In connection with our discussion of Bible translations, several of our readers called my attention to a little tract published by a certain Missionary J.J. Ray, Junction City, Oregon. This tract is a defense of the King James Version over against all other translations and versions solely on the basis of the claim that the King James Bible is founded on the Greek Textus Receptus (Received Text), which, in turn, is claimed to be the only authentic Greek text of the New Testament. It contains a list of “200 KEY REFERENCES” which “show how all modern Bibles differ from the King James Version, and the Greek Textus Receptus from which it was translated.” And in connection with these 200 references it furnishes statistics showing how various other versions differ from the King James Version by omitting, bracketing, or italicizing as nonauthentic many of these 200 expressions which are found in the King James Version and in the Greek Textus Receptus. We will not enter into all of the claims made in this tract in detail. Rather do we call your attention to the fundamental argument of the author under the heading, “Here’s The Acid Test.” This “acid test” is stated as follows: “Any version of the Bible, that does not agree with the Greek Textus Receptus, from which the King James Bible was translated in 1611, is certainly to be founded upon corrupted manuscripts.”
On the basis of this so-called “acid test” many severe warnings are sounded to adhere to the King James Version and condemnatory statements are made concerning all departures from the Greek Textus Receptus, (which, by the way, concerns only the New Testament!).
To the unwary reader this tract might seem to be a strong defense of the King James Version; and seemingly some of my readers have sent me this tract for that very reason.
However, at the risk of being in the uncomfortable position of opposing someone who defends the King James Version, I must disagree with the position taken in this tract; and I must warn that a defense of the King James Version cannot be made on this radical basis. Those who attempt it are likely to receive a jolt some day, should they encounter someone who is opposed to the KJV and who is able to expose the very obvious error of the radical position taken in this pamphlet.
You see, a radical over-simplification of the issue is not a strong position, but a weak one. Should any opponent of the KJV be able to show that this one, apparently simple, argument based on the Textus Receptus is false, the entire position of this tract is destroyed. And the friend of the KJV is then left with the proverbial “mouth full of teeth.” This tract leaves the impression that anyone with a smattering of knowledge that there is such a thing as a Greek Textus Receptus and even without any knowledge of New Testament Greek and of the entire science known as “textual criticism” is able to apply the acid test and to defend the KJV as the only authentic text. This is a case of “A little learning is a dangerous thing.”
As is well-known to our readers, I am a defender of the King James Version and an opponent of the introduction of all kinds of new versions for general Bible reading usage. But I certainly do not want to be bound hand and foot to the King James Version. And I am by no means ready to call for a book-burning party at which all the other versions will constitute the fuel for a gigantic bonfire. And in my studies and exegetical work I will not allow anyone to bind me to the Greek Textus Receptus. Nor will I defend the KJV on the basis that it alone is correct when it comes to the textual variations involved in these “200 key references.” Nor, in fact, would I care to defend the KJV solely on textual grounds. One almost gets the impression from this tract that the Textus Receptus is an exact copy of the autographs, the New Testament as it came from the pens of the sacred writers, or that it dropped out of heaven, rather than coming from the Amsterdam and Leyden printing presses of the Elzevir Brothers.
No, this tract, while it leaves the impression of taking a very strong position, actually takes a position of weakness.
We must not try to defend the KJV on an absolute basis. Nor must we try to defend it on the ground that it is in every key instance textually correct. It is much better to defend the KJV on acomparative basis—not as the only, but as the best English version. And it is correct to do so not merely on textual grounds, but on the basis of all the considerations which enter into the picture, such as accuracy of the text, inclusiveness of text, accuracy and smoothness of translation, beauty and majesty of language, familiarity of the language and long-standing usage, etc. On this basis I will defend the proposition that it is far better for our people, our families, our schools, and our churches to stick to the use of one English version, the King James.
Without going into all the intricate details of the science known as “textual criticism,” let me try to explain a few matters which will make plain the fallacy of this tract’s argument.
First of all, we should keep this entire matter of manuscripts and textual variations in the proper perspective. As is commonly known, we do not have the original writings (often called “autographa”) of the Scriptures. If we had these, this whole problem would not exist. Those autographa were perfect; and when we speak of infallible inspiration, the ultimate reference is to these perfect original books. We have only copies of these books, however. And there are well over 4000 of such manuscript-copies of the New Testament. There is among them only one major manuscript which contains all of the New Testament intact. Several others contain a large part of the New Testament. But many are only one book, or a part of a book; and there are also hundreds of fragments, some of which contain only a small piece of one of the N.T. books. These copies, mind you, are not nicely printed copies such as we can buy today at a bookstore. No, they were all hand copied. Some of the earliest fragments were copied by hand on papyrus rolls. Later, in the fourth century, they began to make copies of parts or all of the Scriptures in book form, on parchment. Also these were laboriously hand-printed by scribes, or companies of scribes, and in a manner which makes it a tremendously laborious task to decipher them today. For example, there is a whole group of important manuscripts called uncials. These were written in all capital letters, much like what children call printing letters. In a picture of a part of such a manuscript which I have before me as I write this, there is no punctuation, no separation between words,—simply a continuous string of block-style letters. It would be much as though I would print, say, Mark 1:1, 2 as follows (but not even in such neatly printed letters): “THEBEGINNINGOFTHEGOSPELOFJESUSCHRISTTHESONOFGODASITISWRITTEN IN THEPROPHETSBEHOLDISENDMYMESSENGERBEFORETHYFACE THEBEGINNINGOFTHEGOSPELOFJESUSCHRISTTHESONOFGODASITISWRITTENINTHEPROPHETSBEHOLDISENDMYMESSENGERBEFORETHYFACEWHICHSHALLPREPA ETHYWAYBEFORETHIEE.” You can imagine a little how easy it would be to make mistakes in the process of copying such a manuscript!
Thus it comes about that there are thousands of such manuscripts, and that among these manuscripts there are many thousands of variations in the text. Some of these variations may involve only a letter or a single word. Some were unintentional mistakes, such as the repetition of a line already printed. Some were well-intentioned changes, the scribe thinking he was correcting a mistake made in the copy which he was copying. And undoubtedly there were also some intentional changes made by those who were attempting to use the text to support their peculiar doctrinal views.
It is about these variations in the thousands of manuscripts that the science of textual criticism is concerned. Properly, it is the task of this science to arrive as nearly as possible at the original text of Scripture.
It is in this connection that I said we should keep the proper perspective. In the first place, lest anyone imagine that this makes all of the New Testament highly doubtful, it should be emphasized, on the contrary, that the New Testament is extremely well preserved. A.T. Robertson, An Introduction to the Textus al Criticism of the New Testament Broadman Press, 1925, writes, pp. 69, 70:
But the wealth of manuscript evidence is a great blessing and helps us to restore the original text. There is but a single manuscript that preserves most of the Annals of Tacitus. Only one manuscript gives the Greek Anthology. The poems of Catullus come to us in three manuscripts later than the fourteenth century A.D. The best attested texts like those of Sophocles, Euripedes, Vergil, and Cicero can only count the manuscripts that give them by the hundreds. And these are from 500 to 1600 years after the autographs were written. The manuscripts of AeSchylus, Aristophanes, Sophocles, and Thucydides are 1400 years after the death of the authors. Those of Catullus and Euripides are 1600. Those for Plato are 1300 and those for Demosthenes are 1200. Only Vergil has one manuscript in the fourth century and two in the fifth (cf. Kenyon, op. cit. p. 5).
But this is not all. There are some 8,000 manuscripts of the Latin Vulgate and at least 1,000 for the other early versions. Add over 4,000 Greek manuscripts and we have 13,000 manuscript copies of portions of the New Testament. Besides all this, much of the New Testament can be reproduced from the quotations of early Christian writers. It was obviously impossible for the New Testament to perish from the earth unless the world itself were to be destroyed. Even then much of it will go to heaven in the minds and hearts of the saints.
But, secondly, of how much importance are the textual variations? One scholar, Nestle, sets the number of textual variations at about 150,000. He tells us that only one-twentieth of these has any significant authority to support it. But, mind you, of this one twentieth there is again only one-twentieth which is of any significance for the meaning of Holy Scripture. This already reduces that 150,000 to about 375 significant variations in the whole of the New Testament! Add to this the fact that there is no single article of faith which depends on these variant readings! And add to this the fact that even of these 375, many are of very small importance! Another scholar, Hort, tells us that “the amount of what can in any sense be called substantial variation . . . can hardly form more than a thousandth part of the entire text.” There is, therefore, only a very, very small fraction of the entire New Testament about which there is any textual question. I do not write this to belittle the science of textual criticism; the latter is important and valuable. But no one should be left with the impression that we have a doubtful Bible, an undependable Bible,—especially in view of the fact that our King James Version was translated before many of the manuscripts had been discovered and before the science of textual criticism had developed. The Lord our God has in His providence and grace taken care that His church has a dependable Bible even in the English language!
But what about this thing called the Textus Receptus?
The simple fact is that the Textus Receptus is a printed edition of the Greek New Testament, published by the Elzevir brothers of Leyden and Amsterdam in the year 1633. It is not a manuscript. It is a printed edition based on other printed editions, and, for the most part only indirectly, on some manuscripts of late date. It was produced long before the great majority of the more than 4000 manuscripts mentioned earlier had even been discovered. And it was produced before the science of textual criticism had been developed. The marvel is that the Textus Receptus is as good as it is! And let me hasten to add: it is indeed a basically sound text! But it is not what is called a critical edition, that is, not the product of textual-critical study.
To understand the rise of this Textus Receptus a little review of history is necessary.
The first printed copy of the Greek New Testament was the Complutensian, prepared by the Spanish Cardinal Ximenes, printed in 1514, was not actually published until 1522, due to a delay in approval by Pope Leo X. Authorities differ somewhat as to the basis of this edition. But they agree that whatever manuscripts were used, they were late ones, probably from at least the eleventh century to the fifteenth. Some even claim that the passage of I John 5:7, which appears in only a couple of late Greek manuscripts, was inserted by way of translation back into the Greek from the Latin Vulgate.
Erasmus, the prince of humanists and the pride (?) of Rotterdam, was responsible for the first edition which was published. At the suggestion of a Base1 printer, Froben, and in a race to beat the publication of the Complutensian, Erasmus hurriedly prepared his first edition for publication in 1516. It was based on manuscripts from the tenth to the fifteenth centuries; and again, parts were filled in from the Latin Vulgate. In 1522 Erasmus published his third edition, which became the foundation of the Textus Receptus for Britain since it was followed by Robert Stephen. Peculiar about this third edition is the fact that because of a rash promise made to the editor of the Complutensian, Erasmus inserted I John 5:7 although he rightly inferred that it had been translated from the Latin, according to A.T. Robertson. This is interesting because it explains how this passage found its way into the Textus Receptus.
Next followed the work of Robert Stephen, a printer at Paris. It was Stephen’s third edition which became known as the Textus Receptus for Britain, 1550. It was mainly the text of Erasmus’s fourth and fifth editions, but it contained marginal readings from the Complutensian and from. fifteen manuscripts, among which were D (from the sixth century) and L (from the eighth century). This work is recognized as the first collection of various readings of any importance, and is said to have be&-of real value to students, in spite of its many defects.
Theodore Beza, the friend and successor of John Calvin at Geneva, is responsible for ten editions of the Greek Testament from 1565 to 1611. However, it is said that he was not diligent in collecting fresh material for the correction of the text, though he had access to two important major manuscripts for the Gospels and Acts.and for the Pauline Epistles. His textual basis was mostly Stephen’s fourth edition, with partial substitution of new readings by himself and partial use of Erasmus and the Complutensian. Beza’s Latin Translation and Commentary, however, were a guide for the Genevan Bible, which was a forerunner of the King James Version and exercised a marked influence on the latter.
This brings us to what is commonly known as the Textus Receptus. The brothers Bonaventure and Abraham Elzevir established a press at Leyden and later at Amsterdam, The Netherlands, from which they issued seven successive editions of the Greek Testament (1624 to 1678). Their second edition, 1633: which was actually printed in London and which contained notes by Robert Stephen among others, is the one which became known as the Textus Receptus. It is based on that of Stephen and Beza and the last edition of Erasmus. But here is the interesting fact. Where did this expression Textus Receptus (Received Text) come from? The 1633 edition of the Elzevir Brothers contained the announcement in Latin to the effect that here was the “text received by all,” (Textum ergo habes nunc AB OMNIBUS RECEPTUM). As Vincent puts it, “The term ‘Textus Receptus’ is, in itself, un truthful. It was put forth simply as a clever advertisement of an enterprising publisher. The edition which bore this pretentious announcement varied somewhat from that of 1624 in the correction of some of the worst misprints, though it retained others equally bad, and added a few of its own.”
And thus it is that they speak of a Textus Receptus for Britain (Stephen’s edition) and a Textus Receptus for the Continent (Elzevirs’ edition of 1633). And the King James Version is based primarily upon the Stephanus-Beza-Elzevir text. There was some use made of other manuscripts; but many manuscripts were not then discovered and accordingly could not be used.
Now, as was said, the Textus Receptus, which lies at the basis of the King James Version, is basically a sound edition. Many scholars will agree to this. And as we pointed out, the number of significant variations in the text which have been brought to light through the discovery of many manuscripts is very small indeed. To this, too, many New Testament scholars must agree.
But if you know this history, and understand something of the story of the manuscripts and of textual criticism, then it is abundantly plain that it is a grave mistake to set up the so-called Textus Receptus as THE standard by which the value of any English version to be judged. Providentially, the KJV was based on a substantially correct text, indeed; but to claim that the KJV is based on the only authentic text is a weak argument, not a strong one.
In conclusion, therefore, I repeat: while the purpose of this “Eye Opener Tract” to defend the King James Version is a good one, and while I am heartily in favor of the retention of the King James Version, I cannot go along with the argument of this tract, and, in fact, would warn against being fooled by this weak argument.