Posted by: stpowen | October 31, 2013

Critical Text or Traditional Text?

Proverbs 30:5. ‘Every word of God is pure; He is a shield to those who put their trust in Him.’

Regular readers of this blog will have noticed that the New King James Version is used almost invariably. The reason for this is that I believe that the Traditional Text of the New Testament, used in the Authorized Version (or King James Version, hereafter A.V.) of the Bible and in the New King James Version is more likely to be correct than the so-called Critical Text favoured by the Bible Societies {1}, most writers on the subject, such as Don Carson and James White and by most other modern Bible versions such as the NIV, ESV, NASB etc.

My qualifications for writing on this subject are somewhat tenuous. As an unconverted teenager, I studied Classical languages for my B.A. degree and that included a limited amount of Textual Criticism. My concern is that the same secular methods of textual criticism that I studied as a youngster and applied to ancient secular writers such as Catullus, Cicero and Thucidides are being applied to the holy and inerrant word of God and that the work of liberal theologians and unbelieving textual experts are being accepted by evangelicals in a way that they would never accept a liberal exegetical commentary.

Let me say out the outset that I do not regard this controversy as being a matter of absolutely crucial importance. Indeed, my own church uses the NIV, and I believe that it is more important for me to support the preaching of the Gospel and to maintain unity than to insist upon my view on Bible Versions. Moreover, we now have so many ancient manuscripts available to us and they all share so much in common despite their differences that we can say that none of them challenges in any way the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith. However, evangelicals believe that the original writings were inerrant and it must therefore be important to us to get as near as possible to those divinely-inspired sources. Also, since commentators who support the C.T. do not hesitate to speak of the ‘most reliable manuscripts’ whilst ignoring 95% of the extant sources, I feel it is legitimate for me to take up the cudgels on behalf of the Traditional Text.

For those who may be unfamiliar with this controversy, I will now give a short summary. In 1516, a Dutch scholar named Desiderimus Erasmus published a new Greek Testament along with a Latin translation. He prepared this from a very small number of ancient manuscripts that were available to him. In 1526, William Tyndale translated this Greek Testament into English, and Erasmus’ New Testament, slightly modified, became the basis for a series of new English Bibles which culminated in the famous Authorized Version of 1611. From around 1700, this became pretty much the only Bible version used in Britain. Over the years, many new Greek manuscripts and fragments were discovered, but these tended (with a few exceptions) to be very much in line with the ones which Erasmus had used.

However, there was one very ancient manuscript, lodged in the Vatican library in Rome, now called Codex Vaticanus, which differed in a number of places from what we will now call the Traditional Text. It appears that Erasmus and many scholars who came after him were aware of this manuscript but had rejected it as inaccurate. Then, late in the 19th Century, a complete manuscript was discovered in a monastery in the Sinai Desert which seemed older than any other one discovered and which agreed in many ways with Codex Vaticanus, though with several differences. It was given the name Codex Sinaiticus. Following this, the English textual scholars, Westcott and Hort, proposed that a revision of the English Bible be prepared in line with their theories and with Vaticanus and Sinaiticus. Despite much resistance from various quarters, this eventually appeared as the Revised Version. This new Bible did not achieve universal acceptance and the A.V. continued to be the Bible most commonly used. The Revised Standard Version, the New English Bible and the Good News Bible appeared after the War, all based on Westcott and Hort’s Critical Text (hereafter C.T.), but none of these supplanted the A.V. It was not until 1973 that the New International Version was published, once again using the C.T., that the supremacy of the A.V. was successfully challenged. Since then there has been an avalanche of new Bibles, all of them except the NKJV based on the C.T.

Most of the arguments against the C.T. have come from those who are wedded exclusively to the A.V. Some of these have been just plain silly, contending that the A.V. itself is somehow inerrant. Others, notably those from the Trinitarian Bible Society are more serious, but are marred in my opinion by the utter determination to stick with the A.V. My position is different. Whilst I respect the A.V. and am always happy to preach from it when asked, I do not believe that it is sensible to persevere with a Bible version with archaic language which many people find almost impossible fully to understand. The Bible should be written in the language of ordinary people; I therefore use and recommend the NKJV, but am quite prepared to consider another version if one should come out based on the Traditional Text and prove to be more accurate. I understand that such a BIble version is about to appear, the Modern English Version I have only had time to glance at it, but it is not yet clear to me that it is an advance on the NJKV.

When I studied textual criticism at University, I recall that there were three {2} particular rules which scholars used to try and establish the true text when the surviving manuscripts disagreed. We shall look at these in turn

1. The oldest manuscript is likely to be the most accurate. It needs to be understood that all ancient writings other than the Bible have a very small number of surviving manuscripts. One of my ‘Set Texts’ at University was the Poems of Catullus. As I recall, there are only three surviving manuscripts of Catullus, all dated 600 years or more after his time. One of these is believed to be older than the others, and so, when they differed, the older one was preferred. This might seem to be reasonable, but there is no assurance in the matter. The older manuscript might well have been copied more times than the more recent ones; or the older one might have been copied badly one or more times while the more recent ones may have been copied faithfully dozens of times. We have no way of knowing.

However, when we come to the New Testament, there are literally thousands of extant manuscripts. So let us consider the last nine verses of Mark 16. The NIV states, “The earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9-20.” The ESV is a little more circumspect: “Some of the earliest manuscripts so not include 16:9-20.” What are the facts? Well, our old friends Sinaiticus and Vaticanus do not contain the verses, although the latter has the space for them left blank, showing that the scribe was at least aware of them. There is also one other Greek manuscript in which the verses are missing. They are contained in more than 600 other Greek manuscripts and in the old Latin and Peshitta Syrian versions as well as being quoted by 2nd Century writers such as Papias, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus and Tertullian who wrote almost 200 years before the estimated dates of Vaticanus and Sinaiticus. I ask, is it sensible to prefer two, admittedly older manuscripts over hundreds of others?

2. Where manuscripts differ, the shorter reading is to be preferred over the longer.

The reasoning here is that scribes may have added comments to the text in the margin which later copyists have incorporated into the text. Obviously it is impossible to prove that this is not so, but is it not more likely that an inattentive copyist has accidentally left something out? Frankly, when it comes to the word of God, I expect the fuller, theologically richer reading to be correct. Let us look at two verses:

Luke 11:2b-4, NKJV. ‘Our Father in heaven , hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us day by day our daily bread and forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’

Luke 11:2b-4, ESV. ‘Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation.’

The wretchedly ugly and abbreviated reading of the ESV and most other modern versions is found in no more than five or six Greek manuscripts, whereas the Traditional Text is found in at least 600. The argument put forward by the supporters of the C.T. is that the Traditional reading has been harmonized with the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:9-13, but this is really not very persuasive. There are at least two other differences between the Traditional readings of the Prayer in Matthew and Luke. Surely, if a scribe was going to harmonize Luke with Matthew, he would have done the job properly? It is far more probable that the reading of the C.T. is the result of an inattentive scribe missing out two sections of the prayer.

Here is another example of the same principle.

Romans 3:22, NKJV. ‘….Even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe.’

Romans 3:22, ESV. ‘…..The righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, for all who believe.’

The C.T. version, exemplified by the ESV, is a tortology. It is through faith for all who believe. Well, who else would it be for if it’s through faith? The Traditional reading of the NKJV is much more profound. The righteousness of God by faith comes ‘to all’ as it is preached, but it is ‘upon all’ who receive it. The C.T. reading is found in about 20 manuscripts, the Traditional reading in several hundred. There is no reason why a scribe would have inserted extra words. Without doubt the shorter reading is the result of words being missed out.

3. The most unusual or ridiculous reading- the one that makes least sense- is most likely to be the original.

This is the theory that I find most offensive of all. The idea is that a reading that appears to make no sense, or contains a factual error, is likely to have been ‘corrected’ by a scribe at some stage. Even in secular writings, I wonder how helpful this rule is. If an ancient writer was accustomed to write nonsense, why ever is anyone studying him? But when we come to the word of God, surely no believer could possibly support such an idea. Either the Bible is the word of God or it isn’t! If it is, then God did not inspire the Apostles and evangelists to write stuff that is wrong or which makes no sense. Let’s see how this works out is practice.

Eph. 3:14-15, NKJV. ‘For this reason I bow my knees before the father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom the whole family (or ‘people’ or ‘nation’) in heaven and earth is named.’

Eph. 3:14-15, NIV. ‘For this reason I kneel before the Father from whom the whole family in heaven and earth derives its name.’

The C.T. reading is supported by 19 Greek manuscripts; the Traditional reading is found is over 500, as well as the majority of the ancient writers who cite the verses.

By what name is the family of God known? Why, as Christians of course. We are not ‘Fatherians’ or ‘Godians.’ The NIV reading makes no real sense. Unfortunately this may be the very reason why many textual critics prefer it. The ESV tries to make some sense of its reading in a footnote where it suggests that the Greek word Patria might actually mean ‘fatherhood’ rather than ‘family.’ But this is not the word’s primary meaning as a glance at a Greek dictionary will confirm. As indicated above, patria means ‘family,’ ‘people’ or ‘nation.’ The English words ‘Patriarch,’ meaning head of the family, and ‘Patriotic’ come from it.

Luke 4:44- 5:1, NKJV. ‘And He was preaching in the synagogues of Galilee. So it was, as the multitudes pressed about Him to hear the word of God, that He stood by the Lake of Gennesaret.’

Luke 4:44- 5:1, ESV. ‘And he was preaching in the synagogues of Judea. On one occasion, while the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret.’

Once again, the vast majority of ancient manuscripts, along with the Church Fathers, support the Traditional Text. The point here is that the Lake of Gennesaret is in Galilee, not Judea, but for that very reason, the majority of textual critics uphold the Critical Text and make Luke into a geographical nincompoop.

John 7:8-10, NKJV. ‘” You go up to this feast. I am not yet going up to this feast, for My time has not yet fully come.” When He had said these things to them, He remained in Galilee. But when His brothers had gone up, He also went up to the feast, not openly, but as it were in secret.’

John 7:8-10, ESV. ‘”You go up to the feast. I am not going to this feast, for my time has not yet fully come.” After saying this, he remained in Galilee. But after his brothers had gone up to the feast, then he also went up, not publicly, but in private.’

The question is over the little word ‘yet’ in verse 8. Its omission makes out the Lord Jesus to be either indecisive or a liar. The word is missing in only a tiny number of the hundreds of extant ancient manuscripts; even Codex Vaticanus contains it. Yet the ESV and also, to its shame, the NASB, omit the word, though the NIV (1984 edition) includes it. The ESV writes in its margin, ‘Some manuscripts add yet.’ Some manuscripts? Would it not be more honest to say, ‘98% of the manuscripts add yet’? The only possible reason to omit the word is that just because the C.T. reading is so ridiculous and objectionable, a scribe might possibly have added it. Such an explanation might be acceptable to a Richard Dawkins or a Bart Erhmann, but it surely cannot be acceptable to anyone who believes that the Bible is the true and complete word of God. The word from heaven declared, “This is My beloved Son; hear Him!” (Mark 9:7). Why would we listen to someone who was either a liar or couldn’t make up his mind? No, no! We should accept the witness of the vast majority of the ancient witnesses, dismiss the omission as the error of an inattentive copyist, and honour Christ as the Way, the Truth and the Life.

To sum up, I believe that the Bible is the very word of God, and as such I believe that the most exalted, God-honouring reading of a text is likely to be the correct one. I do not believe that God would have hidden His word in a tiny number of Greek manuscripts, and to have locked away the correct readings from His people for hundreds of years. Nor do I believe that textual critics who are not evangelical Christians should be given any authority to say what the text of the Bible is. I am prepared to listen to people like Don Carson or James White, even though I don’t agree with them, but I am not prepared to accept the views of a Kurt Aland or a Bruce Metzger or anyone for whom the Bible is not the word of God in its entirety.

{1} But not, of course, by the Trinitarian Bible Society which upholds the Received Text which underlies the A.V. and NKJV. I do not wish to tie myself to the Received Text in its entirety, and am therefore speaking of the Traditional Text; but I believe that the Received Text is likely to be more correct in many more places than the Critical Text.

{2} After 40 years, my memory is not what it was. There may well have been more, but these three stand out in my mind.



  1. You have thoroughly-well presented my own position in this post! May I share this with our church in a future magazine?

  2. Hello Jonathan,
    You are more than welcome to use this post in your church mag. I would only ask for an acknowledgement

  3. Dear Martin,
    Thank you for your well-researched article on textual criticism. I too am an AV-only Bible reader when I turn to an English Bible, otherwise I use mostly Swedish and German versions, or Greek, Hebrew and Latin.

    It took the AV some years to become popular as the Church of England had long used other versions to which church members had become accustomed. So too, throughout the seventeenth century there was a great deal of linguistic work done to strive and polish up the language of the AV. It was felt on a national and even international basis that the English language (or any other then modern language) was not fit to express the Word of God. This has been also true to a worse extent concerning all translations after it. The fact is that as we drift further and further from the Word of God, our language becomes less and less able to express it. This means that our efforts to have a Bible translated into ‘modern English’ are not realizable as we have no modern English fit to translate the many ancient languages of the older texts. Your NKJV is, at best, merely an alteration of the AV which adds to its weaknesses (though less than most other modern efforts) rather than provide a Bible in a language fitting for today. It is certainly in a language neither you nor I use in everyday witness. The best thing we can do is teach the old AV so that it remains a modern language and not allow its fine vocabulary to die out as modern English has no equivalents.

    As you, I have enjoyed a classical education and also studied various modern languages from an early age. When studying Latin, Classical Greek, NT Greek , Aramaic and Hebrew at Uppsala, I majored on Textual Criticism which I found established my trust in and respect off the ancient texts enormously. I found the discipline and methods used essential in preparation for the ministry, indeed, in preparation for whatever academic, practical and spiritual tasks which pastors and teachers have to meet up with daily. Indeed, I would recommend that all should master these disciplines to enable them to cope with everyday situations.

    Of course, no research into textual comparisons and evaluation abides by anywhere near the mere three golden rules you list. Each new text brings with it new experiences and methods which can be built on or dropped as knowledge of God’s Word increases and decisions are made. The idea most non-academic, evangelical critics of source and text criticism have belongs to the world of fairy-tales and legends. I was warned at Bible College against continuing my academic studies in Biblical Studies and found that my university lecturers, on the whole (there were one or two severe exceptions but I had met such at Bible College, too) were far more open to God’s Word than my former pseudo-evangelical teachers had been. I found nothing in the London University degree papers that expected me, as a Bible-believing Christian, to compromise and this was certainly the case in Hull, Uppsala, Duisburg, Essen and Marburg from where I obtained further degrees. I have never had the academic papers I have set and marked questioned by government or university authorities to whom I sent the papers to be checked.

    I feel, too, it is unwise to give the impression that the AV is based on one extant text only whereas the versions created after 1611 are ‘mended texts’. This is not the case. The old English versions, including Frith’s, Tyndale’s, Coverdale’s, the Geneva Bible’s and the AV are all based on text collections and are thus ‘mended’ or, ‘critical’ texts. None of the AV texts used contained a complete Bible, nor were all in Hebrew or Greek. I have often been called ‘a Liberal’ for pointing out that early Bible translators used ancient texts in a number of different languages other than Greek and Hebrew.

    At university, many so-called born-again evangelicals leave the university and also their ‘faith’ when they find that the truth is quite opposite to what their ignorant pastors have taught them. Some then cut themselves off from Christian fellowship and never learn the truth. At Uppsala, where we had truly devout Professors like Harald Riesenfeld, there was a mass exodus in a few weeks. Yet, those whose faith was fully grounded in the Lord and Christian experience, and not in local church legends, persevered easily and the top in their classes were almost always evangelicals who delighted in studying the ancient texts. Indeed, the five of us who received the most votes in the theological student union elections were all evangelicals, though there were a good number of Spartacus students around.

    Why then do we have such weak English translations nowadays? First, we have the lack of qualified translators. Then we have translators who put their church and denominational narrow-mindedness into their translation and bringing out new translations is still big business. Alterations must be made so as to make old copyrights appear antiquated. Though many of our modern translations are in the hands of ‘churches’, these are worldly institutions who are more fitted out with prejudice and money-grabbing motives than with scholarly acumen. One will have ‘church’ translated out, another ‘bishop’ and another ‘baptism’. Others will even have Jude and James removed and a large number of OT books. Note, too, how many Bible publishers are in pagan hands. This has all nothing to do with ‘Liberal’ scholarship but with blind prejudice and filthy lucre. Other ‘evangelicals’ are now quibbling over justification, atonement, holiness, redemption, adoption, reconciliation and propitiation, translating these according to their whims, demanding still more translations for their little clique. This, again, has nothing to do with Biblical scholarship but much to do with the blind prejudice of sectarians in whose hands our modern translations now appear to be. We must not blame the scholars. Few scholars are Bible translators but merely do their little bit of study. We ourselves as blind leaders of the blind are to blame. It thus appears impossible today to organize a wide enough body of translators who are prepared to translate for objective scholarly reasons only. Furthermore, on the whole, Classical linguistics has not gone through the reforms made in teaching modern languages. When I wrote programmes in the sixties for teaching Hebrew in language laboratories as an ordinary language, I was told I was mad. We are not much more far-sighted today.

    There is very little in the AV which is truly antiquated and that small portion is only antiquated because we have stopped using the words. However, we still teach Robinson Crusoe, Pilgrim’s Progress, Gulliver’s Travels and many other 17th and 18th century books in schools. Spencer is still much loved and much read as is also Sir Philip Sydney, not to mention Shakespeare whose language is far more ‘antiquated than the present AV! We even study far more ancient Chaucer in the Upper School, not to mention even older Piers Ploughman! Most English-speaking people can recite something of Milton and Boyle’s, Locke’s, Hume’s etc, essays are read by many. Someone once told me that ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ could not be understood today but he went to see the film ‘Brother, Where Art Thou? The dozen AV words which are not known to some modern English speakers can be learnt in less than a day. Then the words are no longer ‘old-fashioned’. If we do not use the language of the best translation available still today, that language is not dead but we are.


  4. Hello George,
    Thank you for your comments, though I was hoping to have avoided a discussion about the Authorized Version. The A.V. is long gone from the vast majority of evangelical churches in Britain and it isn’t coming back. To keep harping on about it is mere tilting at windmills.

    You write that ‘people still read Robinson Crusoe, Pilgrim’s Progress, Gulliver’s Travels and many other 17th and 18th century books in schools.’ I’m not so sure they still do, with the exception of Shakespeare, but if they do, it is because they are studying the books in the original language. The Bible was not written in Jacobean English and there is therefore no reason for those unable to master Hebrew and Greek to read it in anything but contemporary English that not only academics but also Tyndale’s ploughboy will be able to understand.

    My article is on the question of the correct texts to be used in the translation of the N.T. In the light of your expertise in this field, I will certainly welcome your further comments on that subject.

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