Many people are under the impression that the Textus Receptus (TR) printed by the Trinitarian Bible Society was the Greek text used by the KJV translators to translate the NT.  Not so.  The TR was not the Greek text used by the KJV translators.  Instead, it is a Greek text based on the KJV, created 270 years after the KJV was published!  To understand why, let’s explore the history of the TR in a little detail.

The story begins in 16th century Europe.  Catholicism was the religion of Europe, and Jerome’s Latin Vulgate was the Bible of the church—and had been for over 500 years.[1] In 1504, however, the Catholic humanist scholar by the name of Desiderius Erasmus came across a manuscript by the Italian humanist Lorena Valla (1407-57)—an event that would forever change Erasmus’ life, as well as the future of Bible translations.  Valla’s manuscript contained a host of annotations to the Vulgate, noting those places where it was not faithful to the Greek text.  Erasmus became enamored with Valla’s approach, and determined to carry on his work.

In 1516 Erasmus published his Novum Instrumentum.[2] This work was nearly 1000 pages in length.[3] It contained several articles regarding the work, Erasmus’ annotations on the Vulgate, a Greek text, and Erasmus’ own Latin translation.  It might be more accurate to call it an emendation of the Vulgate rather than a new Latin translation since Erasmus used the Vulgate as his base text, correcting it wherever he thought it departed from the Greek text.  Even in its final 1535 form (5th edition), it was still ~60% identical to the Vulgate.[4]

Erasmus’ Novum Instrumentum is historically significant because it challenged the Vulgate translation, and it contained the first published Greek text.  I emphasize that it was the first published Greek text because the distinction of the first printed Greek text belongs to the bishop of Toledo, Cardinal Ximenes de Cisneros, and his mammoth work: the Polyglotta Complutensis.[5] It was printed on January 10, 1514, nearly two years before Erasmus’ Novum Instrumentum, but was awaiting papal approval.[6] Pope Leo X did not give his permission to publish it until 1520—approximately four years after Erasmus published his Greek text—and even then Complutensis did not hit the streets until 1522, approximately five years after Cardinal Ximenes had died.[7] Due to its size (6 volumes) and its late arrival in the market, only 600 copies were ever produced.  Contrast this to Erasmus’ work which sold approximately 300,000 copies in 20 years![8]

Erasmus prepared his manuscript in approximately eight months.  By his own admission he was rushed.  He said it was “hurried out headlong,” and “precipitated rather than edited.”  It is popularly believed that Erasmus was working feverishly on the project because he wanted to beat Cardinal Ximenes to market with the very first published Greek text.  While this may have been the motive of Erasmus’ printer who encouraged him to publish a Greek text in his Instrumentum, there is no good reason to believe Erasmus was similarly motivated.  His interest was not in publishing a Greek text, but in publishing his annotations to the Vulgate.  A Greek text was included merely to justify his own Latin translation against the Vulgate.  The evidence we have seems to indicate that Erasmus was prodded by Froben et al to substitute a new Latin translation for the Vulgate, and to include the Greek text.[9] In the introduction to the Instrumentum Erasmus wrote that the “Greek text has been ‘added’ so that the reader can convince himself that the Latin translation does not contain any rash innovations, but is solidly based.”  As Erika Rummel writes:

The theory that Erasmus had begun work on a translation before 1506 was, however, at odds with his own testimony, for he consistently claimed that the idea of adding a translation to his New Testament edition occurred to him only when the project was already well advanced. In polemics against Edward Lee, Johannes Sutor, and Frans Titelmans, Erasmus declared that the plan was conceived by friends when the publication was already in progress. He claimed that it had not been his own intention to add a new translation—scholarly friends had urged him to do so—and insisted that nothing had been further from his mind at first. He described the circumstances surrounding the publication of the translation in similar terms in a letter to Budé: “When the work was already due to be published, certain people encouraged me to change the Vulgate text’ (Ep 421:50–2). In 1533 he repeated this version of events: “When I had first come to Basel I had not even thought about translating the New Testament—I had merely noted down some brief explanatory notes and had decided to be content with that” (Allen Ep 2758:12–14).[10]

Evidence that Erasmus’ interest in the Greek text was only secondary to his interest in his Latin translation is found in the fact that title of his work never advertised the Greek text,[11] he never consented to publish the Greek text by itself, and he arrived in Basle, Switzerland without any Greek manuscripts with which to produce a Greek text.[12]

It’s not entirely certain which Greek manuscripts Erasmus used to produce his Greek text.  He had as many as 10 manuscripts: six of these manuscripts were from the Dominican Library in Basle, dated between the 11th and 15th centuries (one 11th century text, four 12th century texts, and one 15th century text).[13] Erasmus’ friend, John Reuchlin, had borrowed two of these manuscripts, who lent them to Erasmus in turn.[14] One was borrowed from the family of Johann Amerbach in Basel,[15] and at least three others were from England.  One of Reuchlin’s manuscripts, Codex 1rk, was the best of the bunch, but Erasmus did not trust it, and thus only used its text of Revelation (he was forced to since he had no other manuscript of Revelation).[16]

We have been able to ascertain that Erasmus had access to at least the following manuscripts (key: e=Gospels; a=Acts and Catholic letters; p=Pauline letters, including Hebrews; r=Revelation:

  • Codex 1eap (12th century minuscule manuscript containing all of the NT except Revelation that Erasmus borrowed from Reuchlin)
  • Codex 1rK (12th century minuscule commentary Erasmus borrowed from Reuchlin, containing all of the book of Revelation except for the last six verses)
  • Codex 2e (12th century minuscule containing the gospels)
  • Codex 2ap (12th century minuscule containing Acts, Catholic epistles, and Pauline epistles, borrowed by Erasmus from Johann Amerbach in Basel)
  • Codex 4ap (15th century minuscule containing Acts, Catholic epistles, and Pauline epistles)
  • Codex 7 (11th century minuscule containing the epistles of Paul)
  • Codex 817 (15th century minuscule containing the gospels).

We also know from Erasmus’ annotations that he had knowledge of Codex 69 (15th century manuscript of the entire NT with some lacunae[17]), and used certain readings from this manuscript in his text (probably from notes he had taken on this manuscript prior to his arrival in Basel), but he did not have access to the full manuscript in Basel.[18] In all, Erasmus only had three manuscripts of the Gospels and Acts, four manuscripts of Paul’s epistles, and one manuscript of Revelation to produce his Greek text.[19],[20]

Erasmus used Codex 2e and 2ap extensively.  In fact, they served as his base text.  He made text-critical notes directly onto these codices, and then gave these edited codices to Froben for publishing (Froben did not incorporate all of Erasmus’ edits)![21] Since the Greek text for Revelation was contained within a commentary, and because it was a borrowed manuscript, Erasmus had a scribe copy the Greek text into a new manuscript for the printer.  The scribe made several copyist mistakes in the process that still appear in the Textus Receptus.  For example, in Revelation 17:4 the scribe wrote ajkaqavrthto instead of ajkavqarta (“impure”).  This is not even a Greek word!  In Revelation 17:8 kai parevstai (“and is to come”) was copied as kaivper estin (“and yet is”).[22] These errors are still found in the TR to this day!

The most egregious errors are found in Revelation 22:16-21 because Erasmus had no Greek text for this passage.  The lone manuscript Erasmus borrowed for Revelation was missing the last leaf which contained these verses.  While he was able to find 22:20 in Lorenzo Valla’s Notes on the New Testament, he had no Greek text for the other five verses.[23] To get around this problem Erasmus back-translated the Latin Vulgate into Greek.[24] This introduced a spate of textual variants not found in any extant Greek manuscript.  For example, the following words appear in Erasmus’ text of 22:16-21 that do not appear anywhere else in the manuscript tradition: “orthrinos at Revelation 22:16, elthe twice in verse 17 (its actually erchou), eltheto for erckestho in the same verse, suntusrturoumai gar for martnro and epitithe pros tauta for epithe ep auta in verse 18 and so on.”[25] In 1522 Erasmus obtained a copy of Cardinal Ximenes’ Complutensian Diaglott, and utilized his text of Revelation to make corrections to the fourth edition (1527) of his own text.[26] Erasmus made 90 changes in Revelation alone.[27]

In 1519 Erasmus issued a second edition, changing the title to the more familiar Novum Testamentum, increasing the number of annotations to nearly double that of the first edition, and including a response to critics of his first edition (with the great title of “Summary Arguments Against Certain Contentious and Boorish People”).[28] Given the number of errors in the first edition, one would have expected extensive text changes to appear in the first revision, but Erasmus only made approximately 400 changes.  This was followed by three other editions—1522[29], 1527, and 1535[30],[31]—for a total of five editions.  John Mill estimated that there were 118 changes between the 2nd and 3rd editions,[32] 113 changes between the 3rd and 4th, and only five changes between the 4th and 5th (though Frederic Scrivener thought these were underestimates).[33]

Robert Estienne, a Parisian printer known as “Stephanus” (1503-1559) possibly used Erasmus’ 3rd, 4th, and 5th editions[34] as the basis for four more editions of the Greek text: 1546, 1549, 1550, and 1551.[35],[36] Stephanus used the Polyglotta Complutensis as well as 15 Greek manuscripts to edit Erasmus’ text, including D, Codex Reginus, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, and 2817.[37],[38] John Mill estimated that Stephanus’ 2nd edition differed in 67 places from the 1st, and the 3rd edition differed in 284 places from the 2nd.[39] His 3rd edition contained various readings in the margin, and hence was the first published Greek text with a critical apparatus.[40],[41] The 3rd and 4th editions differ only in the fact that the 4th edition added verse divisions.[42] It also contained the Vulgate, Erasmus’ Latin translation.[43]

Theodore Beza (1519-1605) used Stephanus’ 3rd edition to publish nine more editions: two in 1565, 1567, 1580, 1582, 1588, 1590, 1598, and 1604.  Only four of these were independent editions.  The rest were smaller sized reprints.[44]

Sidenote: The name “Textual Receptus” is a Latin phrase created as an advertising blurb by Daniel Heinsius[45] in the Elzevir’s (Bonaventure and his nephew[46] Abraham[47]) 1633 printed edition of Beza’s first edition Greek text.

Here is where the story of the KJV and the TR comes into view.  The KJV translators did not use a single Greek text for their translation, but multiple.  Their primary textual sources were Beza’s 1598 edition and Stephanus’ 1550 edition.  While these editions were very similar, they differed from one another.  If the KJV translators used multiple Greek texts, and none of them was identical to the modern TR, then where did the modern TR come from?

The TR as we know it today is the work of Frederick Henry Ambrose Scrivener in 1881.[48] Scrivener was aware that the KJV translators had 7 different printed versions of the Greek NT at their disposal: the 5 editions of Erasmus, the 1550 Stephanus edition, and the 1598 Beza edition.  Where these texts differed, the KJV translators had to make a choice as to which reading they would translate.  In effect, they produced a new, eclectic Greek text, but never committed that text to writing.  Which readings did they choose to translate?  To identify the translators’ textual choices Scrivener identified every place in which the seven Greek texts differed from one another, and then compared those textual options to the KJV.  Whatever Greek reading most closely matched the KJV translation Scrivener included in his Greek text (he found that they relied most heavily on Beza’s 1598 version.[49]).[50] When all was said and done, Scrivener had produced a new Greek text based on the KJV that reflected the translators’ eclectic text—270 years after the KJV was translated.  This means the modern TR an English-based Greek text, reverse-engineered from the KJV!

This is not good news for TR/KJV-only advocates who hold up the TR as the ideal/standard text and dismiss other Greek texts (such as the Nestle-Aland Greek text) on the basis that they are eclectic.  The kettle is calling the pot black.  Not only were the seven Greek texts used by the KJV translators eclectic texts, but the KJV translators themselves used an eclectic approach to determine which Greek words they would translate.  There is not a single Greek manuscript or published Greek text prior to the creation of the KJV that contains the precise Greek words the KJV translators translated.  Textual criticism and eclecticism is present at every level.  It is unavoidable.  The question is not whether textual criticism and eclecticism is a valid way of determining the original text of the NT, but how best to apply these methods to accomplish that goal.


[1]The Latin Vulgate was not made the official Bible of the Catholic Church until the Council of Trent in 1546, but it had been the functional equivalent of the official Bible for centuries.
[2]
Erasmus produced his text in about eight months between late A.D. 1514 and early 1515.  He later admitted that it was rushed.  It went to the printer in August 1515, and was completed by March 1516.
[3]
It contained a preface from the publisher (1 page), Erasmus’ dedication to Pope Leo X (3 pages), an introduction (23 pages); a parallel Greek text and Latin translation (548 pages), and Erasmus’ annotations (401 pages).  See Michael D. Marlowe, “Erasmus, 1516”; available from http://www.bible-researcher.com/bib-e.html; Internet; accessed 04 November 2010.
[4]
William W. Combs, “Erasmus and the Textus Receptus”, Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 1 (Spring 1996): 35-53; available from http://www.dbts.edu/journals/1996_1/erasmus.pdf; Internet; accessed 30 October 2010.
[5]
“Complutum” is Latin for Alcala, the place of publication.
[6]
The OT was completed in 1518.  Bart Ehrman, however, says the entire work was completed by 1517.  See Misquoting Jesus, page 77.
[7]
William W. Combs, “Erasmus and the Textus Receptus”, Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 1 (Spring 1996): 35-53; available from http://www.dbts.edu/journals/1996_1/erasmus.pdf; Internet; accessed 30 October 2010.
[8]James White, “Erasmus of Rotterdam: His New Testament and Its Importance”; available from http://vintage.aomin.org/erasmus.html; Internet; accessed 05 November 2010.
[9]
William W. Combs, “Erasmus and the Textus Receptus”, Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 1 (Spring 1996): 35-53; available from http://www.dbts.edu/journals/1996_1/erasmus.pdf; Internet; accessed 30 October 2010.
[10]
Erika Rummel, Erasmus’ Annotations on the New Testament (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1986), 20–21, as quoted in William W. Combs, “Erasmus and the Textus Receptus”, Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 1 (Spring 1996): 35-53; available from http://www.dbts.edu/journals/1996_1/erasmus.pdf; Internet; accessed 30 October 2010.
[11]
The full title was Novum Instrumentum omne, diligenter ab Erasmo Rot. Recognitum et Emendatum, which refers to an “improved and revised” New Testament.  Since there was no published Greek text in circulation prior to Erasmus’ that could be improved or revised, surely Erasmus is referring to the Latin Vulgate that has been revised and improved.  He makes this clear in his dedication to Pope Leo X: “I perceived that that teaching which is our salvation was to be had in a much purer and more lively form if sought at the fountain-head and drawn from the actual sources than from pools and runnels. And so I have revised the whole New Testament (as they call it) against the standard of the Greek original….I have added annotations of my own, in order in the first place to show the reader what changes I have made, and why; second, to disentangle and explain anything that may be complicated, ambiguous, or obscure.”
[12]
William W. Combs, “Erasmus and the Textus Receptus”, Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 1 (Spring 1996): 35-53; available from http://www.dbts.edu/journals/1996_1/erasmus.pdf; Internet; accessed 30 October 2010.  Combs quotes a letter from Beatus Rhenanus, an employee of Froben, in which he describes the books Erasmus brought with him to Basel: “Erasmus of Rotterdam, a great scholar, has arrived in Basel most  recently, weighed down with good books, among which are the following: Jerome revised, the complete works of Seneca revised, copious notes on the New Testament, a book of similes, a large number of translations from Plutarch, the Adages….”  He makes no mention of any Greek or Latin manuscripts, or even a manuscript of Erasmus’ Latin translation.  All of this points to the fact that Erasmus did not intend to publish either a Greek text or a new Latin translation prior to his arrival in Basel.
[13]
William W. Combs, “Erasmus and the Textus Receptus”, Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 1 (Spring 1996): 35-53; available from http://www.dbts.edu/journals/1996_1/erasmus.pdf; Internet; accessed 30 October 2010.
[14]
William W. Combs, “Erasmus and the Textus Receptus”, Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 1 (Spring 1996): 35-53; available from http://www.dbts.edu/journals/1996_1/erasmus.pdf; Internet; accessed 30 October 2010.
[15]
William W. Combs, “Erasmus and the Textus Receptus”, Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 1 (Spring 1996): 35-53; available from http://www.dbts.edu/journals/1996_1/erasmus.pdf; Internet; accessed 30 October 2010.
[16]
James White, “Erasmus of Rotterdam: His New Testament and Its Importance”; available from http://vintage.aomin.org/erasmus.html; Internet; accessed 05 November 2010.
[17]
It is missing Mt 1:1-18:15; Acts 10:45-14:17; Jude 7-25; Rev 19:10-22:21.  The lacunae in Acts is unique because it is not due to a missing page or damaged parchment/paper.  The scribe simply omitted the entire section.  See Wikipedia, “Minuscule 69”; available from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minuscule_69; Internet; accessed 16 November 2010.
[18]
William W. Combs, “Erasmus and the Textus Receptus”, Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 1 (Spring 1996): 35-53; available from http://www.dbts.edu/journals/1996_1/erasmus.pdf; Internet; accessed 30 October 2010.
[19]
William W. Combs, “Erasmus and the Textus Receptus”, Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 1 (Spring 1996): 35-53; available from http://www.dbts.edu/journals/1996_1/erasmus.pdf; Internet; accessed 30 October 2010.
[20]
In his second edition (1519) Erasmus also used Codex 3, a 12th century manuscript containing the entire NT except Revelation.  See Wapedia, “Textus Receptus”; available from http://wapedia.mobi/en/Textus_Receptus; Internet; accessed 30 October 2010, and William W. Combs, “Erasmus and the Textus Receptus”, Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 1 (Spring 1996): 35-53; available from http://www.dbts.edu/journals/1996_1/erasmus.pdf; Internet; accessed 30 October 2010.
[21]
William W. Combs, “Erasmus and the Textus Receptus”, Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 1 (Spring 1996): 35-53; available from http://www.dbts.edu/journals/1996_1/erasmus.pdf; Internet; accessed 30 October 2010.
[22]
William W. Combs, “Erasmus and the Textus Receptus”, Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 1 (Spring 1996): 35-53; available from http://www.dbts.edu/journals/1996_1/erasmus.pdf; Internet; accessed 30 October 2010.
[23]
James White, “Erasmus of Rotterdam: His New Testament and Its Importance”; available from http://vintage.aomin.org/erasmus.html; Internet; accessed 05 November 2010.
[24]
See Thomas Holland’s Crowned with Glory for a rebuttal to the idea that Erasmus back-translated from the Latin.  An excerpt is available from http://av1611.com/kjbp/faq/holland_re22_19.html: “Revelation 22:19—‘book of life’ and the last six verses of Revelation 22.”
[25]
James White, “Erasmus of Rotterdam: His New Testament and Its Importance”; available from http://vintage.aomin.org/erasmus.html; Internet; accessed 05 November 2010.
[26]
James White, “Erasmus of Rotterdam: His New Testament and Its Importance”; available from http://vintage.aomin.org/erasmus.html; Internet; accessed 05 November 2010.
[27]
Doug Kutilek, “Erasmus, His Greek Text and Theology“; available from http://www.kjvonly.org/doug/kutilek_erasmus.htm; Internet; accessed 05 November 2010.
[28]
Martin Luther used Erasmus’ 2nd edition to translate the NT into German (1522).
[29]
William Tyndale used Erasmus’ 3rd edition as the basis for his English translation.
[30]
James White, “Erasmus of Rotterdam: His New Testament and Its Importance”; available from http://vintage.aomin.org/erasmus.html; Internet; accessed 05 November 2010.
[31]
The 4th edition added a third column for the Latin Vulgate text, appearing beside the Greek text and Erasmus’ own Latin translation.  The Vulgate was removed from the 5th edition.  See Michael D. Marlowe, “Erasmus, 1516”; available from http://www.bible-researcher.com/bib-e.html; Internet; accessed 04 November 2010.
[32]
One of the most famous changes was the addition of the Comma Johanneum (1 John 5:7b-8) to the text.
[33]
Doug Kutilek, “Erasmus, His Greek Text and Theology“; available from http://www.kjvonly.org/doug/kutilek_erasmus.htm; Internet; accessed 05 November 2010.
[34]
Most sources I have encountered do not specify which edition(s) of Erasmus’ Greek text Stephanus used, but of those who do, the information is inconsistent.  Some say he used Erasmus’ 4th and 5th editions.  Others, such as Wikipedia, say he used the 3rd edition.  I am inclined to think it was the 3rd edition since Erasmus fixed the last six verses of Revelation in his 4th edition, and yet that fix does not appear in Stephanus’ editions.  Some seem to indicate that Stephanus only used the 4th and 5th editions for his 1550 edition.  If so, then perhaps he used Erasmus’ 3rd edition for his 1546 and 1549 editions, and then consulted Erasmus’ 4th and 5th editions for his 1550 text.
[35]
Also contains Erasmus’ Latin translation and the Vulgate.
[36]
While not usually mentioned, there were other men creating Greek texts based on Erasmus’ work.  For example, the texts created by Aldus in 1518 and Colinaeus in 1534.
[37]
“Textus Receptus”; available from http://wapedia.mobi/en/Textus_Receptus; Internet; accessed 10 November 2010.
[38]
Stephanus himself did not identify the manuscripts other than to say that one was from Italy (what we now know to be D, i.e. Codex Bezae), eight from the Royal Library in London, and six from private libraries.  See Michael D. Marlowe, “Erasmus, 1516”; available from http://www.bible-researcher.com/bib-e.html; Internet; accessed 04 November 2010.
[39]
William W. Combs, “Erasmus and the Textus Receptus”, Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 1 (Spring 1996): 35-53; available from http://www.dbts.edu/journals/1996_1/erasmus.pdf; Internet; accessed 30 October 2010.
[40]
Michael D. Marlowe, “Erasmus, 1516”; available from http://www.bible-researcher.com/bib-e.html; Internet; accessed 04 November 2010.
[41]
The translators of the Geneva Bible used Stephanus’ 3rd edition as the textual basis for their NT translation.  See Michael D. Marlowe, “Erasmus, 1516”; available from http://www.bible-researcher.com/bib-e.html; Internet; accessed 04 November 2010.
[42]
William W. Combs, “Erasmus and the Textus Receptus”, Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 1 (Spring 1996): 35-53; available from http://www.dbts.edu/journals/1996_1/erasmus.pdf; Internet; accessed 30 October 2010.
[43]
Wapedia, “Textus Receptus”; available from http://wapedia.mobi/en/Textus_Receptus; Internet; accessed 10 November 2010.
[44]
William W. Combs, “Erasmus and the Textus Receptus”, Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 1 (Spring 1996): 35-53; available from http://www.dbts.edu/journals/1996_1/erasmus.pdf; Internet; accessed 30 October 2010.
[45]
William W. Combs, “Erasmus and the Textus Receptus”, Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 1 (Spring 1996): 35-53; available from http://www.dbts.edu/journals/1996_1/erasmus.pdf; Internet; accessed 30 October 2010.
[46]
Michael D. Marlowe, “Erasmus, 1516”; available from http://www.bible-researcher.com/bib-e.html; Internet; accessed 04 November 2010.
[47]
Most sources describe these two as brothers, but they are not.  Louis Elsevier started the business in 1583.  His five sons, Matthieu, Louis, Gilles, Joost and Bonaventure took up his trade.  Abraham is the son of Matthieu.  Isaac was another son of Matthieu.  He is the one who created the first published Greek NT in 1624.  See Wikipedia, “House of Elzevir”; available from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/House_of_Elzevir; Internet; accessed 06 November 2010.
[48]
Theopedia, “Textus Receptus”; available from http://www.theopedia.com/Textus_Receptus; Internet; accessed 06 November 2010.
[49]
William W. Combs, “Erasmus and the Textus Receptus”, Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 1 (Spring 1996): 35-53; available from http://www.dbts.edu/journals/1996_1/erasmus.pdf; Internet; accessed 30 October 2010.
[50]
Except for places where the KJV translators had no Greek basis, but instead relied on the Vulgate—in those circumstances Scrivener chose the closest Greek rendering.

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