The Text of the New Testament by Andy Erwin

     The original documents of the Scriptures are commonly called “autographs” and the handwritten copies of these documents are usually referred to as “manuscripts.”  The extant manuscripts and manuscript fragments of the Greek New Testament now exceed 5,000 in number. The text of the Bible is better preserved than the writings of Homer, Plato, or Aristotle.

The Importance of this Subject

     The manner in which we consult and collate these ancient manuscripts will determine the kind of Greek text we have and the basis for our translation of the New Testament into English.  The formation and end result of the text is of utmost importance.  If the text is inaccurate, even the best translation rendered will be inaccurate.

     Biblical scholars realize the importance of the text to the translation process, and thus the topic of “weighing” manuscripts is often debated.  Scholars are right to debate this issue.  The subject demands close scrutiny.  The text of the Bible is worthy of our attention and demands our respect.

     It is because scholars want to get it right, that the difficult and tedious science of textual criticism is employed.  The science of textual criticism is by no means new and is ever evolving.  As the science produces new results based upon new evidence, the text of the Bible undergoes changes.

     In this study, we shall observe three standard Greek texts which have evolved throughout the last five centuries.  In observing the evolution of these texts, we will evaluate and critique the philosophy behind each effort.

The Textus Receptus

     The story of the Greek text that came to be known as the Textus Receptus (Latin for “Received Text”) begins with Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536).  Erasmus was a Latin and Greek scholar who is credited with publishing the first printed Greek New Testament in 1516.

     Erasmus’ New Testament consisted of parallel columns of Greek on the left and his own Latin translation on the right. Erasmus revised his Greek text four times (1519, 1522, 1527, and 1535).  It is believed that both Luther and Tyndale used the 1522 edition for their respective translations.

     Robert Stephanus revised this text on four occasions (1546, 1549, 1550, and 1551).  By the time of Stephanus’ third edition, verse divisions were included.  It was also this third edition which was used as the text for the New Testament of the Geneva Bible in 1557.

     Theodore Beza (1519-1605) followed Stephanus and revised the Erasmus text on four different occasions from 1565-1604.  It is believed that he published at least nine editions in his lifetime.  During his revisions new manuscripts were collated into the text.

     The Elzevir brothers, Bonaventure and Abraham, published a small edition of the Greek text in 1624.  Their text was primarily Beza’s 1565 edition.  In 1633 they produced another edition in which the text was corrected of errors which appeared in the earlier edition.  The preface of this edition claims that most minute mistakes had been corrected.  The preface also states it is, “the text which is now received by all, in which we give nothing changed or corrupted.”  This remark gave birth to the text being designated as the Textus Receptus or “Received Text.”

     The Textus Receptus as it appeared in Erasmus’ 1522 edition was the Greek text and basis for the early English translations of the New Testament, beginning with William Tyndale’s translation of 1526, including the King James Version of 1611. Revisions of the Textus Receptus continued after the KJV was published and as new information was discovered.

     Brian Walton revised the text in 1657 with the discovery of the Codex Alexandrinus.   We know from the appendix of the sixth volume of this work that at least fifteen different sources were consulted.

     In 1675, John Fell edited the 1633 text which had been slightly revised by the Elzevir brothers.  In the apparatus he claims that he collated 100 manuscripts and versions.

     In 1707, John Mill published an edition using Stephenus’ text.  It is believed that he had seventy-eight manuscripts at his disposal.  Kuster (1710), Wells (1709-19), Bentley (1720), and Mace (1729) continued revising the text throughout the eighteenth century.

     Improvements to the Textus Receptus continued to be made throughout the nineteenth century as new manuscripts were discovered and added as variant readings to the text.

     In the 1830s, Johann Martin Augustin Scholz (1794-1852) published his Novum Testamentum Graece.  Scholz included 616 new minuscule (lower case) manuscripts and three uncial (upper case) fragments.  Scholz also divided all New Testament manuscripts into five families: Alexandrian, Western, Asiatic, Byzantine, and Cyprian.

     In 1881, Frederick Scrivener (1813-1891) collated the Codex Sinaiticus  with the Textus Receptus.  Scrivener compared the Textus Receptus with the editions of Stephanus (1550), Theodore Beza (1565), and Elzevier (1633) and enumerated all the differences.

     The Scrivener text was produced in an attempt to reconstruct the Greek text underlying the King James of 1611.  The translators of the KJV never published the Greek text from which they worked.  Therefore, Scrivener attempted to formulate the text they would have used by examining the various texts that would have been available to them.

     Scrivener matched various readings (primarily the Beza and Stephanus texts) to fit the English used by the KJV translators.  Thus, the Scrivener text properly belongs to the family of Textus Receptus.  While there is no single Greek manuscript that represents the Textus Receptus, since the more than thirty varieties of the Textus Receptus were all eclectic texts formed by incorporating variant readings, it can be rightly said that Scrivener’s text was the best and most recent update for his time.

The Text of the New King James Version

     When the decision was made by Sam Moore and Thomas Nelson Publishers that the King James Version needed to be revised and brought into twentieth century English, it was decided that the Textus Receptus would be the textual basis for their translation of New Testament.  The revision would be called the New King James Version.

     Dr. Arthur Farstad, who served as the Executive Editor of the NKJV, provided the following reasons for returning to the Textus Receptus in their revision.  In the first place, they did not want to do as Wescott and Hort did with the English Revised Version of 1881.  The ERV was promoted as a revision of the KJV.  However, as we shall later observe, Westcott and Hort used an entirely different text for their New Testament translation.  This decision was not well received by all.  In fact, many criticized Wescott and Hort for using their Greek text, rather than keeping the Textus Receptus.

     The NKJV translators did not want to repeat this mistake.  If the NKJV was going to be a revision of the KJV, then the same textual basis for the KJV would have to be used.  However, it is worth noting that the edition of the Textus Receptus used by the NKJV translators was not the same as was used by the KJV translators.  The NKJV committee chose to use Scrivener’s more accurate revision of the text, which also included the Sinai Codex.

     In the second place, they did not believe that the Byzantine family of manuscripts should be completely disregarded.  As we shall see in our observation of the Critical Text, the oldest manuscripts are Alexandrian in origin, but there are relatively few of these.  On the other hand, the Byzantine manuscripts, although later in date, number over 2,700 of all available manuscript evidence.  The Textus Receptus is largely based on these Byzantine manuscripts.

     In the third place, the Textus Receptus reflects the readings of eighty percent, and very frequently close to ninety-five percent, of all extant manuscripts.   Thus, the translators of the NKJV chose to use the text with which the overwhelming majority of available evidence agreed, and observe any differences in other texts in their marginal notes.  The NKJV is the only modern version which decided to return to the Textus Receptus as the basis for its translation of the New Testament, and with the NKJV the line of the Textus Receptus ends for now.

The Critical Text

     The process of formulating a second Greek text of the New Testament began in the 1830s with the work of the German scholar Karl Lachmann (1793-1851).  Lachmann published three editions of a Greek New Testament from 1831-1850, in which he used only uncial (capital letters) Alexandrian and Old Latin manuscripts.  Lachmann’s work was the first to break from the Textus Receptus which was based largely upon Byzantine manuscripts.

     Constantin von Tischendorf (1815-1874) followed in the footsteps of Lachmann in that he gave decisive weight to the oldest manuscripts without balancing their testimony against that of the Textus Receptus.  Tischendorf discovered and published more manuscripts in his day than any other scholar.  He examined everything available to him – manuscripts, versions, “church fathers,” etc.  His Greek text was published and revised during the years 1867-1872.  Eight editions in all were published.  Again, his text differed from the Textus Receptus because it was based upon the oldest available evidence, and not the agreement of the majority of all available evidence.  Tischendorf’s text was also based upon the Alexandrian family of manuscripts, rather than the Byzantine family of manuscripts.

     In 1881, two Cambridge University scholars, B.F. Westcott (1825-1901) and F.J.A. Hort (1828-1902), took the work of Tischendorf and those who followed him, and revised it further in their text titled “The New Testament in the Original Greek.”  Westcott and Hort were also able to rely heavily upon the Codex Vaticanus which was not accessible to Tischendorf.

     As stated, Westcott and Hort titled their work, “The New Testament in the Original Greek.”  However, it should be noted that they did not have any evidence dating earlier than the fourth century AD.  Moreover, neither Westcott nor Hort ever actually collated a single manuscript but worked completely from published material.   The Westcott-Hort Text served as the textual basis for the English Revised Version (1885) and the American Standard Version (1901).

     Like the Received Text, the Critical Text underwent revisions.  In 1886, Richard Francis Weymouth (1822-1902) first published “The Resultant Greek Testament,” which was the basis for his New Testament translation known as The Modern Speech New Testament published in 1903. Bernhard Weiss (1827-1918) also continued in this work of revision from 1894-1900.

     In 1898, Eberhard Nestle (1851-1913) published his Novum Testamentum Graece.  This text was published first by the Wurttemberg Bible Society in 1898 and its fifth edition was published by the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1904.  Once accepted by these Bible societies, Nestle’s text became the standard Greek New Testament for scholars and schools.

     Nestle arrived at his text by comparing the texts of Tischendorf and Westcott-Hort.  When the two texts differed, Nestle consulted Weymouth’s text for his earlier editions, and Weiss’ text for his later editions.  The agreement of two editions determined the text, while the third reading was placed in the apparatus.  The 25th edition of the Nestle Text differs from the Westcott-Hort Text only 558 times (less than once per page).  It differs from the Tischendorf text only 1,262 times.

     In the late 1940s, Erwin Nestle (1883-1972) employed Kurt Aland (1915-1994) to assist in revising the Nestle Text, which would become the 21st edition of 1952.  By the time of the 26th edition, the text would be known as the Nestle-Aland Text.  This text is now in its 28th edition.

     During this period, Kurt Aland, Matthew Black, Bruce Metzger, Allen Wikgren, Eugene Nida, and Barbara Aland worked together as a committee for the United Bible Societies to produce “The Greek New Testament” which was first published in 1966.  The text for the Nestle-Aland Text and the GNT is identical.  Scholars who support this textual tradition maintain that the most reliable portions from all manuscripts (Byzantine, Alexandrian, or Western) including the most recent papyri discoveries have been used to formulate this text.  However, even Aland stated the label of eclecticism is not strictly appropriate, for the eclectic method was not always employed, realizing that each New Testament text requires its own individual treatment with a fresh consideration of not only the external but of the internal factors as well.

     The GNT and the Nestle-Aland Text serves as the standard Greek Testament for scholars and schools today.  It has also served as the textual basis for English versions since the 1950s.

The Majority Text

     The “Majority Text” is not the Textus Receptus.   The Majority Text is derived from the agreed reading of all existing Greek manuscripts; but because most of these manuscripts are late medieval manuscripts, there is a family resemblance between the Received Text and the Majority Text.  They agree with one another much more than either of them agrees with the Critical Text. One should know, however, that the text and apparatus of the Majority Text are based entirely on evidence supplied in other editions of Greek texts (similar to the methodology of Westcott and Hort), rather than on a first-hand study of the manuscripts.

     In 1982, Thomas Nelson Publishers produced The Greek New Testament According to the Majority Text.   Zane Hodges and Arthur Farstad were the principal editors.   The Majority Text has also undergone revision.  Maurice A. Robinson and William G. Pierpont produced The New Testament in the Original Greek: Byzantine Textform, in 1991 and a revision in 2005.

     While Aland believed this effort to be an anachronism, such a lighthearted attitude toward this text should be avoided.  For, in theory, the effort put forth was noble and plausible.  Two premises underlie the methodology for the Majority Text:

(1)        Any reading overwhelmingly attested by the manuscript tradition is more likely to be original than its rival(s) and therefore, “a reading… found only in a small number of other manuscripts, is not at all likely to be a survival from the autograph” (see Preface).   It is maintained that the readings found in the largest number of manuscripts are most likely to trace back to the earliest copies.  The earliest manuscripts would have had time to multiply the most.

(2)        Most of the earliest manuscripts would have been sent to the area which had the most “early” churches.  This area would have been the areas of Corinth, Achaia, and Asia Minor.  Of course, this area would later become part of the Byzantine Empire from whence the majority of manuscripts have originated.

     Of the basis of such plausible premises, one can hardly dismiss as flippantly as Aland did the notion of a Majority Text based upon the reading of all available manuscript evidence.  Such a text would be a true eclectic text.  Moreover, as we have previously stated, 80-95% of all available evidence agrees with the Majority Text/ Received Text.  However, for those who believe the oldest manuscripts are closest to the original, the vast majority of manuscript evidence is of little importance, seeing that the vast majority is of a later date.

In Conclusion

     As the field of New Testament textual criticism stands today, the overwhelming number of scholars, schools, and even Bible translations are fixed firmly in the camp of the Critical Text.  The 300 year dominance of the Received Text has come to its end and for the last century we have been in the midst of a prevailing dependence upon the Critical Text.

     Certainly much work has been done and many pieces of evidence have been discovered since the time of Erasmus and even Scrivener.  However, the true spirit of the Received Text and the Majority Text is to consider all the available evidence as it comes to light, while holding to the criteria of allowing the majority of all available evidence to stand.  Yet, this criterion does not set well with many scholars.  Some vehemently oppose the idea of a majority reading of all available manuscript evidence.  Others hotly contest the idea of allowing two or three manuscripts the privilege of determining the text.

     Hence, the debate continues – sometimes with quite inflammatory language.  One must sift through the prejudice and look for the facts; facts which cannot be ascertained by studying only one side of the issue.   Indeed, prejudice avails and prevails in many instances throughout this field of study.  One can only hope to be balanced and fairly weigh all the testimony before reaching a conclusion.  One must think for himself.

     With that being said, we still have approximately 80% agreement between the three textual traditions.  It is the 20% for which we disagree that includes passages whose authenticity must be settled.

     It could be said that these disputed passages do not affect the plan of salvation, and that one can be led to the truth without them.  Others deem such an answer unsatisfactory and believe the issue is much deeper than that.  These maintain that every word of God must be represented in the Bible and that not one jot or tittle should be removed.

     We must also realize that the use and defense of the Majority Text or the Received Text does not make a scholar any less scholarly.  His use of this text and translations from this text does not necessarily mean he is “King James Only” or that he embraces everything that camp teaches.

      On the other hand, just because a man uses the Critical Text, or a translation derived from that text, does not necessarily mean that he is a theological liberal.  Dialogue and study is what is needed most in this particular field of study.

     With that in mind, let us continue to study this issue and listen to the points that are made on both sides of the issue.  Usually one can find the truth somewhere in between.