THE TEXT OF SCRIPTURE: WHICH TEXT?

Information to Help Christians with the Plethora of Modern Translations

by Ron Merryman

Copyright, 1994: Revised, Jan. 1995

 

Isaiah 40:8 "...the Word of our God shall stand forever " (KJV,1611, or ASV,1901). 

Anyone remotely interested in the Bible in the English speaking world is aware of the avalanche of translations and versions that have hit the market in the not too distant past. Consider the following list with publication dates: 

 

Remarkable. And this list is in no way exhaustive: I have over thirty translations, versions, and paraphrases in my personal library (all "dust collectors" except three or four). To say the least, there has been a remarkable interest in the Biblical text in the past fifty years, an interest similar to that of the latter half of the Sixteenth Century (more on this later). 

Responses and reactions to this recent tidal wave of Bible translations have led to, among other things: 1) confusion in the pew; 2) turmoil in the pulpit; and 3) a threatening polarization in the ranks of evangelical fundamentalism. 

For example: the person in the pew must at least be confused about the fluidity of Scripture, the fixity of the text. After all, if Romans 5:11 reads one way in the NIV and a different way in the KJV, to which is he to adhere? Just how much leeway is there in the translation of God’s Word? Difficult to say the least for the person in the pew.

 

The problems of the pulpit are compounded: 

What of the Pastor who has no working knowledge of Greek and/or Hebrew? Think of the pressure and turmoil when confronted with changes, omissions, and variants brought on by manuscriptural evidences, codical differences, etc., all of which he does not understand! 

No small issue to any Believer for we are dealing with the authoritative Word of God: it strikes at the heart of every doctrine held dear to Christians. 

The seriousness of this issue is at least part of the reason for a polarization that has emerged in evangelical fundamentalism. On the one hand is "The King James Only Crowd" whose position is: "The King James Version is the only accurate, reliable English version and all modern Bible versions are defective and should be rejected."1 On the other hand are those who have welcomed new translations and completely discarded the King James Version.2

The purpose of this paper is not to support either position, but rather to raise questions and issues that would hopefully quiet the harsh rhetoric and reverse the disharmony and polarization of Bible believing brethren. To do so, I am presenting a series of objective facts relative to the Greek manuscripts from which our New Testament is translated: conclusions are then drawn from these facts.

 

About Greek Texts and the

King James Version

 

Over 5,000 Greek N.T. manuscripts (hereafter MSS) are known to exist today.3 Of these, more than 200 contain most or all of the N.T.; 50 cover all the N.T. except the Gospels; about 1500 contain all or the majority of the Gospels; the rest, individual books or parts thereof and some only a few verses.  

It is important to note that all of these MSS are in handwritten form; they are the result of copyists copying copies from the time of the Apostles until the invention of the printing press (ca. 1454 A.D.). 

Now let us deal with some basic facts relative to these MSS. 

1. Of these 5,000 plus MSS of the Greek N.T., no two are exactly alike if they are of any length at all: paragraphs may agree, fragments may agree with other readings, but MSS of any length do not agree precisely

Point: translators of the New Testament, whether they be King James translators in 1611 or those of the New International Version in 1978 had to make editorial choices from MSS that differ. Very few Greek MSS were available to the King James translators in comparison to those available today: nevertheless, they had to deal with variants and make editorial choices from the few MSS they had.4 And were these same translators around today, unquestionably, they would consider all the manuscriptural evidence on hand when choosing a reading.

 

2. Though no two MSS of any length are exactly the same, there is a distinct textual character to the vast majority: these "Majority" MSS date from the Byzantine period of Roman and post-Roman history (A.D. 325-1453), hence are classified as the Byzantine family of texts. Important to our focus: 

a. The Byzantine textual character became predominent after 700 A.D. by which time the miniscule form (small letters, cursive morphology) of copying had replaced the older uncial form (large, capital letter morphology).5 

b. The Byzantine family currently comprises the vast majority of extant MSS, hence is now called the "Majority Text". 6 Not only do the Majority Text MSS far out number those of the minority MSS, they are less likely to disagree with one another than do the minority texts: or, perhaps better expressed, minority texts contain more variants, more omissions, more transpositions, etc., than does the Majority Text. 

Point: These along with other facts have led some teachers and/or pastors to conclude that the Majority Text best represents the original MSS of the N.T. and that all other MSS are corruptions of the original autographa of the Apostles. The "King James Only" adherents follow this logic.7

 

c. Often the Majority Text style is mistakenly referred to as the Textus Receptus ("the Received Text"), then applied to the King James Version thus compounding the error. The designation Textus Receptus is actually the result of a publisher's blurb inserted in the preface of a Greek N.T. that was published in 1633, 22 years after the publication of the King James Version! 8  

Point: The Byzantine or Majority Text properly refers to the predominent textual style in written Greek N.T.’s from ca. 500 A.D. until the invention of the printing press in ca. 1454 A.D.: Textus Receptus refers to printed Greek N.T.’s in the 1516 to 1663 era, maybe 24 in all.

 

d. It is true that the Majority Text is very well represented in the English language by the King James Version. But it is also true that there is no one standard Textus Receptus as the name erroneously implies, only a standard textual style (Byzantine) which underlies about 24 Greek N.T.’s published between 1516 and 1663 A.D.  

Point: As previously stated, King James translators had to choose from variant readings in the Greek texts in their possession; they simply were not confronted with as many variants as are modern translators. They had much less Greek documentation with which to deal and all their documentation was with the consistent Byzantine style.9

 

The Minority Texts versus the Majority Text  

To simplify rather complex terminology about textual styles, I have lumped all other MSS under the designation of "Minority" or "Critical Text." The Minority Text is comprised of MSS that largely date before 700 A.D. They range from complete or near complete codices of the N.T. to papyri fragments that contain only a few verses. As already stated (ft. nt. 6), the Minority Text comprises about 15% of the registered MSS that have been seriously researched. 

Now on to some applicable facts relative to the Minority Text. 

1. Over the past eighty or so years, textual scholars have tended to place greater emphasis on the older MSS (the Minority Texts) in their efforts to determine preferred readings. 

2. Greek New Testaments currently on the market edited by Erwin Nestle and Kurt Aland reflect the high esteem in which the critical texts are held. In the past thirty-five years, both Nestle and Aland edited Greek New Testaments separately, then jointly. These are the Greek texts studied in seminaries all over the world. Both of these scholars manifest a bias toward Codex Vaticanus (B) and Codex Sinaiticus (À ), a bias that they fail to justify in my estimation despite their attempt to do so.10

 

Perhaps an illustration will suffice: Galatians 6:15 in the King James reads in part, "For in Christ Jesus (emphasis, mine) neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision...". Hundreds of MSS, and maybe even thousands if one includes the lectionaries, support this reading (including a number of the Minority Texts!). Yet on the basis of FOUR texts, p46 (papyri 46), B (Vaticanus), Y (no title), and 1739 (a 10th c. miniscule), Nestle/Aland opt for a reading that excludes the in Christ Jesus phrase! FOUR texts versus hundreds determine the Nestle/Aland reading! This is a bias that unfortunately is repeated again and again in their Greek testaments: see Gal. 1:15; I Cor. 1:14; 11:24; Rom. 3:12; 5:6 in the Greek text. More documentation needs to be done on this bias. 

The New International Version (NIV) in all of these references follows Nestle/Aland without comment! Editors of the NASV follow Nestle/Aland in the Gal. 6:15 passage, but, to their credit, they reject the Nestle/Aland readings in a number of the other references I have given.

 

3. The Minority or Critical text is represented in the American Standard Version (1901), The New American Standard Version (1971), and The New International Version (1978).

 

A Note of Caution 

Since there is considerable difference between the Majority Text and the Minority Text one could well ask, "What is the best text or which text gives the better reading?" Or, "Which text best represents the original, divinely inspired autographa of the New Testament writers?" 

Caution to supporters of King James: to ignore the available documents that date between 100-600 A.D. is to assume the proverbial ostrich posture! Or to simply categorize them as corrupt, particularly when they are supported by other contemporaneous translations, is prejudice. Moreover, to blanketly condemn those who do not unreservedly endorse the King James text is ignorance coupled with conceit. Myopia gravaminous has set in!  

Caution to supporters of ASV, NASV, NIV: to ignore or to blandly set aside readings that are consistent in 85% of the MSS for those of a few MSS also smacks of myopia gravaminous. Erwin Nestle and Kurt Aland have their own particular bias (as did Tischendorf and Westcott/Hort in the nineteenth century).11 Do textual critics really have enough evidence to categorically say, "This without question is the best text"? We are handling the very Word of God... we best tread softly and carefully in our self assertions.  

Caution for all Believers: when someone says, "The best manuscripts read _____," ask him/her, "Who made that decision?" "How do you know?" "What are the options, and/or do the variants change or affect the import of the passage?" Demand an explanation when someone uses the nebulous statement "The best MSS read."

Textual critics simply do not know what the best MSS are; in the final analysis, such an assertion is an opinion or, at best, an educated guess.12

 

On To The Positive 

Pragmatic Fact #1: Doctrine built on the text of the King James Version or on the text of the New American Standard Version where solid hermeneutics are used is never at variance: that is, the doctrines of the New Testament are in no way affected by the variants in the extant MSS. In most cases, textual "engineers" are struggling with very minor variations in N. T. readings, spellings, grammatical endings, additional words, etc., which in no way affect doctrine. 

Pragmatic Fact #2: Believers should not flit from one version to another in their quest to know the Word of God. Every believer should own a King James Version or King James II Version and either an American Standard Version or New American Standard Version, then compare the readings when in doubt about a passage. Omissions and word differences will become apparent by this simple exercise. 

Pragmatic Fact #3: We should rejoice in the tremendous interest being shown in the text of Scripture. Our age closely parallels that of the Sixteenth Century, the days of Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and Knox, in that regard. Literally millions of Bibles are being sold and hopefully heeded. Let us continue to be cautious as to what is the true text. Let us continue to clobber misleading paraphrases that masquerade as Holy Scripture: but let us rejoice that God’s Word is being published as never before and by translators who do take seriously that the text they are handling is the Word of God (as per the translators of the New American Standard Version). 13

 

Much more needs to be written on the merits and demerits of the versions flooding the markets in the United States; a worthy subject for a graduate dissertation, wouldn't you agree?

 

Footnotes

 

1 "The Dean Burgon News", May 1979 issue: published by the Dean Burgon Society, which was founded in 1979. Devotees of this position rely heavily on the writings of John William Burgon, a 19th century Dean of Chichester and a very scholarly and capable textual critic.

2 I have ministered God’s Word in fundamental, evangelical churches for 39 years all over the United States: as recently as 1978, over 65% of these congregations carried King James Versions to church; now only about 25% do. 

3 When I first did research on this topic in 1976, sources quoted this figure as 4,489. Kurt and Barbara Aland in the second edition of their famous work The Text of the N.T.: An Introduction to the Critical Editions and to the Theory and Practice of Modern Textual Criticism state there are now 5,487 N.T. MSS: see p.74 of the English translation by Errol F. Rhodes (Grand Rapids,Eerdmans, 1989). Aland/Aland classify these as follows: 96 papyri; 299 uncials; 2812 miniscules; and 2281 lectionaries (note: these figures add up to 5,488, not 5,487).  

4 Many Latin MSS were available in 1611; but Greek sources used by the King James translators were limited to Codex Bezae (D) dating from the 5th or 6th century, to a few other partial MSS from the 9th,10th, and 11th centuries, and to the printed editions by Erasmus, Robert Etienne, and Theodore Beza, all published in the 16th century. For the Greek texts used by these translators, see The New Testament in the Original Greek According to the Text Followed in the Authorized Version, F.H.A. Scrivener, Cmbrg., 1894. 

5 Of the 2,812 miniscule script MSS registered at the Institute for N.T. Textual Research in Munster, Germany, where Kurt Aland serves as official registrar, over 2000 are classified as Byzantine or Majority in character. Only a few of the 299 uncial script MSS exhibit Majority style (uncial MSS in general date from ca.300-700 A.D.). Aland/Aland further state that the lectionaries, 2281 in number, are "...almost identical with the Byzantine Imperial Text" (see Aland/Aland, op.cit., pp. 74,169).

6 The Majority Text comprises approximately 85% of the combined total of the uncials, miniscules, and papyri MSS: if one adds in the lectionaries, this percentage swells to ca. 95%! But more research remains to be done in the lectionaries.

7 For detailed discussions supporting this position, see: Burgon, J.W. The Last Twelve Verses of Mark, Assoc. Pubs & Auths., Grand Rapids, Reprint, no date. This is a classic challenge to the textual theories of Westcott and Hort. Hill, E.F. The King James Version Defended, Christian Research Press, Des Moines, 1956. 

8 The Elzevir Brothers, publishers in Holland with an intense interest in the Greek N.T., inserted these optimistic words in the preface of an edition that they were publishing in 1633: "Textum ergo habes, nunc ab omnibus receptum, in quo nihil immutatum aut corruptum damus"..."You have therefore a text, now received by everyone, in which we give nothing deteriorated or corrupt." "Textum Receptum"..."the Received Text"..."received by everyone"! See Greenlee, J. Harold, Introduction to New Testament Criticism, Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1964, p.71.  

9 Printed Greek N.T.’s were widely circulated before the King James translators ever began. Erasmus revised his Greek N.T. at least 4 times before his death in 1536. His last edition was the primary source for a Greek N.T. published by Robert Etienne, alias "Stephanus." Something unique, something new, appeared in the third edition of Stephanus published in Paris in 1550: in addition to the text, there were a series of abbreviated notes indicating variations in the MSS used! This is the origin of the critical apparatus so vital to all Greek N.T.’s since! The critical apparatus documents the variant readings of the MSS, the omissions, the transpositions of words, etc. THERE ARE VARIANTS IN ALL GREEK N.T.’S, EVEN THOSE REPRESENTATIVE OF TEXTUS RECEPTUS!

One hears little about this from those espousing King James only. 

10 See pp.68ff, Novum Testamentum Graece, Erwin Nestle and Kurt Aland, Edits., 25th Edition, 1973. 

11 Aland/Aland clearly state Tischendorf’s partiality to Codex Sinaiticus (À ) and Westcott/Hort’s to Codex Vaticanus (B). Future generations may well record Nestle/Aland’s partiality to the Alexandrian family of texts, particularly B, À , and C with B taking first place preferencially. See Aland/Aland, op.cit., p.20, and my ft. nt.#10. 

12 Even the editors of the Scofield Study Bible claim "The best MSS read..." or "The best authorities read..." without telling us which MSS. See marginal notes on pp. 1160, 1171, 1173 on Acts 8:37, 16:7, 17:26 respectively, The Scofield Study Bible, Rev. C.I. Scofield, Edit., Oxford Univ. Press, 1945 & various. 

13 Erasmus’s Greek N.T. is reported to have sold 100,000 copies in France alone! At least four editions by Robert Etienne (Stephanus) followed on the heels of the four or five by Erasmus. Theodore Beza published a Greek N.T. in 1582. Think of the thousands of Greek N.T.’s circulated in Europe at this time! THE INTEREST IN THE TEXT OF SCRIPTURE WAS PHENOMENAL. Printing presses in England and on the continent were humming, cranking out Bibles in the English tongue: Tyndale’s N.T., 1525; Coverdale’s Bible,1535; Matthew’s Bible,1537; The Great Bible,1539; The Geneva Bible,1557; The Bishop’s Bible, 1568; the Rheims-Douai Bible, 1582. Struggles followed over which English text to use (they are not new to our age) and led to the Millenary Petition in 1604 by 1,000 Puritan clergymen to King James for an "Authorized Version," one Bible, to be used by all parties in the Church. The result: the King James Version of 1611. NONE of them, Puritan,Anglican,or Catholic, liked the product! BUT THE INTEREST IN THE TEXT WAS PHENOMENAL!  

Ron Merryman served the Lord in Bible colleges for 11 years, 3 of those as Acting President of Western Bible College. He also pastored Holly Hills Bible Church in Denver, Colorado, for 14 years. Ron currently teaches in the G.I.B.S., a ministry of Duluth Bible Church.

 

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