The Textus Receptus

Contents: Introduction* The Origin of the Textus Receptus* The History of the Textus Receptus* The Text of the Textus Receptus* Addendum I: The King James Version* Addendum II: The "New TR"


Textus Receptus, or "Received Text," (abbreviated TR) is the namewe use for the first published Greek text of the New Testament. Formany centuries, it was the standard text of the Greek Bible.The name arose from the work of the kinsmen Bonaventure and AbrahamElzevir, who said of their 1633 edition, "Textum ergo habes,nunc ab omnibus receptum" -- "So [the reader] has thetext which all now receive."

The irony is that the Received Text is not actually a singleedition, but a sort of text-type of its own consisting of hundredsof extremely similar but not identical editions. Nor do any of itsvarious flavours agree exactly with any extant text-type or manuscript.Thus the need, when referring to the Received Text, to specifywhich received text we refer to.

If this all sounds complicated, it is because of the complicatedhistory of the Textus Receptus. Let's take it from the beginning.

The Origin of the Textus Receptus

Although printing with movable type was in use no later than 1456,it was many years before a Greek New Testament was printed. Thisis not as surprising as it sounds; the Greek minuscule hand of thelate fifteenth century was extremely complicated, with many diverseligatures and custom symbols. Cutting a Greek typeface requiredthe creation of hundreds of symbols -- more than were used for mostLatin typefaces once people like Nicolas Jensen had gotten around tosimplifying the Latin alphabet.Printers probably did not relish the idea. (It is worth noting thatthe Complutensian Polyglotinvented a new type of Greek printfor its edition. For more on this evolution of type and typefaces,see the article on Books and Bookmaking.)According to Douglas C. McMurtrie, The Book: TheStory of Printing & Bookmaking, third revised edition, Oxford,1943, between 1450 and 1500 at least 133 editions of the Vulgate wereprinted, and 15 German editions (in various dialects); there were at least13 Italian editions, 11 French editions, two in Czech, one in Spanish,and one in Dutch. But none in Greek.

It was not until the early sixteenth century thatCardinal Ximenesdecided to embark on a Greek and Latin edition of the New Testament --the famous Complutensian Polyglot. The New Testament volume of thiswork was printed in 1514 -- but it was not published until after1520. This left a real opportunity for an enterprising printer whocould get out an edition quickly.

Such a printer was John Froben of Basle. Apparently having heard of theComplutension edition, he was determined to beat it into print.Fortunately, he had the contacts to pull this off.

Froben decided to approach Desiderius Erasmus, one of themost notable (if rather humanistic) scholars of his generation.The proposal appears to have been transmitted on April 17, 1515.Work began in the fall of that year, and the work was pushedthrough the press in February of 1516.

For a project that had taken fifty years to get started, thesuccess of Erasmus's edition (which contained his Greek text inparallel with his own Latin version) was astonishing. The firstprinting soon sold out, and by 1519 a new edition was required.Three more would follow, each somewhat improved over the last.

It is sad to report that such a noble undertaking was sobadly handled (all the more so since it became the basis ofLuther's German translation, and later -- with some slight modifications --of the English King James Version). The speed with which the book went through thepress meant that it contained literally thousands of typographicalerrors. What is more, the text was hastily and badly edited froma few late manuscripts (see below, The Text of the Textus Receptus).

A part of page 336 of Erasmus's Greek Testament, the first"Textus Receptus."
Shown is a portion of John 18.

The History of the Textus Receptus

Erasmus's first edition was a great success; some 3300 copies of hisfirst two editions were sold. (If that sounds like a small number, recallthat there were probably fewer than 300 copies of the Mainz Vulgate, and thateditions were usually restricted to 1000 copies as late as Elizabethan times andafter.) The success of Erasmus's edition soon called forth new Greek testaments,all of them based largely on his. The first of these was published by AldusManutius in 1518 -- but although it contained an independent text of the Septuagint(the first such to be printed), its New Testament text was taken almost verbatimfrom Erasmus, including even the typographical errors. Hence the first trulynew publication was Erasmus'sown edition of 1519. This featured almost the same text as the 1516 edition,but with the majority (though by no means all!) of the errors of the presscorrected. It also features some new readings, believed by Scrivener tocome from 3eap (XII; classified by von Soden as e: Kxa: I [K]; c: K).

Erasmus's third edition of 1522 contained one truly unfortunate innovation:The "Three Heavenly Witnesses" in 1 John 5:7-8. These were derivedfrom the recently-writtenCodex 61,and (as the famous story goes) includedby Erasmus "for the sake of his oath." Sadly, they have been found inalmost every TR edition since.

There followed a great welter of editions, all slightly different (basedon such figures as I have seen, it would appear that editions of theTextus Receptus typically vary at between one hundred and two hundredplaces, though very few of these differences are more than orthographic). Noneof these editions were of any particular note (though the 1534 text of Simon Colinæusis sometimes mentioned as significant, since it included some variantreadings). It was not until 1550 that the nextgreat edition of the Textus Receptus was published. This was the work ofRobert Stephanus (Estienne),whose third edition became one of the two"standard" texts of the TR. (Indeed, it is Stephanus's name that gaverise to the common symbol sfor the Textus Receptus.) Stephanus included the variants ofover a dozen manuscripts -- including Codices Bezae (D) and Regius (L) --in the margin. In his fourth edition (1551), he also added the verse numberswhich are still used in all modern editions. The Stephanus edition becamethe standard Textus Receptus of Britain, although of course it wasnot yet known by that name. (The esteem in which the Textus Receptus wasalready held, however, is shown by Scrivener's report that there are119 places where all of Stephanus's manuscripts read against the TR, butStephanus still chose to print the reading found in previous TR editions.)

Forced out of France by the bigotry of a less-learned academic community, Stephanusfled to Geneva in 1550; he died there in 1559.

Stephanus's editions were followed by those of Theodore de Bèza (1519-1605),the Protestant reformer who succeeded Calvin. These were by no means great advancesover what had gone before; although Beza had access to the codex which bears hisname, as well as the codex Claromontanus, he seems to have made little if anyuse of them. A few of his readings have been accused of theological bias;the rest seem largely random. Beza's editions, published between 1565 and 1611,are remembered more for the sake of their editor (and the fact that they wereused by the translators of the King James Bible) than for their text.

The next great edition of the Textus Receptus is the Elzevir textalready mentioned in the Introduction. First publishedin 1624, with minor changes for the edition of 1633, it had the usual minor variantsfrom Stephanus (of which Scrivener counted 287), but nothing substantial;the Elzevirs were printers, not critics.

(Lest the above statement be taken as being in any way critical of the Elzevirfirm, let it be noted that, in 1638, Louis Elzevir published Galileo's TwoNew Sciences, which John Gribbin, in Science: A History 1543-2001, p.101, calls "the first modern scientific textbook." Galileo had bythen been condemned by the Inquisition, and the book had to be smuggled out ofItaly; while the Elzevirs were not subject to the Inquisition, it was a timewhen science was a rather dangerous occupation. (Not that that has changed much.)Whatever slight harm the firm of Elzevir did by perpetuating the alreadyuniversally-used Textus Receptus was vastly outweighed both by the valueof Two New Sciences and by the poke in the eye that it gave to thesupporters of folly. Would that there were more publishers with such couragetoday!)

The Elzevir text, which became the primary TR edition on the continent, wasthe last version to be significant for its text. From this time on, editionswere marked more by their marginal material, as scholars such as Mill, Wettstein,and later Griesbach began examining and arranging manuscripts. None of thesewere able to break away from the TR, but all pointed the way to texts free ofits influence.

Only one more TR edition needs mention here -- the 1873 Oxford edition,which forms the basis of many modern collations. This edition is no longeravailable, of course, though some editions purport to give its readings.

Beginners are reminded once again that not all TR editions are identical;those collating against a TR must state very explicitly which editionis being used.

The Text of the Textus Receptus

Erasmus, having little time to prepare his edition, could onlyexamine manuscripts which came to hand. His haste was so great,in fact, that he did not even write new copies for the printer; rather,he took existing manuscripts, corrected them, and submitted thoseto the printer. (Erasmus's corrections are still visible in the manuscript2.)

Nor were the manuscripts which came to hand particularly valuable. Forhis basic text he chose 2e, 2ap,and 1r.In addition, he was able to consult1eap, 4ap, and7p. Of these, only 1eap had a text independent ofthe Byzantine tradition -- and Erasmus used it relatively little due tothe supposed "corruption" of its text. Erasmus also consultedthe Vulgate, but only from a few late manuscripts.

Even those who favour the Byzantine text cannot be overly impressedwith Erasmus's choice of manuscripts; they are all rather late (seetable):

ManuscriptDateVon Soden Classification
(in modern terms)
1eapXIIe: family 1; ap: Ia3
2eXII/XIIIKx (Wisse reports Kmix/Kx)

Not only is 1r an Andreas manuscript rather than purely Byzantine,but it is written in such a way that Erasmus could not always tell text fromcommentary and based his reading on the Vulgate. Also, 1r isdefective for the last six verses of the Apocalypse. To fill out the text,Erasmus made his own Greek translation from the Latin. He admitted to whathe had done, but the result was a Greek text containing readings not found inany Greek manuscript -- but which were faithfully retained throughcenturies of editions of the Textus Receptus. This included even certainreadings which were not even correct Greek (Scrivener offers as an exampleRev. 17:4ΑΚΑΘΑΡΤΗΤΟΣ).

The result is a text which, although clearly Byzantine, is not a goodor pure representative of the form. It is full of erratic readings -- some"Caesarean" (Scrivener attributes Matt. 22:28, 23:25, 27:52, 28:3, 4, 19, 20;Mark 7:18, 19, 26, 10:1, 12:22, 15:46; Luke 1:16, 61, 2:43, 9:1, 15, 11:49;John 1:28, 10:8, 13:20 to the influence of 1eap), some "Western" orAlexandrian (a good example of this is the doxology of Romans, which Erasmusplaced after chapter 16 in accordance with the Vulgate, rather than after 14along with the Byzantine text), some simply wild (as, e.g., the inclusionof 1 John 5:7-8). Daniel B. Wallace counts 1,838 differences betweenthe TR and Hodges & Farstad's Byzantine text (see Wallace's "TheMajority Text Theory: History, Methods, and Critique," in Ehrman & Holmes,The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research, Studies& Documents, Eerdmans, 1995. The figure is given in note 28 on page 302.) This,it should be noted, is a larger number than the number of differencesbetween the UBS, Bover, and Merk texts -- even though these three editions areall eclectic and based largely on the Alexandrian text-type, which is much morediverse than the Byzantine text-type.

Thus it will be conceded by all reputable scholars -- even those whofavour the Byzantine text -- that the Textus Receptus, in all its variousforms, has no textual authority whatsoever. Were it not for the fact thatit has been in use for so long as a basis for collations, it could bemercifully forgotten. What a tragedy, then, that it was the Bible ofProtestant Christendom for close to four centuries!

Addendum I: The King James Version

Authorized in 1604 and published in 1611, the King James version naturally isbased on the TR. When it was created, there was no demand for critical editions.(Though in fact the original KJV contains some textual notes. These, like thepreface, are usually suppressed in modern versions, making the version that muchworse than it is. In addition, editions of the KJV do not print precisely thesame text. But this is another issue.)

Even accepting that the KJV derives from the TR, and has most of itsfaults, it is reasonable to ask which TR it is based on. The usualsimplistic answer is Stephanus's or Beza's. F.H.A. Scrivener, however, whostudied the matter in detail, concluded that it was none of these. Rather, itis a mixed text, closest to Beza, with Stephanus in second place, but notclearly affiliated with any edition. (No doubt the influence of the Vulgate,and of early English translations, is also felt here.) Scrivener reconstructedthe text of the KJV in 1894, finding some 250 differences from Stephanus. JayP. Green, however, states that even this edition does not agree entirelywith the KJV, listing differences at Matt. 12:24, 27; John 8:21, 10:16 (? -- thismay be translational); 1 Cor. 14:10, 16:1; compare also Mark 8:14, 9:42; John8:6; Acts 1:4; 1 John 3:16, where Scrivener includes words found in the KJV initalics as missing from their primary text.

Since there are people who still, for some benighted reason, use theKing James Bible for Bible study, we perhaps need to add a few words aboutits defects (defects conceded by all legitimate textual critics, plus mostpeople who know anything about translations). This is not to deny that it isa brilliant work of English prose; it is a brilliant work of Englishprose. But it is not an adequate English Bible.

The first reason is the obvious textual one: It is translated from theTextus Receptus. There was no good alternative at the time, but weknow now that it is simply a bad text. This is true event if oneaccepts the Byzantine text as original; the TR is not a good representativeof that text-form, and is even worse if one accepts any other text form,or if one is eclectic.

The Old Testament suffers the same problem -- in some ways, worse.The Hebrew text had hardly been edited at all when the KJV was translated.Today, with more Hebrew manuscripts, the Dead Sea Scrolls, varioustranslations, more ancient commentaries, and a better grasp of textualcriticism, we can establish a much better Hebrew text.

The lack of Hebrew scholarship at the time contributed to an evengreater problem with the Old Testament: The translators didn't knowwhat it meant. Textual damage caused some of the cruxes; othersarose from ignorance of classical Hebrew. The translators often had toturn to the translations in LXX or the Vulgate -- which often were justas messed up as the Hebrew. Today, we have more samples of ancientHebrew to give us references for words; we have knowledge of cognatelanguages such as Ugaritic and Akkadian, and we have the tools oflinguistics. There are still unsolved problems in the Old Testament --but they are far fewer.

The same is true, to a lesser extent, of the New Testament. Greeknever entirely vanished from the knowledge of scholars, as Hebrew did,but the language evolved. At the time the KJV was translated, classicalGreek -- the Greek of Homer and the tragic playwrights -- was consideredthe standard. Koine Greek -- the Greek of the New Testament -- wasforgotten; the Byzantine empire had undergone a sort of Classic Revival.People referred to the Greek of the New Testament as "the Languageof the Holy Spirit" -- and then sneered at its uncouth forms.Over the past century and a half, the koine has been rediscovered, andwe know that the New Testament was written in a living, active language.This doesn't affect our understanding of the meaning of the New Testamentas much as our increased knowledge of Hebrew affects our understandingof the Old -- but it does affect it somewhat.

In addition, there is the translation style. The KJV was createdby six separate committees, with relatively little joint effort anda relatively small body of prior work (for which they are hardly to befaulted -- this was 1604, after all;the committee from Cambridge couldn't just buzz down to Westminsterfor the afternoon, e.g.). This meant that there wasn't muchstandardization of vocabulary; a word might be translated two or threeor even half a dozen different ways. Sometimes, of course, this wasnecessary (as, e.g. withΑΝΩΘΕΝ,"again," "from above" inJohn 3:3, 7, 31 -- a case where the KJV translators seem,ironically, to have missed the multivalued meaning). But it isgenerally agreed that that KJV used various renderings for solelystylistic reasons; their translation was meant to be read aloud.They produced a version that was excellent for these purposes --but, in consequence, much less suitable for detailed study, especially,e.g., of Synoptic parallels, which can look completely different whenthe KJV renditions are set side by side.

Plus the committee was under instructions to stay as close aspossible to the previous standard, the so-called Bishop's Bible,which in turn had been created based on the Great Bible. And evenit was derived largely from Tyndale's work. The GreatBible had been created some 75 years earlier, and Tyndale in thedecades before that -- not long in ordinary terms, but this was atime when English was evolving fast. This heritage means that anumber of the features -- e.g. the use of you/ye/thou/thee/thy/thine --was actually incorrect even by the standards of the time, and itsinfluence came to produce a truly curious effect: "Thou,"initially the second person singular pronoun, (as opposed to "ye,"the plural form, loosely equivalent to the American Southernism "y'all")was briefly a form used to address a social inferior, and then, underthe influence of the KJV itself, treated as a form of address toone deserving of high dignity. This is genuinely confusing at best.

Finally, the KJV does not print the text in paragraphs,but rather verse by verse. Readers can see this, but it's onething to know it and another to really read the text in thatlight.

To be fair, the translators were aware of most of these problems.The preface, in fact, urges "the Reader... not to conclude ordogmatize upon this or that peremptorily." The Old Testament,according to Alister McGrath, contained 6,637 marginal notes, mostof them variant readings (more notes than many modern translations,we should observe). But I have yet to find a recent printing of the KJVwhich includes its marginal notes, let alone its preface. (I'm toldthere is one -- or at least a reprint of an allegedly-exactnineteenth century repring -- but it's an expensive edition you won'tfind in ordinary bookstores.)

And, of course, since the time of publication, the language ofthe KJV -- already somewhat antiquated in its time, based as it waslargely upon Tyndale's translation -- has become entirely archaic.

In an aside, we might note that, at the time of its publication,the KJV was greeted with something less than enthusiasm, and forthe first few decades of its life, the Geneva Bible remained themore popular work; the Geneva edition (unlike the other pre-KJVtranslations) remained in print for more than thirty years after theKJV was published. During the Commonwealth period (1649-1660), therewas talk of commissioning another new translation. It wasn't until theKJV became quite venerable that it somehow assumed an aura of specialvalue -- even of independent canonicity.

Quite simply, while the King James Bible was a brilliant work,and a beautiful monument of sixteenth century English, it is notfit to be used as a Bible in today's world.

Addendum II: The "New TR"

The phrase "The New TR" is sometimes applied to editions whichthreaten to dominate the field of textual criticism. Thus the edition ofWestcott & Hort was a sort of "New TR"in the late nineteenth century, and in the twentieth century the name is sometimesapplied to the United Bible Societies edition.In terms of number of copies printed this description of the UBS text may be justified -- nocomplete new edition has been issued since its publication -- but no reputabletextual scholar would regard it as the "final word."

Another sort of "New TR" is found in the Majority Text editions ofHodges & Farstad and Robinson & Pierpont.These are attempts to create a true Byzantine text (as an alternative to the TR, which is avery bad Byzantine text), but they have received relatively little criticalattention -- less, probably, than they deserve (though few would considerthem to contain the original text). Thus they cannot be considered truly"received" texts.