―The Greek Text behind the King James Version‖ Rafael Rodríguez, PhD Thursday, 27 October 2011

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1. Introduction
As far as I know, I have never owned a King James Bible. Even growing up in a very traditional Lutheran church, we typically had copies of the Good News Bible in the backs of the pews or stacked in the corner of our Sunday School classrooms. I did acquire a copy of the New King James Version when I took the Gideon Bible out of a hotel room I once occupied. And I received a second copy of the NKJV just a few weeks ago when my family and I came home and found that someone had left a Bible on my front porch. (I’m still trying to figure out what was being implied.) At any rate, my only real experience with the King James Bible has been when some well-intentioned Christian brother or sister has tried to convince me that the King James is the only faithful, inspired, infallible English Bible. Perhaps not surprisingly, I haven’t had much incentive to become well acquainted with either King James or his Bible. But this really is unfortunate. As this week’s chapel services have clearly demonstrated, the language, imagery, and theology of the King James Bible have profoundly affected our culture, from the English we speak to the literary heritage that enables us to express our deepest and profoundest emotions. The King James Bible certainly deserves our respect and admiration. We simply shouldn’t let the zealousness of some of its more enthusiastic readers diminish our appreciation for this text and its 400-year tradition of expressing the Word of God to Englishspeaking followers of Jesus. It would be unfortunate if we dismissed the King James Bible as outdated, obsolete, or irrelevant. Dr. Linton has asked me to prepare a twenty-minute discussion of the Greek text behind the King James Bible. This, too, is unfortunate. I can think of thousand things I’d rather talk

―The Greek Text behind the King James Version‖ Rafael Rodríguez, PhD Thursday, 27 October 2011

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about than [1a] the Greek text of behind the King James Bible. Like . . . [2] Shel Silverstein, for example. I was at McKay’s one day, looking at all the textbooks I had used in class that students had sold back at the end of the semester. But my oldest daughter quickly got bored with that and wanted me to read to her. I found a copy of Silverstein’s Falling Up, so she and I sat down to read together. After just a short while we came upon the poem, ―Plugging In,‖ which I’d like to recite for you. [*ahem*]: [2a] Peg plugged in her ’lectric toothbrush, Mitch plugged in his steel guitar, Rick plugged in his CD player, Liz plugged in her VCR. Mom plugged in her ’lectric blanket, Pop plugged in the TV fights, I plugged in my blower-dryer— Hey! Who turned out all the lights? And that’s when I realized: My daughters will grow up and never know what a VCR is, or a videotape, or just tape! For them, music has always been digital, and old music comes on little shiny discs. ―Tape‖ is something you use to keep a younger sibling’s mouth shut. [3] Speaking of VCRs and videotapes, are you aware of the analog videotape format war of the 1970s? (This, too, is something I’d rather talk about than [3a] the Greek text behind the KJV!) In 1975 Sony released the [3b] Betamax video system, which played [3c] sixty-minute Betamax tapes. A year later, JVC released their [4] Video Home System (or VHS), which played the [4a] three-hour VHS tapes with which most of us are familiar. With a higher resolution, Betamax was, arguably, the superior video format. But, just like the King James Bible, I have never owned a Betamax VCR, and I suspect a majority of you in this room haven’t either. But why not? Why did we (or our parents) prefer an inferior video format when a superior option was so readily available? The simplest answer is ―recording time.‖ Since Betamax tapes were only sixty minutes long, they were insufficient for recording movies or things like football

―The Greek Text behind the King James Version‖ Rafael Rodríguez, PhD Thursday, 27 October 2011

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games. The three-hour VHS tapes, on the other hand, could accommodate up to two movies on a single tape. By the time Sony responded with a longer-playing Betamax tape, VHS had already taken a dominant share of the market, and Betamax never managed to catch up. By the mid- to late-1980s the format war was over. VHS had won; Betamax, despite its technical advantages over VHS, had clearly lost. [5] 2.

The Greek Text behind the KJV

[*sigh*] Well . . . I suppose Dr. Linton is rethinking his decision to ask me to speak in chapel. Perhaps, for his sake if not for ours, we should talk a little bit about—say it with me—[5a] the Greek text behind the King James Bible. Let me say first of all that, when we speak of a ―Greek text behind the King James Bible,‖ [5b] we’re only talking about the New Testament, which (unlike the texts of the Old Testament) were written in Greek. So we’re actually talking about the Greek behind the New Testament of the King James Bible. Does that make sense? Second, once we’ve got it in our heads that we’re only talking about a part of the King James Bible (granted, the part that matters, right, Drs. Cook and Reece?), we need to decide how we’re going to talk about the Greek text behind the KJV. (Again, all of this is for Dr. Linton’s sake; personally, I’d rather discuss just about anything else . . . for example, [6] the mating habits of Japanese beetles.) One option might be for me to spend twenty minutes giving you detailed comparisons of the Greek text behind our modern translations (the NIV, ESV, NASB, etc.) and the Greek behind the KJV. So, for example, you would be titillated to know that, [7] whereas the critical Greek text of John 1.16 reads, ―For from his fullness we all have received, even grace upon grace,‖ the same passage in [7a] the Greek text behind the KJV reads, ―And from his

―The Greek Text behind the King James Version‖ Rafael Rodríguez, PhD Thursday, 27 October 2011

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fullness we all have received, even grace upon grace.‖ Now I need you all to be honest: Don’t you want twenty full minutes of this? It’s okay. You can tell me. But no. Unfortunately, we don’t have time for this. [8] Instead of showing you how the two Greek texts differ, I’d like to explain a little bit about why they are different. Toward this end, we can sum up everything you need to know about the King James Bible’s Greek text in two words: [9] Textus Receptus (Latin for ―received text‖). This phrase comes from the Latin preface to a version of the Greek New Testament that was printed in 1633 by the Dutch publishers Bonaventure (Bonaventure?!) and Abraham Elzevir. Now, if you’re paying attention, you might have noticed a problem. I’ve just said that the NT of the King James Bible, which was published in 1611, is dependent upon the Textus Receptus, which was [10] published in 1633. How was an English Bible that was published in 1611 dependent on a Greek text that was printed in 1633?! We’ve already mentioned the answer to that question three times: [11] printing. The invention of Gutenberg’s printing press, whose primary innovation was the use of [11a] movable type, revolutionized not only bookmaking but also how information was stored, how (and how quickly) that information was transmitted across vast distances, and who could afford to access that information. In Spain, a Catholic cardinal and archbishop by the name of Francisco Ximenes de Cisneros planned [12] an extravagant edition of the Bible, known as the Complutensian Polyglot. The Complutension Polyglot would feature the Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin texts of the Bible in parallel columns. Cardinal Cisneros had access to an impressive range of resources—including multiple Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. [12a] In 1514 the New Testament portion of the Complutensian Polyglot was printed, which makes it the first version of the Greek New Testament to be printed using the new technology of movable type. [12b] But

―The Greek Text behind the King James Version‖ Rafael Rodríguez, PhD Thursday, 27 October 2011

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this text wasn’t published until 1522, when it could be issued along with the completed Old Testament. Have I lost you yet? We’re talking about a Spanish Cardinal with an awesome name— Francisco Ximenes de Cisneros—who’s organizing a new edition of a multi-language Bible. The New Testament portion was printed in 1514, but it wasn’t published until 1522. Got it? Meanwhile, in northern Europe, [13] the Dutch Humanist Erasmus was asked to produce his own edition of the Greek New Testament and get it to print before Cardinal Cisneros could get the Complutensian Polyglot to market. As a result, scholars usually identify Erasmus’s Greek New Testament, [13a] which was printed and published in 1516, as the first printed GNT. But the rush to publication had unfortunate consequences. [14] For one thing, Erasmus’s GNT suffered from excessive printing errors, so many that the nineteenth-century NT scholar Frederick Scrivener described it as ―in that respect the most faulty book I know.‖1 [14a] Second, unlike Cardinal Cisneros, Erasmus had access to a very limited number of Greek manuscripts, a grand total of only six. And those six didn’t even cover the entire NT canon; his one manuscript for the Revelation of John was missing the last leaf, which meant Erasmus didn’t have any Greek text of the last six verses of the book. To make up for his lack, he simply translated back into Greek from the Latin Vulgate! What’s worse, the best of the six texts at Erasmus’s disposal was a tenth-century manuscript known as Codex 1, but Erasmus used this text the least because it differed so much from his other five manuscripts! Consequently—and this is key—Erasmus’s GNT was the first printed, published, affordable, widely accessible copy of the GNT. Six years later, when the Complutensian Polyglot was finally released, its Greek text was vastly superior in

Quoted in Bruce M. Metzger and Bart D. Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration (4th ed.; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 143.


―The Greek Text behind the King James Version‖ Rafael Rodríguez, PhD Thursday, 27 October 2011

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quality to Erasmus’s text. It was also significantly more expensive, bulkier, and less widely available. Just like the format war between Betamax and VHS, the Complutensian text’s superiority over Erasumus’s GNT didn’t matter much; the Erasmian text was both more popular and significantly more influential. As Paul Wegner says, [15] ―Erasmus’s text became the standardized text for about four hundred years, even though it was clearly not the best text. Its wide circulation and popularity were due to the fact that it appeared first, was cheaper, and came in a more convenient size.‖2 Okay. I need you to focus here; this next paragraph mentions a lot of names and dates. Ready? Here goes: The Erasmian Greek text was so influential and so widely read that it became the foundation text for a number of important translations. [16] Martin Luther used the second edition when he produced his German translation of the Bible in 1522; [16a] William Tyndale used the third edition for his English New Testament, which was published in 1526. Erasmus also continued to influence later printed editions of the GNT. Two decades after Tyndale, the French printer [16b] Robert Estienne produced four editions of the Greek New Testament; despite having access to more than double the number of Greek manuscripts as Erasmus as well as the Complutensian Polyglot, Estienne’s text was, essentially, Erasmian with some additions and corrections. [16c] Theodore Beza, the successor to John Calvin, also published a number of editions of the Greek New Testament, but, according to Evangelical scholar Don Carson, ―the text that [Beza] used differs but little from that of [Estienne’s] fourth edition.‖3 Carson goes on to explain, [16d] ―The translators of the King James Version relied largely on Beza’s editions of 1588–1589 and 1598.‖ Finally, [16e] the text that the Elzevir brothers printed in 1633, which

Paul D. Wegner, The Journey from Texts to Translations: The Origin and Development of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1999), 268–69. 3 D. A. Carson, The King James Version Debate: A Plea for Realism (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), 36.


―The Greek Text behind the King James Version‖ Rafael Rodríguez, PhD Thursday, 27 October 2011

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spawned the famous epithet Textus Receptus, differed only slightly from Beza’s. Notice, then, the fairly direct line from Erasmus, through Tyndale on one hand and Estienne on the other, and on through Beza to the translators of the King James Bible, and finally terminating in the Elzevir Greek text which was the first to be called ―the received text.‖ [17] The Erasmian form of the Greek New Testament—based on a relatively small number of later Greek manuscripts that were collected in somewhat haphazard fashion—formed the basis of every European-language translation of the Bible until 1881 (i.e., for over three centuries). [18] 3.

The 400-Year Legacy of the King James Bible

So much for the Greek text behind the King James Bible. At this point we might pause and reflect on, to echo the apostle Paul, the power of God at work in the weakness of human scholarship. The Erasmian Greek text and the family of vernacular translations that GNT spawned over the course of over three centuries has been the New Testament of Western Christianity since the dawn of the Reformation. God has used this text to speak to his people—to comfort us in our trials and sufferings, to give voice to our joys and elations and to find words to express our deepest longings and most urgent prayers. God has used this Greek text, which was compiled from a handful of relatively poor and incomplete manuscripts. God has used this Greek text, the VHS of the biblical manuscript tradition (i.e., it might not have been the best, but it was the most useful). In the 1500s, this text was the best human scholarship could do, and for God it was enough. And in the early 1600s, as King James VI of England sought to heal divisions within the Church of England and avoid the politically inconvenient sentiments underlying the popular Geneva Bible, God used this text to draw his people in the English-speaking world (and beyond) closer to himself. This text, which historian David Steinmetz calls ―improbably

―The Greek Text behind the King James Version‖ Rafael Rodríguez, PhD Thursday, 27 October 2011

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successful,‖ has certainly proven fruitful for the service of the kingdom of God.4 And so I thank God for the King James Bible. Can I get an amen? The King James Bible (and the Erasmian Greek text on which it rested) was cutting-edge seventeenth-century, but it was still subject to the limitations that plague all human scholarship. In the last four hundred years we have made considerable advances. We have found literally thousands of manuscripts that neither Erasmus nor Estienne nor the Elzevir brothers could have imagined. [18a] From the famed Codex Sinaiticus, which was found at St. Catherine’s Monastery at Mt. Sinai, to the thousands of texts on papyrus found in the trash dumps of Oxyrhynchus in Egypt, our knowledge of both the state of the NT during Christianity’s early centuries as well as of the Greek language itself has advanced considerably. As Dr. Linton explained yesterday, our knowledge of both the text and the language is superior to the knowledge of those who worked on King James’s Bible. [19] But we can still appreciate what they accomplished, and we can pray that, four hundred years from now, future generations will appreciate that we, too, have done the best with what we know. [20]

David C. Steinmetz, ―The Improbably Successful King James Bible‖ (Faith & Leadership; http://www.faithandleadership.com/content/the-improbably-successful-king-james-bible?page=0,0 [cited 26 October 2011]).


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