(7th post in a series...)
In the last post, we discussed the Textus Receptus, a 16th-century attempt at reconstructing the autographs of the New Testament. This work (or, more precisely, one of several editions of it) is the base text from which the King James and New King James Versions were translated.
Since the publication of the Textus Receptus, other ancient Greek copies of the New Testament have come to light, many of them older than the 9th-century texts from which Erasmus worked. These include three important sets of papyri, the John Rylands Manuscript (or P52, which contains portions of John's gospel and is dated from AD 117-138), the Bodmer Papyri (P62, P72, and P75, containing most of Luke and John and dating from AD 200), and the Chester Beatty Papyri (P45-47, dated at AD 250 and containing nearly all of the New Testament). These ancient copies also include several uncials, parchments whose writing is all capital letters. The earliest of these are Codex Sinaiticus (also known by the Hebrew letter 'Aleph') and Codex Vaticanus (referred to simply as 'B'). Aleph contains all of the New Testament and dates to AD 340, whereas B contains almost the entire Bible and dates from between AD 325 and 350.
As you might imagine, this wealth of new evidence eventually led to other attempts to compile a Greek New Testament that accurately reflects what the autographs contained. The most important such effort was produced in 1881 (Aleph was discovered in 1859) by the scholars Wescott and Hort, and bears the title The New Testament in the Original Greek.
In choosing this title, the authors claimed for their work much more certainty than was warranted, and textual critics today do not believe that they were 100% right. Nonetheless, most modern editors accept Wescott and Hort's primary thesis, which was that the oldest surviving manuscripts are most likely to be free of error--that at the places where variants occur among manuscripts, choosing the variant appearing in the papyri and in Aleph and B is the wisest course. Thus, nearly all of the important recent English versions--including the NIV, RSV, ESV, and NASB--were translated not from the Textus Receptus but from The New Testament in the Original Greek or newer Greek New Testaments that follow Wescott and Hort's lead.
And what does this mean with regard to the text types (or manuscript traditions) that we discussed earlier? Just this... that all of these other modern English versions reflect not the Byzantine text type that characterized Erasmus' New Testament but the Alexandrian text type. And this is because all of the ancient papyri and both Aleph and B are essentially Alexandrian in character. And though the translation of the New King James and (especially) the King James involve the choice of English words quite different from those chosen by these other English versions, the more important difference between the two sets of translations is from which Greek New Testament they were translated.
Does this mean that the KJV and NKJV are less reliable than these others? Many modern critics would say 'Yes!' But I've never been one to follow the majority view uncritically. So, in the next post, I'll argue that the KJV remains an excellent Bible, that the editors of no single modern English version made all the right decisions (with regard to choice of variants), and that the individual reader that understands what I have been sharing in this series can actually get even closer to the autographs by analyzing the variant readings on a case-by-case basis.