Greek Text

The Greek text behind the New Testament TransLine

The history of the Greek text.

The books of the New Testament were written in Greek. In His wisdom, God did not think it necessary to preserve for us the original copy of these books. Instead, we have thousands of handwritten copies—Greek manuscripts and papyrus fragments produced from the second century up to the invention of the printing press. There is far more manuscript evidence for the New Testament documents than for any other document of ancient history. We also have ancient translations of the New Testament, and quotations of New Testament verses in ancient writings, dating from the second to the sixth century and beyond. These and other sources form the raw material from which the Greek New Testament is constructed. Soon after the invention of the printing press, Greek New Testaments began to be printed. Among others were those of Erasmus (1527), Stephanus (1551), and Beza (1598). In fact, it was Robert Stephanus, in his fourth edition of the Greek New Testament published in 1551, who first added the verse numbers which we now use. These Greek texts were the sources used to produce the King James translation in 1611. In 1633, the Greek text behind the KJV began to be called the “Textus Receptus”— the received or standard Greek text. It remained the standard Greek text for 250 years, although other Greek texts continued to be produced. Even today, some still prefer to follow this time-honored text, or one similar to it. The situation changed as a result of the great manuscript discoveries of the 19th and 20th centuries. These resulted in new Greek texts incorporating this important new manuscript evidence. Most modern translations are based upon one of these updated Greek texts. Today’s standard Greek text was prepared by a committee of scholars and is used worldwide by Protestants and Catholics, liberals and conservatives, scholars and pastors (though other Greek texts do exist). Except for punctuation, the New Testament TransLine follows this Greek text exactly—not because any (including those who produced it) consider it the final word on the subject, but so that the starting point of this translation is clear to everyone, and so that the variants can be clearly seen and understood.

This Greek New Testament is printed in two formats, which differ only in the footnotes. The first is published by the United Bible Societies and is called The Greek New Testament. The Fourth Revised Edition (UBS4) was published in 1993. The second is published by the German Bible Society and is called the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece. The 27th edition (NA27) was published in 1993.

Textual variants— the differences between the Greek manuscripts.

The handwritten copies which God has left us contain all the types of errors which any honest hand-copier would make. Some were accidental, as when one’s eye skips from one line to a similar word in the next line. Some were intentional, as when a difficult idiom or word order or spelling was smoothed out. Sometimes explanatory marginal notes were incorporated into the text by a subsequent copier because he thought the previous copier had accidentally left them out. Each change was then included in all the subsequent copies made from that manuscript. These differences between the Greek manuscripts are called “textual variants.” Most of these variances relate to differences of spelling and similar matters of no significance to the meaning of the text. But some are “significant.” All the textual variants have been identified and studied by scholars. Many unsung heroes over the centuries have toiled over the thousands of Greek manuscripts and other writings in multiple languages, in a painstaking effort to produce the most accurate Greek text possible. Textual scholars have analyzed every minute detail in all the copies, making the text of the New Testament far more reliable than any other document of antiquity. The result of their work is contained in the Greek New Testament in footnotes listing the significant variants, and detailing the manuscripts that contain them. These textual details may not be important to the average Bible reader. He or she may even ignore the subject and continue to use whatever Bible version is most familiar—a perfectly acceptable choice. But should he or she ever desire to know more about the subject, the laborers have been in the field for centuries, and their work is available for public examination.The UBS Greek New Testament lists 1438 sets of variants with a broad description of the manuscripts supporting them. The Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament lists a much larger number of variants with a more brief description of the manuscript support. Because the New Testament TransLine is a very literal translation, it is able for the first time to allow the English reader to personally examine these variants in detail. As you examine them, you will see that most of them make little if any difference to the meaning of the verse. Some are important, such as Mk 16:8-20, Jn 7:53-8:11. Some will help you understand a difference between English translations such as the NKJV and the NIV. And some will help you in your understanding of the verse. You will also notice the extreme detail and precision reflected in the variants. For example, does it say “Jesus Christ” or “Christ Jesus”; “Spirit” or “Holy Spirit”; “His hands” or “His hands”; “He said” or “Jesus said.” A substantial but not exhaustive list of variants is included in the New Testament TransLine, providing an accurate picture of the nature of the issue, with particular focus on the variants that are reflected in the major translations and that might be of interest to the English reader. Over 1300 textual variants from UBS4 are listed in the notes of the New Testament TransLine in a simplified manner. Over 1300 more variants are provided from NA27. Most of these relate to the KJV. Over 400 more variants are provided that are not listed in either Greek text, but are seen in the KJV. Variants of mainly scholarly interest are not included.

Rating the textual variants.

To provide some understanding of the relative certainty of each of the readings in the New Testament TransLine, the ratings given to them by the UBS committee are also given. These ratings represent a thorough analysis of a great deal of detailed and complex manuscript information. Each one is based on manuscript evidence, a theory for weighing that evidence, knowledge of errors common to copyists, and an analysis of the context. These considerations result in a probability as to which reading is most likely to have been the oldest, the one from which the others proceeded. The rating reflects the strength of that probability in the opinion of the UBS committee. The reasoning behind the rating of each variant in UBS4 has been published in Metzger’s A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Variants described in the footnotes of UBS4 are identified in the notes of the New Testament TransLine using the letter rating given to them by the UBS4 committee.

{A} means that in the opinion of the committee, the reading is certain.
{B} means that in the opinion of the committee, the reading is almost certain.
{C} means that the committee had difficulty determining which reading was best.
{D} means that the committee had great difficulty arriving at a decision.

The “reading” is the New Testament text. The “variants” or “alternate readings” are in the notes. Variants not listed in UBS4 are identified as follows:
{N} means that the source describing the variant is the 27th edition of the Nestle Aland Greek text. Had these variants been rated by the UBS4 committee, most of them would be {A}, but some were the accepted reading in the 25th edition.
{K} means that the variant comes from the Greek text underlying the KJV but is not listed in UBS4 or NA27, or that the variant is found in the KJV without Greek manuscript support (for example, some readings were included in the KJV based on the Latin translation). Had these variants been rated by the UBS4 committee, most if not all of them would be {A}.

Understanding the ratings.

In order to truly understand what lies behind a variant reading and its rating, and to determine whether you agree with the rating, the Greek sources must be studied. Since the English reader cannot do so, he or she will not be able to assess the manuscript evidence for the variants or the theories for weighing it. However, the English reader can understand what the variants are and observe their potential significance to the meaning of the verse. The ratings provide a highly simplified glimpse into the relative strengths of the variants as perceived by the UBS committee. This helps because it will not work to just pick the reading that you think makes best sense. Many variants arose precisely because copyists tried to clarify or simplify a word or phrase that was obscure to them. When utilizing the ratings, however, be aware that other scholars may assess the probabilities differently for a given variant. Even the UBS committee had “majority” and “minority” opinions in a few cases. In addition, some scholars use a different theory to weigh the manuscript evidence, resulting in readings more similar to the KJV. It is not the place of the New Testament TransLine to advocate any theory, to endorse any of these good-faith efforts to produce the best possible Greek text, or to express its own opinion regarding any variant, but simply to present the textual facts for the reader’s consideration. The UBS/NA Greek text serves best as the starting point for this purpose.