The Received Text, the KJV, and Erasmus

We can’t talk about the KJV without talking about the Received Text (often called the Textus Receptus, or TR for short). The Received Text is the Greek text which underlies the KJV. It is called the Received Text because that was the phrase used in the introduction of the Elzevir brothers 2nd edition of their Greek New Testament in 1633. The phrase “Received Text” became a moniker to refer to the Greek text from Erasmus in 1516 on.  This Greek text is largely different from the Greek text which underlies the modern versions (NASB, ESV, NIV, etc.). Why does that matter?

someone copying a received text

Modern versions (NASB, ESV, NIV, etc) use a translation philosophy which is usually called an “eclectic approach,” This means they evaluate over 5,800 Greek manuscripts, looking at patterns, external and internal evidence, and thereby determining what the original Greek manuscript read. Some of these manuscripts that are utilized in the eclectic approach may date to the 2nd century. Thus, in this process, more weight is usually given to the earlier evidence (because the older manuscripts are closer to the original time wise, and would hypothetically have less opportunity to incorporate errors).

As stated earlier, in contrast to the modern translations, the KJV translators utilized the Received Text in their 1611 translation (although it was not til 1633 that the Received Text was so named). Some teach that the Received Text is the exact representation of the original words of Scripture. In other words, some claim the original words have been preserved in the Received Text, and to rely on the other Greek manuscripts is to deny the inerrant character of the Received Text (I will explain exactly what the Received Text in a moment).

There are two main problems with the idea that the Received Text is inerrant:

1. There are mistakes in the KJV where they do not follow the Received Text.

Last post I mentioned a few examples where the KJV is mistranslated, and before that I noted that there are places where the KJV has actually been revised to correct its own readings. So, even if the Received Text was inerrant (which it is not), the KJV should not be viewed as inerrant because it did not accurately follow its text base at times.

2. The Received Text is a multi-edition collation of multiple Greek manuscripts.

Some claim that the Received Text is a static representation of the original words of Christ and the Apostles, but the evidence is stacked up against this belief. Although some say the Scriptures were copied down by faithful men into what we know as the Received Text, when we look at the history of the Received Text we see that it is actually quite similar to how modern English translations utilize multiple Greek manuscripts.

Case in point is Desiderius Erasmus (1466–1536). Erasmus is the main character behind the Received Text. After becoming a priest in 1492, he trained in theology and Greek for over 20 years. In 1514 he moved to Basel, Switzerland to publish a “new and improved” version of the Latin Vulgate (the common Bible at that time). However, his printer convinced him to include the original Greek along with his revised Latin translation.

Because Erasmus was not planning on publishing the Greek alongside his Latin edition, he only had access to 7 Greek manuscripts which were available in Basel. Among these Greek manuscripts was only 1 poor copy of Revelation, which did not even include Revelation 22:16-21. Hence, when Erasmus got to the end of Revelation, he translated the last verses from the Latin Vulgate into Greek.

The first edition of Erasmus Latin-Greek work was published in 1516. It underwent subsequent publications in 1519, 1522, 1527, and 1535 (published without the Latin). With each new edition, changes were introduced to the text as new Greek manuscripts were made available to Erasmus.

One interesting point is that 1 John 5:6b-7 was not included until the 1522 edition (3rd) because it was not found in any of his Greek manuscripts. Later, because of outside pressure Erasmus ended up adding it.

The point is that the Received Text is not some special text. It was constructed originally to be the complement for Erasmus’ new Latin translation. Second, the Received Text was put together from multiple Greek manuscripts (just not as many as we have access to today). In other words, the Received Text is like a miniature version of the eclectic Greek text that modern versions are based on today.

When all is said and done one should not think of the Received Text as an inerrant version of the Greek text. It has a life of its own, and the history of the Received Text shows it is far from inerrant. When we recognize that we must consider all of the Greek texts  to ascertain what the original text, then we are in a better position to understand what the Apostles really wrote. And yes, in 99% of the cases we can pinpoint with complete certainty what was originally penned by the author.

photo credit: swimfast via photopin cc

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs The Bible Sojourner podcast and Youtube channel.


    • Mike Nichols

      It would be worth both of you learning what the term `humanist` meant back then before attributing whatever dirt you think it means to him.

    • Steve Womble

      I’ve studied much on the roots of the KJV, and love the subject. Is there a short text (200 pages or less) that you would recommend, covering the period from Erasmus thru the publication of the KJV? Thanks, and blessings.

  • Jeff Fancher

    Trust a Catholic priest like Erasmus to translate Scripture?? ’nuff said.. And KJV-only people? Been in the church 40 yrs, and never met one I liked. Not cuz they’re bad people; they just refuse to reason.

    • William West

      I am a KJVO and I have a Bible I can trust cover to cover. I street preach and led souls to the Saviour.
      I do not have horns and a tail. But I am not trusting in the orginals that no one has. You that knock this position have no final authority and float from translation to translation and are never sure that you have God’s word.
      You have my pity.

      • Peter Goeman

        I appreciate your desire to preach God’s Word and lead souls to Christ. May the Lord bless you in that process, my friend. Be sure to check out some of the other articles.

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