Those that are new to the discussion of Bible translation, Greek text, and textual criticism might often feel overwhelmed by the amount of specialized terminology. I thought it might be helpful to write an article discussing some of that terminology, and what the difference is between receiving the text of Scripture and reconstructing the text of Scripture. These two epistemological positions represent two views of the Bible, the reconstructionist view being far more popular. Those in the reconstructionist camp consider modern Bibles such as the ESV, NASB, and NIV to have a better base Greek and Hebrew text and translation methodology than the Reformation era Bibles such as the Geneva Bible and King James Bible. On the other side, those in the Received Text camp consider the base Greek and Hebrew text and translation methodology of the Reformation period to be superior to the modern text. There are also many Christians who read the Bible without having an opinion at all on the discussion, and mostly pick the translation they have picked due to preference.
It can be difficult to keep track of all the names and titles floating around for various views of the text of Scripture. Often times the names that stick are the most unhelpful and least descriptive, such as “TR Onlyist” or “Textual Traditionalist”. Those that prefer translations made from the Received Text of the Reformation, which is the Hebrew Masoretic text and Greek Received Text (TR), have used many titles such as Confessional Text, Canonical Text, Ecclesiastical Text, and Traditional Text. I prefer the title Confessional Text, because the Received Text of the Reformation is the text used by the framers of the Puritan era confessions and represents the doctrinal position of chapter one, paragraph eight of the both the Westminster and London Baptist confessions. This was the text that theologians used to develop the wealth of theological works that modern Reformed believers look to today, regardless of textual preference. Additionally, the confessions cite passages and verses that are not in the modern text. People can debate that point all they want but the fact remains that the text of the Confessional era is the Received Text of the Reformation.
Regardless of which title is used, they all convey the same epistemological position of the Text of Scripture. This position is generically summarized in 6 points:
- The Text of Scripture is self authenticating, and thus unbiblical standards of critique and revision are not appropriate for the text of Scripture (such as expansion of piety, taking the less harmonious reading, total Scribal corruption, etc.)
- The Text of the New Testament has been, in every age, been available to the people of God (though not every Christian has had a Bible throughout the ages)
- The Bible is not just preserved in the original manuscripts (which no longer exist), but was also preserved in the manuscript copies of the New Testament, which includes printed texts (though some manuscripts are better than others, and no one manuscript is perfect)
- The text-critical work done during the Reformation period resulted in the successful collation of manuscripts which represents the original text of the New Testament in Greek
- The printed texts of the Reformation do not represent, in any one edition, the original text of the New Testament in Greek (There is not one printed “TR” that represents the Received Text perfectly, but the Scrivener Greek New Testament published by TBS is the closest representative)
- All translations should be made from the masoretic Hebrew Old Testament, and the Received Greek New Testament
This is the general outline of the views adhered to by those who claim the title Confessional Text, Canonical Text, Ecclesiastical Text, or Traditional Text. In essence, they all mean the same thing. Certain unhelpful titles have been employed polemically such as “TR Onlyist”, “Textual Traditionalist”, or “KJV Onlyist”, but none of these are accurate and often are used to mischaracterize those who believe the Reformation Era Greek text is the text God preserved.
9th Commandment Violations
The first title, “TR Onlyist”, does not accurately represent the position because it neglects the fact that the Hebrew masoretic text is also a building block of the position. Modern Bibles utilize texts outside of the Hebrew text to translate, which violates the doctrinal standard set forth in 1.8 of the confessions. In addition to this, Christians within the Confessional Text camp believe the Bible should be translated into every tongue. In order to be a “TR Onlyist”, one would have to only accept one version of the Greek TR, and reject the Hebrew Old Testament as well as any translation.
The second title, “Textual Traditionalist” doesn’t say much about the position at all. Everybody who has an opinion in this discussion is a “Textual Traditionalist” because they have a tradition which shapes their view of the Text of Scripture. Those who accept only modern editions of the Greek New Testament also are “Textual Traditionalists”, so it only serves to divide and polarize.
The third title, “KJV Onlyist”, is an actual position on the text, namely that the KJV is the only Bible. Though many Confessional Text proponents read the KJV, many of them read the NKJV, the Geneva Bible, MEV, and so on. At its core, the Confessional Text position isn’t purely about translation methodology, it’s about a particular doctrinal view of inspiration, preservation, and transmission. There are many people that only read the ESV, and that doesn’t make them an “ESV Onlyist”. In any case, Christians should avoid using terminology that mischaracterizes their brothers and sisters in Christ.
Clearing Up Points of Confusion
The first point of confusion that results in Christians talking past each other in this conversation is the difference between a received text and a reconstructed text. This is a fundamental doctrinal difference between the two camps that will ultimately lead to the translation one reads or which Greek text one prefers. The difference is that those in the Received text camp do not believe any further “tinkering” with the text is necessary. The textual work of the Reformation era scholars and theologians was successful in producing a text, which resulted in the vast majority of the world having the Bible in their mother tongue. Those in the Reconstructionist Text camp do not believe that the work of the Reformation era was successful, and that believers for hundreds of years (or more) did not have an accurate Bible. The work of reconstructing the Bible is still an ongoing effort, and the original text of the New Testament has never been found as of yet. The Bible has been preserved with “great accuracy”, but not totally or perfectly.
Thus the difference between adhering to the Confessional Text position or Reconstructionist Text position is a matter of how one defines the doctrines of inspiration and preservation, not by examining manuscript evidence. This is the second point of confusion that often hinders productive conversation. Those in the Reconstructionist Text camp demand that every reading of the New Testament be supported by extant manuscript evidence, and often fails to recognize printed texts as containing preserved readings. There is an artificial standard set up by many Reconstructionist Text advocates which says that only hand-copied manuscripts can contain authoritative readings of the New Testament. That is to say, that there is somehow something more authentic about a pen than a printing press. Many, if not most of the extant Greek manuscripts do not have a surviving exemplar they were copied from. The only difference is that after the 1600’s, the form of copying transitioned from hand-copying to printed-copying.
The final point of confusion is that those in the Reconstructionist Text camp believe that the later a manuscript was produced, the less likely it is that the readings in those manuscripts are original. As a result, these people will demand “early” manuscript evidence for every single reading in the New Testament. If there is no “early” evidence, than the reading cannot be original. This is problematic for several reasons. First, it assumes that later manuscripts could not have been produced from an ancient exemplar. In fact, many modern scholars will admit that later manuscripts can preserve extremely early, if not original readings. Second, due to the fact that all of the “earliest and best” manuscripts are from third and fourth century Egypt, it assumes that a reading must be present in Egyptian manuscripts from the third and fourth century to be valid. There is no way to prove that those surviving Egyptian manuscripts even represented the rest of the manuscripts in Egypt, let alone the rest of the manuscripts total. In fact, there is evidence to indicate that the copyists of the extant Egyptian manuscripts knew of readings and passages of Scripture that they did not include in their copies (Such as the longer ending of Mark). There was certainly more than two complete Bibles in Egypt in the third and fourth century, and there is no way of determining that the two we have even looked like the rest of the Bibles that have been lost to time. So to set the standard of proof at the Egyptian manuscripts from the third and fourth century is wildly arbitrary. Thirdly, it assumes a standard that is completely unreasonable and doesn’t account for much of the evidence available. It neglects quotations and commentary on Biblical texts throughout time, lectionary practices, and versional (translational) evidence from the time period. It assumes that the only valid evidence is surviving, hand-copied, manuscript evidence (especially those manuscripts from Egypt). This allows those in the Reconstructionist Text camp to discredit all of the patristic citations and other evidences of New Testament verses that they have deemed unoriginal.
Received vs. Reconstructed
At its core, the difference between the two camps is a difference in theological perspective. Those in the Confessional Text camp believe that the text-critical effort of the Reformation was not the effort of men who believed the Bible had been lost to time. The work of Erasmus isn’t the only work done in the 16th century, so attacking Erasmus really doesn’t accomplish anything. There were many scholars who worked on the text. They were objectively not doing the same thing that modern text-critics are doing, despite the efforts of modern text-critics of making it seem that way (Jan Krans for example). It is true that they were collating manuscripts into printed editions, but the scope and goal of that work was completely different. The simple fact that the product is so vastly different should be evidence enough to demonstrate that the scholars of the past were not doing the same thing modern scholars are doing today. Simply asserting that Reformation era scholars didn’t have the same data doesn’t negate the fact that they were aware of, and commented on, all of the major variants that are rejected today.
Modern text-critics accept manuscripts and readings that Reformation era scholars rejected (like Codex Vaticanus and other manuscripts sharing the same qualities. See Erasmus and John Owen). They operate from the epistemological starting point that the original text of the New Testament has yet to be found, and that the text of the Scriptures that was received by the people of God for centuries was corrupt. They do not believe that the text of the New Testament was received by the people of God, but needs to be analyzed and decided upon by a select group of elite scholars (who may or may not believe the Bible is God’s Word).
The Confessional Text position does not suppose that the Bible needs to be reconstructed by the efforts of text-critics, placing the authority of Biblical texts in the hands of men. The text is not shifting with each new piece of evidence or methodology. This has resulted in the Approved Text(s) of the modern period, which is what most Bibles are translated from today. The texts that are translated from are the texts approved by scholars. If a Biblical text is not supported by third and fourth century Egyptian manuscripts, then the text often does not get approved. It disallows for any position that would say the work of finding the original text of the New Testament has been completed because the completed work of the Reformation period does not agree with the modern evaluation of Egyptian manuscripts.
At the very outset of most conversations between the two positions, those in the Reconstructionist Text camp immediately begin by assuming their own premise, that a reading must be validated by modern text-critical methods. These modern methods almost always lead back to the standard of third and fourth century Egyptian manuscripts. This may be changing in certain corners of the world of textual criticism, but the fact remains that almost every modern Bible has been revised from Greek Texts that follow the Egyptian manuscripts. I have been in countless conversations where I will point to the thousands of manuscripts that contain a reading, and ultimately, the evidence means nothing to Reconstructist Text advocates, because the texts aren’t Egyptian. This demonstrates that the proponents are not truly interested in having an evidential view of the text. They have a theory, and they use that theory to prove their desired Bible. It is equally as traditional as they claim the Confessional Text position to be.
The major difference is that the source of the tradition comes by way of 19th and 20th century textual scholars and not the doctrinal statements of the post-Reformation period. This is why I have chosen to use the term “Approved Text(s)”, because modern Bibles rely on texts that are approved by modern scholarship to be “earliest and best”. At the end of the day, it comes down to two different views of inspiration and preservation, not which readings can be proven by evidence. Every single reading of the TR can be backed up with evidence, the Reconstructionist Text camp simply does not accept or approve of the evidence. So the real discussion comes down to theological foundations and perspective. Discussing various readings ad nauseum will accomplish nothing, because the presuppositions of each side are different.
For example, when somebody says, “There is no early evidence for x reading”, all that really means is “the Alexandrian manuscripts don’t have that reading”. The only thing proved is that one tiny subset of the extant manuscript data does not contain the reading in question. The only thing evaluating the Alexandrian manuscripts highly does is demonstrate that there is no Bible, only bibles. If the Egyptian texts are “earliest and best”, then there are multiple valid bibles, and the discussion of preservation doesn’t really matter anymore. It ultimately becomes a matter of arbitrary preference, which is exactly what you see in the scholarly community. Two scholars will approach the same text and come to entirely different conclusions. Ultimately the individual believer needs to determine whether or not the modern methodologies are the most faithful according to Scripture.