The Greek Text of the King James Version
by Zane C. Hodges
[Zane C. Hodges, Assistant Professor of New Testament Literature and Exegesis, Dallas Theological Seminary.]
The average well-taught Bible-believing Christian has often heard the King James Version corrected on the basis of “better manuscripts” or “older authorities.” Such corrections are often made from the pulpit as well as being found in print. If he has ever inquired into the matter, the Bible-believing Christian has probably been told that the Greek text used by the translators of 1611 is inferior to that used for more recent translations. He has perhaps also been told that the study of the Greek text of the New Testament (called textual criticism) is now a highly developed discipline which has led us to a more accurate knowledge of the original text of the Bible. Lacking any kind of technical training in this area, the average believer probably has accepted such explanations from individuals he regards as qualified to give them. Nevertheless, more than once he may have felt a twinge of uneasiness about the whole matter and wondered if, by any chance, the familiar King James Version might not be somewhat better than its detractors think. It is the purpose of this article to affirm that, as a matter of fact, there are indeed grounds for this kind of uneasiness and—what is more—these grounds are considerable.1
By way of introduction, it should be pointed out that a very large number of Greek manuscripts of the New Testament survive today. A recent list gives these figures: papyrus manuscripts, 81; majuscules (manuscripts written in capital letters), 267; minuscules (manuscripts written in smaller script), 2,764.2 Of course, many of these are fragmentary and most of them do not contain the entire New Testament. Nevertheless, for an ancient book the available materials are massive and more than adequate for our needs providing they are properly handled by scholars. It is also well known among students of textual criticism that a large majority of this huge mass of manuscripts—somewhere between 80–90%—contain a Greek text which in most respects closely resembles the kind of text which was the basis of our King James Version.3 This piece of information, however, may come as a surprise to many ordinary Christians who have gained the impression that the Authorized Version is supported chiefly by inferior manuscripts, but have never realized that what contemporary textual critics call inferior manuscripts actually make up a huge majority of all manuscripts.
The question therefore naturally arises on what grounds scholars have set aside this large majority of manuscripts which contain a Greek text very much like that used by the translators of the AV in 1611. Why do they prefer other manuscripts with differing texts? What arguments do they advance for their views? Needless to say, it would be impossible in the short compass of this discussion to consider every ramification of modern textual theory. It must suffice to set forth three basic arguments which are used against the type of Greek text which underlies the King James Version. This kind of text will henceforth be referred to as the Majority text.4 The arguments against it are arranged in the order of ascending importance.
I. The Oldest Manuscripts Do Not Support the Majority Text
This argument is the one most likely to impress the ordinary person. Yet it is almost a truism in textual research that the oldest manuscript does not necessarily contain the best text.5 Still, the argument from “old manuscripts” can be presented in a way that sounds impressive.
No extant Greek manuscript which can be dated in the fourth century or earlier contains a text which can be clearly identified as belonging to the Majority text. What is more, the papyrus finds of the last thirty to forty years have yielded manuscripts which more or less support the kind of Greek text used in more modern translations (like the ASV or RSV). Particularly striking is the discovery of the papyrus manuscript known as P75 containing large portions of Luke and John. This new find, which is dated around 200 A.D., has a type of text substantially the same as that found in the famous Codex Vaticanus (B) of the fourth century. More than any other manuscript, Codex B had long been regarded as an extremely valuable witness to the New Testament text. By many it was regarded as the most valuable of all. The modern editions of the Greek New Testament and the translations made from them leaned heavily on the evidence of B. Now, thanks to P75, there is proof that the kind of Greek text found in B was in circulation in the latter part of the second century and, no doubt, even earlier.6 All of this, it may be said, tends to support the general rejection of the Majority text by modern critics.
Such arguments, however, have only a superficial plausibility. In the first place, all of our most ancient manuscripts derive basically from Egypt. This is due mainly to the circumstance that the climate of Egypt favors the preservation of ancient texts in a way that the climate of the rest of the Mediterranean world does not. There is no good reason to suppose that the texts found in Egypt give us an adequate sampling of texts of the same period found in other parts of the world. One might just as well affirm that to sample the flora and fauna of the Nile valley is to know the flora and fauna of Greece, or Turkey, or Italy. It is, therefore, most likely that the text on which our modern translations rest is simply a very early Egyptian form of the text whose nearness to the original is open to debate.7 Indeed Kurt Aland, who is coeditor of both of the most widely used critical Greek texts and who is certainly the leading textual scholar on the European continent, proposes that the text of P75 and B represents a revision of a local text of Egypt which was enforced as the dominant text in that particular ecclesiastical province.8 But if it is, in fact, possible that some such explanation may be given of the text of these ancient witnesses, it is clear that we must look for other reasons for preferring their evidence than age alone. For a revised text may be either good or bad and in any case is the result of the judgment of those who revised it. This illustrates one reason why most textual critics would not argue the superiority of a manuscript merely because it was older than others.
Another factor militating against an uncritical acceptance of the oldest manuscripts is that they show a capacity to unite behind readings which—even in the eyes of modern scholars—are likely to be wrong. John 5:2 is a case in point. Here the three oldest manuscripts extant are P66 and P75 (both about 200 A.D.) and B (4th cent.). All three unite to read “Bethsaida” in this verse instead of the familiar “Bethesda” found in our AV. But both of the most widely used critical editions of the Greek text, Nestle’s text and the United Bible Societies text, reject “Bethsaida” in favor of the reading “Bethzatha,” supported—among extant Greek texts—only by Aleph (4th century, somewhat later than B) and the ninth-century minuscule 33. But even this reading is most likely to be wrong as the prominent German scholar, Joachim Jeremias, has pointed out in his definitive monograph entitled, The Rediscovery of Bethesda. Jeremias confidently defends the reading “Bethesda” as original and adduces as evidence for this the Copper Scroll from Cave III at Qumran.9 This scroll, which palaeography indicates to have been inscribed “between A.D. 35 and 65, that is, between the life and ministry of Jesus and John’s writing of his Gospel,”10 contains a Hebrew form of the name “Bethesda.” Furthermore, as Jeremias points out, the variant “Bethzatha” (Aleph, 33) can now be explained as merely the Aramaic counterpart of the Hebrew form of “Bethesda” found on the Copper Scroll.11 Thus the reading of the Majority text, which is not found in any extant Greek manuscript before the fifth century, has after all the superior claim to originality in John 5:2. This is a classic example of how the great mass of later manuscripts, without any strain on the imagination, may be thought of as going back to other manuscripts more ancient than any we currently possess.12 The RSV may reasonably be charged with error in following the reading “Bethzatha,” while the AV can continue to be followed here with considerable confidence.
Furthermore, the concurrence of P66, P75 and B in the spurious reading “Bethsaida” raises questions about their independence as witnesses to the original text. “Bethsaida” is not the type of variant reading which copyists normally produce by accident, but is most likely the result of some kind of correction of the text. It is quite possible, then, that all three manuscripts go back ultimately to a single parent manuscript in which this emendation was originally made. Thus their numerous agreements against the Majority text are suspect on the grounds that they may simply reproduce the readings of a single ancient copy—the extent of whose errors and revisions we do not know.13
II. The Majority Text Is a Revised, and Hence Secondary, Form of the Greek Text
It is still sometimes argued that the form of the Greek New Testament text which is found in the majority of Greek manuscripts derives from a revision of the text made sometime during the first four centuries of the Christian era (the third century has been a popular date for this).14 This argument is frequently elaborated with the assertion that the revisers who created this text attempted to present a smooth, acceptable text that combined elements from other, earlier texts. Hence, so the argument runs, the very fact of revision, especially an eclectic revision of this kind, necessarily reduces the testimony of this majority of manuscripts to a secondary level. The “older manuscripts” are thus to be preferred because, even if they have suffered some revision, it was of a lesser and more discerningly critical nature.
We need not spend much time with this argument in view of the fact that contemporary critics are by no means agreed on the way in which the Majority text originated. They are, indeed, generally agreed that its testimony to the original text is much inferior to that of the other and older Greek witnesses, but this inferiority is no longer traced by all critics with confidence to a definite, specific revision of the text. A leading American textual critic, Ernest C. Colwell, has stated for example, “The Greek Vulgate [i.e., the Majority text]…had in its origin no such single focus as the Latin had in Jerome” (italics in the original).15 From Colwell’s point of view, the Majority text—as well as the other major forms of the Greek text—are the result of a “process” rather than a single event in textual history.16 Another scholar, Jacob Geerlings, who has done extensive work on certain “family” branches of the Majority text, has stated flatly concerning this text that, “Its origins as well as those of other so-called text-types probably go back to the autographs. It is now abundantly clear that the Eastern Church never officially adopted or recognized a received or authorized text and only by a long process of slow evolution did the Greek text of the New Testament undergo the various changes that we can dimly see in the few extant uncial codices identified with the Byzantine [i.e., Majority] text.”17 Thus the view popularized by Westcott and Hort before the turn of the century, that the Majority text issued from an authoritative, ecclesiastical revision of the Greek text, is widely abandoned as no longer tenable. Yet it was this view of the Majority text which was largely responsible for relegating it to a secondary status in the eyes of textual critics generally. Dean Burgon, the great proponent of the Majority text who was a contemporary of Westcott and Hort, scoffed at their theory of official revision. But his protests were largely drowned out and ignored. Today, scholars like Geerlings and Colwell agree that such a revision did not occur.
It will be noted in this discussion that in place of the former idea of a specific revision as the source-point for the Majority text, some critics now wish to posit the idea of a “process” drawn out over a long period of time. It may be confidently predicted, however, that this explanation of the Majority text must likewise eventually collapse. The Majority text, it must be remembered, is relatively uniform in its general character with comparatively low amounts of variation between its major representatives.18 No one has yet explained how a long, slow process spread out over many centuries as well as over a wide geographical area, and involving a multitude of copyists, who often knew nothing of the state of the text outside of their own monasteries or scriptoria, could achieve this widespread uniformity out of the diversity presented by the earlier forms of text. Even an official edition of the New Testament—promoted with ecclesiastical sanction throughout the known world—would have had great difficulty achieving this result as the history of Jerome’s Vulgate amply demonstrates.19 But an unguided process achieving relative stability and uniformity in the diversified textual, historical, and cultural circumstances in which the New Testament was copied, imposes impossible strains on our imagination. Herein lies the greatest weakness of contemporary textual criticism. Denying to the Majority text any claim to represent the actual form of the original text, it is nevertheless unable to explain its rise, its comparative uniformity, and its dominance in any satisfactory manner. All these factors can be rationally accounted for, however, if the Majority text represents simply the continuous transmission of the original text from the very first. All minority text forms are, on this view, merely divergent offshoots of the broad stream of transmission whose source is the autographs themselves. But this simple explanation of textual history is rejected by contemporary scholars for the following reason.
III. The Readings of the Majority Text Are Repeatedly Inferior to Those of the Earlier Manuscripts
Perhaps the greatest surprise to many Bible-believing Christians will be the discovery that textual critics seek to defend their preference for the older manuscripts by affirming that they are better because, in fact, they contain the better readings. The Majority text, they insist, repeatedly offers us variations with little or no claim to being original. So that, in the last analysis, a manuscript is attested by its readings rather than the reverse.20 In the minds of contemporary scholars, however, no circular argument is involved in this. Careful study of the context of a passage, plus a good acquaintance with scribal habits and with textual phenomena in general, permits the skilled critic—so they affirm—to pass a valid judgment on competing readings and in many cases to reach conclusions that may be regarded as nearly certain. Hence, it follows from this, that confidence in modern critical Greek texts depends ultimately on one’s confidence in contemporary scholarly judgment.
It should be clear, however, that when the whole problem of textual criticism is reduced to a series of arguments about the relative merits of this reading over against that reading, we have reached an area where personal opinion—and even personal bias—can easily determine one’s decision. This has recently been admitted by a leading textual critic who, himself, has in the past espoused this reading by reading methodology. Speaking of the two criteria primarily relied on by modern critics in deciding on a reading (namely, “‘Choose the reading which fits the context’“ and “‘Choose the reading which explains the origin of the other reading’“), E. C. Colwell has confessed, “As a matter of fact these two standard criteria for the appraisal of the internal evidence of readings can easily cancel each other out and leave the scholar free to choose in terms of his own prejudgments.”21
Indeed, it is Colwell who has most effectively pointed out that the generalizations which scholars have been making for so long about scribal habits are based upon a quite inadequate induction of the evidence. He calls for a fresh and comprehensive description of these.22 But if this is needed then it is also clear that we must reconsider nearly all the judgments previously passed on individual readings on the basis of the alleged tendencies of scribes. Moreover, quite recently, another prominent textual critic has actually presented arguments that reverse the long standing judgment of textual critics against an appreciable number of readings found in the Majority text. G. D. Kilpatrick has argued that the “older manuscripts” not infrequently reveal various kinds of changes in the text, both accidental and deliberate, in places where the Majority text preserves the original reading.23 What is important to note about Kilpatrick’s work is how it is actually possible for a scholar who adopts the reading by reading method (in contrast to the use of manuscript authority) to find reasons for controverting long standing opinions on specific passages.24 In short, the knowledge possessed by modern textual critics about scribes and manuscripts is so ambiguous that it can, without difficulty, be used to reach almost any conclusion.
Of course, it might be suggested that the text can be determined simply by careful study of the Biblical writers’ style, argument, and theology. Logically such a method would have no real need for a reconstruction of the history of the transmission of the text. But few, if any, contemporary critics would espouse so extreme a view as this.25 Its result could only be that the Bible would say to the scholar just what his training and perspective dispose him to think it says.
The present writer would like to suggest that the impasse to which we are driven when the arguments of modern criticism are carefully weighed and sifted is due almost wholly to a refusal to acknowledge the obvious. The manuscript tradition of an ancient book will, under any but the most exceptional conditions, multiply in a reasonably regular fashion with the result that the copies nearest the autograph will normally have the largest number of descendants.26 The further removed in the history of transmission a text becomes from its source the less time it has to leave behind a large family of offspring. Hence, in a large tradition where a pronounced unity is observed between, let us say, eighty per cent of the evidence, a very strong presumption is raised that this numerical preponderance is due to direct derivation from the very oldest sources. In the absence of any convincing contrary explanation, this presumption is raised to a very high level of probability indeed. Thus the Majority text, upon which the King James Version is based, has in reality the strongest claim possible to be regarded as an authentic representation of the original text. This claim is quite independent of any shifting consensus of scholarly judgment about its readings and is based on the objective reality of its dominance in the transmissional history of the New Testament text. This dominance has not and—we venture to suggest—cannot be otherwise explained.
It is hoped, therefore, that the general Christian reader will exercise the utmost reserve in accepting corrections to his Authorized Version which are not supported by a large majority of manuscripts. He should go on using his King James Version with confidence. New Testament textual criticism, at least, has advanced no objectively verifiable reason why he should not.
A more general, summary statement of the matter is made by Epp, “…the Byzantine manuscripts together form, after all, a rather closely-knit group, and the variations in question within this entire large group are relatively minor in character.” Eldon Jay Epp, “The Claremont Profile—Method for Grouping New Testament Minuscule Manuscripts,” Studies in the History and Text of the New Testament in Honor of Kenneth Willis Clark, Ph.D., eds. Boyd L. Daniels and M. Jack Suggs, Vol. XXIX of Studies and Documents, p. 33.
© 2010, Matt. All rights reserved.