Question: "What is the Textus Receptus?"
Answer: The Textus Receptus (Latin for “Received Text”) is a Greek New Testament that provided the textual base for the vernacular translations of the Reformation Period. It was a printed text, not a hand-copied manuscript, created in the 15th century to fill the need for a textually accurate Greek New Testament. As the Christian message was carried abroad, the books of the New Testament were not only taken along, but also translated into the languages of the people to whom the message was given. In the transmission of the text, copies were made, mostly by Christians who were not trained in the art of the task; therefore, not too much attention was given to the correctness of the copies. As the number of copies in the different languages proliferated, it became apparent that many differences and discrepancies were found in the various versions. Eventually, it became obvious that there was a need for someone to bring textual criticism into play.
Needless to say, the invention of the printing press with movable type in the mid-fifteenth century revolutionized the world of literature. The first Bible to be printed in 1456 was the Latin Vulgate. This was also known by the Gutenberg Bible. Bible scholars at that time were little concerned about the Greek text of the New Testament; the Latin Vulgate was their Bible.
Then in the late fifteenth century, the Greek language—unknown for hundreds of years—was recovered in the West, the geographical area of the Latin Church. With the rediscovery of Greek and its inception as the language of the people, the Latin Vulgate translation was subjected to a critical examination in comparison with the Greek original. Scholars discovered numerous mistranslations or outright errors in the Vulgate. This provided a reason for printing the New Testament in its original language, Greek.
Erasmus, a 15th-century Dutch theologian, working at great speed in order to beat to press another Greek New Testament being prepared in Spain, gathered together what hand-copied Greek manuscripts he could locate. He found five or six, the majority of which were dated in the twelfth century. Working with all the speed he could, Erasmus did not even transcribe the manuscripts; he merely made notes on the manuscripts themselves and sent them to the printers. The entire New Testament was printed in about six to eight months and published in 1516. It became a best seller, despite its errors, and the first printing was soon gone. A second edition was published in 1519 with some of the errors having been corrected.
Erasmus published two other editions in 1527 and 1535. Stung by criticism that his work contained numerous textual errors, he incorporated readings from the Greek New Testament published in Spain in later editions of his work. Erasmus’ Greek text became the standard in the field, and other editors and printers continued the work after his death in 1536. In 1633, another edition was published. In the publisher’s preface, in Latin, we find these words: “Textum ergo habes, nun cab omnibus receptum,” which can be translated as “the [reader] now has the text that is received by all.” From that publisher’s notation have come the words “Received Text.” The Textus Receptus became the dominant Greek text of the New Testament for the following two hundred and fifty years. It was not until the publication of the Westcott and Hort Greek New Testament in 1881 that the Textus Receptus lost its position.
The reason for its losing its prominent position as a basis of biblical textual interpretation was the inception of textual criticism. Influential scholars paved the way for the acceptance of a critical text. The work of Westcott and Hort brought about the final dethronement of the Textus Receptus and the establishment of the principle of a critical text. However, the Textus Receptus is not a “bad” or misleading text, either theologically or practically. Technically, however, it is far from the original text. Yet three centuries were to pass before scholars had won the struggle to replace this hastily assembled text with a text which gave evidence to being closer to the New Testament Autographs.
Many consider the King James Version of the Bible to be the crown of English Bibles. Even at the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Greek text used in preparing the KJV was the Textus Receptus. Both Luther and Tyndale translated the Scriptures into their vernacular languages using the same basic Greek text. Luther used the second edition of the Erasmus New Testament, and Tyndale utilized the third edition.
Regardless of one’s position on the Textus Receptus, it is evident that it had great influence on preserving God’s inspired Word through many centuries. Textual criticism of the Scriptures is so evidently important that all scholars and students of the Word of God need to utilize its principles in order to fulfill the biblical mandate, “Study to show yourselves approved unto God, a workman that needs not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the Word of truth’ (2 Timothy 2:15).