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
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
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
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
discussion will appear in a near-future issue of Biblical Insights.