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Some thoughts on the ‘earliest and best’ texts

Twice in recent sermons (02/22/2009 on Mark 11:26 and 02/01/2009 on Mark 9:43-50) I have used the phrase ‘earliest and best Greek texts’ to explain why I was not including a particular phrase that is found in the King James Version in my exegesis of a passage. I’m aware that not everyone agrees with this judgment, and I thought I would share some thoughts on why I do this, and some links to significant articles on the subject.

I am not, in this blog, going to touch on the translation of the Greek texts into English. My position is that all English translations have strengths and weaknesses, especially in their contemporary readability, literalness and accurate capturing of the thought. Because all translations have strengths and weaknesses my practice is to use many translations in studying and even in preaching.


Up until the Renaissance and the Reformation, most of the bibles in the world were either Latin (mostly a version called the Vulgate) or Greek. The Latin Bible was used in the Roman Catholic Church and the Greek Bible in the Orthodox churches.

The Renaissance brought a new interest in classical languages. The printing press brought new availability of all kinds of written material. Thus classical scholars as early as Erasmus were called on to prepare for publication manuscripts of the Greek New Testament.  Though Erasmus used only a few easily obtained copies of the Greek text used by the Orthodox churches, and though he included a few nearly unknown readings in his product, the printed version of his work became the basis of most Bible translations for the next four centuries.  Slightly revised, it was published in vast quantities in 1550 and again in 1624.

It was this Greek text, along with a number of other individual Greek manuscripts, that became the basis for Tyndale’s translation of the Bible into English, and also for the translation in 1611 of the Authorized Version (the King James Version).  This Greek text has come to be known as the Textus Receptus (received text) or the Traditional text. I’m going to call it the TR in the rest of this article.

Text Types

In the 1800’s the accuracy of this text was called into question. A number of very early manuscripts of the Greek New Testament had been found and none of them agreed with the TR in every detail.  In fact no two handwritten copies of the Greek New Testament agree in every detail. There are slight differences even between two copies made by the same copyists.  If you look at all the Greek manuscripts available, you will find something like 300,000 text differences among them. However, almost all of these differences are very small – an accent, or a punctuation mark or the shortening or lengthening of a word.

However, some of the differences between the early manuscripts and the TR seemed to these scholars significant enough to pursue. As they did so they found that these oldest manuscripts could be divided up by their similarities.  One group of these was called the Alexandrian text type, as many examples were found in and around Egypt. Another was called the Western type, found in Italy and other western Mediterranean countries. A third type was called Byzantine, found in the Greek Orthodox countries of the eastern Mediterranean. This was the text type on which Erasmus’ work and the TR were based. However, the Byzantine texts as an identifiable group did not begin to appear until several centuries after the birth of Christ.

A very famous chart of this data, in which the width of each bar represents the number of existing manuscripts from each century, looks like this:

Based on this data, scholars began to believe that the versions of the Greek text that most closely approximated the original documents (all of which have been lost) were those of the Alexandrian and Western types. This was later supported by the finding of numerous copies of the Scriptures on papyrus. Only one such was known at the time this theory was established, but over a hundred are now known, and most are of the Alexandrian type.

The Critical Text

Therefore, for the last 150 years or so, scholars have been refining what is called the Critical Text, in which the resolution of different readings was based on several criteria, including:(1) External evidence: older readings are to be preferred, in general, to newer reading; (2) Internal evidence: the reading which best explains the accidental (or occasionally intentional) creation of the other readings through known habits of copyists is to be preferred.

Though there is a subjective element to some of these decisions, the process itself is fairly obvious and open, and can be reproduced by independent objective investigators most of the time. Two early users of this process, Westcott and Hort, have been accused of a strong bias in favor of the Alexandrian text type, but 140 years later any such bias seems to have been pretty thoroughly removed from the Critical Text. In fact, hundred of readings commonly found in the Byzantine text type are also found in some older manuscripts and seem to have better internal evidence and are thus included in the Critical Text.

The Current Situation

All of this has been documented and debated in great detail.  Some feel that the Textus Receptus is the best Greek text to work from because it was what was provided by God to the great scholars of the Reformation and for some hundreds of years before that. Others feel that the Critical Text, reflecting the earliest and best explained readings is closest to the inerrant originals penned by the authors. That is my position.

Finally, there is a new position that has emerged which feels that while the TR is a great text, it never really represented the majority of the text used before the invention of printing. These people have come up with a third position called the Majority Text (MT) position. Since some of the readings in the TR are supported by only a few of the existing manuscripts, I would tend to lean more toward the Majority Text than the Textus Receptus if forced to choose.

These three text types have all been used to translate the New Testament. In fact, most translators and translation teams, while starting from one of these foundations, work hard to think through the textual issues in each verse as they do their translations. Here are some well known translations and the text type they are based on:
King James Version – Textus Receptus
New King James Version – mostly Majority Text, with some Textus Receptus
Revised Standard Version – Critical Text
New American Standard Version – Critical Text
New International Version – Critical Text
English Standard Version – Critical Text

Closing Thoughts:

I can not emphasize too strongly the fact that all three Greek texts are essentially in agreement at almost every point.  The new Majority Text differs from the Textus Receptus at about 2000 places, most of them only different by a single word or spelling. Remember, that’s 2000 out of 300,000 variants.  The Critical Text differs from the TR at about 6500 places – still agreeing 98 percent of the time.

Admittedly, a few of these disagreements are over whole verses or even blocks of text (like Mark 16:9-20). But it is the conclusion of scholars on both sides of the issue that no major doctrine or Christian practice is threatened by the use of one text over the other. Our understanding of the Christian faith and how to live the Christian life does not depend on which of these three similar Greek texts we use.

Therefore, on the one hand, I think that sincere Christians can disagree on this issue without having it be a stumbling block between us.  If you disagree with the choices those around you make in selecting a translation, I strongly urge you to ‘agree to disagree’ in a way that does not threaten Christian fellowship or community.

On the other hand, I do have an opinion – that the Critical Text is closer to the original words of Scripture’s authors in many of the places where it disagrees with the TR or the MT.  I don’t accept this blindly, but when I am about to preach a text with significant variation among the English translations, one of the things I look at is the basis for the decisions made in the Critical Text.  On rare occasions I disagree with their thinking and use a different reading.

There are two ways you will see this reflected in my preaching. First, when we use Scripture at Trinity that I have provided (readings, preaching, Bible Immersion Camp, Bible studies, etc.) I will pretty much always use one of the translations made from the Critical text – often the New International Version or the English Standard Version, but occasionally the New American Standard Version. Once in a while I don’t like any of the translations enough to use it un-altered, in which case I create the DeGray Standard Version (DSV) for that Scripture passage.  Often I will mark these (DSV) in the bulletin or on the screen.

The second way this is reflected is where we started this essay: once in a while I will make the comment that the ‘earliest and best manuscripts’ support a particular reading (or the absence of a verse!). Now, I hope, you know what that means.


There are countless sites on the web arguing every aspect of this discussion, and countless books.  I offer links to just three that I have found helpful:

The Majority Text and the Original Text: Are They the Same by Daniel Wallace at Dallas Theological Seminary.  This article, while addressing a particular issue, touches in some detail most of what I have said above.

English Guide to the Various Readings of the Greek New Testament and The Majority Text Compared to the Received Text, both on give complete lists of all the variants between the three texts – a most useful tool.

Finally, I would recommend the book ‘The King James Version Debate’ by Don Carson (Amazon link), which goes through this material clearly but in some detail.