Facts on the Textus Receptus

Facts on the Textus Receptus
By Dr. Allan A. MacRae and Dr. Robert C. Newman


How did the term “textus receptus” originate?

It originated through a highly exaggerated statement — actually a publisher’s blurb — in the preface to the second edition of the Greek New Testament that was published in Holland in 1633 by the Elzevir brothers. In this Latin preface they called their book “the text which is now received by all, in which we give nothing changed or corrupted.” This is how this Latin term textus receptus (text received) came to be applied to a particular text of the Greek New Testament. On the European continent, aside from Great Britain, the first Elzevir edition (pub. 1624) was for a long time the standard edition of the Greek New Testament.

Did the King James translators use this “textus receptus” as the basis for their translation?

No. Even the first Elzevir edition was not published until 13 years after the date of the KJV.

What was the Greek text on which the KJV New Testament was based?

It was based on the third edition of the Greek New Testament, issued by the Parisian publisher Stephanus (Latinized form of Estienne) in 1550.

Was the text of Stephanus on which the King James Version was based identical with the later “textus receptus”?
No. The two differed in 287 places.

How many Greek manuscripts agree exactly with the edition published by Stephanus, and how many agree exactly with the edition published by Elzevir?

There is no Greek manuscript that agrees exactly with either of these. Both of them are conflate texts.

Were the scholars who prepared the King James Version convinced that their text was absolutely correct?
No. They recognized the possibility of copyists’ errors, and showed this by making marginal notes to variant readings at 13 places. For instance, in Luke 17:36 their marginal note reads: “This 36th verse is wanting in most of the Greek copies.” In Acts 25:6, where their text reads: “When he had tarried among them more than ten days,” they inserted the following marginal note: “Or, as some copies read, no more than eight or ten days.”

What was the source of most of the readings found both in the edition of Stephanus and in that of Elzevir?

Most of the readings in both of these follow the edition of the Greek New Testament prepared by Erasmus, the great enemy of Luther, and published in 1516, the year before the Reformation began.

How many manuscripts agree exactly with Erasmus’ edition of the Greek New Testament?

There is no Greek manuscript that agrees exactly with it. Erasmus made it by combining the readings of several manuscripts, none of them earlier than the tenth century A. D., and most of them still later. In some parts of the New Testament he had no manuscript at all, but simply retranslated from the Latin Bible.

To whom was the Greek New Testament prepared by Erasmus dedicated?

It was dedicated to Pope Leo X, the pope who later condemned Luther and the Reformation. It is believed that this pope gave Erasmus’ publisher the exclusive right to publish the Greek New Testament for a period of time.

Have better manuscripts been discovered than those on which the textus receptus was based?

During the three and one-half centuries since the King James Version was made dozens of manuscripts have been found that were copied many centuries earlier than any manuscript used by Erasmus. The manuscripts he used were copies of copies of copies of copies of copies. When material is copied a number of times by hand, extra words and phrases generally find their way into the text in the course of copying and occasionally the eye of a copyist may jump from one word of a phrase to a similar one, and thus omit something or perhaps copy it twice.

Does this mean that the textus receptus is a harmful text?

The additions in the textus receptus do not contain any idea that is not taught elsewhere in the New Testament in parts that agree with the earlier manuscripts. The differences consist mainly of repetition of ideas al-ready contained elsewhere in the Scripture.

Then why bother to hunt for early manuscripts? Why not simply follow the textus receptus?

God inspired the manuscripts that came from the hands of the original writers. It is impossible to copy a book of any length without making some mistakes. In the case of the New Testament we have more evidence for determining the text of the original writers than for any other book from ancient times. While there is rarely anything harmful in the later manuscripts, it is desirable, if we truly wish to know God’s Word, to base our text, as far as possible, on early manuscripts.
What is meant by the Byzantine Text?

Shortly before A. D. 400 the Roman Empire was divided into two parts, the Western Roman Empire and the eastern or Byzantine Empire. Within a century after this division the western empire came to an end, and Western Europe sank into a state of near barbarism. The Byzantine Empire continued, though often in a greatly weakened state, until A. D. 1453.

For about a thousand years, the Greek language was completely unknown in Western Europe, but remained the official language of the Byzantine Empire. During this time both portions of the former Roman Empire contained many monasteries in which the monks were required to do a certain amount of work each day. One way to fulfill this work requirement was to copy manuscripts. In the western monasteries Latin manuscripts, including the Latin Bible, were copied and recopied by the monks. In the Byzantine monasteries Greek manuscripts were copied, including copies of the Greek Bible. Some of these scribes were greatly interested in what they were copying, but to others the copying was merely an assigned task. In the course of copying, little mistakes invariably come in, so that no two manuscripts of the Latin Bible or of the Greek Bible are exactly the same. During this period, as visitors passed from one Byzantine monastery to another, and manuscripts were interchanged from time to time, the tendency naturally developed to bring the manuscripts into harmony with one another. Where early manuscripts differed slightly there was a tendency to combine the readings. Thus there developed a text which is found, with many variations, in the manuscripts copied in the Byzantine empire in the later middle ages.

Sometimes a whole verse is said to be missing from the best manuscripts. Would not such an omission be obvious because of the verse number being skipped?

Our system of numbering verses is not found in Greek manuscripts. The first publication in which the New Testament was divided into numbered verses was the 4th edition by Stephanus, which he published in Geneva in 1551, after fleeing from Paris.

Some say that the last twelve verses of the Gospel of Mark were not part of the original. What do you think of this?

There is a strong possibility that the end of the Gospel of Mark was lost from certain important manuscripts at a very early time. Some early manuscripts stop abruptly at the end of V. 8 of the last chapter. Yet there was doubtless an ending, for it is extremely unlikely that the Gospel of Mark stopped with the words “and they were afraid.” It may have been the short ending that is found in some ancient manuscripts, or it may have been the longer ending that occurs in the later manuscripts. Practically everything in this longer ending is also clearly stated in the Gospel of Luke. The question whether it was also stated at the end of the original Gospel of Mark is interesting, but not of any great importance for Christian life or thought. There is only one statement of importance in Mark that is not in Luke: “They shall take up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing it shall not hurt them.” Whether this was part of the original Gospel of Mark or not, it is certainly true that God can protect His people in this way whenever He chooses to do so, as is shown by the experience of Paul described in Acts 28:3-6.

Do early manuscripts omit the word Christ at many places where it is included in the textus receptus and thereby show themselves to be unchristian?

The Gospels always speak of our Lord as Jesus. The book of Acts uses the word “Jesus” alone 35 times, “Jesus Christ” 10 times, and “the Lord Jesus Christ” 6 times in the KJV. It would be quite erroneous to conclude from this that the author of Acts does not like the word “Christ.” Different writers show different preferences in this regard. As scribes copied manuscripts in century after century it was easy for a scribe unintentionally to write a longer form even where a shorter one occurred, so the word Christ occurs more frequently in later manuscripts than in earlier ones. Yet even in the latest manuscripts we find that Jesus is often called by shorter terms. The use of longer phrases in referring to the Lord does not necessarily show greater piety or greater loyalty to Christ.

It is sometimes said that since God gave an inerrant Bible in the original we can be sure that He would cause that it be preserved without error. What do you think of this statement?

This is the sort of argument that rests on human ideas and not on God’s revelation. One might as well say that if God gave His Son to die for the sins of all who will believe on His Name we can then be sure that every person who has lived since that time would be fully informed about Him. We know that this is not true. Millions of people have died without ever hearing about Christ. There are people in this country who have attended church faithfully all their lives, but have only heard the social Gospel and have never been told how they could be saved through Christ. We know that whatever God does is best, but we do not have the wisdom to say that He must have done things in a certain way.

God has caused that the books of the Bible should be marvelously preserved. We can get extremely near to the precise text as it came from the hands of the authors, but there are many minor points on which we cannot be sure. None of these points affect any important fact of Christian doctrine or life.

God could have caused His Word to have been written on tables of stone and preserved in a room kept at exactly the same temperature, protected from any change, like the authoritative standards kept by the U.S. government. He did not choose to do so. This is a simple fact. No two manuscripts of the New Testament exactly agree. No manuscript agrees exactly with the textus receptus.

There is more material available to see how the Bible has been translated and to try to get near to the exact wo 1s of the original authors than of any other book from ancient times. We can be very sure that we are very near to the original text. We cannot say that we have it exactly. Maybe some of us would have done it differently, but this is the way God did it.

What about such statements as: “Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled,” (Matt. 5:18) and “the scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35)?

Jesus did not say that not a jot or tittle would pass from the law till every tiniest part had been copied perfectly. What He said was that no tiny part of the meaning of the Word of God as given to the original writers would fail to be fulfilled in exactly the way that God intended. Man cannot break what God has ordained. These verses refer to fulfillment, not to precise copying.

What is your opinion of the New American Standard Bible?

No translation is perfect. There are always places at which it is extremely difficult to render a passage into a different language. The KJV was very excellent for its day, but some of its renderings are questionable. The New American Standard Bible was prepared by consecrated Christian scholars and represents an attempt to give an accurate presentation in modern English of the text found in the older manuscripts of the Bible, with occasional notes pointing out differences in late manuscripts. Christians should be grateful for the devoted effort that has gone into this excellent translation.

Should a denomination or association of churches op-pose a version solely on the ground that it is not based on the textus receptus?

The important thing about a version is its accuracy in translating the text of the Bible. The KJV was greatly used of God for 300 years until much of its language became quite archaic, as the English language changed. It is foolish to ask young people to learn the language of 300 years ago in order to read the Bible. Even mature Christians do not know what is meant by such phrases as “we do you to wit” (2 Cor. 8:1), and “thou shalt destroy them that speak leasing” (Ps. 5:6). God’s people need an accurate translation in the language of today. This is extremely vital. It is wrong to ask Christians to oppose a translation because it tries to follow the ancient manuscripts rather than a text based largely on Erasmus’ edition. To do so is to make an idol of the textus receptus, or of the King James Version. God does not want His people to be idolaters!

(The preceding material compiled by Dr. Allan A. MacRae) Copyright by Dr. Allan A. MacRae, March 14, 1975. All rights reserved.

I have heard that the King James Version and the textus receptus are based on the majority of Greek NT manuscripts. Is this true?

Yes and no. As Dr. MacRae has pointed out, the King James Version does not exactly follow the majority of Greek NT manuscripts. For instance, I John 5:7, found in the KJV and TR, occurs in only four (out of nearly 5000) Greek manuscripts. The reading “book of life” in Rev. 22:19 is found in no Greek manuscript.

Even though no Greek manuscript is exactly like the Textus Receptus or Erasmus’ Greek NT, isn’t it true that 95% of the known manuscripts of the Greek NT are closer to these than to the Greek text behind most modern English translations?
Yes. But 95% of the known Greek NT manuscripts were copied after A. D. 700, more than six centuries after the NT was written.

What is the situation among early NT manuscripts then?

Among manuscripts copied before A. D. 400 (three centuries after the NT was completed) there are none of the Textus Receptus type (Byzantine family), even though we have over seventy manuscripts from this period. From A. D. 400 to 700, Byzantine manuscripts are still in the minority.

Isn’t it possible that the Textus Receptus is still the original text, but that old manuscripts of it were destroyed as soon as they were copied?

Well, I suppose it is possible, but we have no statements from antiquity that Christian copyist destroyed old manuscripts after they copied them. The evidence we do have suggests that the Byzantine family is not the oldest type of NT text.

What sort of evidence is there that the Byzantine family is not the oldest text?

We have three basic sources of information about the text of the NT: (1) Greek NT manuscripts, (2) quotations of the NT by early Christian writers, and (3) ancient translations of the NT into other languages. I have already mentioned the Greek NT manuscript situation above.

What about quotations by early Christian writers?

Many Christians quote from the NT in the letters, sermons and commentaries preserved from the early centuries of our era. Although we see about 100 writers using the so-called Alexandrian, Western and Caesarean text families in quotations from before A. D 400, the first person known to have used the Byzantine type of text is John Chrysostom, who died in A. D. 407.

What about early translations?

We have translations of the NT made into Latin, Syriac and Coptic (Egyptian) by A. D. 300. None of these use a Byzantine sort of text but rather the Alexandrian or Western text. The earliest Byzantine type translation is the Syriac Peshitta, but there is no evidence for its existence before the 5th century A. D.

But if the Byzantine family and the Textus Receptus are not the original text of Scripture, doesn’t this mean that the Church has been without the true text for nearly 1400 years?

Again, yes and no. If you mean that there has been uncertainty on the exact wording of Scripture, this has been so ever since the autographs were lost, probably in the second century. This is why we speak of the inerrancy of Scripture in the autographs. But even those who believe the Textus Receptus is correct must choose among the many printed editions of the Greek NT or among the thousands of late Greek manuscripts, so they cannot be sure of the exact wording either. But if you mean uncertainty regarding doctrine, none of the teachings of Scripture rest on only one passage (unless you are a snake-handler!). In fact, none of the various families of text: Alexandrian, Western, Caesarean or Byzantine, give us a Bible which teaches different doctrines from the others.

(The preceding material compiled by Dr. Robert C. Newman) Copyright by Dr. Robert C. Newman, March 14, 1975. All rights reserved.

This booklet “Facts on the Textus Receptus” written by Dr. Allan A. MacRae and Dr. Robert C. Newman is published by Foundation Press 1975.