The Textus Receptus: The first popular western Greek NT.

by K.W. Leslie, 04 March
TEXTUS RECEPTUS 'tɛks.təs rə'sɛp.təs, properly 'teɪk.stus reɪ'seɪp.tus, noun. The medieval western Greek New Testament, edited and first published by Desiderus Erasmus in 1516. (Latin for “received text.”)
2. Any of the Greek NTs published by Erasmus’s successors before 1831; most often Stephanus’s 1550 edition.

We don’t have the original Greek-language copies of the New Testament anymore. Wish we did; it’d be nice if Christians had preserved them. Then again Christians would wind up worshiping the books… about as much as we already do.

But ancient Christians, like most ancient peoples, figured if you made copies and spread ’em around, that was just as good. And that’s what they did. They made copies, didn’t worry about the originals, and when the originals wore to pieces, no problem—they had lots and lots of backups! There are still thousands of ancient copies of the NT; it wasn’t just a best-seller in the present day. Copies of individual books, copies of the whole NT, and let’s not forget all the bible quotes in ancient Christian writings. In fact if all the ancient bibles were to vanish, we could piece them back together with the ancient Christians’ bible quotes.

And so the originals wore out. The first-generation copies wore out. The second-generation copies wore out. The third-generation copies wore out. And so on, and so on. The New Testaments we see in Greek-speaking churches are commonly copies of copies of copies—times a hundred. Or more.

Meanwhile, in Latin-speaking western Europe, they stopped using Greek bibles. Once the Vulgate was translated, they now had the bible in a language they understood, and that became “the bible” to them. There were still Greek bibles around, ’cause libraries might get one from eastern Christians and stick it in their collections, but like most people, they gave more attention on the translations they understood: Latin bibles, and the occasional local-language bible.

And like the Greek-speaking churches, they didn’t keep St. Jerome’s originals of the Vulgate. They likewise made copies. Then copies of the copies. Then copies of the copies of copies. And so on.

As you can guess, this process of copying the bible is gonna introduce errors into the copies. Humans make mistakes, y’know. Textual variants creep in. And if you’re a serious bible scholar, you don’t want variants to lead you, nor any other Christian, astray. Nor would you want any omissions—any missing words, missing verses—to do so either.

Textual criticism is the science of trying to determine what the original text is. It’s done by looking at the very oldest copies of any text we have. If they all match up, it’s pretty likely this was what the original had in it. If they don’t—

  • One copy says “he.”
  • Another, “Christ.”
  • Another, “Jesus.”
  • Another puts the two variants together: “Christ Jesus.”
  • Another flips ’em: “Jesus Christ.”
  • And yet another has, “Larry.”

—you gotta reasonably determine which of these variants was what the apostles actually, originally wrote. Based on the oldest evidence, historical support, grammatical context, and commonsense. And just to keep your decision-making process transparent, you need to include all the variants in your apparatus, which is a fancy way of saying “extremely important footnotes of all the variants.”

Thing is, Christians didn’t invent this science for quite a few centuries. They did what your typical uneducated Christian does with English-language translations: They pick the variant they like best. The one which most supports what they wanna teach. Or the one which sounds like the way they have it memorized… regardless of how they memorized it. If one of their favorite Christian songs uses that verse as a lyric, and the song goes “Christ Jesus,” that’s the variant they pick. Doesn’t matter that this variant didn’t show up in any ancient bibles at all, and doesn’t appear till the 1980s: If you leave it up to them, they’ll “fix” the bible till it matches all their favorite songs.

That’s kinda what the Textus Receptus is. It’s the first attempt by a western bible scholar to put together a Greek New Testament for popular use. Problem is, it’s pre-scientific. And the other problem… is Christians who don’t believe in science. To these people the Textus is the original Greek New Testament, period. Any other Greek NT produced in the last 150 years—especially one which states their favorite verses are textual variants!—must be part of some devilish plot to undermine the bible.

Where the Textus came from.

Renaissance scholar Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (now in the Netherlands, then part of the Holy Roman Empire; 1466–1536) was one of those Christians who really wanted an accurate copy of the bible. You know, like those Christians who obsess over what the best bible translation might be, or who start studying biblical languages ’cause they wanna read the original. (Yeah, I’ve been there.) Lucky for him, his high school taught Greek, so he learned it as well as Latin, and became a bible scholar.

Erasmus became a Roman Catholic priest at 25, but left that job to become a bishop’s secretary; the bishop needed someone who was much better at Latin than he was. From there Erasmus went to the University of Paris, then taught and studied at various universities in England, Italy, the Netherlands, and Germany. He’s known as a humanist scholar. And here’s where I gotta remind certain paranoid conservatives Erasmus was a Christian humanist, not a secular humanist. Humanism looks at the needs of humanity instead of the needs of social constructs, institutions, and governments. Secular humanism tends to ignore Jesus, or even dismiss him as irrelevant. Christian humanism absolutely depends on Jesus for guidance.

In the early 1500s, after Erasmus figured he had a solid enough grasp of Latin and Greek, he decided to tackle a study of the Vulgate. He collected all the copies of the Vulgate he could find, compared ’em against editions of the Greek New Testament he got from the Basel, Switzerland library, and published his corrected version of the Vulgate as the Novum Instrumentum Omne (“The Whole New Testament”). I know; instrumentum sounds like it means “instrument,” not “testament,” but that’s not what Erasmus meant by it. He straightened that out when he published the second edition and changed its name to Novum Testamentum Omne. It was a bilingual bible, with the Greek in one column and Latin in another.

Erasmus’s bible was a best-seller, but while his intent was to improve upon the Vulgate, scholars zeroed in on his Greek text. So much so, his 1535 edition of the Testamentum (his fifth and final edition) didn’t bother to include the Latin text. Scholars used Erasmus’s text as the basis of their Greek NT quotes. Martin Luther translated his German NT from it. William Tyndale translated his English NT from it. And yes, the translators of the Geneva Bible and King James Version used it for their bibles too.

Erasmus’s NT became known as the Textus Receptus. It wasn’t called that in Erasmus’s lifetime; it got called that later, after different editors like Robert Estienne started publishing it. (Estienne is frequently called by his Latin name Stephanus, and his 1550 edition of the Textus is the one most folks refer to nowadays.) “Received Text” implies this was the definitive Greek text the Holy Spirit preserved through all the generations of bible-copiers. While that’d be good marketing, ’tain’t necessarily so.

Like I said, Erasmus picked the variants he liked best to create the Testamentum. If he didn’t like the way one Greek bible phrased it, it was no problem; the library had several Greek bibles to choose from. Scholars have identified more than seven different manuscripts he tapped. If a verse existed in the Vulgate, but he couldn’t find the original in Greek, Erasmus knew both languages well enough that he translated the Latin verses into Greek and inserted ’em into the Greek text.

Well… sorta knew both languages well enough. When he translated Revelation 17.4 from Latin to Greek, he turned immunditia/“uncleanness” into ἀκαθάρτητος/akathártitos—which is close, but isn’t a proper ancient Greek word. The original text had ἀκάθαρτα/akátharta. But akathártitos is still in the Textus.

You remember my hypothetical list of textual variants at the top of this article? If Erasmus found these variants, he’d try to include as many of them as possible: “He, Christ Jesus. And Larry.” Y’see, he wasn’t going for the best possible variant so much as he was trying to be comprehensive. If it was in a bible someplace, anyplace, he figured it oughta be in his bible too.

Some folks refer to Erasmus as the father of textual criticism, but no actual textual criticism went into creating the Textus. Just Erasmus’s good intentions. It’s why the Textus, and every English-language New Testament based on it, has verses which all the other bibles don’t. Plus Erasmus didn’t use old copies! He was using relatively recent copies. The Greek bibles in the Basel library dated from the 1100s and later. Ancient Greek NTs were around back then—the Codex Vaticanus, the one we use for our New Testaments nowadays, dates from the early 300s—but Erasmus only bothered with the copies he could personally get ahold of. All of which were medieval.

Why people still use it.

If you’re a big fan of the King James Version—or if you worship it—you’re gonna be interested in the Textus, ’cause that’s the Greek New Testament the KJV’s translators used to double-check their update of the 1568 Bishops’ Bible. (Which itself was an update of the 1535 Great Bible, which was largely based on William Tyndale’s 1534 translation, and of course Tyndale used the Textus too.) If you wanna compare the KJV to a Greek text, the Textus is the text for you.

And if you’re fearful about critical texts, the Textus is also the text for you. Because Erasmus wasn’t critical at all; he’d include anything. Text critics are far more particular. They’ll insist if a verse existed in the 1100s, but can’t be found in any copies of the scriptures from the 300s, it shouldn’t be included in the New Testament. And it doesn’t matter if these are some of your favorite verses, or if you love the way these particular verses are phrased: If it’s not ancient, it’s not bible.

This, certain Christians cannot abide. They love these verses. They love these variants. The scholars must be wrong; not their favorite translations. The scholars must be in league with Satan, helping it corrupt the bible.

Plus today’s scholars keep using the Codex Vaticanus as the basis of their bibles. (Of course they do; it’s one of the oldest bibles we have!) If you’re particularly anti-Catholic, you’re probably gonna freak at anyone using the Vaticanus… ’cause it’s called the Vaticanus. After the Vatican. Which means it’s gotta be a corrupt Catholic document, right? Connect the dots, sheeple!

But these folks either don’t know, or ignore the fact Erasmus himself was Catholic. Or in some cases they pretend he can’t have been all that Catholic, ’cause he quit the priesthood, and dared to sometimes critique his church. But, I remind you, he never ever left Catholicism. And was quite critical of Protestants too.

Me, I use the Textus because I’m still a fan of the KJV. But when I translate the New Testament, I only look at the Textus for comparison. I might use it to translate variants. Otherwise I don’t use it. I use the Tyndale House NT or the Nestle-Aland NTG 28. I wanna know what the ancient copies of the NT say. Not the medieval copies. Their textual variants didn’t come from the apostles, and I agree with the text critics: If it’s not ancient, it’s not bible.