There is an often-espoused argument by sincere believers that only the King James Version is acceptable for Christians to use as the WORD of GOD. One of the factors frequenting the debate is the phrase “received text.” But is there any biblical text that is “received” in the sense that it was God’s Word revealed and was once and for all perfectly written down, which settles it? This entry is from the book, A Biography of the Christian Bible.
The Received Text vs. Today’s Critical Text
Some terms usually applied to New Testament textual criticism need to be considered as to how they may be referenced in Old Testament textual criticism. First, using the descriptor “eclectic” would likely be judged negatively by Fundamentalists as the opposite of a “received text.” To be clear, the epithet received text is defined as “the authentic original” from a single trusted and perhaps “traditional” source. It would imply that all other texts are inauthentic or variant. It could go so far as to imply that other texts are fabrications. In the case of Bomberg’s Old Testament Bible (the first OT Bible printed on the printing press in the fifteenth century), it might be seen by some as the King James Version’s Old Testament received text, and it should be referred to as sacrosanct, but this twists the definition, which nowadays means more of what is conventional, consensus, or standard versus non-standard. The former implies perfection or genuineness. The latter implies a consensus that is what most experts believe to be standard or closest to the original.
In New Testament scholarship, a critical or eclectic text is regarded as distinct from a received text. This is even though the so-called received text of the New Testament should also be acknowledged as a critical, eclectic text. Along with many New Testament scholars, I assert the first Greek New Testament to be called the received text (Textus Receptus) was first employed in the 1633 edition of the Greek New Testament published by Elziver. However, those who argue on behalf of the New Testament received text apply it retroactively almost 120 years in arrears to the Erasmus’ New Testament text of 1516.
Less we think that too many cooks spoiled the broth, we should recognize that all these saintly scholars worked in common accord, seeking to determine what was originally written — not to create a book consisting of what they felt was best said about the nature of God and our relationship to Him. Instead, they believed that the originals were uniquely created by the various authors through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. That is, the Spirit of Christ guided and vouchsafed that what had been written was precisely what the Lord was pleased to be recorded and communicated as a testimony to the events and prophecies constituting “salvation history” — accounts from the first-hand witnesses.
No doubt, the 47 scholars assuredly asked for God’s guidance in creating an English translation of the Old Testament Hebrew (or New Testament Greek). But the direction God supplied was not considered anything like what took place in the ancient days when the original books of the Bible were written. As stated in 2 Timothy 3:16, the Holy Scripture was literally created through “God-breathed” inspiration. The translators worked together seeking consensus but employing their vast knowledge and skill that they might, in their own words, improve upon the prior translation, “taking a good one and making it better,” as stated in the Preface to the KJV. Indeed, these very same scholars clearly asserted that what they were doing wouldn’t be perfect. Others would need to continue revising the biblical witness as English evolved. They stated that each English-speaking generation deserves to hear and comprehend the Word of God in the parlance of the times that each generation understands. Obviously, the KJ-only advocates insist that Elizabethan English is the proper language for English-speaking persons to read God’s Word – that it is not hard to understand even for millennials today – which is debatable, to say the least.
The Notion of a “Received Text” Doesn’t Imply Inerrancy
However, this position implies a significant contradiction: The received text of the Old and New Testament used by the KJV scholars wasn’t a “non-critical” text, but itself was a critical one. And once we understand this, the argument that the KJV was uniquely inspired as the only inerrant Word of God begins to unravel. A received text shouldn’t necessarily mean it’s flawless, although the connotation of the phrase, unfortunately, implies that it is. (The connotation is the culprit).
The history of the received text documents this implicitly. The received text was assembled many years before it reached the King James “translators” (who weren’t translators but insightful and intelligent amalgamators who knew Hebrew and Greek). David Trobisch documents the number of revisions that went into the TR before the received text of the New Testament was even declared. He relies upon the exhaustive work of King James’ advocate F.H.A. Scrivener whose “Paragraph Bible” became THE King James Version standard after its publishing in 1873. Trobisch states concerning Scrivener:
F.H. A. Scrivener compared the KJV of 1611 with the printed editions of the Greek text of the New Testament available at the time. He consulted the editions of the Complutensian Polyglott (1520), Erasmus (1516, 1519, 1522, 1527, 1535), Aldus (1518), Colinaeus (1534), Stephanus (1546, 1549, 1550, 1551), and Beza (1560, 1565, 1582, 1589). Scrivener documented 252 variants from the printed text of Beza alone. Obviously, the translators of the KJV had created their own eclectic Greek text, a text that followed neither a specific manuscript nor a specific printed edition.
Doing the count, we come up with 16 different “received texts” – or at least Greek texts that followed the so-called Byzantine lineage of NT manuscripts (dating no earlier than the eighth century). It wasn’t until the 1633 Elzevir version of this family of Greek New Testaments that the TR was finally called the Textus Receptus. It declared a “textum… ab omnibus receptum” (a text accepted by everybody), aka “the received text.” It was a consensus text. In other words, everyone receives this text as authentic. No treatise was done arguing it was uniquely inspired. Looking from that point backward, “critical analysis” had been done for over a century to improve upon earlier works, to make them better. (Publishers and translators hardly would have set out to make them worse!) If the 1611 King James version was inspired by God, making it inerrant, consider that the resulting received text went through 16 updates, all correcting flaws. No doubt, a mountain of analysis and “critical thinking” went into each new effort. Thus, the history of how the 1611 NT version was arrived at demonstrates that if inspiration occurred in the received text, its inspiration involved an enormous amount of human effort to get it settled. So, when the KJV scholars sat down to create the 1611 KJV, did they have a Greek New Testament that was the sole source for their NT? Or was the received text that wasn’t “finalized” until 22 years later with Elzevir’s edition, the inspired version?
Keep in mind, please, what the current evangelical position on the Bible’s inerrancy is –only the original autographs of the authors (who all functioned as prophets or apostles) were inspired without error. Again, this author is not just speaking my mind – a lone voice in the wilderness. Evangelical scholars assert this is the way we should understand the inerrancy of the Bible. The inerrancy is in the originals! And take note: All these Greek New Testaments were available to the King James scholars.
Additionally, KJV advocate Scrivener notes there were hundreds of variants between these many different sources. Against this backdrop, Fundamentalists argue that the compilation of the King James New Testament was inspired to perfection – such that it had no further improvements needed. Never mind what history categorically tells us is the truth. To them, it just isn’t so.
The book, A Biography of the Christian Bible, is available in the Faith Happens Book Store.
Here is much more detail about the book. It should be indispensable for lay persons to understand how we got our Bible.
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