The Textus Receptus (TR) was the first Greek text of the NT published after the printing press was invented.
It was a runaway bestseller, partly because it was the first edition available and partly because of the reputation of its Editor, Erasmus, as the foremost scholar of the day. It was quickly used by the Reformers like Luther and Tyndale for their German and English Bibles.
It thus came to be the Greek text of the NT because of its popular usage. It was basically the Greek text used to translate the AV NT in 1611. Some people believe that, as the Greek text behind the AV, it is the only trustworthy Greek text of the NT.
However, it was based on only a very small number of hastily assembled Greek copies of the NT dating from the 12th Century onwards. Erasmus produced it in 1516 in an race to beat another edition of the Greek NT into print; it was prepared in such a short time that Erasmus said that it was 'precipitated rather than edited'. It contained hundreds of typographical errors and Scrivener described it as 'the most faulty book I know'.
Some defenders of the TR would claim that it is the best text of the Greek NT because it is essentially the text of the vast majority of the manuscripts. This claim is not true. The text of the vast majority of the manuscripts (the Majority Text) differs from the TR in nearly 2 000 places (1 838, according to Professor Daniel Wallace of Dallas Theological Seminary - 'Studies and Documents', Vol.46, p302, footnote 28). It would be closer to the truth to say that the TR is similar to the Majority (or Byzantine) Text, but it is not the same.
Some defenders of the TR would argue against the Majority (or Byzantine) Text, by asking which Majority Text is the correct one: Hodges and Farstad's Majority Text or Robinson and Pierpont's Byzantine Text. But the same criticism could be levelled at the TR: which one is the true TR? Erasmus produced five editions of his Greek New Testament (1516-1535, each different), the Paris printer Stephanus produced four editions of his Greek New Testament (1546-1551), Theodore Beza published nine editions of his Greek New Testament (although really only four distinct editions, 1565-1598), and the Elzevir brothers of Leiden also published a number of editions of the Greek New Testament (1624, 1633). It was the second of these Elzevir editions in 1633 (obviously produced after the KJV of 1611) that claimed that its text was the text 'received by all' - i.e. the Textus Receptus. All of these Greek New Testaments are generally similar (although with differences) and all are referred to as the Textus Receptus.
The KJV was not based on slavish adherence to any one of these texts, and in the 19th century, F. H. A. Scrivener 'back-translated' (or reverse-engineered) the Greek text underlying the KJV, which again differs from all the other versions of the TR. Some Christians today (like the Trinitarian Bible Society, which only prints the TR), claim that this back-translated TR is the authoritative Greek text of the NT. But this is as untenable as the claim by the Jehovah's Witnesses cult that their Greek New Testament represents the original, for they have similarly back-translated their English version (corrupted with their doctrinal views) into Greek. The NT was written in Greek, not English, and we cannot use an English Bible (the KJV) as the inspired original upon which to base a Greek New Testament - this is all back-to-front.
Some defenders of the TR would also claim that it is a better text than the current Greek texts of today because these modern Greek texts were (allegedly) prepared by people who did not believe in the Deity of Christ, the Inspiration of the Scriptures or other important doctrines like justification by faith. Unfortunately, this argument also backfires somewhat on the TR because Erasmus, the scholar who originally prepared the TR was:
- A Roman Catholic priest who never left the Church during the Reformation (though he did criticise the Church in his time).
- The illegitimate son of a Roman Catholic priest.
- In it (with the Printer who persuaded him to prepare the TR) for the fame and the money that could be earned by producing the first printed Greek text of the New Testament. This was why the TR was such a hurried job. And this is one of the reasons why it has so many mistakes.
Some Specific Problems with the Textus Receptus
The Textus Receptus is not good enough for two main reasons. Firstly, it only used a very small number of Greek copies that Erasmus had on hand at the time. As a result the Textus Receptus has many small irregular readings that are only found in a very small minority of Greek copies. We have 5000 copies - we should not be restricted to just half a dozen. Secondly, these half-dozen Greek copies used for the Textus Receptus were very late copies of the NT. We have many more ancient copies of the NT that need to be consulted and whose evidence must be heard.
The TR has some specific problems :
- In an effort to be the first printed Greek NT into circulation, unfortunately Erasmus had to make up some of the Book of Revelation which was missing in the Greek copies he had on hand. He thus translated these verses into Greek from the Latin Bible. The TR is poor quality in the Book of Revelation.
- The TR includes some verses which are found in virtually no Greek copies. These verses include Luke 17:36, Acts 8:37, Acts 9:5b-6a and Acts 15:34. How did they get into our Bibles? These verses were incorporated into the NT by Erasmus from the Roman Catholic Latin Bible.
- Perhaps the most famous problem with the TR is found in 1 John 5:7-8. Erasmus' first edition was criticised for not including in his Greek NT the words about there being 'three who bear witness in Heaven: the Father, the Word and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one'. He included these words in his third edition after this criticism, however, these words are only found in Latin MSS of the NT and a handful of very late (i.e. 16th and 17th century) Greek MSS.
In short, the TR was a poor job. The only reason it has its defenders today is because the TR was the basis for the KJV and some of the other great versions of the NT (like Tyndale's and Luther's). As greatly as we may admire Tyndale, Luther or the KJV, this should not blind us to the faults of the Textus Receptus.