An Introduction to the New Testament

By Adolf Jülicher


Chapter 3 - Section 54


§54. The Attacks on the ʽTextus receptusʼ (down to circa 1830)

1. Doubts as to the trustworthiness of the Textus receptus —which were indeed bound to arise as soon as the polyglot editions of Antwerp, Paris or London were compared with it —were soon expressed, though timidly at first. Reprints were made of it, but at the same time variants were collected, and more or less clear references made to their superiority. The place of honour in this respect is due to Stephan Curcelleus the Arminian, who in 1658 drew up an edition of the New Testament in Amsterdam, in which, though he followed the Elzevier edition (only bracketing the ʽComma Johanneum,ʼ 1. John v. 7 and 8), he yet furnished a very considerable stock of variant readings. These he collected from older editions, from commentaries, and from good manuscripts not previously collated; some are even pure conjecture, taken, for instance, from H. Stephanus, J. Casaubon, and D. Heinsius; for he considered that even though the authority for such readings was not equal to that of readings supported by the evidence of ancient manuscripts, some of them were yet so strongly recommended by internal probability that in the mere interests of truth they ought not to be despised. The readings of the Textus vulgatus, he contended, were at least not always better than the variants; the next thing to do would be to add all the variants to the text, and then a sound judgment might be trusted to find out the correct reading. He gives a very reasonable opinion, too, as to the rise and religious significance of the variations of the text, and it is to be regretted that he was not able to carry out his plan of making use of the far richer material he had collected in the course of his work, in a larger edition. English theologians, although they entertained a greater respect for the receptus, achieved collections of variants of far greater exhaustiveness, especially owing to their use of the Oriental translations. Of these we may specify J. Fell, 1675, and J. Mill, 1707. The Low-German Gerhard of Maestricht next showed in his edition (1711) that Curcelleus and R. Simon had not written in vain, for the question as to the best use to be made of the variants already occupies his mind. Textual criticism, which Simon had made the order of the day, obtained a remarkably brilliant promoter in J. J. Wettstein of Basle, who laboured from 1713 onwards at the improvement of the traditional texts, thereby incurring the suspicion of heresy. At last he was obliged to take refuge with the Arminians in Holland, and there, shortly before his death,1 was able to complete his lifeʼs work, the ʽNovum Testamentum graecum cum variis Lectionibus et Commentario, II Tomis,ʼ which has retained its value down to the present day. He, too, held in all essentials to the late text of the printed editions; but he did not leave his readers in any doubt as to which readings he himself preferred to those standing in the text, and did not shun the deductions which his stock of variants, much improved by his unwearied industry in collection and his thirst for accuracy, seemed to impose upon him.

9. But even in Wettsteinʼs lifetime, editions had appeared in which the Textus receptus was forced to give way on many points to the tradition embodied in the manuscripts. That philologist of genius, Richard Bentley, attempted to construct a New Testament according to the best records, and in the 22nd chapter of the Apocalypse, which he published in 1720 as a tentative effort, he abandoned the Textus receptus in over forty places. Unfortunately, however, he did not follow up this first essay, and the editions of Wace (1729) and Harwood (1776), in which the manuscripts were seriously preferred to the printed versions—though naturally with much one-sidedness—were either decried or ignored by the orthodox party. But J. A. Bengel2 of Wirtemberg secured a far greater influence, in spite of violent opposition. His New Testament, first published in 1784, and often reprinted since, removed a number of un-doubted mistakes in the receptus. His alterations are almost always correct—they are only far too few. But he had other merits besides his boldness (which was all the more effective because of his exegetical insight and his well-known piety): even those variants which were not ʽadmittedʼ he classified according to their degrees of excellence, and did not allow his judgment to depend on the caprices of critics or the chance results of statistics, but formed the manuscript records into groups, and, instead of isolated examples, ranged the families of texts together—no matter whether they were composed of a hundred manuscripts or only of two—and examined the evidence they supplied. J. S. Semler3 took up this happy idea and carried it yet further, thinking himself justified first and foremost in distinguishing a Syriac and an Egyptian ʽRecensionʼ of the Greek text. This was the starting-point for the true historical study of the texts.

Fortunately the effort to increase the apparatus, to advance the knowledge of the ancient texts of the New Testament, did not cease during this clearing process. Danish as well as German scholars rendered valuable services at that time in this direction. The first master of textual criticism capable of using the material at hand for a systematic emendation of the New Testament text appeared now to have arrived in the person of J. J. Griesbach,4 Professor of the University of Jena. He created almost a new Textus receptus, published in numerous editions from 1774 onwards, besides which his other pamphlets and his commentaries on the history of the text ought not to be forgotten. He proceeded in as conservative a spirit as possible, so that there can be no idea of a real downfall of the old receptus. He distinguished the readings worth considering from those of undoubted authenticity, and noted them in the margin. Moreover, he always believed it possible to defend the best text by exegesis. Going further along the path marked out by Bengel and Semler, he distinguished three classes of texts, the Occidental, the Alexandrian, and the Byzantine; but while displaying a healthy preference for the first two, he defined his families far too hastily, far too much in general and abstract terms. Griesbach was doubtless in the right as compared with his adversaries, one of whom, the Saxon C. F. Matthäi, in Moscow, attempted with the blindest prejudice to establish the New Testament text from certain late Greek manuscripts—thus from the very worst sources; while another, A. Scholz, a Catholic of Bonn, sought in a very similar manner to identify the Byzantine text with that of the primitive Churches of Asia, and—unlike Matthai on this point—often worked exceedingly carelessly. But Grieshach himself steered his course too much according to the Textus receptus, which he only sought to amend by making compromises, instead of ruthlessly expelling it from the domain it had usurped. Science was bound to pass on beyond him in her forward march.



1) † 1754.

2) † 1752.

3) † 1791.

4) † 1812.