|Lecture 10: The Textus Receptus
In this 21-minute video, I describe the development of the Textus Receptus, the text that dominated the 1500s, and from which the New Testament was translated in the King James Version.
Today, we are looking into the
background of what is known as the Textus
Receptus. In Latin, “Textus receptus” simply means “the
received text.” There are two ways to
define the Textus Receptus.
The simpler way is to say that the Textus Receptus is the base-text of the
New Testament in the King James Version, also known as the Authorized Version,
which was published in 1611 and subsequently tidied up in 1629 to address
printing errors and similar glitches.
In 1633, the Elzevir family printers
issued an edition of the Greek New Testament that was accompanied by a
reassuring statement that its reader had “the text now received by all, in
which we give nothing changed or corrupted.”
This was the first Greek New Testament that one could say called itself
the Received Text.
But for the most part, the Greek
text of 1633 published by the Elzevirs was not drastically different from
several earlier editions which had been used by earlier translators, in the
1500s. A variety of editions of the
Greek New Testament were in circulation before 1633, but three editors stand
out above the rest: Erasmus, Stephanus, and Beza.
Desiderius Erasmus, born in 1467, grew up in an environment of scholarly challenges to sacred traditions. The Latin Vulgate had acquired a de facto status as the authoritative text of the New Testament in western Europe, but in the 1400s, a scholar named Lorenzo Valla, who died ten years before Erasmus was born, had used Greek manuscripts to draw into question a variety of renderings in the text of the Vulgate that was current in his time. Valla made notes upon the Greek New Testament, and pointed out various discrepancies between the meaning of the Greek text and the meaning of the Vulgate text.
Some of Valla’s observations
eventually had great significance. In
Martin Luther’s “95 Theses,” nailed to the church door at
Valla never published his notes about Vulgate
readings that needed to be improved to correspond better with the Greek text. But in 1504, when Erasmus found a manuscript
that contained Valla’s Adnotationes in
Novum Testamentum – Notes on the New Testament – it inspired him to make
the study of the Greek text of the New Testament his life’s work. Erasmus
traveled extensively, studying in
In 1514 and again in 1515, the
subject of improving the Vulgate, using the Greek text, came up in
conversations he had with his friend Johann Froben, who ran a distinguished
printing-house in the city of
In July of 1515, Erasmus began the
final stage of making a Greek text of the New Testament, using a small
collection of Greek manuscripts at
Codex 1. This manuscript contains the New Testament except Revelation; it is an important member of family-1.
Codex 2 contains the Gospels.
Codex 2105 contains the Pauline Epistles.
Codex 2815 contains Acts and all Epistles (2ap). (not from John of Ragusa)
Codex 2816 – containing Acts and all
Codex 2817 – contains the Pauline Epistles
no Greek manuscript of Revelation in the library at
These were not the only sources used
by Erasmus for his first edition, but they were the manuscripts he had on hand
were Greek New Testament manuscripts doing at
Equipped with a familiarity of various
manuscripts in various scholarly centers in
Another Greek New Testament had
already been printed: the Greek New
Testament was part of the Complutensian
Polyglot, a text of the entire Bible, printed in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek, prepared
under the supervision of Cardinal Francisco Ximenes de Cisneros, with help from
Lopez de Stunica. “Complutensian” means
that it was made in Complutum, another name for the city of
The first edition of Novum Instrumentum encountered some resistance. Some readers saw Erasmus’ Latin translation not as a corrective supplement to the Vulgate, but as a rival. Others asked, why settle for the echo in Latin when you can hear the voice in Greek? Why drink from a dirty stream when you can drink from the fountain? Erasmus made a second edition, Novum Testamentum, in 1519, correcting many of the printing errors that had marred the first edition, and improving his Latin translation.
Some critics accused Erasmus of displaying negligence by failing to include a reference to the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit in First John 5:7, a reading in the Vulgate text that was very common in the early 1500s. Erasmus replied that he had no basis for such a Greek text, because he had found no Greek manuscript that had those words at that place: if he had possessed a Greek manuscript with that passage, he wrote, then he would have included them, but since he had no such thing, no one could fairly charge him with negligence for paying attention to his manuscripts.
In 1522, Erasmus released a third edition, refining the Greek
compilation, his Latin translation, and the annotations. He acquired a little more manuscript-evidence at the library of St. Donatian’s College at
By this time, he had been informed
of the existence of a manuscript in Britain – now known as minuscule 61, Codex
Montfortianus – that contained the passage known as the Comma Johanneum in First John 5:7, and so he included the phrase in
the third edition. In 1521, Erasmus was
also informed by Paul Bombasius, who oversaw the Vatican Library at that time, about
the existence of Codex Vaticanus, and about Vaticanus’ testimony against the Comma Johanneum. Erasmus had
not explicitly promised to include the passage, but he did so
anyway. To not include it, now that it had been shown that at least one Greek
manuscript supported it, would have put him in a position that would have been
difficult to defend.
A fourth edition was issued in 1527. By this time, Erasmus had become acquainted
with the Complutensian Polyglot, and he made some changes to the Greek text as
a result, especially in Revelation.
Also, Erasmus was informed a little
more about the text of Codex Vaticanus, thanks to some correspondence with Juan
Sepulveda, who was at
Finally, a fifth edition was issued
in 1535, one year before the death of Erasmus.
All this time, Erasmus took all comers in defense of his compilation, vigorously responding to criticisms from friend and foe, including Stunica, who had worked on the Complutensian Polyglot. Erasmus found it convenient to repeat the gist of the answer that Lorenzo Valla had prepared against those whom he had anticipated would accuse him of tampering with established tradition: Valla had written, “If I am correcting anything, I am not correcting Sacred Scripture, but rather its translation. In doing so I am not being insolent toward Scripture, but rather pious, and I am doing nothing more than translating better than the earlier translator. Therefore, if my translation is correct, that is what ought to be called Sacred Scripture, not his.”
also explained his predicament by telling a story about a priest who somehow
had gotten used to saying “mumpsimus,”
which is not a real word, in the Latin Mass.
When another clergyman informed him that the correct word is “sumpsimus,” he replied, “You can keep
your new-fangled sumpsimus; I want
good old mumpsimus.” This was Erasmus’ way of explaining that the
fundamental question is not, “What are you used to?”, but, “What is original?”.
Erasmus and Froben had been very
much aware that thanks to the potential of the new technology of the printing
press, their publication of the printed Greek New Testament had the potential
to culminate in the ordinary person having the New Testament in his own
language. In Paracelsis, the preface
to his New Testament, Erasmus wrote that it was his desire that men and woman
would know the Gospels and the Epistles of Paul in their own languages – that
they would be known not only to the clergy but to farmers and fabric-makers,
and that they would be read and understood not only by Scots and Irish but also
by Turks and Saracens.
Earlier in the 1400s, before Erasmus
was even born, another scholar, named Giannozzo Manetti, had compiled a Greek
base-text and translated it into Latin – but no one had used it. The text of Erasmus’ second edition, however,
was obtained by Martin Luther, and when an opportunity came, Luther definitely
used it: before the end of September
1522, Luther had translated the Greek New Testament into German.
William Tyndale, an English scholar,
gained access to a copy of Luther’s German New Testament, and then he acquired a
copy of the third edition of Erasmus’ Greek New Testament. Tyndale finished translating this into
English before the end of 1525. It was
reprinted in 1526.
Newly produced unauthorized English Bibles
were highly illegal in
By 1539, the Great Bible, which
tended to echo Tyndale’s English New Testament, was being openly distributed in
Jacques Lefèvre, known as Stapulensis, oversaw the translation of the Vulgate New Testament into French, in stages, consulting Erasmus’ work as a secondary source. His printed French New Testament was published in 1523. He was extremely influential in the Protestant Reformation in other respects, although, like Erasmus, he never officially left the Roman Catholic Church. Stapulensis’ translation of the New Testament was adjusted in a more Greek-dependent direction by Robert Olivetan, a cousin of John Calvin, and it was later revised again by Theodore Beza.
With French, German, and English New
Testaments already in print, the next generation of textual critics was led by
Robert Estienne, also known as Stephanus.
Stephanus’ skill in printing and typography was at least as good as his
expertise in textual criticism, and after publishing Greek New Testaments in
1546 and 1549, he outdid himself in the edition of 1550, his third edition, also
called the Editio Regia, or “Royal
In this publication, Stephanus
included a textual apparatus, providing alternate readings from the
Complutensian Polyglot and from an assortment of 15 Greek manuscripts,
including several manuscripts in the royal library, which included the Gospels-Codex
L, 019, and minuscule 6. Codex Bezae,
now usually assigned to the 400s, was also cited.
Codex Bezae was called Codex Bezae
because it was the property of Theodore Beza.
Born in 1519, Beza became an influential ally of John Calvin during the Reformation. From the 1550s up to 1598, Beza issued
multiple editions of the Greek New Testament.
He utilized not only Codex Bezae, but also the uncial Codex
Claromontanus. Nevertheless, his
compilation did not drastically veer away from the standard set by Erasmus and
Stephanus. Beza’s 1598 edition is
probably the closest thing there is to a pre-KJV base-text of the KJV New
While Protestants were producing
translations in several European languages, based on several editions of the
Greek New Testament, Roman Catholic scholars tended to emphasize the Latin
Vulgate. In the mid-1500s, Nicholas
Zegers attempted to filter mistakes out of the Vulgate text, on the basis of
Greek readings. But when the Rheims New
Testament was published, in 1582, based on the Vulgate, it was prefaced by an
explanation of why the Vulgate was being translated instead of the Greek text.
The Preface to the Rheims New Testament called the Protestants’ Greek text hopelessly corrupt. Some of its readings had been invented by the editors, and the compilations did not always agree with each other; examples of inconsistency were cited from Mark 7:3, Luke 3:36, Second Timothy 2:14, James 5:12, Revelation 11:2, and Romans 12:11, where Stephanus’ text meant, “serving the time,” and Erasmus’ text meant, “serving the Lord.”
Erasmus was indeed guilty of putting
some conjectures into his text. In Acts
9:5-6, he made a harmonization in the Greek text, so as to make it resemble the
parallel-passage in Acts 26. And in
James 4:2, instead of saying “you kill,” the second edition of Erasmus’ Greek New
Testament read, “you are jealous.”
Erasmus believed that the Greek manuscripts he used contained a
corruption at this point, and that their copyists had written a Greek word that
means “you kill,” where James had written a similar Greek word that means “you
Perhaps the most famous example of
hypothetical reconstruction of the text without Greek manuscript support involved
the last six verses of the book of Revelation.
The manuscript that Erasmus had borrowed from Johann Reuchlin, 2814, was
damaged, and did not have this part of the the book, or the commentary that
accompanied it. Erasmus, in order to
finish the first edition of his compilation, used Valla’s notes and a Latin
Vulgate text to reconstruct the Greek text of verses 16-21. He acknowledged in his annotations that he
had done this.
Erasmus reckoned that any
shortcomings in his retro-translation could be corrected by using the Aldine
Bible, an edition of the Greek Bible that was released in 1518 in
Greek copies of Revelation were so rare, and Erasmus’ compilation was so widely accepted, that his retro-translation of Revelation 22:16-21 continued to be reprinted in one edition after another, including the reference to the “book” of life, instead of the tree of life, in the second half of verse 19.
It was these editions, and the
earlier English translations based upon them, that were consulted by the
translators of the King James Version in 1604 to 1611. There were some readings that were very
poorly attested, such as the reading koinōnia
in Ephesians 3:9, and there were some readings that had no Greek manuscript
support at all, especially in Revelation.
But for the most part, the Textus Receptus – whether one defines it as the base-text of the KJV, or as the multiple printed editions of the Greek New Testament prepared from 1516 to 1633 – is a good representative of the Byzantine Text of Matthew-Jude – and most of its readings can be found in manuscript evidence much older than the minuscule manuscripts upon which it was based. In the Gospels, there is very little difference between the meaning of the text printed in the Textus Receptus, based on no more than 25 copies, and the meaning of the Byzantine Text found in 1,500 copies.
So, even though the Textus Receptus was initially compiled on the basis of relatively few manuscripts, and even though it has some readings that are only supported by a small minority of Greek manuscripts, and a few readings that are not supported by any Greek manuscripts at all, if you compare the Textus Receptus and the Nestle-Aland compilation at any given point in Matthew-Jude, it is the reading in the Textus Receptus, not the reading in Nestle-Aland, that will usually be supported by at least 85% of the relevant Greek manuscripts known today.
to April of 1853. At
In closing, to read more about the Greek text compiled in the 1500s, read pages 1-36 of Samuel Tregelles’ 1844 book An Account of the Printed Text of the Greek New Testament.