Greek Texts and Textual Differences in Bible Translations

If you were to pick up a King James Version Bible and turn to Matthew 18:11, you would find that it says, “For the Son of man is come to save that which was lost.” If you were to pick up an ESV and tried to turn to the same verse, you would find that there is no Matthew 18:11, with the text going straight from verse 10 to verse 12, along with a footnote on verse 10 that reads, “Some manuscripts add verse 11: For the Son of Man came to save the lost.” This is a difference between Bible translations that is textual, rather than translational. That is, the Greek texts that the two translations are based off of are different, rather than there being a difference in translation philosophy.

The two major Greek texts that underlie our English Bible translations are the Textus Receptus (TR) and the Nestle-Aland (NA) Novum Testamentum Graece, which is also the same printed text as the United Bible Societies’ (UBS) text. I will use the nomenclature of NA/UBS when referring to this latter text. Prior to the 20th century, English Bible translations were based off of the TR, to include the Geneva Bible and the KJV. Translations produced in the 20th century and on into the 21st have relied upon the NA/UBS text, such as the NASB, NIV, and ESV. There are several other printed Greek Texts, but they are not as commonly used for English Bible translations currently.

Now these two printed Greek texts, the TR and the NA/UBS, are both synthetic texts. There is no manuscript in the world that precisely matches either of them. This is because both texts are the products of textual criticism and both used multiple manuscripts compared against each other to determine the most accurate reading based upon the manuscripts. 

While we possess the message that the apostles handed down to us in the manuscript tradition, we also want to know, as near as we can, the original words that they wrote. This is where textual criticism comes in. Textual criticism’s basic goal is to reconstruct, as near as possible, what the original text was. As happens with all handwritten texts, a certain amount of corruption creeps in over time, thus comparison between manuscripts is required to reconstruct what the original text most likely was. Now don’t let the word “corruption” scare you; it is simply a technical term used to refer to errors or changes that occur during the copying process and does not imply that the entire text is corrupt. A certain amount of reconstruction, and weeding out the corruption that takes place, is needed for all ancient works and is simply the reality of working with handwritten documents. Even the copyists of manuscripts attempted to correct corruptions that entered the transmission stream at times, showing they were well aware of the deficiency, though sometimes this also resulted in creating new errors by “fixing” something that wasn’t wrong. With the wide array of manuscripts now available (about 5300, though not all are complete), this corruption that took place in the copying process is, for the most part, easily detectable, which gives us a reliable representation of what was likely originally written.

Transmission Streams and Printed Greek Texts

The TR and the NA/UBS printed texts essentially represent two different transmission streams of the Greek text. That is, they reflect two different regions, time periods, and transmission traditions. The TR reflects a branch of the Byzantine text-type, whereas the NA/UBS give greater weight to the Alexandrian text-type. A quick note on the text-type terminology: the terms “Byzantine” and “Alexandrian” are falling out of favor as they are not considered to be the best classifications since many manuscripts do not fall neatly into one category or the other, but I will use the terms here for simplicity’s sake. 

The Byzantine text-type typically represents manuscripts that were produced in Byzantium, the center of the Greek speaking world throughout the Middle Ages. Most of our Greek manuscripts are of the Byzantine stream, most of which date from the 9th century and onward, though there are several that go back to as early as the 5th century. The reason for this majority is fairly easy to explain: the Western church largely abandoned Greek in favor of Latin, while the Muslim conquests of Palestine and North Africa supplanted Christianity and snuffed out streams of New Testament transmission in Greek in those regions, leaving Constantinople and the Eastern Byzantine Church as the primary Greek speaking church, and thus the primary place where manuscripts were copied. On the whole, this transmission stream is a “fuller” stream, meaning it typically contains more words and harmonizations, being about 2% longer than the Alexandrian stream.

The Alexandrian text-type is so named because this stream has largely been associated with Alexandria and Egypt, though whether this is an actual indication of if this is the primary area it was represented is another question. Most of the manuscripts in this stream have been discovered at Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, primarily due to the fact that the dry climate allows for ancient manuscripts to survive for such a long time. This text-type represents a small minority of the total manuscripts in the textual tradition, but it also represents most of the oldest that are still extant. This stream tends to use fewer words on the whole, which leads to a shorter text of the New Testament. Two significant manuscripts come from this stream: Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus, both fourth century manuscripts and the oldest complete manuscripts of all books of the New Testament. These two are quite important and are influential in determining readings in the NA/UBS text. 

The TR is actually fairly unique, containing certain readings found nowhere else, or almost nowhere else, in the Greek manuscript tradition, to include the Byzantine tradition. These would include specific variants at Ephesians 3:9, 1 John 5:7, and Revelation 16:5. So while the TR is largely representative of the Byzantine text type, and what is known as the Majority Text, it also has some peculiarities of its own that came about during the process of its production. 

The NA/UBS Greek text is what is known as an eclectic text, meaning it draws from a variety of different sources and transmission streams. While in general, the editors of the NA/UBS typically consider the Alexandrian text type to be superior, this does not prevent them from affirming readings preserved in the Byzantine stream that are more likely to be original. 

The goal of these printed texts are both to present what the authors of Scripture originally wrote. In a sense, both are eclectic since the text was edited based off of multiple manuscripts, and decisions needed to be made with what would be more genuine readings. With the TR, though it is an older printed text, it draws from both fewer and more recent sources (majority from the 11th-13th centuries). The NA/UBS benefits from both the discovery of older manuscripts, many of which have only been discovered within the past 150 years or so, but also better communications technology and a true cataloguing system for New Testament manuscripts. This increased access allows for greater consultation of texts across the world, a number of which are quite old (though the oldest are also typically quite fragmentary). In my opinion, this increased access, both to more ancient manuscripts and to a greater number, allows for a better reconstruction of the original text as written by the apostles. Not everyone agrees on this point, preferring the majority text as represented in the Byzantine text-type, but I do want to make clear that regardless of which transmission stream is followed, they contain the same teachings and present the same gospel. Doctrine is not hindered by the differences that occurred during the process of handcopying; certain specific passages may be different, but no doctrine is gained or lost and may be supported by both of these streams.

Brief History of the Textus Receptus

The Greek text now known as the Textus Receptus was first published in 1516 by a Dutch Roman Catholic theologian by the name of Desiderius Erasmus (1466 – 1536). Interest in original Greek sources was renewed in the 16th century, keeping with the humanist motto of the day, ad fontes (to the sources!)… The West and the East had been separated for centuries, thus the Latin Vulgate (the Latin translation of the Scripture) had not been in contact with its Greek source for quite a while and had begun to suffer for it. Erasmus very likely began his project with the intent to produce a superior Latin translation, with the Greek text to show as proof for his work. Though Latin may have been more of his focus, the Greek text produced was much more influential and successful.

The first edition of 1516 was something of a rush job, as Erasmus sought to beat out Cardinal Francisco Ximenes de Cisneros to be the first to publish a Greek printed text (Cisneros’s Complutensian Polyglot included a Greek text and was merely awaiting permission from Pope Leo X to be published). Erasmus went ahead and published the work, without permission, with a dedication to Pope Leo X, presumably to ameliorate any consequences for his presumption, which apparently paid off for him. Since this edition was rushed, he began on his second edition straight away, and would go on to print four further editions of his Greek text in 1519, 1522, 1527, and 1535. 

Erasmus originally consulted seven manuscripts, dating from the 12th and 15th centuries. His manuscript of Revelation actually lacked the final leaf, so he was forced to backtranslate the final six verses from Latin into Greek for publication. Interestingly enough, the variants he introduced in this process were never corrected and remain in current editions of the TR. In subsequent editions of his text, Erasmus consulted several further manuscripts, with his 3rd edition being the most influential version he produced. 

Robert Estienne (1503–1559), more commonly known as Stephanus, did further editorial work on Erasmus’s Greek text, using the 3rd edition as his base and produced four of his own editions of the Greek text. Stephanus made early forays into textual criticism, adding in a critical apparatus with notes regarding variant readings from 15 or so Greek manuscripts. Likely his broadest contribution was the inclusion of verse numbers in his 1551 edition, which are the basis for our numbering system today. His 1550 edition is commonly understood to be the text that is now known as the Textus Receptus. Following Stephanus, Theodore Beza (1519 – 1605)  picked up work on the printed Greek text, and apparently had access to Codex Bezae-Cantabrigiensis and Codex Claromontanus, which contributed to his textual apparatus. On the whole, though, Beza’s work is less influential than that of Erasmus and Stephanus.

The Greek text produced by Erasmus was not known as the Textus Receptus during his lifetime, nor that of the later editors, Stephanus and Beza. It was not until after 1633 in an edition of the Greek text printed by the Elzevir brothers that it came to be known as the Textus Receptus. In the preface to the text were included the Latin words, “Textum… ab omnibus receptum” (text… now received by all), which was modified to the nominative form, textus receptus, which became shorthand for the text in general. So the term Textus Receptus is actually rooted in an advertising slogan.[1]

I do want to make a quick note regarding the scholarly work of Erasmus since his work is the majority of what became the TR. While he did indeed have fewer manuscripts to compare, the quality of the text he produced is top notch for what he had. While there are certainly some weaknesses to the TR, it does not therefore imply that it is a poor text and should not be used. Quite the contrary; it is very important to the history of the church.

The significance of the TR is especially prominent during the days of the Protestant Reformation. Erasmus’s printed Greek text would become the basis for translations into the common languages of many peoples, such as Martin Luther’s German translation. It would also form the basis for our English translations, from Tyndale’s translation (1526), the Geneva Bible (1560), and the King James Version (1611). The printing of this text made the Bible in Greek widely available to people all over Europe to use to translate the New Testament, something that had not been possible (or at least as accessible) prior to its time.

Brief History of the Novum Testamentum Graecum (NA/UBS)

The Novum Testamentum Graece was first published in 1898 by Eberhart Nestle (1851 – 1913) in an endeavor to spread what had been learned in textual criticism. His first edition was based on combining the readings of the three printed Greek text editions, those produced by Constantin von Tischendorff, B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort, and Richard Weymouth. In looking at where the differences in the texts occurred, Nestle produced a rudimentary textual apparatus to note the variants. 

In 1927, Erwin Nestle (1883 – 1972), Eberhart’s son, published the 13th edition of the text and produced a consistent critical apparatus that marked out evidence from different manuscripts, early translations, and from the early church fathers. Kurt Aland (1915 – 1994) began work on the text in the 1950s and advanced progress on the apparatus by checking the apparatus produced by Nestle against the primary sources, which process was completed in 1963 and the 25th edition of the text. The 26th edition in 1979 saw a shift in methodology toward establishing the text based on source material that had been gathered, to include the discovery of the early papyri and other manuscripts. This 26th edition (now known as the Nestle-Aland text, or NA26) shared the exact same text as the United Bible Societies’ 3rd edition (UBS3) due to editorial work that happened concurrently on both editions. As more manuscripts are discovered and reviewed, this data is added into the apparatus of future editions of the text. Currently, the NA is on its 28th edition (NA28), while the UBS is now on its 5th edition (UBS5).[2] 

The primary difference between the NA text and the UBS text is their purpose. The NA is designed for scholarly work, and thus has a more robust text-critical apparatus, noting a wider array of variants found across the manuscripts. The UBS is intended for Bible translation work, thus only variants that would affect translations are noted, giving a more streamlined textual apparatus. See the pictures below for an idea of what these would look like (and feel free to ask if you would like to understand how they work).

UBS4 Textual Apparatus for Mark 1
The UBS4 textual apparatus for Mark 1:6-11. The apparatus in the UBS4 is geared towards Bible translation, thus contains fewer details in regards to variants and manuscripts.
NA28 Textual Apparatus for Mark 1
The NA28 textual apparatus for Mark 1:7-15. The apparatus in the NA28 is intended for scholars, and thus includes more details regarding textual variants, including those that do not affect translation.

A major methodological difference that underlies the NA/UBS text is its preference for Alexandrian readings over Byzantine readings. That is, where manuscripts disagree, the editors are more likely to go with the Alexandrian reading, while still noting the Byzantine reading (and other variants) in the textual apparatus. This general primacy given to the Alexandrian text type means that the Greek text is shorter than the TR and the majority text. 

Most modern Bible translations produced use one of the editions beginning from the NA26 and UBS3. Which edition of the Greek text is used will primarily depend on what year the translation work was done and which base text was used. As I said, there are other Greek printed texts, such as the Tyndale House Greek New Testament (THGNT), but the NA/UBS Novum Testamentum Graecum is the printed text most often used in the translation of our English Bibles. 

A Note Regarding Verses and Manuscripts

Remember I said that Stephanus was the first to introduce verse numbering in his 1551 edition of the Greek text. The first English Bible to include verse numbers was the Geneva Bible, which was based off of that edition. Since what would come to be known as the TR serves as the base text for verses, all subsequent translations follow the same numbering pattern. Since the NA/UBS text is slightly shorter than the TR, that means that verses are “missing” since they must subtract from the base text of the TR. 

Now we are very used to having printed editions of the Bible whereby the text is always stable and essentially unchanging. This has not always been the case throughout church history; the very nature of a handwritten manuscript means that certain changes appear with each copied manuscript. No two manuscripts are exactly identical. A scribe may accidentally skip a word, or add a phrase. Perhaps they conflate word order, or try to correct a mistake from their exemplar. They may misspell words or mishear and write entirely new words. This is the reality that the church lived with before the printing press; if all manuscripts had verses, then the verse numberings and lengths would disagree quite often due to these factors. When we see verses “missing” from modern translations, we need to not think of the verses as “missing” so much as the text reflecting a different transmission stream. Verse numbers are later additions and are based off of a longer recension of the text, thus any manuscript that is shorter than the TR at those points would necessarily be “missing” verses. 

Textual Differences

With all of that as preliminary information, here would be how to identify when a textual difference exists. If a verse is “missing”, that is obviously a textual difference. If a verse is significantly shorter, this is also most likely a textual difference. Some specific words may also be different, which would be rooted in the different base texts. Here are some examples to consider, with differences in the Greek text in bold and italicized: 

Luke 4:4

NKJV (Representing the TR):

But Jesus answered him, saying, “It is written,‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.’”

NASB (Representing the NA/UBS):

And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’”

Greek text of the TR:

καὶ ἀπεκρίθη ἰησοῦς πρὸς αὐτὸν λέγων, γέγραπται ὅτι οὐκ ἐπ᾽ ἄρτῳ μόνῳ ζήσεται ὁ ἄνθρωπος ἀλλ᾽ ἐπὶ παντὶ ῥήματι φεοῦ.

Greek text of the NA/UBS:

καὶ ἀπεκρίθη πρὸς αὐτὸν ὁ Ἰησοῦς· γέγραπται ὅτι οὐκ ἐπ’ ἄρτῳ μόνῳ ζήσεται ὁ ἄνθρωπος.

Comments:

There are some minor differences at the beginning of the verse in word order and the addition of legon (λέγων), “saying”, which largely do not affect translation. The major difference is after anthropos (ἄνθρωπος), “man”, in the TR. The TR adds an additional clause which provides further explanation on man not living by bread alone.

The reason for this variant is likely a parallel harmonization with Matthew 4:4, which contains the longer reading, or a harmonization of the Septuagint reading of Deuteronomy 8:3, which is what Jesus is quoting. The readings found in older Alexandrian manuscripts like Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus stop the quotation at anthropos. There is not a good explainable reason why this would drop off, but there is a quite understandable reason why the additional phrase would be added (to comport with the Matthew or Deuteronomy reading), which means that the shorter version is more likely to be original.  

John 1:18

KJV (Representing the TR):

No man hath seen God at any time, the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him. 

ESV (Representing the NA/UBS):

No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.

Greek text of the TR:

θεὸν οὐδεὶς ἑώρακε πώποτε· μονογενὴς υἱός, ὁ ὢν εἰς τὸν κόλπον τοῦ πατρὸς, ἐκεῖνος ἐξηγήσατο.

Greek text of the NA/UBS:

θεὸν οὐδεὶς ἑώρακεν πώποτε· μονογενὴς θεὸς ὁ ὢν εἰς τὸν κόλπον τοῦ πατρὸς ἐκεῖνος ἐξηγήσατο.

Comments:

Now there are several translation differences here: “at any time” versus “ever”; “only” versus “only begotten”; “bosom” versus “side”; and “declared him” versus “made him known.” There is no textual difference, only a difference in how to translate the Greek into English. The textual difference is at “Son” in the KJV, and “God” in the ESV. The TR has the word huios (υἱός), son, whereas the NA/UBS contains the word theos (θεὸς), God, and lacks the definite article (ὁ), though the lack of the article makes no real difference in translation. These words in the underlying texts account for the difference between the two translations at this specific point, though the remaining differences are purely translational. The ESV contains a footnote at this point alerting you to the textual difference and that other manuscripts contain a different reading.

The most likely explanation for this textual variant is found in a scribal practice known as the nomina sacra, meaning sacred names (singular nominum sacrum), which was a particular Christian habit of abbreviating specific words or names, like God, Jesus, Son, or Christ (among several others at times). When the Greek text was originally written, it was in all capital letters. In capital letters, son (huios) would look something like ΥΙΟC, while God (theos) would look like ΘΕΟC. On the face of it, the words do not appear all that similar. When they would be written as nomina sacra, they would be abbreviated and look something like ΥC and ΘC with a line over the top, respectively, with only the first and last letters actually written (see below image for a picture of nomina sacra). This is a variant that could go either way and is not clear as to which is more likely to be original, as each reading could explain the rise of the other, though on the basis of choosing the harder reading, theos as found in the NA/UBS may have slightly more weight.

Mark 1 Codex Vaticanus Pseudo-Facsimile
Nomina sacra in Mark 1:1 from a pseudo-facsimile of Codex Vaticanus. The overlined words are Jesus, Christ, and God in the genitive case. Fully spelled out in Greek, they would be ΙΗCΟΥ, ΧΡΙCΤΟΥ , and ΘΕΟΥ.

1 John 2:23

KJV (Representing the TR):

Whosoever denieth the Son, the same hath not the Father: (but) he that acknowledgeth the Son hath the Father also.

Geneva Bible (Representing the TR):

Whosoever denieth the Son, the same hath not the Father.

ESV (Representing the NA/UBS):

No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.

Greek text of the TR:

πᾶς ὁ ἀρνούμενος τὸν υἱὸν οὐδὲ τὸν πατέρα ἔχει.

Greek text of the NA/UBS:

πᾶς ὁ ἀρνούμενος τὸν υἱὸν οὐδὲ τὸν πατέρα ἔχει, ὁ ὁμολογῶν τὸν υἱὸν καὶ τὸν πατέρα ἔχει.

Comments:

Now this is actually something of an interesting variant. Look at the Geneva Bible, and you’ll see that the verse is a bit shorter. Look at the KJV, and you’ll see the latter half is in italics, while apparently in the original printing the second half of the phrase was written in a smaller font. It would seem the KJV translators likely accessed Beza’s edition of the Greek text, which includes the phrase in italics, though earlier English translations, following an edition from Erasmus or Stephanus, likely didn’t have the phrase to translate. The italics in the KJV seem to indicate the translators had some doubts about the reliability of that phrase since it differed from the earlier Tyndale and Geneva translations. The ESV adds the longer portion with no doubt based upon the underlying Greek text.

What is interesting about this variant is that it is an example of what is know as homoioteleuton, that is, “similar endings,” drawing the word from the Greek ὁμοιοτέλευτον. If you compare the two Greek texts, you see that both phrases end in the word echei (ἔχει), “has.” When homoioteleuton occurs, it means that the copyist wrote down the first ἔχει, but when his eyes came back up to look at the manuscript, they went to the second ἔχει, leaving out the phrase between the two, thus, the whole phrase ὁ ὁμολογῶν τὸν υἱὸν καὶ τὸν πατέρα ἔχει gets dropped. This type of variant is easily explainable, so the NA/UBS text’s reading assuredly the original. This is also one of the rare times where the NA/UBS provides a longer reading than the TR.

Conclusion

This survey of how we got our printed Greek texts and the resulting differences in Bible translations has really only scratched the surface of the subject, though I would suggest it is an important one. Understanding where our Bibles come from and how they came to be in English form is a very important topic that is fraught with a lot of misinformation. I do want to reiterate, whether you choose to use the KJV or NIV, the exact same gospel and the exact same doctrine is found in their pages. There are minor differences that arose from the copying process and due to the different textual streams, but they do not mean that they are different Bibles. While one could emphasize the differences, we should also emphasize that the TR and NA/UBS texts agree about 98% of the time. They are not different Bibles; they are reflective of different transmission streams. So the next time you see an infographic floating around or hear somebody talking about how modern Bibles are “deleting” verses, remember that the messages are the same and that these differences arise from the printed Greek texts and the underlying manuscripts, not a conspiracy to “change” the Bible. Also understanding the difference between translational and textual differences is quite valuable when you are in the company of people using mixed Bible translations. 

If you would want to do some further reading on this subject, I would recommend the following books in order:

The King James Only Controversy by James R. White.

The Text of the New Testament by Bruce M. Metzger and Bart D. Ehrman (this is a bit more technical).

Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism edited by Elijah Hixson and Peter J. Gurry.

For a handy guide to considering variants in the text (some Greek knowledge required), I would recommend A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd edition by Bruce M. Metzger.


[1]  For more information, see James White, The King James Only Controversy (Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2009), 35-40, 90-113.

[2] Brief history adapted from https://www.nestle-aland.com/en/history/

[3] Thanks to Peter J. Williams for noting this tidbit about the KJV: http://evangelicaltextualcriticism.blogspot.com/2011/10/1-john-223-in-kjv.html

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