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The First Greek New Testament

In this thread on Bible translation, I have been talking about what it is translators of the New Testament actually translate.  In order to answer the question, I have had to explain how we started to get printed editions of the Greek New Testament, including the first to come off the printing press, the Complutensian Polyglot (discussed in yesterday’s post).  Today I take the discussion a step further, to talk about the first published (not the first printed!) Greek New Testament.  Again, the discussion is taken from my book Misquoting Jesus.


The First Published Edition of the Greek New Testament

Even though the Complutensian Polyglot was the first printed edition of the Greek New Testament, it was not the first published version.  As I pointed out, even though the work was printed by 1514, it did not actually see the light of published day until 1522.  Between those two dates a famous and enterprising Dutch scholar, the humanist intellectual Desiderius Erasmus, both produced and published an edition of the Greek New Testament, receiving the honor, then, of editing the so-called “editio princeps” (= first published edition).  Erasmus had studied the New Testament, along with other great works of antiquity, on and off for many years, and had considered at some point putting together an edition for printing.  But it was only when he visited Basle in August 1514 that he was persuaded by a publisher named Johann Froben to move forward.

Both Erasmus and Froben knew that….

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Where Did the King James Bible Come From?
The Oldest Printed Versions of the Greek New Testament



  1. Avatar
    clipper9422@yahoo.com  January 17, 2017

    What are some of the most significant differences–for Christian belief–of the Erasmus and texts following his, on the one hand, and the best and oldest manuscripts as we now understand them, on the other hand?

    Do these manuscript differences account in any significant way for doctrinal conflicts between various Christian denominations?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 18, 2017

      No, the many differences are not the kind that would make someone stop believing whatever it is they now believe. They are significant for other reasons.

  2. Avatar
    clipper9422@yahoo.com  January 17, 2017

    Erasmus is one of the historical figures I admire. So I want to try to put a positive spin on what he did. It was self-admittedly a rush job using mediocre manuscripts. But I’ve read that at least for people who could read Greek it facilitated a fresh look at the gospels and made them seem more alive after the–shall we say– rigidity of centuries of the Vulgate. As a practical matter, Eramus’s access to the best manuscripts was probably limited anyway. Could his work not be seen as a major step forward in understanding the gospels even though a flawed one? It would seem that the major mistake was to take his text as authoritative and definitive rather than a work in progress. Erasmus seems like the sort of person who would welcome improvements.

  3. TWood
    TWood  January 17, 2017

    So if I’m reading this right, and I think I remember this from my studies on this many moons ago, Erasmus’ manuscripts are the primary sources for the Textus Receptus, which is the primary source for the KJV. Is that basically correct, which is why the KJV is inferior to the critical texts which use far more and earlier mss?

  4. Avatar
    roycecil  January 17, 2017

    Dr..Ehrman thank you. Could you also address the Catholic Bible in a post . Thanks

  5. Avatar
    Boltonian  January 17, 2017

    Hi Bart
    I understand that the King James Bible is about 80% Tyndale. Which version did Tyndale use for his English translation? Thanks.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 18, 2017

      He too used the Textus Receptus, which I discuss in today’s post.

    • Robert
      Robert  January 19, 2017

      While Luther, Tyndale, and the King James translators supposedly created their Old Testament translations directly from the Hebrew, it is clear that they all relied on the Vulgate quite a bit as well. Likewise, Tyndale’s English translation relied on Wycliffe’s previous English translation from the Latin. I think this is probably behind the statement that ‘King James Bible is about 80% Tyndale’. I would say that the King James Old Testament is about 90% Tyndale, which is about 95% Vulgate. I may be a little cynical, but it is the same problem today when people rely on interlinear ‘translations’ rather than fully immersing themselves in the Hebrew.

  6. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  January 18, 2017

    Unrelated to this post: the first section of Psalm 18 seems to describe a massive natural disaster, possibly including an earthquake, a volcanic eruption, and a tsunami. Do you know of any evidence that such an event occurred during the period in which the Psalms were being composed?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 18, 2017

      One of the big problems with the Psalms is that we don’t know who wrote each one or when. (Most of them are attributed, e.g., to David, but these attributions are almost certainly false, and in some cases can be shown clearly to be false)

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  January 19, 2017

        Do you know of anyone (with proper credentials) who has published on the natural history of the areas in which the various books of the Bible were composed? I’m particularly interested in this question of earthquakes because Amos dates his prophecy in terms of “the earthquake.” That leads me to believe there was a very memorable earthquake in Israel sometime in the 1st millenium B.C.E. The Institute for Creation Research has a webpage on it, but I doubt it’s worth my time to read what they have to say about it.

        • Bart
          Bart  January 20, 2017

          I don’t know of a book on this. The problem is that we don’t know about the earthquake, which one it was, or when!

  7. Avatar
    paul c  January 18, 2017

    Dr. E.,
    From that which you’ve heard/read, could a well educated – but not NT or ancient literature specialist- modern native Greek speaker comprehend much, or any, of the older NT manuscripts?

    Somewhat related. Over time, I’ve noticed that you refer to many NT scholars from Europe and North America but I can’t recall mention of Greek natives. If the answer to the first question is positive then it would seem that there would be many in the field.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 18, 2017

      Yes, a modern Greek reader could make sense of much of the NT in Greek. And as it turns out, there are not a lot of national Greeks who are NT scholars.

  8. Avatar
    Eric  January 18, 2017

    I didn’t know that different moderns language translations had different verse separations. How very interesting! How do folks cite “chapter and verse” to each other internationally (not scholars who probably have a standard, but other folks?)

    • Bart
      Bart  January 19, 2017

      I think modern translations all follow the verse divisions (virtually all) of the Greek and Hebrew printed editions, so there is a consistency from one country to another.

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