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In 1603 King James VI of Scotland was crowned King James I of England Ireland. At this time, England has just emerged from rule under Queen Elizabeth I,^{[1]} wherein much change occurred in the Church of England. The Protestants in England had regained ground during her reign following persecution under Queen Mary of Scots, but an austere sub-group known as the Puritans believed that Queen Elizabeth could have gone further. A new king gave them an opportunity to start again.

On his way to London, King James was met by Puritans who presented to him the Millenary Petition, which expressed their dissatisfaction with the incomplete reformation of the Church of England from the errors of the Roman Catholic faith. As a result, the Hampton Court Conference ^{[2]} was organized to address the matter. In the end, the Puritans gained little from the conference. One important result was King James I’s agreement to commission the publication of a new English translation of the Bible.

King James I
King James I (Image from Royal.uk)

It took seven years and forty-seven scholars and theologians to produce the new Bible translation, which came to be called, appropriately, the King James Version Bible. In little time, it surpassed the then-popular Geneva Bible ^{[3]} in prominence.

The translators drew from what resources they had,^{[4]} including the Bibles already translated at the time, the Masoretic text (the authoritative Hebrew and Aramaic text for the Hebrew Bible), and the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible). The resource that most interests me today is the Textus Receptus.

The Textus Receptus was the standard Greek New Testament in Europe for centuries. It was the work of Swiss printer Johannes Froben and humanist Erasmus in 1516, who were racing against a printer in Spain to publish the first Greek New Testament translation ^{[5]} at a time when the Latin Vulgate was under scrutiny and the demand for a Greek version was high.

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Portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam, by Hans Holbein the Younger

After six months working with the six manuscripts he located, all dated to the 1100s, Erasmus sent his Greek translation to the printers.

Critics of the King James Version of the Bible point out the flaws of the Textus Receptus, a main text used in its translation. That Erasmus used only a handful of manuscripts puts into question the rigor of the translation; that he put it together in only six months, the meticulousness. While the Textus Receptus has undergone a couple of republications with edits to reflect new archaeological findings such as the Codex Claromontanus, it is not up-to-date with many of the developments in textual criticism of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Thus, most modern translations of the Bible draw not from the Textus Receptus, but from another Greek translation: the Nestle-Aland/United Bible Society text. German Bible scholar Eberhard Nestle published the first edition of the Nestle-Aland version, which was originally named Novum Testamentum Graece, in 1898. He based it on the translations of three others, and published numerous other editions in his lifetime. In 1927, his son Erwin took on the task, editing the Novum Testamentum Graece in light of new discoveries like early papyri.

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Eberhard Nestle (Photo credit Karl Meckes?)

Today, the United Bible Society continues to update the Nestle-Aland text. It is the most widely used text for pastors, students, and others for Bible study.

Is this to say that the Textus Receptus is a bad Greek translation of the New Testament? This is not necessarily so. The Textus Receptus was the result of the resources available at its time and it marked an important turning point in Bible translation and study. It played an important role in the publication of the King James Bible and, indirectly, the history of the church. However, we now have more and better materials at our disposal, and can be increasingly assured of the accuracy of the New Testament we read today.

[1] “Queen Elizabeth and the Church.” Elizabethi, n.d., http://www.elizabethi.org/contents/elizabethanchurch/queenandchurch.html.
[2] Needham, Paul. “The Bible in English: Before and After the Hampton Court Conference, 1604.” The Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library, 2004, https://rbsc.princeton.edu/publications/bible-english-and-after-hampton-court-conference-1604.
[3] “What is the Geneva Bible?” GotQuestions, Got Questions Ministeries, n.d., https://www.gotquestions.org/Geneva-Bible.html.
[4] “King James Bible.” All About…, AllAbout Truth.org, n.d. https://www.allabouttruth.org/king-james-bible.htm.
[5] Samworth, Herbert. “What is the Textus Receptus.” Grace Sola Foundation, Inc., n.d., http://www.solagroup.org/articles/faqs/faq_0032.html.
[6] “How the King James Bible changed the world.” Baylor Magazine, Baylor University, 2011, https://www.baylor.edu/alumni/magazine/0904/news.php?action=story&story=95758.