In my articles, I frequently comment that the Modern Critical Text and the Traditional Text represent two different forms of the text of the New Testament. Some disagree, and use this website to demonstrate that they are not that different. The site is helpful as a comparative tool between the ESV and KJV, though it is not technically a comparison of the Critical Text and Traditional Text. First, it is a comparison of translations, which means it is not comparing Greek texts, but translations of those texts. So while it gives the reader a general idea of the differences, translational choices may obscure the actual differences between the two underlying texts. Second, it does not fully compare the Critical Text and the Traditional Text as it includes comparisons of passages in a way that downplays the differences. An example would be that the comparative tool includes the Pericope Adulterae in the Critical Text, as well as excludes the Longer Ending of Mark in both texts. This gives the average reader the impression that there are really no differences. A full comparison would include the verses in the TR up to verse 20 in Mark, and exclude John 7:53-8:11 from the Critical Text. I would expect that the tool would include these differences, as well as clarify that it is a comparison between two translations and not between the TR and CT.
Are We Discussing Two Different Text Forms?
The exclusion of certain verses for comparison highlights an important fact: in order to say that the Modern Critical Text and Traditional Text are essentially the same, one must ignore or downplay the fact that they are not the same in certain important places. It is because of these important places that there is disagreement at all. If the differences were that minor, we would be having a conversation over translation methodology and that’s about as deep as it would go. That is not to say that somebody cannot be saved by reading a Bible translated from the Modern Critical Text, but a careful examination of the two underlying texts reveals that they are different. One can argue how significant these differences are, but the fact remains, there are differences which distinguish the two texts.
That being said, from a certain perspective, modern Bibles and traditional Bibles are both Bibles. They both contain the 66 books of the Old and New Testament, and they mostly contain the same content. Thus the important conversation should be centered around two topics – the difference between underlying texts and translation methodology. In creating a comparison tool that is supposed to compare the TR and the CT, and then using translations of these texts as a point of comparison, the two categories of text and translation are blended. It is interesting to say that the two texts are essentially the same, because if that were the case I’m not sure anybody would be seriously having this discussion at all. It is because these two texts are so different that there is even a conversation. The existence of these two opposing positions on the text of the New Testament refutes the idea that the texts are the same.
I am not saying that sound doctrine cannot be taught from a modern Bible such as the ESV or NASB, just that the underlying texts of modern Bibles are different than that of traditional Bibles such as the KJV. Many sound Biblical teachers employ modern Bibles in their ministry and are not heretics. The problem is that the standard for judging a Bible has been set at “can sound doctrine be taught from it?” If this was the standard, we would have to throw out every Bible, because false doctrine is readily taught from all translations. This standard is somewhat arbitrary and obfuscates the point of the discussion entirely. An orthodox understanding of the Trinity can be brought out of the New World Translation (in fact this is a great apologetic tool), but that doesn’t mean that Protestants should read the New World Bible. Thus, the standard of, “Can all the doctrines be proved from this translation?” is not a meaningful standard for determining the quality of a text or translation. Thus the conversation is rightfully seated in discussing the authenticity of the underlying texts used for translation.
Two Different Text Forms
If the Modern Critical Text and Traditional Text were really as similar as is claimed, then there would be no discussion at all. It would be as simple as answering the question, “which Bible is the best translation of the Greek?” It would simply be a conversation over vocabulary choices and whether or not formal (KJV, NASB, ESV) or dynamic (NIV) equivalence is better. In admitting that there is indeed a difference, the conversation of determining how significant those differences are can take place in a productive manner. That being said, what about these two texts makes them “two different text forms?”
The primary difference has to do with the actual Greek manuscripts, not a difference between the translational choices of the KJV and ESV. The Modern Critical Text in its popular printed form (NA/UBS) is based largely on Codex Vaticanus, a fourth century Uncial Manuscript which is stored at the Vatican. All of the major differences can generally be found within this manuscript or Codex Sinaiticus. These are the two manuscripts referred to in modern Bibles as “earliest and best”. The Vatican Codex was first made use of in text critical efforts when Desidarius Erasmus consulted it in his production of his Greek and Latin New Testaments. Erasmus rejected the readings, however, claiming that they seemed to be back translations of corrupted Latin versional readings rather than being copied from a Greek manuscript. Frederick Nolan, a 19th century theologian and linguist, writes this regarding Erasmus and the Vatican Codex.
“With respect to Manuscripts, it is indisputable that he [Erasmus] was acquainted with every variety which is known to us; having distributed them into two principal classes, one of which corresponds with the Complutensian edition, the other with the Vatican manuscript. And he has specified the positive grounds on which he received the one and rejected the other” (Nolan, Frederick. An Inquiry into the Integrity of the Greek Vulgate, or Received Text of the New Testament. 413, 414).
Nolan also says regarding the Vatican Codex, ““The affinity existing between the Vatican manuscript and the Vulgate is so striking, as to have induced Dr. Bentley and M. Westein to class them together” (Ibid. 61).
The first major use of this manuscript in the modern period was by Westcott and Hort, who primarily employed Vaticanus and Sinaiticus as a base text to produce their Greek New Testament in 1881. This is the text that the American Standard Version was translated from, which eventually gave birth to the Revised Standard Version and finally the English Standard Version. These manuscripts would eventually be classified as Alexandrian, based on the region in Egypt where they are thought to have originated (though recent scholarship has revisited this idea). Out of the close to 6,000 manuscripts available today, these Alexandrian manuscripts represent less than fifty. The vast majority of manuscripts represent a different text form, traditionally called the Byzantine Text Platform. The Textus Receptus follows the Byzantine text more closely than the Alexandrian text. So while one might make a case that the Alexandrian and Byzantine Texts are similar enough to both be considered a form of the Bible, these texts are distinct enough to be identified as separate classes of manuscripts, and thus different forms of Bibles.
Even if one were to make a case that the Alexandrian Texts and Byzantine Texts were “close enough”, two major points of comparison stands between them that sets them apart entirely – the Longer Ending of Mark (Mark 16:9-20) and The Pericope Adulterae (John 7:53-8:11). That is a total of 23 verses that are simply missing from the Alexandrian texts in two places that are present in the Byzantine texts. Even if one believes the modern claim that the Alexandrian texts are “earliest and best”, it does not follow to say that these are the same text form. These texts also exclude John 5:4, Romans 16:24, and others. Total, there are enough texts different to exceed the number of verses in the entire book of Jude. If these are so similar, I do not see a reason that the Alexandrian texts have been classed in a different category than the majority of manuscripts.
The goal of this article is to support the claim that the Modern Critical Text and the Traditional Text are indeed two forms of the New Testament. They may both be considered a New Testament, but they certainly are not the same New Testament. The Modern Critical Text does not include an appearance account in all four Gospels, and is missing a number of verses when compared to the majority of manuscripts. Additionally, the Modern Critical Text represents a handful of manuscripts which were produced around the third and fourth centuries, and do not appear to be copied after that point in time.
There are two major schools of thought as to what these Alexandrian Texts are to the greater manuscript tradition. In the Modern Critical school of thought, they are the earliest texts that the rest of the manuscripts evolved from. In the Confessional Text school of thought, they are an aberrant text stream that was not copied past the fourth century. These two forms may have spawned at the beginning of the same river, but by the third and fourth century they split and headed in different directions. The Alexandrian split seems to have met its end shortly after that split, if the thousands of manuscripts available today are any indication. That is why focusing on translational differences between the KJV and ESV is not the primary concern for those who reject modern Bibles. If the Alexandrian form of the text is truly an aberrant stream, then the Modern Critical Text is not truly the “earliest and best”, it is a strange blip which disappeared as quickly as it appeared. Hopefully this sheds light on why those in the Confessional Text camp do not read modern Bibles. Translation methodology certainly has a role in the discussion, but a primary reason for siding with traditional Bibles has to do with the rejection of the texts modern Bibles use in translation.