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Separated into Families
We have textual traditions, or families of texts, which grew up in specific regions. For example, we have the Alexandrian text-type, which Westcott and Hort called the Neutral text that came from Egypt. Then, there is the Western text-type, which came from Italy and Gaul as well as North Africa and elsewhere. There was also the Caesarean text-type, which came from Caesarea and is characterized by a mixture of Western and Alexandrian readings. The Byzantine text-type, also called Majority Text, came from Constantinople (i.e., Byzantium).
In short, early Christianity gave rise to what are known as “local texts.” Christian congregations in and near cities, such as Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, Carthage, or Rome, were making copies of the Scriptures in a form that would become known as their text-type. In other words, manuscripts grew up in certain areas, just like a human family, becoming known as that text-type, having their own characteristics. In reality, it is not as simple as this because there are mixtures of text-types within each text-type. However, generally, each text-type resembles itself more than it does the others. It should also be remembered that most of our extant manuscripts are identical in more than seventy-five percent of their texts. Thus, it is the twenty-five percent of variation that identifies a manuscript as a certain text-type, i.e., what one could call “agreement in error.”
Therefore, the process of classifying manuscripts for centuries was to label them a certain text-type, such as Alexandrian, Western, Caesarean, or Byzantine. However, this practice is fading because technology has allowed the textual scholar to carry out a more comprehensive comparison of all readings in all manuscripts, supposedly blurring the traditional classifications. The new method primarily responsible is the Coherence-Based Genealogical Method (CBGM). In this method, an “initial text” is reconstructed that is considered “relatively close to the form of the text from which the textual tradition of a New Testament book has originated.” (Stephen C. Carlson)
The original New Testament authors were inspired by God and error-free. The copyists were not inspired, and errors did show up in the texts as a result. These errors help us to place these texts into specific families. Very early in the transmission process, copies of the originals worked their way to these four major religious centers. The copying traditions that distinguish these text-types began to occur. The Alexandrian text-type is the earliest and reflects the work of professional and semi-professional scribes who treated the copying process with respect. The text is simple, without added material, and lacking the grammatical, stylistic polish sometimes imposed by Byzantine scribes. The Western text-type is early to the mid-second century. These manuscripts reflect the work of scribes who were given to paraphrasing. Scribes freely changed words, phrases, clauses, and whole sentences as they felt it necessary. At times, they were simply trying to harmonize the text or even add apocryphal material to spice it up. The Caesarean text-type is a mixture of Western and Alexandrian readings. The Byzantine text-type had its beginning in the late fourth century C. E. It shows the hand of scribes who, as noted, attempted to smooth out both grammar and style, often with a view to making the text easier to understand. These scribes also combined differing readings from other manuscripts that contained variants. The period of 50 to 350 C.E. certainly saw its share of errors (variants) entering into the text, but the era of corruption is the period when the Byzantine text would become the standard text.
The Corruption Period
To round out our understanding of this early history, we need at least a short overview of what happened after 350 C.E. After Constantine legalized Christianity, giving it equal status with the pagan religions, it was much easier to have biblical manuscripts copied. In fact, Constantine ordered 50 copies of the whole of the Bible for the church in Constantinople. Over the next four centuries or so, the Byzantine Empire and the Greek-speaking church were the dominant factors in making the Byzantine text the standard. It was not a matter of its being the better, i.e., more accurate text. From the eighth century forward, the Byzantine text had displaced all others.
After the invention of the Guttenberg printing press in 1455, it would be this Byzantine text that would become the first printed edition by way of Desiderius Erasmus in 1516. Thanks to an advertisement by the publishers, it was referred to as the Textus Receptus or the “Received Text.” Over the next four centuries, many textual scholars attempted to make minor changes to this text based on the development of the science of textual criticism, but to no real effect on its status as the Greek text of the church. Worse still, it would be this inferior text what would lay at the foundation of all English translations until the Revised English Version of 1881 and the American Standard Version of 1901. It was not until 1881 that two Cambridge scholars, B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort, replaced the Textus Receptus with their critical text. This critical edition of the Westcott and Hort text is the foundation for most modern translations and all critical editions of the Greek New Testament, UBS5, and the NA28.
Desiderius Erasmus and the Greek Text
I WOULD have these words translated into all languages, so that not only Scots and Irish, but Turks and Saracens too might read them . . . I long for the ploughboy to sing them to himself as he follows his plough, the weaver to hum them to the tune of his shuttle, the traveler to beguile with them the dullness of his journey. (Clayton 2006, 230)
Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus penned those words in the early part of the 16th century. Like his English counterpart, William Tyndale, it was his greatest desire that God’s Word be widely translated and that even the plowboy would have access to it.
Much time has passed since the Reformation, and 98 percent of the world we live in today has access to the Bible. There is little wonder that the Bible has become the bestseller of all time. It has influenced people from all walks of life to fight for freedom and truth. This was especially true during the Reformation of Europe throughout the 16th century. These leaders were of great faith, courage, and strength, such as Martin Luther, William Tyndale, while others, like Erasmus, were more subtle in the changes that they brought. Thus, it has been said of the Reformation that Martin Luther only opened the door to it after Erasmus picked the lock.
There is not a single historian of the period who would deny that Erasmus was a great scholar. Remarking on his character, the Catholic Encyclopedia says: “He had an unequalled talent for form, great journalistic gifts, a surpassing power of expression; for strong and moving discourse, keen irony, and covert sarcasm, he was unsurpassed.” (Vol. 5, p. 514) Consequently, when Erasmus went to see Sir Thomas More, the Lord Chancellor of England, just before Erasmus revealed himself, More was so impressed with his exchange that he shortly said: “You are either Erasmus or the Devil.”
Erasmus’s wit was evidenced in a response that he gave to Frederick, elector of Saxony, who asked him what he thought about Martin Luther. Erasmus retorted, “Luther has committed two blunders; he has ventured to touch the crown of the pope and the bellies of the monks.” (Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature: Vol. 3 – p, 279) However, we must ask what type of influence did the Bible have on Erasmus and, in turn, what did he do to affect its future? First, we will look at the early years of Erasmus’ life.
Erasmus’ Early Life
He was born in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, in 1466. He was not a happy boy, living in a home as the illegitimate son of a Dutch priest. He was faced with the double tragedy of his mother’s death at seventeen, and his father shortly thereafter. His guardians ignored his desire to enter the university; instead, they sent him to the Augustinian monastery of Steyn. Erasmus gained a vast knowledge of the Latin language, the classics as well as the Church Fathers. In time, this life was so detestable that he jumped at the opportunity, at the age of twenty-six, to become secretary to the bishop of Cambrai, Henry of Bergen, in France. This afforded him his chance to enter university studies in Paris. However, he was a sickly man, suffering from poor health throughout his entire life.
It was in 1499 that Erasmus was invited to visit England. He met Thomas More, John Colet, and other theologians in London, which fortified his resolution to apply himself to Biblical studies. In order to understand the Bible’s message better, he applied himself more fully in his study of Greek, soon being able to teach it to others. It was around this time that Erasmus penned a treatise entitled Handbook of the Christian Soldier, in which he advised the young Christian to study the Bible, saying: “There is nothing that you can believe with greater certitude than what you read in these writings.” (Erasmus and Dolan 1983, 37)
While trying to escape the plague and make a living in an economy that had bottomed worse than our 20th-century Great Depression, Erasmus found himself at Louvain, Belgium, in 1504. It was there that he fell in love with the study of textual criticism while visiting the Praemonstratensian Abbey of Parc near Louvain. Erasmus discovered a manuscript of Italian scholar Lorenzo Valla within the library: Annotations on the New Testament. Thereupon Erasmus commissioned to himself the task of restoring the original text of the Greek New Testament.
Erasmus moved on to Italy and subsequently pushed on to England once again. It is this trip that brought to mind his original meeting with Thomas More, meditating on the origin of More’s name (moros, Greek for “a fool”); he penned a satire which he called “Praise of Folly.” In this work, Erasmus treats the abstract quality “folly” as a person and pictures it as encroaching in all aspects of life, but nowhere is folly more obvious than amid the theologians and clergy. This is his subtle way of exposing the abuses of the clergy. It is these abuses that had brought on the Reformation, which was now festering. “As to the popes,” he wrote, “if they claim to be the successors of the Apostles, they should consider that the same things are required of them as were practiced by their predecessors.” Instead of doing this, he perceived, they believe that “to teach the people is too laborious; to interpret the scripture is to invade the prerogative of the schoolmen; to pray is too idle.” There is little wonder that it was said of Erasmus that he had “a surpassing power of expression”! (Nichols 2006, Vol. 2, 6)
The First Greek Text
While teaching Greek at Cambridge University in England, Erasmus continued with his work of revising the Greek New Testament text. One of his friends, Martin Dorpius, attempted to persuade him that the Latin did not need to be corrected from the Greek. Dorpius made the same error in reasoning that the “King James Only” people make, arguing: “For is it likely that the whole Catholic Church would have erred for so many centuries, seeing that she has always used and sanctioned this translation? Is it probable that so many holy fathers, so many consummate scholars would have longed to convey a warning to a friend?” (Campbell 1949, 71) Thomas More joined Erasmus in replying to these arguments, making the point that what matters is having an accurate text in the original languages.
In Basel, Switzerland, Erasmus was about to be harassed by the printer Johannes Froben. Froben was alerted that Cardinal Ximenes of Toledo, Spain, had been putting together a Greek and Latin Testament in 1514. However, he was delaying publication until he had the whole Bible completed. The first printed Greek critical text would have set the standard, with any other being all but ignored. Erasmus published his first edition in 1516, while the Complutensian Polyglot (Greek for “many languages”) was not issued until 1522.
The fact that Erasmus was terribly rushed resulted in a Greek text that contained hundreds of typographical errors alone. Textual scholar Scrivener once stated: ‘[It] is in that respect the most faulty book I know’ (Scrivener 1894, 185). This comment did not even take into consideration the blatant interpolations into the text that were not part of the original. Erasmus was not oblivious to the typographical errors, which were corrected in a good many later editions. This did not include the textual errors. His second edition of 1519 was used by Martin Luther in his German translation and William Tyndale’s English translation. This is exactly what Erasmus wanted, writing the following in that edition’s preface: “I would have these words translated into all languages. . . . I long for the ploughboy to sing them to himself as he follows his plough.”
Unfortunately, this debased Greek New Testament’s continuous reproduction gave rise to its becoming the standard, called the Textus Receptus (“Received Text”), reigning 400 years before it was dethroned by the critical text of B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort in 1881. Regardless of its imperfections, the Erasmus critical edition began the all-important work of textual criticism, which has only brought about a better critical text and more accurate Bible translations.
Erasmus was not only concerned with ascertaining the original words; he was just as concerned with achieving an accurate understanding of those words. In 1519, he penned Principles of True Theology (shortened to The Ratio). Herein he introduces his principles for Bible study, his interpretation rules. Among them is the thought of never taking a quotation out of its context nor out of the line of thought of its author. Erasmus saw the Bible as a whole work by one ultimate author, and as such, it should interpret itself.
Erasmus Contrasted with Luther
Erasmus penned a treatise called Familiar Colloquies in 1518, in which again he was exposing corruption in the Church and the monasteries. Just one year earlier, in 1517, Martin Luther had nailed his 95 theses on the church door at Wittenberg, denouncing the indulgences, the scandal that had rocked numerous countries. Many people likely thought that these two could bring about change and reform. This was not going to be a team effort, though, as the two were at opposite ends of the spectrum on how to bring reform about. Luther would come to condemn Erasmus because he was viewed as being too moderate, seeking to make change peacefully within the Church.
The seemingly small bond they may have shared (by way of their writings against the Church establishment) was torn apart in 1524 when Erasmus wrote his essay On the Freedom of the Will. Luther believed that salvation results from “justification by faith alone” (Latin, sola fide) and not from priestly absolution or works of penance. In fact, Luther was so adamant in his belief of “justification by faith alone” that in his Bible translation, he added the word “alone” to Romans 3:28. What Luther failed to understand was that Paul was writing about the works of the Mosaic Law. (Romans 3:19, 20, 28) Thus, Luther denied the principle that man possesses free will. However, Erasmus would not accept such faulty reasoning in that it would make God unjust because this would suggest that man would be unable to act in such a way as to affect his salvation.
As the Reformation was spreading throughout Europe, Erasmus saw complaints from both sides. Many of the religious leaders who supported the reform movement chose to leave the Catholic Church. While they could not predict the result of their decision, they moved forward, many meeting their deaths. This would not be true of Erasmus, though, for he withdrew from the debate, yet he did refuse to be made cardinal. His approach was to try to appease both sides. Thus, Rome saw his writings as being that of a heretic, prohibiting them, while the reformers denounced him as refusing to risk his life for the cause. Here was a man emotionally broken over criticism, but in fear of burning bridges with Rome, so he cautiously sat on the sideline.
The affairs of Erasmus in relation to the Reformation can be summarized as follows: “He was a reformer until the Reformation became a fearful reality; a jester at the bulwarks of the papacy until they began to give way; a propagator of the Scriptures until men betook themselves to the study and the application of them; depreciating the mere outward forms of religion until they had come to be estimated at their real value; in short, a learned, ingenious, benevolent, amiable, timid, indecisive man, who, bearing the responsibility, resigned to others the glory of rescuing the human mind from the bondage of a thousand years. The distance between his career and that of Luther was therefore continually enlarging until they at length moved in opposite directions and met each other with mutual animosity.”— (McClintock and Strong 1894, 278).
The Reformation’s greatest gain is that the common person can now hold God’s Word in his hand. In fact, the English-language person has over 100 different translations from which to choose. From these 16th-century life and death struggles, Erasmus shared that there has materialized dependable and accurate Bible translations. Consequently, the “plowboy” of 98 percent of the world can pick up his Bible, or at least part of it.
“The text we have, now received by all” is the words from the Elzevier 1633 edition, in Latin, from which the term “Textus Receptus” was derived.
The Textus Receptus
The Dark Ages (5th to 15th centuries C.E.) was a time when the Church had the Bible locked up in the Latin language, and scholarship and learning were nearly nonexistent. However, with the birth of the Morning Star of the Reformation, John Wycliffe (1328-1384), and the invention of the printing press in 1455, the restraints were loosened, and there was a rebirth of interest in the Greek language. Moreover, with the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 C. E., many Greek scholars and their manuscripts were scattered abroad, resulting in a revival of Greek in the Western citadels of learning.
About fifty years later, or at the beginning of the sixteenth century, Ximenes, archbishop of Toledo, Spain, a man of rare capability and honor, invited foremost scholars of his land to his university at Alcala to produce a multiple-language Bible—not for the common people, but for the educated. The outcome would be the Polyglot, named Complutensian, corresponding to the Latin of Alcala. This would be a Bible of six large volumes, beautifully bound, containing the Old Testament in four languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin) and the New Testament in two (Greek and Latin). For the Greek New Testament, these scholars had only a few manuscripts available to them, and those of late origin. One may wonder why this was the case when they were supposed to have access to the Vatican library. This Bible was completed in 1514, providing the first printed Greek New Testament, but it did not receive approval by the pope to be published until 1520 and was not released to the public until 1522.
Froben, a printer in Basel, Switzerland, became aware of completing the Complutensian Polyglot Bible and its pending consent by the pope to be published. Immediately, he saw a prospect of making profits. He at once sent word to Erasmus, who was the foremost European scholar of the day and whose works he had published in Latin, pleading with him to hurry through a Greek New Testament text. In an attempt to bring the first published Greek text to completion, Erasmus was only able to locate, in July of 1515, a few late cursive manuscripts for collating and preparing his text. It would go to press in October of 1515 and would be completed by March of 1516. In fact, Erasmus was in such a hurried mode that he rushed the manuscript containing the Gospels to the printer without first editing it, making such changes as he felt were necessary on the proof sheets. Because of this terrible rush job, the work contained hundreds of typographical errors, as we noted earlier. Erasmus himself admitted this in his preface, remarking that it was “rushed through rather than edited.” Bruce Metzger referred to the Erasmian text as a “debased form of the Greek testament.” (Metzger and D 1964, 1968, 1992. 2006, 103)
As one would expect, Erasmus was moved to produce an improved text in four succeeding editions of 1519, 1522, 1527, and 1535. Erasmus’ editions of the Greek text, we are informed, ultimately proved an excellent achievement, even a literary sensation. They were inexpensive, and the first two editions totaled 3,300 copies, in comparison to the 600 copies of the large and expensive six-volume Polyglot Bible. In the preface to his first edition, Erasmus stated, “I vehemently dissent from those who would not have private persons read the Holy Scriptures, nor have them translated into the vulgar tongues.” (Baer 2007, 268)
Except for everyday practical consideration, the editions of Erasmus had little to vouch for them, for he had access only to five (some say eight) Greek manuscripts of relatively late origin, and none of these contained the entire Greek New Testament. Instead, these comprised one or more sections into which the Greek texts were normally divided: (1) the Gospels; (2) Acts and the general epistles (James through Jude); (3) the letters of Paul; and (4) Revelation. In fact, of the some 5,750 Greek New Testament manuscripts that we now have, only about fifty are complete.
Consequently, Erasmus had but one copy of Revelation (twelfth-century). Since it was incomplete, he merely retranslated the missing last six verses of the book from the Latin Vulgate back into Greek. He even frequently brought his Greek text in line with the Latin Vulgate; this is why some twenty readings in his Greek text were not found in any other Greek manuscript.
Martin Luther would use Erasmus’ 1519 edition for his German translation, and William Tyndale would use the 1522 edition for his English translation. Erasmus’ editions were also the foundation for later Greek editions of the New Testament by others. Among them were the four published by Robert Estienne (Stephanus, 1503-59). The third of these, published by Stephanus in 1550, became the Textus Receptus or Received Text of Britain and the basis for the King James Version. This took place through Theodore de Beza (1519-1605), whose work was based on the corrupted third and fourth editions of the Erasmian text. Beza would produce nine editions of the Greek text, four being independent (1565, 1589, 1588-9, 1598), and the other five smaller reprints. It would be two of Beza’s editions, that of 1589 and 1598, which would become the English Received Text.
Beza’s Greek edition of the New Testament did not even differ as much as might be expected from those of Erasmus. Why do I say, as might be expected? Beza was a friend of the Protestant reformer, John Calvin, succeeding him at Geneva, and was also a well-known classical and biblical scholar. In addition, Beza possessed two important Greek manuscripts of the fourth and fifth century, the D and Dp (also known as D2), the former of which contains most of the Gospels and Acts as well as a fragment of 3 John, and the latter containing the Pauline epistles. The Dutch Elzevir editions followed next, which were virtually identical to those of the Erasmian-influenced Beza text. It was in the second of seven of these, published in 1633 that there appeared the statement in the preface (in Latin): “You therefore now have the text accepted by everybody, in which we give nothing changed or corrupted.” On the continent, this edition became the Textus Receptus or the Received Text. It seems that this success was in no small way due to the beauty and useful size of the Elzevir editions.
The Restoration Period
For the next 250 years, until 1881, textual scholarship was enslaved to the Erasmian-oriented Received Text. As these textual scholars became familiar with older and more accurate manuscripts and observed the flaws in the Received Text, they would publish their findings in introductions, margins, and footnotes of their editions instead of changing the text. In 1734, J. A. Bengel of Tübingen, Germany, made an apology for again printing the Received Text, doing so only “because he could not publish a text of his own. Neither the publisher nor the public would have stood for it,” he complained. (Robertson 1925, 25)
The first one to break free from this enslavement to the Textus Receptus, in the text itself, was Bible scholar J. J. Griesbach (1745-1812). His principal edition comes to us in three volumes, the first in Halle in 1775-7, the second in Halle and London in 1796-1806, and the third at Leipzig in 1803-7. However, Griesbach did not fully break from the Textus Receptus. Nevertheless, Griesbach is the real starting point in the development of classifying the manuscripts into families, setting down principles and rules for establishing the original reading, and using symbols to indicate the degree of certainty as to its being the original reading. We will examine his contributions in more detail below.
Karl Lachmann (1793-1851) was the first scholar fully to get out from under the influence of the Textus Receptus. He was a professor of ancient classical languages at Berlin University. In 1831, he published his edition of the Greek New Testament without any regard to the Textus Receptus. As Samuel MacAuley Jackson expressed it: Lachmann “was the first to found a text wholly on ancient evidence; and his editions, to which his eminent reputation as a critic gave wide currency, especially in Germany, did much toward breaking down the superstitious reverence for the textus receptus.” Bruce Metzger had harsh words for the era of the Textus Receptus as well:
So superstitious has been the reverence accorded the Textus Receptus that in some cases attempts to criticize it or emend it have been regarded as akin to sacrilege. Yet its textual basis is essentially a handful of late and haphazardly collected minuscule manuscripts, and in a dozen passages, its reading is supported by no known Greek witnesses. (Metzger and D 1964, 1968, 1992. 2006, 106)
Subsequent to Lachmann came Friedrich Constantine von Tischendorf (1815-74), best known for his discovery of the famed fourth-century Codex Sinaiticus manuscript, the only Greek uncial manuscript containing the complete Greek New Testament. Tischendorf went further than any other textual scholar to edit and made accessible the evidence in leading and less important uncial manuscripts. Throughout the time that Tischendorf was making his valuable contributions to the field of textual criticism in Germany, another great scholar, Samuel Prideaux Tregelles (1813-75) in England made other valued contributions. Among them, he was able to establish his concept of “Comparative Criticism.” That is, the age of a text, such as Vaticanus 1209, may not necessarily be that of its manuscript (i.e. the material upon which the text was written), which was copied in 350 C.E., since the text may be a faithful copy of an earlier text, like the second-century P75. Both Tischendorf and Tregelles were determined defenders of divine inspiration of the Scriptures, which likely had much to do with the productivity of their labors. If you take an opportunity to read about the lengths to which Tischendorf went in his discovery of Codex Sinaiticus, you will be moved by his steadfastness and love for God’s Word.
The Climax of the Restored Text
Leading textual scholars have commended the critical text of Westcott and Hort of 1881 over the last one hundred and forty years, and still stands as the standard. Numerous additional critical editions of the Greek text came after Westcott and Hort: Richard F. Weymouth (1886), Bernhard Weiss (1894–1900); the British and Foreign Bible Society (1904, 1958), Alexander Souter (1910), Hermann von Soden (1911–1913); and Eberhard Nestle’s Greek text, Novum Testamentum Graece, published in 1898 by the Württemberg Bible Society, Stuttgart, Germany. The Nestle in twelve editions (1898–1923) to subsequently be taken over by his son, Erwin Nestle (13th–20th editions, 1927–1950), followed by Kurt Aland (21st–25th editions, 1952–1963), and lastly, it was coedited by Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland (26th–28th editions, 1979, 1993, 2012).
Many of the above scholars gave their entire lives to God and the Greek text. Each of these could have an entire book devoted to them and their work alone. The amount of work they accomplished before the era of computers is nothing short of astonishing. Rightly, the preceding history should serve to strengthen our faith in the authenticity and general integrity of the Greek New Testament. Unlike Bart D. Ehrman, men like Sir Frederic Kenyon have been moved to say that the books of the Greek New Testament have “come down to us substantially as they were written.” And all this is especially true of the critical scholarship of the almost two hundred years since the days of Karl Lachmann, due to which all today can feel certain that what they hold in their hands is a mirror reflection of the Word of God that was penned in twenty-seven books, some two thousand years ago.
 B. M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament 1994, Page xxi
 Dr. Wilkins writes, “The nuance between ‘receive’ and ‘accept’ is often overlooked in discussing the TR, and the Latin “receptus” could just as well mean “accepted” (i.e. ‘the text accepted by all’), which I suspect was the intent of the advertisement.”
 In fact, his copy of Revelation being incomplete, Erasmus simply retranslated the missing verses from the Latin Vulgate back into Greek.
 Brian Walton (1600-61), Dr. John Fell (1625-86), John Mill 1645-1707), Dr. Edward Wells (1667-1727, Richard Bentley (1662-1742), John Albert Bengel (1687-1752), Johann Jacob Wettstein (1693-1754), Johann Salomo Semler (1725-91), William Bowyer Jr. (1699-1777), Edward Harwood (1729-94), and Isaiah Thomas Jr. (1749-1831)