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First quarto of King James Bible, which was translated from the "Textus Receptus." (Wikimedia Commons)

For at least the next 50 years following the resurrection of Christ, the disciples wrote their eyewitness and individual accounts in Greek (and possibly some in Aramaic) of the Christ event. These writings were circulated and published as Gospels and epistles for Christians throughout the Roman Empire. For centuries, these New Testament writings were copied, edited and distributed in a variety of languages around the globe. Over 5,800 extant Greek manuscripts containing fragments or books of the New Testament exist today. With respect to simple numbers, the majority of these manuscripts reflect the Byzantine/Majority textual tradition, which is related to but distinct from the Textus Receptus (TR).

Various Greek New Testament editions of what would become known as the TR were compiled by Erasmus (1516-1522 with three editions [the Comma Johanneum in 1 John 5:7-8 was added in the third edition]), Stephanus (1546-51 with four editions), Beza (1565-1604 with nine editions), Elzevir (1633, where the term Textus Receptus—nunc ab omnibus receptum—was first used), Mill, (1707), Wettstein (1731) and Bengel (1734), after whom New Testament textual critics began to use the Alexandrian or other Greek manuscript traditions instead of the TR as the base text. The TR was the first Greek New Testament used in English Bible translations. From the 1500s to the 1700s, such translations were The Tyndale Bible (1523), Coverdale's Bible (1535), Matthew's Bible (1537), The Great Bible (1539), The Geneva Bible (1560), The Bishop's Bible (1568) and The Authorized Version (1611 and the 1769 Oxford revision that is used today).

The Byzantine or Majority text Greek manuscript tradition is related to but distinct from the TR. The TR, edited by the Catholic monk Erasmus in 1516, actually comprised about a half dozen Greek NT manuscripts dating from the 12th century CE. The character of the TR is related to the Byzantine/Majority manuscript tradition, but the TR only reflects a slice of those witnesses since it is based on six 12th-century or later manuscripts. However, the Byzantine/Majority Text reflects manuscripts from the 4th/5th century and following that were found in the eastern Mediterranean and Middle Eastern regions in only the last three centuries. At least 80 percent of the minuscule-type manuscripts from the 9th-17th centuries are Byzantine in nature. There are two Greek New Testament editions based on this manuscript tradition, the Hodges-Farstad Majority Text (1982, 1985) and the Robinson-Pierpont Byzantine Textform (1991, 2005).

The TR was compiled from the best available manuscripts accessible to Erasmus at the time of his Greek New Testament. Many more manuscripts from the same Byzantine/Majority tradition were discovered in the centuries after Erasmus, so one might say that his TR is an abridged version of the full Byzantine/Majority tradition. This is one reason why there are 1,838 textual differences between the TR and Byzantine/Majority traditions. As time increased, more discoveries were made that provided earlier and better readings to the Byzantine/Majority tradition. With respect to the Alexandrian versus Byzantine witnesses, it is as if the former were preserved and buried under the Middle Eastern desert while the latter were copied and distributed throughout the Byzantine Empire over the centuries. These observations notwithstanding, the New King James Version (NKJV) preface asserts that the textual correspondence among the TR, Byzantine, and Alexandrian texts (the tradition behind most modern English translations and Greek New Testaments) is 85 percent.

Why then are there few English translations such as the King James Version (KJV), NKJV and Modern English Version based on the Majority Text? When Lachmann (1850) began to collate the ancient Greek manuscripts discovered in the 18th/19th centuries for his Greek New Testament edition, he preferred the earlier, recently found manuscripts to those of the TR. Then the Greek New Testament editions by Tischendorf (1864) and Westcott and Hort (1881) employed the many Greek manuscripts that were recently found and predated those manuscripts from the Byzantine/Majority tradition. Of course, the textual critic must discern the difference between an earlier manuscript with a later reading and a later manuscript with an earlier reading. Nevertheless, there are fortunately still textual critics who have collated the extant Greek manuscripts from all the traditions in the Nestle Aland 28th edition and United Bible Societies 5th edition Greek New Testaments (which both prefer the Alexandrian tradition) and the Hodges-Farstad and Robinson-Pierpont Greek New Testaments (which both prefer the Byzantine/Majority tradition).

These observations may help explain why some evangelicals prefer the Textus Receptus (or even Byzantine/Majority traditions) over the critical Greek New Testament that prefers the Alexandrian tradition. Studying translations from both textual traditions may assist the serious student of Scripture to observe the differences between the two and gain a deeper understanding of the preservation of Scripture and appreciation for it as God's Word.

James F. Linzey is the chief editor of the Modern English Version, and the late Verna M. Linzey, was on the MEV translation committee. James is a Southern Baptist minister and Verna was an Assemblies of God minister.

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