There are hundreds of handwritten manuscripts of the New Testament. There are many small differences between these hand-written copies. Most of these variants fall into the category of “typos” which do not affect the meaning of the text, but occasionally some manuscripts have words or even verses that are missing from other copies of the New Testament.
Recent English translations fall into two general camps in their approach to the text of the New Testament. Some translations closely follow the so-called Textus Receptus (TR, Received Text) which was the basis of the King James Version. The so-called Majority Text (MT) is not identical to the Textus Receptus, but both reconstructions of the text rely heavily on late medieval manuscripts and are sometimes also called the Byzantine text type. Closely following this tradition results in a longer text of the New Testament.
The second major approach follows a critically reconstructed text which relies much more heavily on older Greek manuscripts with an emphasis on texts from Egypt, where there are more old texts that have survived because of the dry climate. This text type is sometimes called the Alexandrian text. This tradition is summarized in the critical editions of the New Testament known as the UBS/Nestle editions. Overall, it is this tradition that results in a shorter text of the New Testament.
In this brief FAQ we cannot go into the intricacies of the ongoing battles between these two schools other than to note that proponents of the TR/MT end of the spectrum argue that the Byzantine text type is the most carefully preserved text in the main line of transmission of the text throughout the church, and that the Egyptian type texts have significant corruptions and omissions. Proponents of the UBS/Nestle tradition argue that the Byzantine type texts have been amplified by a lot of scribal additions over the centuries.
The NIV, ESV, and HCSB are all translations in the UBS/Nestle tradition. These translations may occasionally follow a Greek text different from the text given preference in the UBS/Nestle text.
The New King James and some of its cousins are examples of translations in the Textus Receptus tradition.
Our approach to the text of the New Testament is to avoid a bias toward any one textual tradition or group of manuscripts. An objective approach considers all the witnesses to the text (Greek manuscripts, lectionaries, translations, and quotations in the church fathers) without showing favoritism for one or the other, since each of these has its own strengths and weaknesses as a witness to the text. In the New Testament, a fuller text than that of the UBS/Nestle should be weighed on a case by case basis because UBS/Nestle tends to lean too heavily toward the theory that the shorter text is the better reading. In general, as we examine significant variants, the reading in a set of variants that has the earliest and widest support in the witnesses is the one included in the text. The other readings in a set of variants are dealt with in one of three ways:
- A reading that has very little early or widespread support in the witnesses is not footnoted in order to avoid an overabundance of textual notes.
- A reading with significant early and/or widespread support but not as much early or widespread evidence as the other reading is reflected in a footnote that says, “Some witnesses to the text read/add/omit: . . . .”
- A familiar or notable reading from the King James tradition (e.g. the addition or omission of a whole verse) whose support is not nearly as early or widespread as the other reading can be reflected in a footnote that says, “A few witnesses to the text read/add/omit: . . . .”
In short, readings and verses that are omitted from UBS/Nestle-based versions of the New Testament, which have textual support that is ancient and widespread are included in our translation. If there are readings where the evidence is not clear-cut, our “bias,” if it can be called that, is to include the reading with a note that not all manuscripts have it. The result is that our New Testament is slightly longer than many recent translations of the New Testament.