By Dr. Herbert Samworth
This question, like most questions, has both a short and long answer. Let us begin with the short answer: the Textus Receptus, or Received Text, is a printed Greek New Testament that provided the textual base for the vernacular translations of the Reformation period.
This short answer raises as many questions as it answers. To answer these questions we must keep several things in mind. First, the name itself: textus receptus is a Latin phrase that can be translated as the received or agreed upon text. When speaking of the Textus Receptus, one must remember that it is a printed text, not a hand-copied manuscript. It was the Greek text available to translators during the time of the Reformation. Finally, the Textus Receptus is what is called a “text type.” The text type of the Textus Receptus is known as the Byzantine because it came from the geographical area around Constantinople. A characteristic of this text type was the inclusion of additional words in the text itself due to scribal notes. If the above is not sufficient to cause confusion, there is the additional fact that there were several editions of the Textus Receptus.
To unravel this confusion, we must give a brief historical overview of its printing and publication. In the late fifteenth century, the Greek language, unknown for hundreds of years, was recovered in the West or the geographical area of the Latin Church. The Bible of the Western Church at that time was the Latin Vulgate translated by Jerome in the latter part of the fourth century.
With the rediscovery of Greek, the Vulgate translation was subjected to a critical examination in comparison with the Greek original. Scholars discovered numerous mistranslations or outright errors in the Vulgate. This provided an impetus to print the New Testament in its original language. However, the major stumbling block to this printing endeavor was the lack of a type font for the Greek letters. The creation of this font was accomplished by the second decade of the sixteenth century.
Two major printings of the Greek New Testament were undertaken in the second decade of the sixteenth century. The first took place in Spain under the leadership of Cardinal Francisco Jimenez de Cisneros. The New Testament was completed by 1514 but permission to publish or sell the book was withheld by Pope Leo X. In the meantime, a partnership between Johannes Froben, a Swiss printer from Basle, and Erasmus, the great Humanist, was forged to produce a Greek New Testament before the New Testament of Jimenez could be published.
Working at breakneck speed, Erasmus gathered together what Greek manuscripts he could locate in Basle. He was able to collect five, the majority of which were dated in the twelfth century. Erasmus worked with such haste that he did not even transcribe the manuscripts; he merely made notes on the manuscripts themselves and sent them to the printers. The entire New Testament was printed in less than six months and published in 1516. Erasmus himself had to admit that the work was “precipitously edited.” Another person has called it the most faulty book ever published due to the proofing errors.
Despite its errors, the book became a best seller and the first printing was soon exhausted. In the second edition, which was published in 1519, Erasmus attempted to correct many of the printing errors but, unfortunately, there were nearly as many as the first edition.
In the meantime, the editors of the Greek New Testament printed in Spain were upset that they could not sell their book. They examined the Erasmanian edition carefully and noted the absence of 1 John 1:7, a verse upholding the doctrine of the Trinity, although it was included in the Latin Vulgate. This was a serious charge and Erasmus rashly promised that he would include it in the next edition of his New Testament if manuscript evidence were provided. A manuscript with the verse was located and Erasmus printed it in his third edition that was published in 1522.
Erasmus published two other editions, in 1527 and 1535. Stung by criticism that his work contained numerous textual errors, he incorporated readings from the Greek New Testament published in Spain in later editions of his work.
Erasmus’ Greek text became the standard in the field and other editors and printers continued the work after his death in 1536. Ten years later, the French printer, Robert Estienne or Stephanus, appeared on the scene. He printed the basic text of Erasmus in 1546, 1549, and a beautiful edition in 1550. Stephanus’third edition, known as the Editio Regia is considered to be the most beautiful Greek book ever printed due to the elegance of the Greek font.
Others printed the Greek New Testament including Theodore Beza, the friend of John Calvin. In 1624 Abraham and Bonaventure Elzevir of Leiden published an edition of the Greek New Testament. In 1633 they published a second edition. In the publisher’s preface, in Latin, we find the following words: Textum ergo habes, nunc ab omnibus receptum that can be translated as: the (reader) now has the text that is received by all. From this publisher’s blurb has come the words “Received Text.” However, the Elzevir provided no definitive proof the text of their edition had been received by everyone.
The Textus Receptus became the dominant Greek text of the New Testament for the following two hundred and fifty years. It was not until the publication of the Westcott and Hort Greek New Testament in 1881 that the Textus Receptus lost its position.
We do not have space to trace the entire history of the Textus Receptus. It received criticism from the time of its first printing. With the discovery of older manuscripts, considered superior to the manuscripts of the Textus Receptus, the Textus Receptus no longer holds the first place in the estimation of most Greek scholars. Regardless of the position one holds regarding its relative value, the following points are worthy of consideration.
First, the differences between the two text traditions do not affect a major doctrine of the New Testament. One of the characteristics of the Textus Receptus is that it tended to add words that many people considered to be notes or glosses made by scribes. Over a period of time, these glosses became part of the text. Later editions of the Greek New Testament, including the Westcott and Hort Greek New Testament, have shown that many of these were not part of the original text.
Second, with these new aids, a thorough investigation of the New Testament was stimulated. From this searching of the Scriptures came the rediscovery of the teaching of salvation by grace
Third, there is reason to be grateful for those who had the foresight to print the text of the New Testament in its original language. With a printed Greek New Testament, it was possible to translate accurately the Scriptures into vernacular languages. The knowledge of the Word of God contributed immeasurably to the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century.
Many consider Luther to be the Father of the Reformation and there is good reason to hold this view. Few people know that Luther had a profound knowledge of the Scriptures in the original languages. He studied the Scriptures and it was in them that he rediscovered the doctrine of justification by faith.
However, Luther was not content to keep that knowledge to himself. At great risk, he translated the Scriptures into the German language so his fellow countrymen could read the Word of God themselves. Perhaps the greatest impact that Luther made was through the translation of the Bible into German.We could say the same for William Tyndale. He gave the English-speaking people their first printed New Testament. Others followed in his steps to provide the entire Bible in English after Tyndale’s martyrdom in 1536.
Both Luther and Tyndale translated the Scriptures into their vernacular languages using the same basic Greek text. Luther translated from the second edition of the Erasmus New Testament and Tyndale utilized the third edition.
The King James Bible is considered by many to be the crown of English Bibles. Even at the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Greek text used in preparing the King James Bible was the Textus Receptus. We should be grateful to God for providing a competent Greek text from which these heroes of the faith could translate the Word of God.