Erasmus, the Greek NT, and the KJV

Front Cover One of the big names in the history of the Greek New Testament’s transmission is Desiderius Erasmus (d. 1536).  Our readers might know him as the man whom Luther debated in his excellent Bondage of the Will.   Something not quite as well-known is the fact that the NT in the KJV stands largely on Erasmus’ edition of the Greek NT.  The story goes like this (which is a summary of Bruce Metzger’s discussion on pages 100-103 of The Text of the New Testament, 3rd ed.).

For the benefit of the church, Erasmus essentially wanted to publish a Greek New Testament along with his own Latin translation of it.  This, however, was more difficult that he thought it would be since he had a hard time finding proper manuscripts of the Greek NT.

Because Erasmus couldn’t find a single Greek NT manuscript, he used several.  The primary manuscripts he used were from (roughly) the twelfth century.  In fact, since he couldn’t find manuscripts for some parts of Revelation, he translated the old Latin Vulgate back into Greek.  These Latin-to-Greek translations, of course, have not been found in any old Greek manuscript; however, they still appear in many (all?) editions of the KJV and NKJV (i.e. certain words Rev 17:4, 22:16—21.  See also Acts 9:6).

When his work was finished – or nearly finished – someone pointed out to Erasmus that his Greek text didn’t contain the Trinitarian statement in 1 John (5:7-8 – ‘The Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.  And there are three that bear witness in earth.’).  Here’s how Bruce Metzger discusses this fact.

“Erasmus replied that he had not found any Greek manuscript containing these words, though he had in the meanwhile examined several others besides those on which he relied when first preparing his text.  In an unguarded moment Erasmus promised that he would insert the ‘Comma Johanneum’,’ as it is called, in future editions if a single Greek manuscript could be found that contained the passage.”

“At length such a copy was found – or was made to order!  As it now appears, the Greek manuscript had probably been written in Oxford about 1520 by a Fransiscan friar named Froy (or Roy), who took the disputed words from the Latin Vulgate.  Erasmus stood by his promise and inserted the passage in his third edition (1522), but he indicates in a lengthy footnote his suspicions that the manuscript had been prepared expressly in order to confute him” (p. 101).

“…Thus the text of Erasmus’ Greek New Testament rests upon a half-dozen miniscule manuscripts.  The oldest and best of these manuscripts (codex I, a miniscule of the tenth century, which agrees often with the earlier uncial text) he used least, because he was afraid of its supposedly erratic text!  …Subsequent editors, though making an umber of alterations in Erasmus’ text, essentially reproduced this debased form of the Greek Testament.  Having secured an undeserved pre-eminence, what came to be called the Textus Receptus of the New Testament resisted for 400 years all scholarly efforts to displace it in favour of an earlier and more accurate text” (p. 103).

To read the rest of this fascinating story of the Greek NT’s transmission, you’ll have to get Metzger’s book.  Be aware that it is not light and easy reading; it is a seminary level resource (and even dry in some places).  However, if you want to be knowledgeable in this area, The Text of the New Testament is one book you’ll have to get.  It is worth the effort.  (Note: I saw there is a fourth revised edition of Metzger’s book.  I’m not referring to that one here – I’m referring to the third edition.)

shane lems

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10 comments on “Erasmus, the Greek NT, and the KJV

  1. Would I be correct in assuming that the WCF /Westminster divines would have considered the Trinitarian statement canonical (that is, a genuine part of the canonical book of 1 John)? I am less well-versed in this matter than many people, but I do use the KJV almost primarily. It would concern me if the version I am using for study contains these sorts of issues. Any words of wisdom you have in this matter would be appreciated.

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    • I meant to say that I use the KJV almost exclusively.

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    • Arctic Pilgrim says:

      Here is an interesting (and very gracious, devoid of heat and slander, containing mostly light) take on the matter, containing some pertinent information re: Erasmus.

      http://www.puritanboard.com/f63/responding-james-white-aomin-44382/

      I have to admit that these textual discussions are a bit beyond me, and that for the time being, I am going to stick with the KJV, as I don’t see a danger of it leading me into error in and of itself. Other translations such as the ESV, NKJV (the one I used for quite some time), and the NASB are of great help to me and my family.

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    • AP – The trinitarian statement in 1 John is used as a proof text in the WCF. The topic of proof texts and Westminster Standards is a big one! One place to look on that topic is “Scripture and Worship” by Muller and Ward. Also, to be sure, even without that verse in 1 John 5 the doctrine of the Trinity is very clear in Scripture.

      I don’t think you need to throw the KJV out as long as you realize some of these issues and don’t idolize it since it isn’t a perfect translation. I always recommend using a few different Bibles for personal study.

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      • Arctic Pilgrim says:

        RR-

        Thank you for the reference to “Scripture and Worship.” I will look into reading that.

        I agree with you on the Trinity with or without that passage, BTW.

        Having spend a full year in high school attending a private IFB school, I am aware of the dangers and issues of some views of the KJV (the school I attended held to the view that the KJV translation itself was inspired, among other things) . That’s not me! I just like the KJV translation. I have no issues whatsoever with using other translations, especially ESV, NKJV, and NASB.

        Again, thanks for your time!

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  2. Ahha! That may explain all those “Wait a minute!” moments during my period of transition from the KJV to the ESV. :)

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  3. This is a seminal text. I remember where I was when I read it. Highly recommended.

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  4. Jeff O'Neal says:

    Did you see this Amazon review of Metzger’s book, Shane? Bart Erhman’s involvement in this is a real red flag for me.

    I have been formally engaged in lower criticism of the Greek text for over 3 decades, have published 5 large volumes on the Syriac New Testament and Greek New Testament and still do not fathom the marketing verbiage associated with this, Metzger’s standard volume. To state that some great fall from a textual tradition occurred in past textual transmissions is simply without evidence. That Bart Ehrman, the Dan Brown of lower criticism, is now associated with this excellent text is yet another reason to begin abandoning the tome in favor of more objective resources. I suggest going back to B.F. Westcott’s History of the Canon… or to FF Bruce. Both far greater scholars than Ehrman. For all its value, Metzger is no longer an objective treatise but is rather based on an a-priori assumption of human need to restore a text that was never lost; an historical and evidentially false premise and unabashed tool for promoting the “need” for one’s own publications.

    In my undergrad when performing a exhaustive Claremont Profile of variations in the Synoptics, (Using SCE Legg, and all lower textual treastises), I learned from nearly every tradition of text that variations were not historically cyclical, bore no pattern of misguided or mal-intent, nor did they appear to be theologically driven. These things were evident in the peudopigrapha but not in the transmissional text of the NT. Most variants were Atticisms, (in an attempt to produce a refined “Greek” translational form using Koine as a basis), simple conjugation errors, connective, eyesight errors, (dittography), and common mis-spelling errors. Ehrman’s fantastical leaps of textual causes rest solely in his desire to sell greater volumes, but not in fact. That Ehrman is now associated with this text should come as a warning to those of us who respect the objective science of textual analysis. I now say no to this tome until Bart Ehrman is removed from it. XAPIS KAI EIPHNH.

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    • Jeff: I did see that, which is why I referred to an earlier version – before Ehrman touched it. I’m not a fan of Ehrman at all. Whether or not Metzger is liberal or conservative, or whatever, the story above concerning the Comma Johanneum is still valid.

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