Combs on the History of the Textus Receptus

[NOTE: As most of you know, I’m working on a project tracing the history of the KJV-only debate. While researching, I came across an excellent article written by Dr. William Combs, academic dean and professor of theology at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary. Inaugurating the seminary’s journal, Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal, Dr. Combs began with an article, Erasmus and the Textus Receptus.

This first issue of the Journal is dedicated to Dr. William R. Rice,
the founder of Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary. Like most fundamentalists in this century, Dr. Rice has always used the KJV in his public ministry. He often consulted other versions and commonly suggested alternative or improved translations from the pulpit. He never made an issue of Greek texts and English translations. Yet today there is a growing debate in fundamentalism regarding English translations of the Scripture and the texts behind them, especially the NT Greek text. One area of dispute involves the Greek Textus Receptus. For those who may be new to this controversy, Textus Receptus is a Latin term which means “Received Text.” The name itself comes from an edition of the Greek NT produced by Bonaventura and Abraham Elzevir (or Elzevier). The Elzevirs printed seven editions of the Greek NT between 1624 and 1678.1 Their second edition (1633) has this sentence in the preface: “Textum ergo habes, nunc ab omnibus receptum, in quo nihil immutatum aut corruptum damus” (Therefore you [dear reader] have the text now received by all, in which we give nothing changed or corrupted). From this statement (Textum…receptum) comes the term Textus Receptus or TR, which today is commonly applied to all editions of the Greek NT before the Elzevir’s, beginning with Erasmus’ in 1516.

Numerous individuals who identify themselves with fundamentalism are now arguing that the TR is to be equated with the text of the original manuscripts of the NT. For example, D. A. Waite says: It is my own personal conviction and belief, after studying this subject since 1971, that the words of the Received Greek and Masoretic Hebrew texts that underlie the King James Bible are the very words which God has preserved down through the centuries, being the exact words of the originals themselves. As such, I believe they are inspired words.

That the TR, which underlies the KJV, could be thought to be “the exact words of the originals themselves” would seem to be far-fetched, to say the least, to anyone familiar with the history of the TR. But possibly, that is part of the problem; some who hold the TR position may not be adequately informed about the position they champion. This article will seek to shed some light on this subject by bringing forth the well-established facts about the history of the TR.

Dr. Combs concludes,

Upon receiving a copy of Erasmus’ Latin Greek NT, John Colet responded: “The name of Erasmus shall never perish.”89 His “prophecy” has proved to be true for nearly 500 years. His “Textus Receptus” was the standard form of the Greek Text until challenged in the nineteenth century, but, as has been noted, still has many defenders in fundamental circles. Greenlee has wisely observed: “The TR is not a ‘bad’ or misleading text, either theologically or practically.”90 No one will be led into theological error from using the TR, either directly or in a translation based on it (e.g., KJV and NKJV). But is it, as Waite believes, “the exact words of the originals themselves”? Hardly! It is based on a few very late manuscripts, and in some cases has no Greek manuscript support whatever. Without question it is possible to produce a text which is closer to the autographs by comparing the more than 5,000 Greek manuscripts available today. Fundamentalists should reject the attempts by some in our movement to make the TR the only acceptable form of Greek text.

I highly recommended reading this article in its entirety. DBSJ has graciously provided it free of charge here:

3 thoughts on “Combs on the History of the Textus Receptus

  • March 17, 2010 at 6:21 am

    Thanks, it looks like an interesting article.

    But if we look closely into the history of the TR, we might find the story is not as smooth as we thought when we were looking at the published copy. This realization might change our view of the meaning of history, which is historical revisionism. We might start to doubt that divine providence worked as we thought it did in its means of preserving the Scriptures. This, as we learn from Geoffrey Botkin, is both rebellion and blasphemy.

  • March 17, 2010 at 7:10 am

    I call your attention to Mr. Botkin’s conclusion,

    “Your children need to learn how to take original sources — not doctored textbooks — and to analyze them Biblically through a grid of good theology and come to their own conclusions about them. Parents can train their children to do this.”

    Given Mr. Botkin’s love of original source material, I think he would find Dr. Combs’ article most insightful –just as I did.

    Speaking of original sources, I think I’m going to follow up on Combs’ discussion of Erasmus’ Vulgate revision, particularly those objectors who declared God’s preservation extended to the Vulgate and therefore any attempt at revision was an afront to God’s work (cf. Combs. P. 39).

    Very interesting.

  • March 17, 2010 at 9:30 pm

    You know, I noticed that sentence in Mr. Botkin’s article right after I finished posting here. Up until that point, he had explained the motives of historical revisionism, its history, its alleged results, and even its status in the eyes of God, without ever defining its method… what historical revisionism does, and why it might be different from merely revising one’s previous view of historical events through new evidence or better analysis. He did such revision repeatedly in the article, but never, until the conclusion, defined the methods of historical revisionism to be different from his own. It shows that we should define terms before theologizing them (and read the conclusion before judging).

    If you’re going to talk about the Vulgate, you must read Jerome, at least his letter to Pammachius, if not his introductions to the various books of the Bible. Compare the quote from Erasmus on Combs (37) with what Jerome wrote to Pammachius, and you’ll see the long-term effects of caving in to a literalist translation method. :)

    “I can see what utter madness it is even to put a finger on that part of theology which is specially concerned with the mysteries of the faith unless one is furnished with the equipment of Greek as well, since the translators of Scripture, in their scrupulous manner of construing the text, offer such literal versions of Greek idioms that no one ignorant of that language could grasp even the primary, or, as our own theologians call it, literal, meaning.”

    – Erasmus, Epistle 149.

    “For I myself not only admit but freely proclaim that in translating from the Greek I render sense for sense and not word for word, except in the case of the Holy Scriptures, where even the order of the words is a mystery.”

    — Jerome to Pammachius, on the Best Method of Translating.

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