The Printed NT Greek Text at 500

In the latest edition of As I See It (a monthly email news letter worth your time dear Christian if you are not receiving it), Doug Kutilek writes about the 500th anniversary of the first printed Greek NT and it’s lasting impact in Christian history. Because the first Greek text has such a profound relevance when refuting KJV onlyists, I thought I would reproduce Doug’s article for a broader audience. Taken from the July, 2014 AISI, volume 17, number 7 edition.


erasmusThe most important book in the world is the Greek New Testament. A. T. Robertson well said, “There is nothing like the Greek New Testament to rejuvenate the world, which came out of the Dark Ages with the Greek Testament in its hand,” (A Grammar of the Greek New Testament, 4th edition, p. xix)

When the subject of the printed Greek New Testament comes up, it is all but invariably Roman Catholic priest and classical scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam [1466-1536] (and his Basil printer, John Froben) who gets credit for being the pioneer in putting the Greek New Testament into print, with his first edition in 1516. But in truth, Froben’s suggestion to Erasmus that they get out a printed edition of the Greek NT posthaste was a reaction to news coming out of Spain that someone else had in fact already printed up an edition of the NT in Greek–as early as 1514–, and was soon to make it available.

To beat the competition into the lucrative book market, Froben, with Erasmus as editor, rushed an edition of the Greek NT into print in about nine months time (and the edition is marred by many printer’s errors as a consequence). They need not have been in such a hurry; the competition’s edition didn’t make it into the marketplace until 1522, after Erasmus had produced a second edition, and shortly before his third (1522).

(We must of course take note of the technical difference between printing a book and publishing it, the former meaning the physical process of putting ink to paper, the latter making said printed book available for distribution to the public. While these two commonly occur in close chronological order, this is not always the case–publishing can be delayed for days, weeks, even years, sometimes by threats of lawsuits over allegations of plagiarism or libel, for example. With modern e-books, it is even possible for a book to be published but never be printed.)

It is to be noted that in comparison with the Latin Vulgate Bible and the Hebrew OT, the printing and publishing of the Greek NT was remarkably delayed. Gutenberg’s famous Bible–a Latin Vulgate edition–was printed around 1453. Jerome’s Latin translation was the standard and authoritative Bible of Western European Christianity at the time, and had been for nearly a millennium. A hundred or so additional printings of the Vulgate occurred in the next 60 years before anyone printed up the Greek NT. ‘What need is there for the Greek if one has the Latin Bible?’ many no doubt reasoned. The Jews put the entire Hebrew OT in print in 1488, some 35 years after Gutenberg, but still more than a quarter century before the Greek NT was first printed in 1514. And even Bible versions in Bohemian, German, French and Italian (all based on the Vulgate) were printed and circulated before the original Greek NT was.

But who and where and when and how was the first printed Greek NT produced? And what influence did it have?

With its more than well-deserved reputation as a hot-bed of anti-Bible zealotry in the Reformation and post-Reformation eras (no modern language Bible of any kind was permitted to be printed there until 1793–almost three centuries after the Reformation), Spain seems to be a most unlikely place for the printing of the first Greek NT, but it nevertheless was the place. To be more specific, the location was Alcala (a.k.a. Complutum in Roman times), a city 40 miles or so east of Madrid; it was later the birthplace of Miguel de Cervantes.

ximinesThe first printed Greek NT occupied one column per page in one volume of a six-volume multi-language Bible edition, now commonly known as The Complutensian Polyglot. The sponsor who conceived (as early as 1502), bankrolled (at a cost in the millions of dollars, modern equivalent) and guided this project was Cardinal Francisco Ximenes [pronounced like “Jimenez”] de Cisneros (1436-1517). He assembled a team of scholars and editors (including three converted Jews who worked on the OT part, and a native Greek) and employed numerous students and clerics in the work.

This work, which contained the first printed Greek NT, was completed in six volumes, the NT with parallel Greek and Latin (Vulgate) texts and a Greek vocabulary list comprising volume V, said volume being completed first (January 10, 1514). Volumes I-IV made up the OT (with the apocrypha interspersed among the canonical books), the text containing the Hebrew original, Latin Vulgate and Septuagint Greek in parallel columns, with the Aramaic Targum of Onkelos (Pentateuch only) and accompanying Latin translation at the foot of the page (the apocrypha was printed in Greek and Latin only). These were printed last (vol. IV is dated July 10, 1517). Volume VI contained, among other things, Hebrew and Chaldee vocabulary lists.

The manuscripts used in making this edition were partly purchased by Cardinal Ximenes and partly borrowed from the Vatican library in Rome (those purchased are extant and are currently housed in a library in Madrid, there being no Greek NT manuscripts among them; those borrowed–including whatever Greek NT manuscripts were used–were no doubt returned to Rome, but precisely which manuscripts they were is not certainly known).

Ximenes lived to see the completion of the printing of this great work, but died (November 1517) before Papal sanction from Pope Leo X was received for its publication (1520; Erasmus, too, sought and received Leo X’s sanction for the publication of his Greek NT in 1516). Some 600 sets of this publication were originally made, with nearly 100 of them still in existence. Because of its size, cost and the relative fewness of its copies, the Greek text as printed in the Complutensian polyglot had much less influence than did Erasmus’ texts (which were issued in the thousands of copies, all told).

polygotWhen it became available to Erasmus, the Complutensian Greek text was used by him in the fourth and fifth revisions of his text (he consequently made a reported 90 changes in the text of Revelation alone). Though a close comparison of the Complutensian Greek text and those of Erasmus would reveal hundreds, likely many hundreds, of specific though mostly minor differences between them, they are nevertheless merely varieties of the same numerically dominant-in-the-manuscripts Byzantine text type. The Complutensian Greek NT was the first of more than 2,000 printed editions of the NT in Greek that have appeared in the last 500 years.

It is an interesting chronological coincidence that the year of the completion of the printing of the Complutensian polyglot–1517–was also the year that Martin Luther boldly challenged the practice and doctrine of the dominant and domineering Roman Catholic Church with his posting on October 31 his “Ninety-five theses.” The foundational premise (at least in theory though not entirely in practice) of the Reformers and the Reformation was “Sola Scriptura,” rightly exalting Scripture, especially in the original languages, as the final, or rather, sole arbiter of theological truth and practice. Cardinal Ximenes’ polyglot, with its printing of the Hebrew and Greek originals in a single work, was very much of the spirit (whether intentional or coincidental) of the Reformation that would soon follow.

The printing and publishing of the Greek NT in the 16th century was essential to the success of the Reformation, and the Greek NT remains our greatest spiritual treasure. And yet, there is at present (and has been for some time past) a very serious decline in American conservative Bible colleges and seminaries in the study of Greek. In earlier days, one could not even get into seminary without a competence in Greek (and Latin); later, the typical three-year M. Div. or Th. M. course was at least marked by a strong Greek requirement–three full years of it, totaling 18 semester hours or more. Now a couple years at most is required, if that, and many students opt for MRE, Ed.D., M.Min. and D.Min. degrees because they do not have even the relatively modest language requirements of modern M. Div. and Th.M., and Ph.D. / Th.D. degrees at many institutions.

Though I have said it in these pages more than once, I will repeat it: the single most valuable tool I have for my study and exposition of the NT is the 20 hours of Greek, including a year of classical Greek, that I had in college and seminary. I only regret that I did not have more (especially in classical and ecclesiastical Greek). Nothing, not even a broad knowledge of commentaries and theologies, can substitute for a first hand knowledge of Greek. Three well-taught and well-learned years of Greek along with a good course on hermeneutics (Bible interpretation) are of greater value than everything else in a typical three-year M.Div. or four-year Th.M. program combined (Hebrew only excepted). The greatest dis-service that can be done to Bible college and seminary students, and to those that they in the future will minister to, is to de-emphasize, down-play and neglect the instruction in Greek.



One thought on “The Printed NT Greek Text at 500

  1. I took a semester of classical Greek at San Diego State many years ago. I only got my feet wet, but what I did learn was invaluable to my Bible studies.

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