarship was enslaved to the Erasmian-oriented Received Text. As these textual scholars[3] 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. Bengel 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 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. We will examine his contributions in more detail below.

Karl Lachmann (1793-1851) was the first scholar 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 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 accessible the evidence contained in leading as well as less important uncial manuscripts. Throughout the time that Tischendorf was making his valuable contributions to the field of textual criticism in Germany, another great scholar, Samuel Prideaux Tregelles (1813-75) in England made other valued contributions. Among them, he was able to establish his concept of “Comparative Criticism.” That is, the age of a text, such as Vaticanus 1209, may not necessarily be that of its manuscript (i.e. the material upon which the text was written), which was copied in 350 C.E., since the text may be a faithful copy of an earlier text, like the second-century 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 take an opportunity to read about the lengths to which Tischendorf went in his discovery of Codex Sinaiticus, you will be moved by his steadfastness and love for God’s Word.

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The Climax of the Restored Text

The critical text of Westcott and Hort of 1881 has been commended by 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, Novum Testamentum Graece, published in 1898 by the Württemberg Bible Society, Stuttgart, Germany. The Nestle in twelve editions (1898–1923) to subsequently be 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 lives to God and the Greek text. Each of these could have an entire book devoted to 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 Sir Frederic Kenyon have been moved to say that the books of the Greek New Testament have “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, due to 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.

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[1] (Wilkins) The nuance between “receive” and “accept” is often overlooked in discussing the TR, and the Latin “receptus” could just as well mean “accepted” (i.e. “the text accepted by all”), which I suspect was the intent of the advertisement.

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

[3] 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)

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