Theology and Christian Faith
Recently there has arisen an ironically popular theory (in some circles) to account for the problem of variation in copies of the manuscripts of the Bible texts. This new doctrine claims that God inspires and guides the copying and transmission process. This protective, inspired guidance applies, however, to only one stream of biblical manuscript texts – only the "Received Text" (Textus Receptus, or TR).
The theory apparently does not hold that God similarly protects the transmission of the copies preserved and circulated in Greece, Russia, or the ancient Eastern churches of Syria, Iran or elsewhere. In fact, Eastern texts, despite their parallel heritage back to the first century, are specifically rejected as corrupt and unreliable, because they exhibit some differences from the Western versions of the biblical manuscripts, which are taken to be correct and standard.
A New Doctrine of Textual Improvement
This new theory holds that later inspired copies and edits actually cleaned up the Bible manuscripts, overcoming problems in any changes that had been introduced, so that by the time the Textus Receptus (conveniently failing to specify which edit or correction of the TR), it was then cleaned up and thus the only safe, reliable source. I was introduced to this theory for the first time in 1997 or 98.
I have been unable to determine when this theory was first promulgated. I do know, however, that it is part of the KJV-only movement. In general, this movement holds that the King James Version of the Bible is the only reliable English translation.
Some say the KJV is the only valid English translation. All other translations are judged in reference to the KJV, rather than (or in addition to) the Greek manuscripts. Likewise, Greek manuscripts differing from the KJV are rejected as corrupt.
This KJV-only view is usually accompanied by the claim that the Textus Receptus is the only reliable and acceptable version of the Greek New Testament. A variant of this view claims additionally that the KJV is actually inspired by God in the same sense that the original New Testament writings were inspired. (There are various views accounting for the Old Testament.)
God's inspiration of the KJV and His preservation of the TR entails His protective and corrective guidance of inspired copyists, who corrected and regularized errors that had occurred in earlier manuscript copies.
Thus we have a theory of inspired correction and improvement of the Greek manuscripts. As I understand it, this appears to mean we have no final and finished text, but God continued to refine and correct the original writings of our New Testament writing, until – inexplicably – the stream of inspiration finally stopped with the KJV in English.
Greek Translations from Koine
I've never heard how this school of thought deals with translations from Greek into other languages. (Presumably those translated from the Textus Receptus would be candidates for acceptability.) I am especially interested in how they might deal with the current Greek-speaking world, which still maintains their Koine Greek texts, while there are also translations in Modern Greek.
I have a bilingual Koine-Modern Greek New Testament, as well as another Modern Greek translation. There are several Modern Greek translations, all translated from the Koine copies.
"New" Ancient Manuscripts
The primary reason the "Received Text" group of Greek texts was used was not their superiority – it was just the only set of texts available in the West at the time. How does this make them more correct?
Many previously unavailable ancient manuscripts and copies of these manuscript families came into Western Europe when hundreds of Christian leaders fled the Roman Empire (called the Byzantine Empire by the West) with the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1563.
These were the Bibles used by the churches with their millions of members in the Greek areas of the Eastern Roman Empire for centuries. Additional ancient manuscripts were in use by the "Ancient Churches" of the east in countries like Syria and Iran, and were made available to the West even more recently in history, to enrich the scriptural resources of the Western Church.
An Ever-Improving Bible?
This novel doctrine of an ever-improving scripture text takes us another step away from the Scriptures themselves. This theory just shifts focus to another abstract dogma, established from the point of view of the early English translations.
As a reference point, this is somewhat late in the historical line of authority, seeming to discount God's sovereignty, as well as the integrity of believers worldwide who have a parallel heritage back to the same apostles. This theory is then imposed upon the variety of real biblical texts we have to deal with.
This seems to draw attention away from the reality of the actual texts of the Bible and what we find there. It seems to place the actual biblical text on the sidelines, requiring allegiance to a particular set of copies or translation.
It further impugns the integrity of the common heritage of all believers through the centuries who carefully preserved their copies of the scriptures when a hand-printed copy was the extremely precious treasure of a whole regional community of faith.
The Bible the Starting Point
My view is that the Bible should always be the starting point. And we take seriously our responsibility to deal with the depth and complexity of its messages in the full textual heritage that has come down to us – in whatever human languages it has been necessary and possible to translate it into, from the best possible understanding of the original text from the apostolic church.
Problems with a Textus Receptus Superiority
The theories favoring TR, especially one that claims the TR improves earlier texts, overlooks the fact that TR itself is an edited version that provides one standard text out of the variations available up to that time in the West. The Stephanus printed version was a further edited version of Erasmus' original edited TR text.
So, again, the primary value of the TR is its cultural history – it was the only group of manuscripts commonly available in the West at the time, due to problems of cultural, political and geographic communication from east to west.
Meanwhile a whole, separate, parallel stream of biblical texts were being preserved and transmitted through the centuries by faithful Christian scholars and leaders in the eastern realms.
Invalid Apostolic Texts?
In assuming the TR is inspired and protected by God, as well as certain early translations in English, this view rules out the possibility that the Bibles handed down from the first century in the Christian churches in other parts of the world besides the Roman West would be valid and reliable. Does this make sense?
The narrow ethnocentric vision behind this new theory of preservation is exposed in this glaring claim. How could it be that the biblical tests so carefully and lovingly preserved in geographical areas outside the medieval Roman Catholic sphere were somehow invalidated? What invalidated them? How did those Greek texts suddenly lose their inspiredness and textual integrity? They did not think through this very well.
Why should God abandon his churches simply because the weren't in Europe. Why should everything revolve around Europe?
And how would their Bible become invalidated? Why, in fact, would the Roman Catholic Church and its Bibles in Europe be the only ones God would preserve? Why would western copies be preserved from error any more than the eastern churches and their Bibles?
A quick summary of sources for this new theory may be found by performing an Internet search on "KJV Only" and possibly "Textus Receptus."
Related: Are Older Manuscripts More Reliable?
Based on comments in an email discussion 20 August 2002
Article finalized and posted 21 November 2004
Last edited 11 November 2014
Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © Orville Boyd
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Please give credit and link back. Other rights reserved.