The "Textus Receptus," or "received text," is the term often used to refer to the Greek textual tradition presented in a series of 16th-century printed Greek New Testaments. While the various editions of the Textus Receptus (TR) do differ from one another in specific places, on the whole, they represent a fairly consistent Greek text between them. These various editions of what later came to be known as the TR were used as the underlying Greek text for the King James Version and other translations from that time period, as well as some modern translations like the New King James Version (NKJV) or the Modern English Version (MEV).
Erasmus' and the Dawn of the Textus Receptus
During the middle ages in Western Europe, biblical Greek was virtually unknown. Literacy was far from what it is today, and even among the educated classes, the common language of scholarship was Latin. But during the late medieval era, however, the number of classical Greek writings and Greek biblical manuscripts in the West was slowly increasing, and there arose a demand in certain circles fn the scholarly world for more access to these texts. After the dawn of the printing press, this became a serious possibility. A team of Spanish scholars, led by a Roman Catholic Inquisitor named Cardinal Jimenez, produced the first Greek New Testament ever to come off a printing press. The work would come to be known as the Complutensian Polyglot, but its role in history would be far secondary to the work of a Dutch Scholar named Desiderius Erasmus.
Erasmus was also working on creating a printed Greek New Testament, along with a fresh Latin translation that would help scholars across Europe to more effectively understand and use the text. Jimenez and his team finished and printed their New Testament before Erasmus, but they delayed publication until they could complete the Old Testament (with Hebrew, Greek, and Latin texts in parallel columns) and publish it as a complete Bible. Thus, though the Complutensian text was printed first, Erasmus had the honor of being the first to publish a Greek New Testament. His text was based on about half a dozen Greek manuscripts, none of which were complete. Thus, for any given portion of the New Testament, Erasmus had even fewer manuscripts to work with, in some cases only one. For the book of Revelation, he had only one manuscript and it was missing the last page, which would have contained the last six verses. To fill in this and other gaps in his manuscripts, Erasmus' translated the Latin Vulgate into Greek, thus creating Greek readings that had never been seen before in any manuscript. These portions represented Erasmus' best estimation of what the Greek text behind the Latin Vulgate would have said, and many of them remained uncorrected in every subsequent edition of the TR, even as more manuscripts became available.
On the other hand, Erasmus' was quite willing to challenge traditional readings in the Vulgate. In his first two editions, he did not include the "Comma Johanneum" of 1 John 5:7-8 because it was not present in the Greek texts. (Since Martin Luther's German translation was based on Erasmus's second edition, the first Protestant Bible translation also did not contain this text.) This was highly controversial, and Erasmus' received great pressure to add the verse in, but he would not unless it was shown to him in the Greek text. Finally, a Greek manuscript was found (or, some believe, custom manufactured) that contained the verse and Erasmus' added the passage into his third edition, but he still included a note indicating his continued skepticism about the verse's originality.
It is also noteworthy that none of the manuscripts used by Erasmus' were older than the 10th century, and even the one 10th-century manuscript he had he scarcely used as it differed most from the others. Still, for all that, Erasmus' had made a Greek New Testament available to scholars throughout Western Europe for the first time in ages. It was a monumental feat and one for which the Dutch priest should be given much credit. While Erasmus Himself was not thinking in terms of Bible translations for the masses, the new Protestant movement certainly was, and this Greek text became a vital tool to that end. Such translators were not textual critics. They didn't examine the manuscripts themselves and make a careful decision about which text to use. There was only one Greek New Testament text available, and by default, it is the one on which they relied. In this way, the early TR became the foundational text for all the early Protestant New Testament translations.
Stephanus, Beza, and Beyond
Erasmus' work went through five editions, each one modified somewhat from the previous, but all containing the same essential text. After Erasmus, the work was continued by a Parisian scholar named Robert Estienne (often called by his Latin name "Stephanus") Stephanus published four more editions of what was essentially Erasmus' text (though with some additional revisions). His third edition, published in 1550, could perhaps be called the first "critical text" of the Greek New Testament. In this edition, Stephanus added in marginal notes reflecting alternate readings found in some 14 additional manuscripts, as well as readings from Jimenez's Complutensian Polyglot. Thus, Stephanus allowed scholars and translators to examine manuscript differences for themselves and make more informed decisions about which reading was original. The number of manuscripts involved was still quite small, but it was a significant advancement. Stephanus also introduced verse numbers to his Greek New Testament. Before that time, the text was divided only into chapters.
After Stephanus, Theodore Beza, a biblical scholar in Geneva who would become the successor to John Calvin, took up the work. He published nine more editions, making some more revisions of his own. Beza's revisions are often rather interesting. In Luke 2:22, for example, Beza admits that all the Greek manuscripts read "their purification." Beza felt that the Latin Vulgate's reading of "her purification" made more sense theologically, and so he co-opted that reading from the Complutensian printed edition without any manuscript support. His reasoning here was not based on the manuscript evidence, it was rooted in his own sense of what the passage had to mean. In an even more extreme example, in Revelation 16:5, all the manuscripts in both the Greek and the Latin agree that the verse should read "who was and who is, the holy one." Beza speculated, however, that this was an early scribal error and that the verse originally read "who is and who was and who is to be." Thus, Beza emended the text here without any evidence in manuscripts, translations, or even previous printed texts. It was a change based on what made the most sense to Beza.
Having noted this, Beza's editorial efforts should not be exaggerated. While he did make noteworthy changes in specific verses, most of his text was still virtually identical to the late editions of Stephanus. Beza's editions were still editions of the same basic TR text, even with his unique revisions in a relatively small number of places. These revisions are still important, but they do not constitute a radical alteration of the whole text. Thus, this body of printed volumes from Erasmus' first edition to the last of Beza, all constitute the tradition known as the Textus Receptus (even with their differences from one another).
The name "Textus Receptus" comes from a later 17th-century edition of the text published by two brothers named Bonaventure and Abraham Elzevier, who printed it with the blurb "The text which you have is now received by all, in which we give nothing changed or perverted." Thus, the text came to be known as the "received text," not in the sense that it was specially received from heaven but rather in the practical sense that it was the text widely accepted at the time as authentic. It was "received" by the people as genuine. It was the standard text of its time. Yet, the text was still based on a fairly small number of late manuscripts collected on little more than the basis that they happened to be the ones available. Due to back translations from Latin and textual speculations of individual scholars, it also contained readings in a few places that are not attested in any Greek manuscript anywhere. Thus the TR, while a huge step forward in New Testament scholarship, hardly qualified as the final word on the text of the New Testament. The TR differs from both the Byzantine Majority text of the Middle Ages and the texts later found in the much earlier manuscripts we have now discovered since then. While the work of Erasmus', Beza, and the others should be in no way maligned and the translations based on their text ought to be rightly treated as the word of God, each of these men was willing to continue the work of reexamining the Greek text as more manuscripts became available, which is why each edition of Erasmus, Stephanus, and Beza contains revisions on the previous. We do not honor that tradition by leaving it static and ignoring all other data that ever comes forward. We honor it by pressing on in their work!