On which New Testament manuscripts did the KJV translators rely?

by Luke Wayne
10/31/18
Return to King James Onlyism

The translators of the New Testament of the KJV utilized a Greek textual tradition that is known today as the "Textus Receptus" (hereafter "TR") which is Latin for the "received text." The TR is not actually a group of Greek manuscripts. Rather, it is a series of 16th-century printed texts which were, in turn, based on the critical examination of a handful of (mostly late) Greek manuscripts. Like most translators, the men who produced the KJV did not travel about examining all the manuscripts directly. They looked at contemporary printed volumes for their data, just as translators do today. In the case of the KJV translators, they relied on the word of three key men: Desiderius Erasmus, Robert Estienne (better known by his Latin name, Stephanus), and Theodore Beza.

The Editions of Erasmus'

Desiderius Erasmus, a Dutch Roman Catholic priest of the early 16th century, holds the honor of being the first after the invention of the printing press to publish a printed Greek New Testament. His first edition was published in 1516. Erasmus' did not have access to a complete manuscript of the entire New Testament, and he produced his text primarily by comparing the handful of partial manuscripts to one another to compile an eclectic text based on several different manuscripts. For this task, Erasmus was able to gather the copies that we today call Minuscules 1, 2, 7, 817, 2814, 2815, and 2816.   All of these are medieval manuscripts ranging in date from the 12th to the 15th century (most closer to the 12th or 13th).

Since none of these manuscripts represented a complete New Testament, any given portion of the New Testament had fewer copies than the total. Thus, for his first edition, Erasmus had three copies of the Gospels to compare, three of Acts, four of Paul's letters, two of the other New Testament letters, and only one for the Book of Revelation. Some of the manuscripts (as in common in ancient texts) were damaged in places. Where ever there were gaps in these texts (most famously at the end of Revelation), Erasmus back-translated from the Latin Vulgate into Greek to complete the text. Thus, a few verses in Erasmus are not based on any Greek manuscripts at all but are rather his best estimation of what the Greek said based on the Latin. Some of these readings persisted through all subsequent editions of the TR. For his second edition (1519), Erasmus' gained access to Minuscule 33, a 9th Century copy of the New Testament that was nearly complete, though it lacked the entire book of Revelation and had some damage in the gospels. For his third edition (1522), he also consulted the recently produced Codex Montfortianus, a complete New Testament from the 16th Century. Thus, by his third edition, he had five copies of the Gospels, five of Acts, six of Paul's letters, four of the other New Testament letters, and two of Revelation.

Erasmus produced two more editions after these (1527 and 1535), however, the third edition was the one used as the base for the Stephanus text and was the version of Erasmus consulted by the English translators, thus, any information added to later editions of Erasmus is not relevant to the translation of the KJV. At any rate, very few changes were made in the fourth and fifth editions.

The Editions of Stephanus

Robert Estienne, or Stephanus, was a scholar in Paris and a convert to the Protestant faith from Roman Catholicism. Using the text of Erasmus' third edition, Stephanus produced four more editions of the Greek New Testament in 1546, 1549, 1550, and 1551. Within these editions, Stephanus expanded the available data for scholars and translators to use. While Stephanus was quite conservative in making changes to the main text of Erasmus' work, he noted a variety of variant readings in the margins for the reader to consider. His was, in many ways, the first truly critical New Testament Greek text. The manuscripts from which Stephanus drew to produce these notes were: Codex D (5th Century), Codex L (8th Century), Minuscules 8, 42, and 237 (11th century), 9, 38, 111, 120, 398, 2298, and 2817 (12th Century) 4 and 6 (13th century) and 5 (14th Century), and another 16th Century printed text known as the Complutensian Polyglot. Of these, only Minuscule 42 and the Complutensian Polyglot contained the book of Revelation, and Minuscule 42 had some gaps in Revelation due to damage in the manuscript (though not in the same places as Erasmus' manuscripts had gaps).

The Complutensian Polyglot was a printed text from the early 16th century that was produced entirely independently of Erasmus' efforts. It was produced by Roman Catholic scholars in Spain under the leadership of Cardinal Xeminez. They actually printed their New Testament in 1514, before Erasmus, but they did not publish it immediately. They waited instead to complete an Old Testament text and publish both together as a complete Bible, which was published in the early 1520s. The scholars who produced it boasted generally of the quality of their manuscripts but did not detail which copies they used, so modern scholars can only speculate which manuscripts were behind the Complutensian text. The Complutensian editors did mention that some of their manuscripts were from the Vatican library, but beyond that, it is difficult to narrow it down. They very openly supported the superiority of the Latin text, which inevitably affected which readings they preferred in certain places. Stephanus treated the Complutensian text as a manuscript, listing its variant readings alongside those of other texts he consulted.

Stephanus was far from exhaustive. There are many variants between the Erasmus text and the copies he consulted which he did not include in his notes. Still, his approach to gathering and noting this data was extremely influential both in later translations and in later text-critical work on the Greek text. Stephanus also shaped the future form of the text adding verse numbers to his Greek text. Verse numbers would make there way into the English tradition through the Geneva Bible (1560) and, from there, into subsequent translations like the KJV.

The Editions of Beza

Theodore Beza was a Protestant scholar in Geneva who would ultimately become the successor to John Calvin. Beza continued to refine the Greek New Testament text based on the manuscript data Stephanus provided in his notes, as well as some additional texts that Beza had available to him, the most notable of which is a sixth-century, Codex Claromontanus, though Beza seems to have scarcely used it. Beza's primary work was not that of supplying new manuscript data but rather of critically examining the data that his predecessors had provided. Beza, too, was conservative in making changes to the text, though he did make some particularly interesting edits. Most famously, in Revelation 16:5 where both the Greek and the Latin texts clearly said "O Lord, which art, and wast, the Holy One," Beza speculated that the original reading was really "O Lord, which art, and wast, and shalt be," in keeping with the formula used elsewhere (Revelation 1:4, 8; 4:8). In so doing, Beza actually introduced a reading (which was then adopted into the KJV) which had never before existed in any manuscript. Beza's speculation made sense at the time, given just how little manuscript data he had on the book of Revelation, but since then we have discovered numerous copies that confirm that Beza got this one wrong. Beza likewise noted in Luke 2:22 that his reading of "her purification" was also lacking in all the Greek manuscripts but was present in the Latin and in the Complutensian (probably through Latin influence). Thus, Beza brought in several readings from outside the Greek manuscript tradition and introduced them into the TR. Still, this should not be exaggerated. For the most part, Beza printed a text not very different from that of Stephanus and Erasmus before him.

The Influence of the Latin Tradition

A few things stand out from this information. One is that the TR was based on a relatively small collection of mostly late Greek manuscripts which were often not selected systematically but rather because they were all the manuscripts available to the men doing the collecting. We must greatly admire the scholarship they produced out of the resources they had, but over 5,000 Greek manuscript discoveries later, there is certainly more work to be done. The second and sometimes overlooked factor, however, is the variety of ways that the Latin influenced the final form of the TR and the KJV. Note the following just from our data above:

  • From the beginning, some of the readings that became a lasting part of the TR tradition were Erasmus' translations from the Latin in places where he had no Greek text.
  • Stephanus introduced the Complutensian readings into his marginal notes, which were chosen by the Spanish scholars based, in part, on their assumption of the superiority of the Latin text.
  • Theodore Beza occasionally reconstructed texts to accord with the Latin rather than the Greek when the Latin reading made more sense to him

All of these factors had a direct influence on verses in the KJV. There were also places (though very few) that the KJV translators willfully sided with the Latin against Erasmus, Beza, Stephanus, and even the Complutensian. This was not always a poor decision on their part. For example, in 1 John 2:23, every printed Greek text the KJV translators had in front of them read "Whosoever denieth the Son, the same hath not the Father," and the verse stopped there. This is how Tyndale, Coverdale, and the Geneva Bible read as well, following the TR. Indeed, we now know that the majority of all of the thousands of Greek manuscripts contain only this short form of the verse, The KJV, however, reads:

"Whosoever denieth the Son, the same hath not the Father: he that acknowledgeth the Son hath the Father also," (1 John 2:23, KJV).

This reading had been present in the two previous authorized version, the Great Bible and the Bishop's Bible, but always in brackets and smaller print to show that these words were lacking in the Greek text. The original KJV of 1611 likewise marked the text. It was a reading they found only in the Latin. Subsequent manuscript discoveries, however, have actually vindicated the KJV translators in this place, and every modern version agrees with the KJV here. While the majority of Greek manuscripts lack the second half of the verse, all of the earliest manuscripts contain the longer form. So, in this case, the KJV translators' choice to follow the Latin over the Greek proved to be a solid deduction. That is, however, not always the case, as we saw in the KJV's following Beza in adopting the Latin reading at Luke 2:22, which is demonstrably incorrect. The point here is simply that, right or wrong, the KJV translators on some occasions chose to follow the Latin text against all of the available Greek texts. Frederick Schrivner, a scholar who carefully determined which Greek reading was behind each verse of the KJV (and thus created the form of the TR published and sold today), wrote that:

"in some places the Authorized Version [i.e., the KJV] corresponds but loosely with any form of the Greek original, while it exactly follows the Latin Vulgate."1

Thus, in addition to the handful of mostly late Greek manuscripts which lie behind the KJV, the Latin Vulgate is also a source which they took into account and at times relied upon when they thought it best.

Conclusion

When we look at what the KJV translators accomplished with the limited texts they had available to them, it should invoke in us a great respect and admiration for their work. It should also cause us to be all the more grateful for the wealth of data we have today in our thousands of Greek manuscripts, hundreds of which are from the earliest centuries, and in our copies of numerous ancient translations in a variety of tongues like Syriac, Coptic, and yes, Latin. Let us recognize the blessing we have in such a vast treasure of biblical witnesses and be faithful to wisely use what God has given us, just as the translators before us did with what was given to them.

  • 1. Frederick Henry Ambrose Scrivener, The New Testament in the Original Greek, According to the Text Followed in the Authorized Version (Cambridge University Press, 1894) ix