In April 1514 an enterprising printer named John Frobel commissioned a well known Catholic humanist named Desiderius Erasmus to produce a Greek New Testament. By February 1516, less than a year later it was on the streets. A second edition which corrected around 3,000 typographical errors was printed in 1519. The two editions sold a total of 3,300 copies.
Erasmus’s Bible was based almost entirely on only five Byzantine manuscripts none of which were earlier than the twelfth century. He also used quotations of the early fathers to correct some of the more glaring variations that existed in the manuscripts. After some further minor improvements the Erasmus Greek New Testament would become the basis for the King James Version in 1611. In 1633 it became the standard Greek text called the Textus Receptus.
This Bible has done magnificent service for the Church around the world and continues to do so today.
By the late 1800’s a great many other manuscripts were uncovered, some dating back to the third and fourth centuries. These revealed that the Byzantine texts had undergone a degree of ‘smoothing out’.
This included minor alterations to the synoptic Gospels to get them to agree where there was apparent inconsistencies, the absorption of marginal comments into the text, additional material such as the end of Mark and John 7:53-8:11 as well as the simplification of phrases and sentences to make them easier to understand. Scholars were convinced that these represented minor but important variations that needed to be corrected.
This led to the production of several new editions, the most famous being the Wescott and Hort version of 1881 which became the basis for all the English translations of the first half of the twentieth century, including the New King James Bible.
Whilst tending at times to rely a little too strongly on the idea that earlier always means more accurate, most Bible scholars regarded Westcott and Hort’s work to be generally superior to the Textus Receptus.
The discovery in the 20th century of 2nd and 3rd century papyrus manuscripts by Chester Beatty and Martin Bodmer means that no modern Bible printed today will rely on either the TR or W&H versions but on the ongoing work of Greek scholars around the world seeking to produce the Word of God in its most original form.
However, at the end of the day the variations between these editions are still incredibly minor. No doctrine or important biblical fact is in anyway altered by the differences and most importantly, no one translation could be said to produce a better Christian than another. God speaks clearly through them all.
In the words of Baptist theologian J. L. Dagg; “So little, after all, do the copies differ from each other, that these minute differences, when viewed in contrast with their general agreement, render the fact of that agreement the more impressive, and may be said to serve, practically, rather to increase, than impair our confidence in their general correctness. Their utmost deviations do not change the direction of the line of truth; and if it seems in some points to widen the line a very little, the path that lies between their widest boundaries, is too narrow to permit us to stray”.
Robert L. Dabney, a supporter of the Textus Receptus agrees;
“This received text contains undoubtedly all the essential facts and doctrines intended to be set down by the inspired writers; for if it were corrected with the severest hand, by the light of the most divergent various readings found in any ancient manuscript or version, not a single doctrine of Christianity, nor a single cardinal fact would be thereby expunged….If all the debated readings were surrendered by us, no fact or doctrine of Christianity would thereby be invalidated, and least of all would the doctrine of Christ’s proper divinity be deprived of adequate scriptural support. Hence the interests of orthodoxy are entirely secure from and above the reach of all movements of modern criticism of the text whether made in a correct or incorrect method, and all such discussions in future are to the church of subordinate importance”
These arguments also destroy one of the best reasons we have for believing that God’s word has been preserved over time. Namely that when we compare those manuscripts that have been preserved in ‘time-capsules’ around the world until recent years with manuscripts that have been in common use for centuries we find amazing consistency and proof that the Church has been both honest and diligent in the way it has preserved God’s word.
There are many ways a Christian may have his Bible taken from him. It may be outlawed under persecution, it may be robbed of its potency by liberals, or ironically, robbed of its truth by some fundamentalists who would have you believe that anyone not converted and matured on the KJV is a child of the Devil.
The truth is such that if those who insist on the supremacy of the KJV were to subject it to the same stringent selection criteria they apply to other versions they too would be left without a Bible to believe in.
The Muslims, seeking to destroy the validity of the Bible in many ways find our debate most helpful and supportive of their fundamental doctrine that the Church has corrupted the Bible over time to suit its own ends.
All the serious English translations such as the KJV, NKJV, NASV, ESV, RSV and NIV are excellent value and the CEV and New Living Bible are quite acceptable paraphrases for those that are not good readers.
I personally like the NIV which I occasionally check against the most recent Greek Bible or the New American Standard Bible if I need clarification. It is an excellent translation which I find to be accurate, readable, in common use and very useful for evangelism.
Whatever version you prefer, do not allow it to become a source of division or spiritual one-upmanship. Rather trust it, obey it, help others to do the same and you will do justice to your choice and honour to the God who gave it to you.