The question that gives rise to my inquiry is, Given the variant readings of the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament books, can we know without a doubt what is the Word of God to be translated into English?

When I first took my faith in the promises of God’s Word seriously as a teenager fifty years ago, I began reading the Bible using the New American Standard Bible (NASB). It had numerous marginal notes that made me wonder whether we really had the Word of God. You too may have had questions in your own mind, perhaps when reading your own version silently while simultaneously listening to another person reading out loud from a different version. Not only is running into these differences disconcerting simply because differences suggest uncertainty, but sometimes the differences in meaning also seem material. When we read Colossians 2 with the New King James Version (NKJV) and the English Standard Version (ESV) side by side, we run into a different meaning in verse 18.

Let no one cheat you of your reward, taking delight in false humility and worship of angels, intruding into those things which he has not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom all the body, nourished and knit together by joints and ligaments, grows with the increase that is from God. (NKJV)

Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God. (ESV)

A footnote in the ESV indicates that “about visions” could be translated “about the things he has seen,” and this shows clearly that the underlying text refers to something contrary to the underlying text that the NKJV translated. In the ESV, the Greek text is missing the word “not.”

While the primary objective of the exhortation for the two verses is not altered, one of the characteristics of the described spiritual enemy is much different. In the NKJV it is one who is inappropriately focused on something he has not seen, and in the ESV it is one who is inappropriately focused on something he has seen.

Another example of a changed meaning is found in Revelation 4:2–3. The NKJV reads:

Immediately I was in the Spirit; and behold, a throne set in heaven, and One sat on the throne. And He who sat there was like a jasper and a sardius stone in appearance; and there was a rainbow around the throne, in appearance like an emerald.

The Majority (Byzantine) text omits “And He who sat there was,” so that it would be translated,

Immediately I was in the Spirit; and behold, a throne set in heaven, and One sat on the throne like a jasper and a sardius stone in appearance; and there was a rainbow around the throne, in appearance like an emerald.

The NKJV indicates that the One who sat on the throne was like a jasper and a sardius stone, while the Byzantine text describes the throne itself to be like a jasper and a sardius stone. This leaves two different impressions and is confusing to the reader.

The Authority of the New Testament Comes from God

The Bible itself seems to speak against confusion regarding what is the Word of God. Furthermore, the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) seems to support what the Bible says.

For this reason we also thank God without ceasing, because when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which also effectively works in you who believe. (1 Thess. 2:13 NKJV)

The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man, or church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God. (WCF 1.4)

As with the Thessalonians, the writers of the Westminster Confession of Faith received the Word of God as it is in truth, and they built the whole of its system of teaching upon the Word of God. Their reception was true of the New Testament as well as the Old. They recognized that the authority of the Word was God himself. Focusing on the New Testament, Christ told the apostles that the Holy Spirit would remind them of all that he had taught them (John 14:26). Those who received the Word of God would have made sure that they kept good copies of it, because they understood that doing so was more important than any other book apart from the Old Testament Scriptures. As Peter suggested in the first chapter of his second epistle, the written word of eyewitness testimony made God’s promises more certain.

Those who received the written New Testament as books or letters in its original language had confidence that what they were hearing was in fact the Word of God. They wanted to make sure that the churches had the Word of God available to them and they made numerous copies of it. The Bible repeatedly implies that the followers of Christ have the Word of God. Colossians 3:16 is just one example where we read that believers are commanded to let the word of Christ abide in them, and they could not do so without the Word being available.

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. (NKJV)

A Reason to Favor the Majority Family of Manuscripts

Not only were the original written documents inerrant, but from this perspective the churches also carefully copied the written Word. This premise seems to be expressed in the first portion WCF 1.8:

The Old Testament in Hebrew . . . and the New Testament in Greek (which, at the time of the writing of it, was most generally known to the nations), being immediately inspired by God, and, by his singular care and providence, kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical; so as, in all controversies of religion, the church is finally to appeal unto them.

The premise attaches to it the necessity that what was written in the original languages would be available to all ages by God’s singular care and providence, with emphasis on God’s governance over the process. As with God’s providence in all of life, often using means within his creation to accomplish his ends, He used the activity of men to preserve the purity of the text. Objectively receiving the Word of God as it is, from God, we may consider the Greek New Testament as being accurately handed down through the ages.

Again, from this perspective, the New Testament in the original language was and is available to those interested in seeking it. The Greek New Testament is presumed to have been often copied on papyrus numerous times. When used frequently the papyrus medium deteriorated much faster than the medium of paper today. People who had reliable Greek manuscripts would have used them more than those manuscripts that were not reliable. The manuscripts that were relied upon and therefore used, wore out. So as to continue using the Word, individuals copied more manuscripts, and this copying continued through the life of the church, most notably among the Greek churches because they had it in their own language. Those manuscripts that had errors were more likely to be set aside. Consequently, the old, unused manuscripts were more likely to survive because they did not wear out. Those copies which the church relied upon through the ages would have had more manuscripts copied, and carefully copied. Today there are thousands of New Testament manuscripts in whole or in part available to the church. The majority of them came from the Greek speaking region around the Mediterranean Sea with some also found in southern and western regions around that Sea.

Many of the thousands of manuscripts were lectionary in nature and used for reading in weekly worship. They support those manuscripts which are more comprehensive.

These Majority readings are not generally the oldest manuscripts, yet again, from this perspective, they likely represent the original documents (called autographa) because they were faithfully copied. Also, when there are visible spelling mistakes, they are easily identified due to the availability of many copies. This copying of the Greek text through the ages follows the premise stated in chapter 1 of the WCF and follows what the Bible itself attests regarding itself.

Within the past two hundred years, many Reformed theologians have been willing to rely more on a relatively very small number of manuscripts that date back to around 200 or 300 AD. In doing so they accept a premise that seems to me to be contrary to that which is stated in chapter 1 of the WCF. Because these few manuscripts do not always agree with the majority of manuscripts available and often disagree among themselves, they surmise that we do not know in full what the original Word of God is that was inerrant.

Presumably, whether intentionally or not, those who accept translations of Scripture that rely more on a relatively small number of manuscripts accept the work of certain experts who place a large weight on the Vaticanus manuscript, which was rediscovered in the Vatican in the 1700s, and the Sinaiticus manuscript, which was rediscovered in the 1800s. (The Sinaiticus, or codex Aleph, was discovered in the mid-1800s and is on parchment or vellum rather than on papyrus.) Both manuscripts are recognized as being from the early time period of around 300 AD or before. Even though they each have observable copying problems, and even though the readings between them often disagree, the experts assign them a high weight of credibility on account of their age. Experts have put together a text that is eclectic, and it is sometimes referred to that way. The experts consider whether a particular variant reading is more appropriate than another in each case where variants exist. We refer to it here as the “eclectic text.”

Here and throughout this paper, I am not trying to downplay the value of experts to people who are not themselves experts. Rather, I am trying to emphasize whose authority we follow, that of God or the experts. The comparison is intended to be between God and experts, not between experts and other people.

So, from this perspective, the experts who sought to identify an eclectic text tried to follow specific rules in doing so, though the rules were complex. Simple rules do not work. For example, a simple rule may be that if a variant reading has fewer words, it is the correct one. But the experts will sometimes choose variant readings which include the greater number of words because they have other more weighty reasons to make an exception to this simple rule. For illustration, the Eclectic Text included a parenthetical phrase from 1 Corinthians 9:20, presumably because it was found in either the Vaticanus or Sinaiticus manuscript. It is not found in the Textus Receptus or the Majority Text.

To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. (ESV)

The “experts” do not always agree on how best to follow rules in each case, and they ultimately conclude that the texts of the original autographa cannot be fully identified. Therefore, while the original manuscripts were “inerrant,” they do not agree that we know what that inerrant text was.

Many modern English Bible versions such as the ESV are translated from the Eclectic Text. When such an eclectic text is compared to the Textus Receptus that was used to translate the King James and the New King James versions of the English Bible, approximately ten percent of the verses of the New Testament are affected. This is based upon the footnotes of the publisher of the NKJV, which appear to me to have already removed spelling variants unless they had to do with names such as Beelzebul or Beelzebub. In the footnotes, the majority text represented a consensus of the majority of the surviving New Testament manuscripts. Again, in the footnotes, what I refer to as the Eclectic Text was represented by the twenty-sixth edition of the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament and the United Bible Societies’ third edition.

Measuring the Significance of Variants

This ten percent figure needs to be handled carefully. It includes verses where one word may be different, even the use of the article “a” rather than “the” or the use of “we” rather than “he.” The meanings of these small words are different, but they do not necessarily alter the thrust of the meaning of a given verse. For example, the first portion of Revelation 14:1 in the Textus Receptus reads “a Lamb,” while the Eclectic and Majority Texts read “the Lamb.” “Then I looked, and behold, a Lamb standing on Mount Zion, and with Him one hundred and forty-four thousand . . .” (NKJV).

Sometimes the differences only alter the emphasis. For example, the Eclectic Text excludes “of God” from Matthew 22:30. “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels of God in heaven” (NKJV).

Other times they may be a bit more meaningful. For example, the Eclectic Text has “up to salvation” rather than “thereby” in 1 Peter 2:2: “as newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby.”

In these cases, counting each verse that contains a variant reading seems to be excessive because there were many other words in each verse other than those effected. In a more extreme measure, one could say that eighty-nine percent of the New Testament chapters are affected by the differences, because only one variation needs to be found in each chapter for the chapter to be counted.

On the other hand, it would be difficult to consider single words or even letters because the denominator is difficult to identify when sometimes the Eclectic Text has more and sometimes fewer verses. Sometimes entire verses are different, or large portions, and these may not receive enough weight in counting them only once as variants. Furthermore, counting letters or words is much more tedious.

If we select the number of verses affected, and understand what we mean by the count, we know what we are discussing. When using this ten percent figure, remember that while it is helpful for comparison, it is likely overstated from what would be measured had we only used the counts of words or letters affected.

Significance of Variants to a Person’s Faith

Returning to the differences between the text, a willingness to place in doubt a specific meaning within ten percent of the verses of the Word of God seems to me to be a dangerous premise because our faith relies on the written Scriptures being available to us and received as the Word of God.

Some English translations try to point out where variations exist. In doing so, they demonstrate that the readings of the Eclectic Text, and to a lesser degree the Textus Receptus, are ones that were constructed rather than known. The thoughtful reader is left with the notion that not knowing the Word of God, we have no fully trustworthy source for following Christ. Rhetorically, one may ask, “Who is to say that we have the Word of God?” One could logically think that another, older manuscript could be rediscovered and alter the perspective entirely. Hypothetically, if ten percent is in question because of manuscripts rediscovered in the 1700s and 1800s, further rediscoveries in the future could jeopardize our understanding of another ten percent of the verses.

The theologians who follow these experts hold to a second important premise. They often assert that regardless of not knowing the original text when collecting the thousands of manuscripts available to us in the Greek, no doctrine is altered by the various readings. This second premise seems noble, yet it also seems to ignore the previously referenced claims of the Scriptures and the first chapter of the WCF. Admittedly many Reformed theologians believe they follow the premises of chapter 1 of the WCF when applying or accepting textual criticism. As best I can discern, they think God preserved the teaching of the autographa, but not each word. I find this to be circular reasoning. We understand the teaching based upon knowing the Word of God, yet we cannot know for certain we have the Word of God of the original manuscripts that provided that teaching.

Also, accepting that we do not know the precise meaning of the whole of the New Testament, it seems as though only a portion of Scripture rather than “All scripture . . . is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness . . .” (2 Tim. 3:16–17 NKJV). Some of the variations may be interchangeable, which could suggest that either variation is profitable for doctrine, etc. This may be the case when two items in a list are switched in order. Yet such is not true for all variations where words are either added or deleted and where the meaning is entirely different.

The second premise also misses the practical implications within preaching. For one example, two different preachers teaching from John 8:59, one from the majority of manuscripts and one from an expert-selected text, are likely to draw two different conclusions for their congregation.

The NKJV, translating the Textus Receptus, says, “Then they took up stones to throw at Him; but Jesus hid Himself and went out of the temple, going through the midst of them, and so passed by.” The ESV, relying primarily on the expert-selected manuscripts, says, “So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.” The preacher using the NKJV will conclude that Jesus was in control of the situation, hiding in such a fashion as to be able to pass through them, and consequently facing no threat until the time of his own design. The preacher using the ESV may be more likely to assume that Christ fled for his life, much as Moses fled when he became aware that his murder of an Egyptian became known to Pharaoh, even as I in fact heard once during my many years of listening to sermons. (It was not the main point of the sermon by any means, but it was so described. Presumably, if a generally good minister can make the mistake, a reader with less education can make the mistake.) In each translation, Jesus removed himself from the situation, but one leaves open the possibility that Jesus fled. Depending on how the preacher uses this text, one can be left with a different emphasis about Christ’s ability to oversee the circumstances around Him.

Significance of Variants to Preaching with Authority

I am not a preacher, yet I wonder how a preacher can explain Scripture verses with the authority of God when there is a question about the text such as in John 8:59, or when we have a reasonable expectation to wonder whether another early manuscript is rediscovered.

Receiving the text as the experts tend to construct it with the Eclectic Text is to receive at least a portion of the text on the authority of these experts, not merely on the authority of God himself.

There are also differences between the Textus Receptus and the Eclectic Text. The Majority Text represents the Byzantine manuscripts which are by far most numerous. The Textus Receptus relied upon the Byzantine text with the exception that Erasmus used some Latin variants in preparing the text for printing shortly after the printing press was invented. Those who hold strictly to the Textus Receptus do not seem to be as consistent regarding the providential preservation of the text “in all ages.” They allow for a shift in the general acceptance of the Greek text, just before the Reformation, to a slightly modified version at the time of the Reformation. While the differences between the Textus Receptus and the Byzantine text are much fewer than between the Eclectic Text and the Textus Receptus, they still present the reader with a question of who has the Word of God. I estimate that the Textus Receptus has variations from the Byzantine text that affect four percent of the verses. One and a half percent out of this four percent are found in Revelation, and without Revelation, only two and a half percent of the verses are affected. Yet this difference is not expected when “All scripture . . . is profitable.”

Though not to the same degree, and likely with a different intent, those who hold to the Textus Receptus rely primarily upon one expert, Erasmus, who occasionally chose variant readings from Western manuscripts. They name a few other Reformers over the course of about a hundred years as well.

Differences in the premises behind the use of different Greek texts generate confusion for the thoughtful Christian trying to serve the Savior. Such confusion seems inappropriate and would not exist if the church relied upon the copied New Testament texts that had been available through the centuries.

Thoughts about Favoring a Family of Manuscripts

One may conclude from reading the comparison between the Majority and Eclectic texts, that adherents of the Eclectic Text ought to be willing to use the Majority Text. They limit their concern to the teachings from God’s Word, and they imply that the Majority Text represents no difference in teaching. Yet perhaps they do not agree to that because they want to rely on what they believe are older manuscripts regardless of how badly copied they were, or because they choose to rely more on academia than on what came down through the ages.

If so, then perhaps they should consider what readings the ancient orthodox theologians quote. According to the testimony of Theodore Letis in an audio recording, a proponent of the Textus Receptus (Received Text), J. W. Burgon of the nineteenth century, exhaustively compiled such a list. The quotes were readings that corresponded to the readings of the Byzantine manuscripts (Majority).

Work such as Burgon’s may be very useful for the church to consider in uniting on the text that represents the very Word of God.

Bruce A. Stahl serves as a ruling elder at Covenant Family Church (OPC) in Wentzville, Missouri. Ordained Servant Online, December, 2023.

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Ordained Servant: December 2023

Remembering G. I. Williamson

Also in this issue

Elf on the Shelf or Christ on the Cross?

G. I. Williamson: Encounters with the Life of a Faithful Servant of God

G. I. Williamson’s Farewell Sermon

The Case for the Eclectic Greek New Testament Text

Theological Daylighting: Retrieving J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism

The Voice of the Good Shepherd: Trumpeter of God: Fulfill Your Office,[1] Chapter 9

Letters to a Younger Ruling Elder, No. 10: Be a Presbyter

Neo-Calvinism: A Theological Introduction by Cory C. Brock and N. Gray Sutanto

An Ode of the Birth of Our Saviour

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