The Theology of the Text: Why the Received Text?

This article is the seventh in the series called “The Theology of the Text,” designed to cover the topic of the text in short, accessible articles. 

The Theology of the Text: Why the Received Text?

A problem introduced to the people of God in the modern church is the endless number bibles available. This is the fruit of the reconstruction effort. Theologically, practically, realistically, and experientially, there is no warrant for a Christian to adopt such an effort. This being the case, which text should the people of God receive? The foundational principle to answering such a question is that God has not let His Word fall away. This makes the introduction of the printing press monumental to seeing God’s special providence in history. Up until this point, the Scriptures were transmitted locally by hand for the use of faith and practice. The extant manuscript data is a fraction of what has existed in time, so the process of creating the first printed editions is critical to knowing the text that had been passed down in the church through the ages. Since many of the manuscripts that were used in this effort have since been destroyed, the best “evidence” of the text as it existed during the time of the first printed effort are the printed texts themselves. After the creation of these printed editions, manuscripts fell out of use, and many were destroyed. 

It is easily established that the extant manuscript data available in the 21st century is not sufficient for accurately determining what the Scriptures looked like in the first century, therefore the church must trust God’s special providence. If the Scriptures had been kept pure in all ages by God, then the manuscripts used during the 16th century would have contained that pure Word. It is important to note several things regarding this time period. 

  1. Constantinople had just fallen to the Ottoman Empire in 1453, bringing uprooted Eastern bishops to Europe – along with their language and Bibles
  2. The printing press had been introduced to Europe in the mid 15th century, changing the way the Scriptures were transmitted from handwritten ink to printed ink
  3. The humanist renaissance had sparked a revival in the study of Greek, Hebrew, and Latin, and the Scriptures in their original languages (Ad Fontes)
  4. The Protestant Reformation had sparked a revival in Christianity, making way for such original language texts to be printed, published, distributed, and read

These four events are significant to the transmission story of the Scriptures. In Europe, the Bible had been transmitted largely in the form of Latin translations. In the East, however, the Bible had been transmitted in Greek from the beginning. The fall of Constantinople brought these Greek Bibles into Europe around the same time the printing press was introduced. That means that the theologians tasked with printing these Bibles had access not only to the Scriptural tradition as it had been transmitted in the West, but also had access to how the tradition had been transmitted in the East. This was also a time where these Latin and Greek manuscripts were being used by the people of God. This is significant, because that generation would be the last generation to know how the extant manuscripts and the readings they contained were understood and used by the people of God. The printed editions would not have been received, had they looked significantly different from the manuscripts the people of God had been using. 

The initial effort of receiving the Scriptures as they had been handed down in the East and West did not produce a final text right away. The first printed text, famously created by Erasmus, was not perfect, and it received a lot of criticism. As more printed editions were created in the 16th century, the uniformity of the text increased, and the reception of that text became universal by the orthodox Christians. Up until that point, there were a handful of editions that the people of God used, such as Coline’s text. While these editions are more similar to each other than the modern critical text, there were still differences between the editions. At the same time that this effort of creating printed texts was going on, there were also discussions about which books actually belonged in the text of Holy Scripture. It was common, and the beginning of the Reformation, to reject books like Revelation, James, and Jude, for example. At the same time the church was debating over which books were to be received, they were also discussing which texts should be received in those books. While the canon was closed by the end of the first century, it wasn’t until the end of the 16th century that both the text and the canon were uniformly received by the orthodox Protestant church. 

Texts such as John 7:53-8:11, Mark 16:9-20, 1 John 5:7, Luke 23:34, the doxology of the Lord’s prayer, Acts 8:37, John 5:4, and many other passages had been and received as original, despite some manuscripts not including them. Commentators on the Scriptures during and after the Reformation recognize that these passages were disputed, and despite these disputations, agreed that they should be received as Scripture and preached from. The text received by the people of God at the end of the 16th century is evident in the translations, textual commentaries, theological works, and confessions and catechisms made during and after that time. This text later was coined “The Received Text,” as a description of how universally it was received by the people of God. 

The fruit of this text was the greatest Christian revival in the history of the world. Translations made from this text still remain the most widely read translations by a large margin. In other words, it has the stamp of God’s providence on it. At no other time in history have all the necessary factors for aligned for such an effort to take place. It wasn’t until 1881 when the first major effort to unseat this text happened, which I will discuss in a later article in this series. 

Conclusion

The transmission of the Scriptures Leading up to the 16th century  is covered by a shadow to the 21st century church. Today, there is a fragmentary amount of evidence available. Due to manuscripts being destroyed, and the lack of a historical filing system of manuscripts, it is impossible to tell just how many manuscripts were used during the 16th century, and how many were destroyed. Further, of the manuscripts available today, we have the least amount of insight on how those manuscripts were treated, used, and received by Christians in time. The last time the Christian church had this kind of insight was during the 16th century, when handwritten manuscripts were still being used. 

It is common to believe, in the modern context, that Christians and modern scholars “know better” than the Christians of the past. Many modern Christians and scholars speak as though they can “know” which texts do and don’t belong in Scripture based on the extant data, when the reality is, they simply can’t. This too is providential. It forces Christians, if they want a Bible that is settled and vindicated by time, to receive the Bible that was created when scholars and theologians actually had access to manuscripts which were being used by the people of God. This is a challenging proposition to present to the modern church, but it is the only viable one theologically, practically, really, and experientially. 

“Beza acquired a very high status in Protestant and especially Calvinist circles during his lifetime and in the first generations after him. His Greek text was not contested but faithfully reprinted; through the Elzevir editions it was elevation to the status of ‘received text’, textus receptus

Jan Krans, Beyond What Is Written, 197. 

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