The (Authorised) King James Version
THE BASIS OF THE AUTHORIZED VERSION
The King James Version of the Bible (the Authorized Version) which was originally produced in 1611 has its New Testament based on the text of Beza’s editions of 1588-9 and 1598 and that of Stephanus of 1550, and these were themselves based on Erasmus’ Greek text from earlier that century. The presented text became known as the ‘Textus Receptus’, and Cramer commented: “Truly major differences between the King James Version and other translations of the New Testament are primarily due to the inaccuracy of the so-called Textus Receptus, the Greek text upon which the King James Version’s New Testament was based. It was based mostly upon two inferior twelfth century Greek manuscripts, which were the only manuscripts available to Erasmus ‘on the spur of the moment.’ “
There are, however, other families of manuscripts, including some very important discoveries made since 1947, which could not have been considered by the translators of the Authorized Version. These other manuscripts have variances which highlight the weakness of relying on only a few later manuscripts alone for translation. Many scholars believe that modern texts are far closer to the original than the Textus Receptus is, and Cramer was in no doubt about the reasons: “Even up to the fifth and final edition of Erasmus’ Greek text in 1535, Erasmus fell prey to pressure and manipulation from church authorities to add to subsequent editions phrases and entire verses that he strongly (and rightly) suspected were not part of the original text. Erasmus’ 1535 edition still relied upon no more than six Greek manuscripts, the oldest (but least used!) of which was from the tenth century.”
Yet the near reverence accorded to the Textus Receptus meant that it went almost unchallenged for a long time, and those who attacked it were regarded as being almost heretics. Time honoured it may have been, but the Textus Receptus was corrupt and inaccurate, yet the attack on it gained credibility only slowly. A long procession of variant readings did do damage, but the presented challenge itself to Textus Receptus was itself often flawed. Nevertheless, the King James Version of the Bible was regarded as the only true translation for hundreds of years, and only in the years since 1947 has the greatest damage been done to its credibility.
THE GRADUAL DECAY OF TEXTUS RECEPTUS
The first systematic collection of variant readings was included in the Polyglot Bible that was published in 1655-7 in London. A number of manuscript sources were used with variant readings footnoted. Dr John Fell issued the first Greek New Testament to be published at Oxford which claimed to give variants from more than one hundred manuscripts and ancient versions. In 1707 the Greek text of John Mill of Oxford was published which drew on every source that he could access and embodied solid learning in the prolegomena. A revised edition was published in 1710, which included the collations of twelve more manuscripts. Mill’s work was attacked, not least because some were greatly alarmed at his variant readings which numbered around thirty thousand. Others, however, appreciated his efforts and tried to develop his work.
Dr Edward Wells published a ten-part Greek New Testament between 1709 and 1719. Though largely ignored at the time, his was the first New Testament which abandoned the Textus Receptus in favour of readings from the more ancient manuscripts. More crucial work was to be done by Johann Albrecht Bengel (1687 – 1752) whereby New Testament textual criticism was taken to a new stage. He looked ahead to publishing a New Testament and laid down sound critical principles. He was the first to distinguish groups of manuscripts and he formulated a canon of criticism that has essentially been approved by all textual critics ever since. Bengel said that the difficult reading was to be preferred to the easy. For his trouble, he was regarded as an enemy of Scripture and he was attacked by many.
Another sound principle was stated by Jakob Wettsein, in which he said that manuscripts may be evaluated by their weight, not by their number. Further work of classifying manuscripts was done by Johann Salomo Semler, before William Bowyer Junior adopted Wettstein’s critical judgements and published his own Greek New Testament in 1763. Another Englishman, John Harwood, published a New Testament in which he departed from the Textus Receptus more than seventy percent of the time.
Johann Jakob Griesbach developed the grouping of manuscripts and he laid a foundation for all future work on the Greek text of the New Testament. He also elaborated fifteen canons of textual criticism and showed great skill and tact in evaluating the evidence of variant readings. The importance of his work is difficult to overestimate. He was the first German scholar to abandon the Textus Receptus at many places and to print the text of the New Testament as his convictions had led him.
The work of other scholars made new materials available to textual critics and Johannes Martin Augustinius Scholz (1794-1852) added six hundred and sixteen new manuscripts to those previously known. He, and later B. H. Streeter, emphasized the importance of ascertaining the geographical provenance represented by the several manuscripts.
A new era began in 1831 when Karl Lachmann constructed a New Testament text directly from the ancient documents without reference to any printed edition, thereby substituting scientific method in place of arbitrary choice in the discrimination of various readings. The overthrow of the Textus Receptus was now in progress as scholars accessed more manuscripts which moved textual criticism away from the ‘standard’ set by the Textus Receptus, and towards the consideration of all available material without reference to the existing Textus Receptus.
In 1881, Brooke Foss Westcott published a most important edition of the Greek New Testament. In it, he refined the critical methodology developed by Griesbach, Lachmann and others, and applied it rigorously but with discrimination to the New Testament text. Other scholars through to the modern day have done important work with manuscripts, especially the large quantity that has been discovered since 1947.
MODERN VERSIONS – OLD SOURCES
Modern English versions of the New Testament are largely based on different manuscript evidence than that which lies behind the Textus Receptus. This fact is not the sole possession of textual scholars, but is an accepted truth that appears in popular Christian literature such as The Lion Encyclopedia of the Bible: “New translations were made… based on much older and more reliable manuscripts that the ‘Received Text’ from which the Authorized Version was made.”
Today’s English Version of the New Testament was first published by the American Bible Society in 1966 and in 1968 by Fontana in the UK. It was based on the Greek New Testament prepared by an international committee of scholars and sponsored by several members of the United Bible Societies. The basic text was translated by Dr. Robert G. Bratcher, a translations consultant of the American Bible Society. The New Testament was republished in 1975 from the third edition of the Greek New Testament. This version showed variant readings and alternative renderings.
The New International Version preface says that it is a completely new translation made by over one hundred scholars working directly from the best texts. It goes on to summarise the methodology used for the translation in this way: “The Greek Text used in translating the New Testament was an eclectic one. Where existing manuscripts differ, the translators made their choice of readings according to accepted principles of New Testament textual criticism. The best current printed texts of the Greek New Testament were used.”
The Revised Standard Version was an authorised revision of the American Standard Version of 1901, which was itself a revision of the King James Version of 1611. But the translators of the Revised Standard Version recognised that the Authorized Version had “grave defects” which were “so many and so serious as to call for a revision of the English Translation”.
The discovery of many manuscripts more ancient than those upon which the King James Version was based revealed the sources for the Authorized Version to be marred by many mistakes and containing the accumulated errors of fourteen centuries of manuscript copying.
The New English Bible was intended to be “a completely new translation, rather than a revision”, primarily because the Authorized Version was archaic even when it was made and was now “even more definitely archaic and less generally understood”. The translators chose not to base their work on the Textus Receptus.
When J. B. Phillips set out to publish his own translation of the New Testament from Greek, he based his work on the 1881 Greek New Testament published by Westcott rather than the text that lay behind the Textus Receptus. He also took into account the work of modern translators.
Why did the vast majority of modern translators of the New Testament reject the Textus Receptus? The evidence that it contained many errors was one reason, but the text also fell foul of the textual working principles that underpinned the work of Wescott and Hort, and led to their 1881 Greek New Testament. They sought earlier texts, earlier even than the two great uncials of the fourth century. Their working principles took into consideration:
- The internal evidence for each reading, on the basis of intrinsic probability. (Which variant makes the best sense?)
- The internal evidence for each reading, on the basis of transcriptional probability. (Which reading will explain all the others which have evolved in the history of transmission?)
- The internal evidence for each document. (Date and credibility of a manuscript)
- The genealogical evidence whereby a ‘family tree’ of readings is constructed and the trunk is preferred to late branches.
- The internal evidence of groups of manuscripts and versions, wherein relationships among text families are evaluated.
Discoveries and investigations since 1881 have challenged much in their theory and has led scholars to rework their reconstruction. All of this has led to a place where it is widely recognised that there is no ‘standard’ text on which work should be based, but all sources should be critically considered. This has moved scholarship further and further away from the Textus Receptus.
Textual critics once assumed their task was simply to recover the ‘original’ text. Scholars today recognize the need of historians and theologians to know the Scriptures that guided the synagogue and the church at each stage of their development. It is the duty of textual scholars to collect all readings and evaluate them and try to reconstruct not only the autographs but the texts in use throughout the centuries.
Thus the task of translating the Bible is never complete. Those living before 1947 would probably not have believed how much new evidence would come to light in the next fifty years. Perhaps new resources will enrich the process in the new millennium. But it is certain that Textus Receptus is now Textus Rejectus.
Bruce M Metzger, The Text of the New Testament, Third enlarged edition, 1992, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Today’s English Version of the New Testament, London and Glasgow, 1968, Fontana Books, Collins.
Revised Standard Version of the Bible, 1952, London and Glasgow, William Collins Publishers for the Bible Societies.
The New English Bible, 1961, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
The Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary, Edited by Charles M. Laymon. 1971, Nashville, Abingdon Press.
Robert Nguyen Cramer, The King James Version and its dependence on the Textus Receptus, in the public domain on the Internet at: http://www.bibletexts.com/kjvtr.htm
The New International Version of the Bible, 1991, Eastbourne, Kingsway Publications.
The Lion Encyclopedia of the Bible, Organising Editor Pat Alexander BA, 1978, Tring, Lion Publishing.