Anyone familiar with the debate of the King James Version of the Bible (also called the “Authorized” versions) will know that central to the debate is the issue of the Textus Receptus (hereafter “TR”). Without going into great depth on the history, here is a brief timeline of the TR:
1. In 1456 the first Bible was printed with the printing press (also known the Guttenberg Bible). This was a copy of the Latin Vulgate.
2. Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536), a 15th century Catholic theologian worked at rapid speed in order to be the first to market with a printed version of a collation of the known Greek manuscripts. He was able to gather about six manuscripts, all from around the 12th century. He was working at such high speed that his first edition, that he did not even write out his own Greek text before sending it to the printers. He merely scribbled his notes on the manuscripts and then sent them off to the printers to be published.
3. The first edition of Erasmus’ assembled text was published in 1516 to heavy criticism because of countless errors. He then published his second edition in 1519 with many of the errors corrected.
4. Erasmus would go on to publish two more editions (1527 and 1535) after incorporating a similar collated text done in Spain.
5. Erasmus’ work continued to be altered by scholars and printers employing the fledging field of Textual Criticism (which in many ways could be attributed to Erasmus as its founder).
6. In 1633, after the King James Bible was finished with the bulk of its revisions (for the most part this was completed in 1611), a final edition of the Erasmean text was publish with a publisher’s preface that read, “Textum ergo habes nun cab omnibus receptum,” or “the [reader] now has the text that was received by all.” It was this preface that earned the Erasmean text the designation of the Received Text (or Textus Receptus). This would be the primary Greek source for over 200 years until the work of Westcott and Hort in 1881.
Now that we have this timeline in place, I would like to discuss one event in the composition of the Erasmus’ text that has great relevance for the debate over the King James Only debate and will draw out several ironies of the KJVOnlyist position. This will by no means be an exhaustive treatment of the event or the text in question, but should suffice to highlight one major problem with the KJVOnlyist position.
After Erasmus had corrected many of the glaring errors in his first edition and had published his second edition, another round of criticism was launched against him. One of those revolved around a verse known today to be a later interpolation that arose in the manuscripts of the Latin Vulgate in the 9th century and the found its way back into the Greek text in the 15th century, just around the time Erasmus was born. This text has now been called the Comma Johanneum (hereafter “CJ”) and is found in 1 John 5:7-8. We can see this by comparing the text in the KJV and the NASB side by side (the underlined text in the KJV is the text in question):
1 John 7-8 (KJV)
1 John 7-8 (NASB)
7 For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.
7 For there are three that testify:
In both the first and second editions of his text, Erasmus had left out the CJ. When criticized for this decision, even accused of leaving out a passage that aided in proving the Trinity, Erasmus said that he left it out because he could not find it in any Greek manuscripts that he was aware of but that if a manuscript could be provided to him that contained the text, he would gladly place it back in. Lo and behold, shortly after, a copy of a 15th century manuscript (codex 61, composed in Oxford in 1520) containing the CJ arrived at his residence. Erasmus, under pressure from Rome (and likely to protect his reputation – not, as some suppose, to fulfill some promise he made to someone), added the text into his third edition of the text. It is this third edition that the TR looks back to for its pedigree on this issue. However, while this is the version that was picked up by later editors of the TR, Erasmus himself removed the CJ from his fourth edition less than a decade later. This is likely because of the late provenance of codex 61. So while Erasmus included the CJ in one of his editions which would later, by successive alterations become the TR, he would remove it from his own fourth edition because even he did not find a compelling case to include it from the manuscript tradition.
As text criticism has continued to blossom, and our knowledge of the Greek text is now built on over 6,000 manuscripts (some dating to within a generation of the original authors), rather than dozens of medieval manuscripts (dating from nearly 1,000 years after the original authors), our certainty regarding the late addition of the CJ is near certain and not many beyond the KJVOnlyist think it was anything but a medieval addition to the Latin tradition. However, what this event in the life of Erasmus does is show us several ironies of the KJVOnlyist position. They are:
1. It is common for KJVOnlyists to reject Textual Reception of a tool of the liberal academics who seek to undermine our confidence in the Biblical text (sic. the English of the KJV, or the TR), however there is great irony that the progenitor of the TR (Erasmus) was himself something like the father of the Text Critical method and himself used a kind of early text criticism to determine what he thought the original text would have looked like and it was this efforts that a later publisher claims refined the text down to the “received text,” the one given by the authors to all the church. If this is not the purpose of text criticism, I’m not sure what is.
2. Even more ironic however, is that many KJVOnlyists will encourage students of the Bible to avoid the original Greek and the manuscript tradition (because of their disapproval of text criticism) and to rely on the English text of the 1611 King James Bible. However, in defense of the KJV, they will often need to invoke that it comes from the most reliable Greek (the TR). However, not only is this not only false (since we have far greater manuscript tradition available to us than the TR), but it is also paradoxical considering that what brought about the TR was precisely the intent to get away from an Authorized text (at that time the Latin Vulgate) and go back to the original Greek. It was precisely the impulse to recover the original Greek text bestowed to the church that lead to the production of the Erasmean text which would provide a foundation for the TR. And yet this is what leads many KJVOnlyists to advocate the exact opposite impulse – to avoid the Greek rather than to promote it’s use.
3. Finally, there is great irony in the fact that Erasmus himself came to reject the CJ precisely because it was a later interpolation. As such it was the architect of the TR itself that would ultimately use the Greek manuscript tradition and text criticism, to reject the CJ.
Again, there are many issues in the debate over the King James Only movement, but this is just one more nail in its coffin.