Greek New Testament Editions
I have friends deeply concerned about which Greek text an English translation used. I hear them throwing around terms like Textus Receptus, Byzantine/Majority Text, Alexandrian Text, Critical Text.
What do these terms mean, and what does it matter?
I’ll try to keep this simple. The Textus Receptus is an edition of the Greek New Testament (GNT) put together by Erasmus in the 1500s. Erasmus produced several editions of his GNT and the Textus Receptus appears to be based on his fourth edition. It is very close to the GNT used by the translators of the KJV.1
The Byzantine Text is the form of the GNT that was most common in the Byzantine Empire from c.1000-1400 AD. There are more GNT copies that reflect the Byzantine text than any other type of text, so it is sometimes called the Majority Text. There are two printed Greek New Testaments that reflect this “majority” text. One by Hodges and Farstad. The other by Robinson and Pierpont.
The Alexandrian Text is the form of the GNT that was common in and around Alexandria Egypt from c. 200-600 AD. There are relatively few copies of the NT that reflect the Alexandrian text, but these copies are among the oldest copies of the NT that we have found. I know of no printed edition of the Alexandrian Text form.
The Critical Text is an edition of the GNT created by evaluating all the differences found in Greek manuscripts to determine which is the most likely to be original. The most widely used forms of the Critical Text are the Nestle-Aland GNT, now in its 28th edition, and the United Bible Society’s GNT, now in its 5th revised edition.
When arguing about which is better, people often overlook the fact that the Textus Receptus, the Majority Text, and the Critical text agree with each other perfectly on approximately 85% of the text of the GNT! That means there is absolutely no difference between these texts in the vast majority of cases.
Just to see this for myself, I chose at random three chapters from the NT to compare these three versions of the Greek NT. Here’s what I found. In Matthew 7, nearly 97% of the words were identical in all three editions. In Acts 2, nearly 95% of the words were identical. In Hebrews 12, nearly 94% of the words were identical. Of the differences that did exist in these chapters, none significantly impacted the meaning.
If 85% of these texts are identical, what about the other 15%? When we look at the more than 5800 Greek manuscripts we have available to us, we find thousands of differences. However, roughly 90% of the differences are spelling differences (e.g., theater vs. theatre; πειραζομαι vs. πιραζομαι).
Of the remaining 10 percent of the differences, roughly 90% of them are word order differences (e.g., Jesus Christ vs. Christ Jesus; τὴνοἰκίαν αὐτοῦ vs. αὐτοῦτὴνοἰκίαν). Of the remaining one percent of differences, roughly 90% of them have no impact on the meaning of the text (e.g., the absence of articles, different forms of verbs, alternate prepositions, etc.). That means there is no question about the meaning of 99.9% of the text of the New Testament!
Of the .1% remaining differences that do affect the meaning of the text, not a single one of these impacts any major doctrine of Christianity. In fact, it is impossible to construct a heretical NT from the Greek manuscripts we have, because they are all theologically orthodox.
In sum, we have no question about 85% of the words originally inspired by God in the NT, and no question about 99.9% of the meaning of the text of the NT.I find this both amazing and comforting! I also believe this exposes how unnecessary, indeed, how ungodly it is for Christians to be unchristianizing, separating, and condemning other believers because of their view of which Greek Text best reflects the word of God.
If you come across claims that English versions translated from the Byzantine Text or the Critical Text are heretical or satanic or corrupt, you can dismiss them as falsehoods not worthy of your attention.
1) This is a deliberately simplified presentation. The following is more detailed:
“Erasmus’ Greek text was reprinted with various changes by others. Robert Estienne (Latin, Stephanus) produced four editions (1546, 1549, 1550, 1551). His third edition of 1550 was the first to have a critical apparatus, with references to the Complutensian Polyglot and fifteen manuscripts.
It was republished many times and became the accepted form of the TR, especially in England.
It influenced all future editions of the TR. According to Mill, the first and second editions differ in 67 places, and the third in 284 places.
The fourth edition had the same text as the third but is noteworthy because the text is divided into numbered verses for the first time. It was the source for the NT of the Geneva Bible (1557). Theodore Beza, the successor of John Calvin at Geneva, produced nine editions between 1565 and 1604. Only four are independent editions, the others being smaller-sized reprints. His text was essentially a reprinting of Stephanus with minor changes.
A study of the KJV NT by F. H. A. Scrivener concluded that Beza’s edition of 1598 was the main source for the translators.
As was noted at the beginning of this article, Bonaventura and Abraham Elzevir produced seven editions between 1624 and 1678. And it was from their second and definitive edition of 1633 that the term Textus Receptus originated. In Europe the third edition of Stephanus (1550) became the standard form of the text in England and that of the Elzevirs (1633) on the continent. Scrivener suggests that they differ in 287 places.”
“Erasmus and the Textus Receptus.” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 1 (1996): 52-53.