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Questions on Greek Texts

By Gary F. Zeolla


Below are e-mails I have received asking questions about Greek texts. The e-mailers’ questions and comments are in black and enclosed in "greater than" and "lesser than" signs. My comments are in red.

>Hello Gary,

I'll try to be brief. I found your site and appreciate your work tremendously esp. in the area of translations and the Greek texts.<

Thank you.

> Sadly, most reference material available to most Christians lightly regard the MT as inferior to the modern CT without researching the subject. For some time I have been uncomfortable with this approach. The CT seems almost like "cafeteria-style" textual criticism. The "critics" pick and choose what seems best to them.

Anyway, to the point: One question I'd like to ask (maybe more as I read more of your material) is: Since Erasmus used the Greek manuscripts available to him at the time of his Greek NT, isn't his work similar to a CT in that he was picking and choosing what seemed best to him??


All textual critics have to make choices in regards to variants in Greek manuscripts. No two Greek manuscripts are 100% identical. The question is, how does one go about making those decisions? What are the guiding principles?

I'm not sure what standards Erasmus used in making his decisions among the handful of Greek manuscripts he had, but since they were all Byzantine-type manuscripts, the differences between them would have been minor.

However, I do lay out in detail in articles on my site the standards that CT people use in making their decisions. And one of the standards they use is the belief that Byzantine manuscripts are "inferior" to Egyptian manuscripts. I discuss why I believe the exact opposite is true.

So that's one of the main issue: the value of the Byzantine manuscripts, which "just happen" to comprise the vast majority of the available manuscripts. Again , for further details see the articles on textual criticism on my site.

I have read your articles on Greek texts and criticism. I have a few questions on the history of some of the references.

1. What is the relationship of the Textus Receptus to Erasmus' Greek text? Was on derived from the other, or are they independent works?<

Erasmus (c.1466-1536) published his Greek text in 1516. The term Textus Receptus [TR] generally refers to the Greek text of Stephens (1550) or of Elzevir (1624). I am not sure how much "dependent" one editor was one another’s work. However, each of these texts are very similar as they are all based on Byzantine manuscripts of the New Testament. So even Erasmus’ text is sometimes referred to as the Textus Receptus.

Subsequent to my answer above, I attained a book written by the NT editor of the NKJV: Arthur L. Farstad. The New King James Version in the Great Tradition (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1993).

The following taken is from pages 106-7 of this book:
When the Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus(1469-1536) published the first Greek New Testament 1516, he had just a few late manuscripts with which to work. Later editions of the Greek Testament were also based on similar manuscripts. So, apart from minor variations, all the early printed editions are essentially the same.

The Greek New Testaments used by the King James translators other than Erasmus' texts included the Complutensian Polyglot printed in 1514 (but not published till 1520), Stephanus’ texts, and Beza's texts. "The editions of Beza, particularly that of 1598, and the two last editions of Stevens were the chief sources used for the English Authorized Version of 1611." [quoted from The New Testament: The Greek Text Underlying the English Authorized Version of 1611 (London: The Trinitarian Bible Society, n.d.), preface.]

The Elzivir brothers of the Netherlands published several editions of e Greek New Testament with essentially the same text as that of Erasmus, Beza, and Stephanus. In the Latin introduction to the 1633 edition, Elzivir stated that this text was the "textum ab omnibus receptum" ("text received by all"). This was shortened to "Textus Receptus," and was later applied to Stephanus' text of 1550. This name was also applied in a general way to all texts of the Byzantine type. The traditional Greek text has been call the Textus Receptus ever since that time.

>2. What is the relationship of the Textus Receptus to the Majority Text? Was one derived from the other, or are they independent works?<

The term Majority Text [MT] refers to either The Greek New Testament According to the Majority Text edited by Zane C. Hodges and Arthur L. Farstad (1985) or The New Testament in the Original Greek According to the Byzantine/ Majority Textform edited by Maurice A. Robinson and William G. Pierpont (1991). Again, these two texts are very similar.

The difference between the MT and the TR is that the TR was developed from the handful of Greek manuscripts (about 20) that were available to the above mentioned editors in the 1500's. Meanwhile, the MT is developed from the over 5,000 Greek manuscripts now available. As its name implies, it is "based on the consensus of the majority of existing manuscripts" along with other criteria (The NKJV Greek English Interlinear New Testament, p.ix). See Meaning of "Majority Text" for a more detailed discussion on the MT.

Since the Byzantine textform is the most numerous of the manuscripts, inevitably, the MT is basically reflective of the Byzantine tradition. As such, the MT and the TR are very similar, though not identical.

As the preface to the NKJV Interlinear explains, "The Majority Text is similar to the Textus Receptus, but it corrects those readings which have little or (occasionally) no support in the Greek manuscript tradition" (p.x). The reference to "no support" probably refers to Acts 9:5,6 and 1John 5:7. I discuss these variants in the chapter "Significant Textual Variants - TR vs. MT" in my book Differences Between Bible Versions.

Most of the significant differences between the manuscripts are between the Byzantine manuscripts and the Alexandrian manuscripts. The "Critical Text" (CT) that most modern-day Bible versions are based on is developed from mainly Alexandrian manuscripts. The differences between these two traditions are discussed in the chapter "Introduction to Textual Criticism" in my book.

Personally, I believe the MT best reflects the original manuscripts. I prefer it to the TR since, as indicated, it is developed from a far greater number of manuscripts. I explain why I prefer it to the CT in my book.

>3. What modern Greek interlinear New Testaments are currently best respected: What are their origins?<

If you are asking me which interlinear I think is best, the above mentioned NKJV Interlinear is excellent. It is the only interlinear I know of that uses the MT. It is published by Thomas Nelson (1994). The NKJV is in the right hand margin. It also includes some textual and lexical aids.

Another excellent interlinear is The Interlinear Greek-English New Testament edited by J.P. Green and published by Sovereign Grace Publishers. The preface states, "The Greek text herein is purportedly that which underlies the King James Version, as reconstructed by F.H.A. Scrivener in 1894. It thus differs to a degree from all previous printed editions of the Received Text (there are over 250 differences, most of them quite minor, between this text and the Stephens 1550 ‘standard’ Textus Receptus)" (p.xii).

So there is some "fluidity" in the term Textus Receptus. But, as indicated, differences between the various TR type texts are generally "quite minor."

In any case, the latest edition of Green's interlinear (1996) is particularly well done. In the middle column is the Greek text with Green’s word-for-word English translation below each Greek word and Strong’s concordance numbers above each word. In the left-hand margin is Green’s The Literal Translation of the Bible (LITV for "Literal Version") and in the right-hand margin is the KJV. It is bound in a black, leather cover. A very nice-looking and helpful edition.

>I hope these are not too difficult to get some meaningful answers.

Thank you.

I hope the above is helpful!

>Gary, I've enjoyed your page greatly, and appreciate the information you've posted. Though I have no formal training in Greek or Hebrew, I have been using some of the same tools as you (Green's Interlinear and the Englishman's Greek/Hebrew Concordances) and have come to roughly the same conclusion. My wife and I are both long time NIV readers who have become increasingly disappointed with that translation for many of the same reasons you've mentioned. We are moving to the NKJV, though I have no plans to get rid of my NIV or NASB.<

Thank you for the kind comments. It sounds like you’re following basically the same path I did. When I first switched to the NKJV I did not immediately abandon the NASB or even NIV. But eventually I felt that it was a waste of time to check them, especially once I had the LITV and MKJV to compare. Though I do still have a copy of the NIV and NASB around. And with both of them on my PC Study Bible I do check them occasionally, as it only takes the click of a mouse. But it is more out of curiosity than anything else.

>At any rate, though I know next to nothing about textual criticism, I have a feeling that the some of the current underlying assumptions are questionable (particularly the idea that you should prefer the shorter reading -- a concept that seems completely counterintuitive to me). The leads me to feel more comfortable with translations based on the Majority Text or TR. Not only are there more witnesses, but as far as I can tell, most of the variances between the MT and the CT are that the CT has rejected phrases and, in some cases, entire verses.<

There are other differences; but these "omissions" are the most obvious.

>My question for you is, simply, has anyone ever tried to quantify, through a controlled experiment, the probability of different types of transcription errors? To me, it seems obvious that deletions should be much more frequent than additions. Of course, that is based on my own set of prejudices and preconceptions. So why not actually see what happens in a well designed experiment?<

An interesting proposition, but it would be rather hard to put into practice. The CT position is that the scribes to so afraid of leaving anything out of the text, that when faced with two possible readings, they just included them both to be sure not to miss the correct one. But this assumes that they were more afraid of omitting God’s words than adding to them. Yet the Scriptures gives similar dire warning about both (Rev 22:18,19).

However, if you are talking about accidental changes, then I would have to agree. Deletions would seem to me to be more likely than additions. But again, I am basing this opinion on my own experience in re-typing stuff. I seem much more likely to omit something from the original than to add to it.

Gordon Clark says similarly, "But the critics are wedded to the idea that the shorter reading must nearly always be the originals. Having suffered at the hands or fingers of various typists, I cannot accept this criterion. They more often omit words and phrases than make additions" (Logical Criticisms of Textual Criticisms, p. 23).

In any case, I don’t know of any "controlled" study that has been done to verify if copyists are more likely to omit or add to their documents. It would be an interesting study though.

>Thanks for all the good information, and best wishes!

In Christ,
Christopher Gesh

Books and eBooks by Gary F. Zeolla, the Director of Darkness to Light

Bible Versions Controversy: Greek Text Types
Bible Versions Controversy

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