Monday, October 24, 2016

The Greek Text of the English Bible between 1611 and 1881

Two of the most significant English translations as far as the text of the New Testament is concerned are the Authorized or King James Version of 1611 and its revision, the Revised Version, published in 1881 (NT; OT in 1885).

The KJV is obviously significant given its widespread adoption and use. Even today, it usually ranks as the second or third bestselling English translation. The RV marks another watershed in that it is the only officially sanctioned revision of the KJV. As far as textual criticism is concerned, it is even more important because it marks the first major English Bible to move away from the Textus Receptus and its lineage. After that, almost all English translations follow suit, right down to the present.

Because of their historical significance, it is worth asking how different the Greek text is behind these two translations. For the RV, we are lucky to have the Greek text used by the revisers and published by F. H. A. Scrivener, himself a member of the New Testament committee for the RV. For the KJV, it’s a bit trickier because the translators did not say exactly what Greek text they followed. By most accounts, however, they generally followed Beza’s fifth edition (1598) with occasional preference for Stephanus or even the Vulgate (for details, see here and here).

For his part, John W. Burgon said that the RV diverged from the traditional Greek text “nearly 6000 times.” Since this is Burgon we’re talking about, he naturally adds that these were “almost invariably for the worse.” But Burgon himself did not have access to the Greek text of the revisers as far as I know. Presumably he must have used Westcott and Hort for his estimate, assuming that it was close enough. If so, he was right to do so as his estimate is not far from the truth.

But for a better comparison, we can turn to Scrivener’s Parallel New Testament: Greek and English (Cambridge, 1882) which lays out the Greek behind the KJV and the Greek text adopted by the RV committee. Helpfully, Scrivener marks any place where he thinks the KJV translators diverged from Beza and any place where the RV’s Greek text differs from the KJV’s. In this way, his book gives a nice view of how the text used for the English Bible changed between 1611 and 1881.

In all Scrivener tells us there are 190 places where the Greek text behind the KJV diverges from Beza. More relevant, I counted a total of 5,614 differences between the KJV and RV Greek texts.* That makes for a rate of about 0.7 differences per verse or one every 1.5 verses. The lowest rate is 0.4 in Matthew and Galatians. The highest is in Revelation with 1.6 differences per verse. That’s quite a lot more than I expected, to be honest. For some reason I assumed there were only a few thousand at most.

Of course, bare numbers only tell you so much. Many of these differences are untranslated and untranslatable. But many others do affect the translation and that is one reason why the RV was criticized. Had the changes been fewer, it might not have raised the ire of critics like Burgon the way it did. It would be useful to have more precise numbers on how many changes did not actually affect the translation, but that would take a good deal more work.

*Update (3/24/18): For what it’s worth, F. C. Cook says that Scrivener’s notes record 6,788 differences. I haven’t bothered to recount and see who’s right.


  1. Peter,

    From our position as supporters of the Traditional Text (TT) i.e. Byzantine, MT and TR, we may recall the comment of Art Farstad in the John Ankerberg during the debate on the KJV about the how the basis was determined for the Revision being pushed or encouraged one might say into using the WH textual basis (and it was available already to the Committee) when it was not originally part of the mandate. Also, how skewed the WH text was to a single MS (Vaticanus) has continued to remain a problem to all TT defenders down to today with editions of the UBS/NA still largely being in favor of this text form.

    Paul Anderson

  2. A couple of points, if I may, for information/clarification/comment.

    1. Do we agree that Scrivener and Burgon and Miller all seem to have been what we would characterise as Majority Text critics?

    2. Scrivener issued several editions of the Greek New Testament, using Stephanus 1550 as his base and comparing to it the variances in Beza, Elzevir, Lachmann, Tischendorf, and Tregelles. In October 1886, he issued (what appears to have been ) his final edition, adding the variances in Westcott-Hort and the (English) Revisers. He thanked Westcott and Hort for their kind agreement to his using their text, and he acknowledged their scholarly virtues. nevertheless, he delivered a very heavy judgment against their text, quoting Plato's Apology 18b and Thucydides's War 1.22.4. From a Classicist to Classicists, and out to a wider world, his decided judgment was that Westcott and Hort were guilty of the gravely mistaken charge brought against Socrates, so that they made "the worse/weaker argument [appear to be (the)]better/stronger". He then added that "they [had] sent into the light [of day], not a possession for ever/all time', but 'a brilliant error'/ something brilliant but erroneous" - the phrase about the possession being a reference to Thucydides War 1.22.4. in short, scrivener was of the very decided view that Westcott and Hort had greatly erred, and that their text would not stand the test of time.Does anyone know of any subsequent stuff from scrivener on the matter, please?

    1. Does anyone have, please, any information about Scrivener's view, after the issue of the October 1886 edition? I am anxious to verify his last known or inferable position. Many thanks!

    2. Does anyone have, please, any information about Scrivener's view, after the issue of the October 1886 edition? I am anxious to verify his last known or inferable position. Many thanks!

    3. from Alexander Thomson

      Last call for help in ascertaining F H A Scrivener's view of Westcott and Hort's text.

    4. Douglas Magill3/05/2023 3:52 pm

      I can't give you that but I can give you Dean Burgon's view of Westcott and Hort, here is a link to Dean Burgons book "The Revision Revised"

    5. M M Rose has kindly drawn my attention to the following remarks:-

      "POSTSCRIPT. September 29, 1890.

      My lamented friend and fellow student, the late Very Reverend J. W. Burgon, Dean of Chichester, very earnestly requested me, that if I lived to complete the present work, I would publickly testify that my latest labours had in no wise modified my previous critical convictions, namely, that the true text of the New Testament can best and most safely be gathered from a comprehensive acquaintance with every source of information yet open to us, whether they be Manuscripts of the original text, Versions, or Fathers; rather than from a partial representation of three or four authorities which, though in date the more ancient and akin in character, cannot be made even tolerably to agree together.

      I saw on my own part no need of such avowal, yet (neget quis carmina Gallo ?) I could not deny Dean Burgon's request."
      The Postscript is found between pg. ci and pg. 1. –MMR