Standard Greek Texts
of the New Testament: Part I

The standard Greek texts of the New Testament are not as uniform as the accepted standard Hebrew text of the Tanakh.  This is true because not everyone accepts the two most scholarly, critical editions of the Greek texts on the market today.  A number of people maintain that the old Textus Receptus (the Greek source of the King James translation) is a more reliable text than these two. 

The two “standard” Greek texts of the New Testament on the market today are The Greek New Testament, 4th revised edition (United Bible Societies) and the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece, 27th edition (Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft).  With the exception of some minor punctuation differences, these two Greek texts are identical.  These texts represent the best attempt of textual critics to reconstruct the “original” Greek texts (the autographs) that no longer exist.  For an idea of what textual critics do, click here.

The process of reconstructing the original Greek texts is not an easy task, especially in light of the fact that more than 5,000 Greek manuscripts have been discovered to date.  Many of these manuscripts, particularly the oldest ones, are very fragmentary.  For example, the oldest known manuscript is a fragment of papyrus dating to the early 2nd century CE and contains only a few verses of John.  Here is a picture just to let you see what it looks like.

For a better description of the manuscript, click on the reference under the picture.

A major problem for textual critics is that no two of the more than 5,000 manuscripts agree in every particular!  Most of the differences are not significant (e.g., inclusion or exclusion of words, like the definite article, misspelling of words, order of the words, duplicating some lines, omitting some lines) but there are some that are significant (adding to the text, taking from the text, changing the wording of the text).

For a view of ancient Greek papyri and codices of the New Testament, click here.

Using their own set of rules, the editors of the two most scholarly, critical editions of the Greek texts given above have published their best shot at what the original writings must have looked like.  It should be remembered that each of the 27 books of the New Testament was written in isolation.  There was no idea in the 1st century of a book known as the New Testament (or by any other name)—i.e., of putting a number of individual books into one volume.  Rather, someone wrote each of the books at some time in some place for some purpose.  This may be very important, since each congregation of followers of “the way” during the early movement was dealing with its own interpretations of the life and death of Jesus.

The compilation of books into a single volume happened later.  The process of “canonizing the Scriptures” (i.e., deciding which of the many available books should be included in the volume) is a story of its own and must wait its turn for discussion.

What this means is that most modern translations of the New Testament are based on the best critical editions of the Greek texts, put together by textual critics on the basis of rules established for dealing with more than 5,000 manuscripts of the books of the New Testament.  Some of the translators do not adhere strictly to the texts established by the two editions, but choose some of the “readings” they want from the Greek text of manuscripts not included in the main text.  For example, the Preface to the New International Version (p. x) contains the following paragraph.

“The Greek text used in translating the New Testament was an eclectic one.  No other piece of ancient literature has such an abundance of manuscript witnesses as does the New Testament.  Where existing manuscripts differ, the translators made their choice of readings according to accepted principles of New Testament textual criticism.  Footnotes call attention to places where there was uncertainty about what the original text was.  The best current printed texts of the Greek New Testament were used.”

It is interesting to observe that the choices of readings were made “according to accepted principles of New Testament textual criticism.”  Earlier in the Preface (p. ix), the position of the translators (or the governing body that authorized the translation) was made clear: “…that it would be an accurate translation and one that would have clarity and literary quality and so prove suitable for public and private reading, teaching, preaching, memorizing and liturgical use….In working toward these goals, the translators were united in their commitment to the authority and infallibility of the Bible as God’s Word in written form.  They believe that it contains the divine answer to the deepest needs of humanity, that it sheds unique light on our path in a dark world, and that it sets forth the way to our eternal well-being.”  Therefore, one wonders if the accepted principles of textual criticism are the same as the basic beliefs of the translators?

There are some, however, who have not put together a new translation using the best current printed texts of the Greek New Testament.  They believe that “the authority and infallibility of the Bible as God’s Word in written form” resides in the King James translation and the Textus Receptus.  This discussion will appear in a near-future issue of Biblical Insights.


Great Books for Your Library
Click on book for more info or to order.

The Text of the New Testament
an Introduction to the Critical
Editions and to the Theory and
Practice of Modern Textual
by Kurt Aland, Barbara Aland



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