An Introduction to the New Testament

By Adolf Jülicher


Chapter 3 - Section 53



[Cf. E. Reuss: ʽBibliotheca Novi Testamenti graeci,ʼ 1872: the most comprehensive description ever made of the printed editions of the New Testament down to about 1860.]

§ 58. The Formation of the New Testament ʽTextus receptusʼ (to about 1630)

1. From the moment when the Greek New Testament began to profit by the invention of printing—and it is significant that this was not until the sixteenth century —a new period dawns in the history of its Text. The form of the New Testament interests us no longer, because only the same long-established form was applied to the sacred texts as to all other books, and also because its peculiarities no longer exert any influence upon the contents. It might seem at first sight | as though all the former deplorable results of production on a large scale would but be increased a thousand fold by printing. But in reality the new method of multiplication did not by any means result in creating a still greater dissimilarity between the texts, but, on the contrary, in drawing them more and more closely together. A few errors, unknown before, may indeed have found their way into the New Testament text since 1500, through the carelessness of editors or the unskilfulness of printers; but it was far more difficult for these to maintain themselves in such a text, before the public opinion of hundreds of owners and readers, than in a manuscript never accessible to more than a few, in which error and truth might be perpetuated side by side from one generation to another. The publisher who sent out a thousand similar copies of a New Testament into the world together was obliged to proceed with greater care than a Calligrapher of the old times, who always had the Corrector to fall back upon. A scholar of the humanist period was, in any case, anxious to draw up his text according to the oldest and most correct original to be had, and the comparison of different manuscripts, which was here unavoidable, naturally roused the critical impulse. Thus we find Erasmus choosing between several available copies (or rather readings); others gave their readers plentiful materials to choose from, and though custom and dogma did not at first permit the growth of these fresh shoots, the fact remains that with the multiplication of the Greek New Testament by means of printing, a reaction set in, a backward movement towards older and better texts— although indeed it was long before this became a conscious, methodical search after the oldest. and best text to be found. The printed editions of the New Testament, in so far as they really deserve mention—that is, possess a certain independence of their own—-are no longer mere reproductions, but recensions, versions of the text founded on critical principles.

2. The editio princeps of the Greek Testament was prepared by Erasmus in 1516 for the bookseller Froben in Basle. He based it upon very late manuscripts: for the Apocalypse he used one of the twelfth century which broke off at verse xxii. 16, and made up the missing portion simply by re-translating from the Latin text! Even the subsequent editions of 1519-22-27-35 are not substantially improved; they still contain readings without any manuscript foundation.1 The Complutensian Polyglot (giving both the Latin and Greek texts, and in the Old Testament, as far as possible, the Hebrew also) contains far more valuable work. It was issued at Alcalé (=Complutum) by Spanish scholars under the leadership of Cardinal Ximenes. The New Testament (in Greek and Latin) was ready as early as January 1514, but the complete Bible did not attain publicity until 1521. Although Erasmus might have learnt much from it, its Greek text was not drawn from much better sources than his own.

3. Both editions have often been reprinted, generally with fresh errors in the printing. But the editions of the Parisian bookseller, Robert Estienne (Stephanus), possess a higher value, especially the third (1550), called the ʽEditio Regia.ʼ This man profited by the preparatory labours of his stepfather, Colinzus, and was assisted in the comparison of manuscripts by his learned son Henri; really valuable manuscripts, such as Codex L for the Gospels, were employed by him, and he even ventured to insert a few variants in the margin. In the text he follows the Erasmian of 1535 almost exclusively, except for the Gospels and Acts—and even recurs to it occasionally in passages where he had before preferred the better readings of the Complutensis. The Genevan reprint of the ʽRegia,ʼ dated 1551, is famous on account of the division of the chapters into verses which Stephanus introduced into it. This arrangement, in spite of its serious defects, was universally accepted, with but insignificant alterations, from the seventeenth century onwards, for although Pope Sixtus V. had adopted a different system of division in his official edition of the Vulgate, his successor Clement VIII. had returned to the system of Stephanus in his edition of 1592. The arrangement, especially when each verse is printed separately, has rendered a fatal assistance towards the conception of the New Testament as a string of disconnected mottoes and oracles. Still more ambitious resources than those of his predecessors were employed by the Calvinist Theodore Beza, who printed many Greco-Latin New Testaments from 1565 onwards. Besides the manuscripts mentioned on p. 605, he even made comparisons with older translations and quotations in the Fathers, and in his notes often gives valuable hints to textual critics, though he scarcely dared seriously to alter the text; the text of Stephanus, indeed, which he took as his model, may almost be said to be better than his own.

4. The following century produced nothing but reprints, of which indeed scarcely one agreed word for word with the model; but, after all, the existing editions did not differ so very widely one from another, not even the Complutensian from the Erasmian. The process of mingling has now begun, with the result that Bezaʼs text sets the standard more and more. But the brothers Elzevier of Leyden had the greatest success among the publishers of these New Testament texts. Their editions (from 1624 onwards) were recommended by their elegant form and clear print, and took possession first of Holland and the other Reformed countries, and finally, under the sway of Pietism (about 1700), of the Lutheran territory as well. These texts of the Elzeviers, which, moreover, do not correspond entirely with one another or with their numerous reprints, and which make quite arbitrary though trifling alterations in the Stephano-Bezan text, are the type of the so-called ʽTextus receptusʼ2—that is, of the universally accepted version, which Protestant scholasticism in particular has naively regarded as the original and literally inspired text of the New Testament.



1) E.g., 1. Peter iii. 20: ἅπαξ ἐξεδέχετο instead of ἀπεξεδέχετο.

2) Known by the symbol ς, the Greek initial letter of Stephanus.