No, Beza Was Not Doing Modern Text-Criticism

By Taylor DeSoto


There is a lot of confusion over what exactly text-criticism is, and what it means to engage in it. Many people, due mostly to meaningless assertions made online, genuinely believe that the modern effort of textual scholarship equals the scholarship during the Reformation period. Many people say that because Beza and Stephanus did text-criticism, and that the modern textual scholars are doing text-criticism, the two efforts are both equal to one another. This is true in a certain sense, but the most important component of this appeal is completely neglected. If one were to compare Beza to the CBGM or Hort, for example, there are critical differences in their methodologies that shed light on the shallowness of the claim mentioned above. A brain surgeon and an ophthalmologist may both be doctors, but they are certainly not doing the same thing in their practice.

There are four major distinctions that set apart Beza from modern textual scholarship.

  1. Beza approached his text-critical work believing that the text had been inspired and preserved by God
  2. Beza valued and utilized a different text platform than modern scholars value and utilize
  3. Beza took into consideration the reception of a reading by the church as a part of his text-critical methodology, according to the “common faith”
  4. Beza utilized theology in his text-critical methodology

Beza, Set Apart from Modernity

In Beza’s time, there were no such notions as the Initial Text, or the earliest extant text that textual scholars must attempt to reconstruct. There was no such notion of an evolving text, or mockery of the idea that the people of God had the Scriptures in total within the Reformed camp. These theological concepts had not yet been introduced to the church, except perhaps by the Papacy and other heretical groups of course. The “default” text of the Reformation was default for a reason – it was the text that the church overwhelmingly used up to that point in history. The theological foundation that the Bible needed to be reconstructed was adopted by the church when modern textual scholarship realized it could not find the original text with its methodology. Rather than fighting this clear abandonment of orthodoxy, the church capitulated and adopted the modern view that the Bible had only been preserved in the autographs, the original writings of the New Testament. Since the autographs are lost to time, that effectively equates to a bible that is not preserved. Thus, any attempts to equate this modern perspective with Beza is confused at best.

Beza was an astute scholar with a true faith in Christ. Despite the common misconception introduced by unreliable internet sources, Beza shared a wide correspondence with his contemporaries on his text, including John Calvin, Joachim Camerarius, Pierre Pithou, Patricius Junius, Johannes Gyrnaeus, Girolamo Zanchi, Meletius Pigas, Johannes Piscator, Johannes Drusius, Tussanus Berchetus, Cornelius Bertram, Matthaeus Beroaldus, and Isaac Casaubon.

It is often stated that the text platform called the Received Text  is based on half a dozen manuscripts and that it was essentially developed by Erasmus in a vacuum. This is an unfortunate error, as Beza himself recorded that he used a copy from Stephanus’ library which was created from a collation of at least fifteen codices, as well as almost all of the printed editions.

“In addition to all this came a copy from the library of our Stephanus, collated by Henri Stephanus, his son and heir of his father’s assiduity, as accurately as possible with some twenty-five manuscript codices and almost all the printed ones” (1565, p. *.iiiii  and Correspondance 5, p. 170).

This copy, along with readings from as much as nineteen Greek ancient manuscripts were used in Beza’s 1598 edition.

“…with as many as nineteen very old manuscripts and many printed books from everywhere…” (1598, preface).

Some scholars assert that this number 25 was a typesetting error, and that fifteen manuscripts were used. In any case, this number is certainly much higher than the low evaluation of six manuscripts which Erasmus is said to have used. It is also important to note that this a greater number of full manuscripts than are valued highly and used for the modern critical text, and that those manuscripts represented the great majority of manuscripts that we have today. The modern critical text cannot say the same. This brings up an extremely important point – the work of Erasmus does not represent the whole work of what became the Textus Receptus. It is far more accurate to say that the Received Text is a representation of Beza and Stephanus than of Erasmus, though Erasmus’ work played a part in the effort. Jan Krans recognizes as much in his work, Beyond What is Written.

“Beza acquired a very high status in Protestant and especially Calvinist circles during his lifetime and in the first generations after him. His Greek text was not contested but faithfully reprinted; through the Elzevir editions it was elevated to the status of ‘received text’, textus receptus. ”(197).


While the differences between Erasmus and Beza’s work were slight, many of Beza’s corrections were actually revisions of Erasmus’ work, especially in Revelation, where he made 17 changes.  The claim is often made that Beza utilized Vulgate readings, but this is intentionally misleading, because though he referred to the Vulgate, he never considered a Vulgate reading sufficient to edit the Greek text on its own.  It was actually the Papists who circulated such rumors to undermine the validity of Beza’s work. An example of Beza’s methodology which sets it apart from the modern effort is his use of theological principles to decide on a variant, like in Luke 2:22.

“Of Mary, αυτης. In the Vulgate: ‘eius (‘of him/her’), apparently ‘of Mary’. For it is proper to fulfill the Law, although Mary after Christ’s birth would be all the more sanctified, in any case, we have expressed the antecedent itself in full, in order to avoid any ambiguity. Most manuscripts [codices] have αυτων, and thus Origen reads also, followed by Erasmus. But I fail to see how this could fit, while the law of purification only concerns the mother. And so I prefer to follow the old edition with which the Complutensian edition agrees” (Krans, 294. Cited from 1556 edition).


This sort of methodology is exemplary of Beza’s work. Modern critical text advocates may not approve of this sort of methodology, which should cause them to distance themselves from Beza, not claim that he was doing the same thing that they are doing. As far as I can tell, no actual textual scholars are claiming to do what Beza did. The only people who make this claim are the ones who wish to convince Christians that the modern effort is acceptable for use in the church. It is abundantly clear that Beza approached the text from a much different perspective. In order to support the claim that Beza and Stephanus, whose work represents what would eventually be called the Received Text, were doing the “same thing as we are today”, one would have to demonstrate six things:

  1. Modern scholars working on the ECM are orthodox, protestant believers
  2. Modern scholars working on the ECM believe they have the original
  3. Modern scholars that are working on the ECM believe the Bible to be inspired by God
  4. Modern scholars utilize, in part, orthodox protestant theology to decide on variant readings
  5. Modern scholars consult the “common faith” of the Christian religion in their methodology
  6. Modern scholars value the readings historically received by the church when deciding on a variant

Saying that Beza was “doing the same thing as modern text-critics” because both Beza and modern scholars have made editions of the Greek New Testament is simply ignorant. This is apparent in the perspective of DC Parker, who is leading the team who will give the book of John to the people of God in the ECM, which modern bibles will use in translation.

“The New Testament continued to evolve, so that the New Testament of today is different from the New Testament of the sixteenth century, which is in turn different from the ninth” (Textual Scholarship and the Making of the New Testament, 12).

“In its text and in its format, the work will continue to change, just as it has done throughout history hitherto. The textual scholarship of each generation and each individual contribution has its value as a step in the road, but is never complete in itself” (Ibid., 21).

“I argued, the modern concept of a single authoritative ‘original’ text was a hopeful anachronism, foisting on early Christianity something that can only exist as a result of modern concepts of textual production” (Ibid., 24).

“The New Testament philologist’s task is not to recover an original authorial text, not only because we cannot at present know on philological grounds what the original text might have been, nor even because there may have been several forms to the tradition, but because philology is not able to make a pronouncement as to whether or not there was such an authorial text” (Ibid., 27).

“As I have said, the task of editing is to reconstruct the oldest available form of a work by analysis of the texts that appear in the extant witnesses. This is a logical process which unveils the history of the text and its oldest form. It cannot itself have anything to say about the relationship of that oldest form to an authorial text” (Ibid., 28).

“But we need not then believe that the Initial Text is an authorial text, or a definitive text, or the only form in which the works once circulated” (Ibid., 29).

“I should add a word of warning, that in the case of biblical research and bibliography will inevitably find theology dragged into it at some point. Where a text is revered by some people as divinely inspired, in some cases as verbally precise pronouncement by an all-powerful God, or even at its least dramatic when it is viewed as a helpful guide for daily life, the findings of the bibliographer may be of particular importance. And in case we get too carried away with the importance of penmanship and of the texts by which it is preserved, let us remember that our codices are not all in all, and may be no more than a byproduct of our lives” (Ibid., 30,31).


It is clear then, that the work of Beza stands in stark contrast to the work of modern textual scholars. It is high time that the assertion that Beza did the same thing as modern text critics are doing now is viewed with incredulity and rejected outright. The fact remains that Beza employed a number of principles that are found nowhere in the CBGM, or any other significant text-critical methodology for that matter. DC Parker is actually a huge blessing to the church, because his commentary on the effort of modern textual criticism is accurate and not plagued by religious feelings or optimism. What a better spokesperson for the modern critical text than one of the editors for the ECM? Christians should examine the quotations above and test them against the Scriptures and against their conscience. I doubt I could find a single Reformed believer who would agree with DC Parker on what the Bible is, and yet the vast majority of the modern day Reformed are getting their Bible from him and his colleagues. I do not say that to disparage Dr. Parker, he is one of the best textual scholars alive today. I say that to highlight the reality that the methodology being employed is not the same as has been employed throughout the ages, and it is hard to believe that many Reformed believers would approve of the methodology if they understood it better.

The time is coming where every Christian will be faced with the reality of this evolving text. Many have already seen enough of it to know that they cannot, in good faith, support such a text. An evolving bible simply does not comport with orthodox Christian belief. There are a wealth of reasons to reject the modern critical text, and this is another one. The work of Beza was the work of a faithful Christian and a brilliant scholar. He used the manuscripts which the people of God consented to, and consulted many scholars and theologians in the process. When Christians attack the Received Text, they really need to consider which text it is that they are attacking. Further, when Christians advocate for the modern critical text, they need to consider the text that they are supporting. Almost always, the only arguments offered for the modern critical text are simply attacks on the Received Text. Yet that same text that is attacked so viciously in order to prop up the evolving modern critical text is the text that the church faithfully used and built the doctrines that we, as modern protestants, stand on. The only reality in which the Bible is preserved is the reality that the textual efforts of the Reformation period were the faithful efforts of men that God used to distribute his preserved Word to the world.

This is possibly the most severe disconnect in the logic of those who support the modern critical text. The modern critical text does not offer what orthodox Christianity expects from a book claiming to be the Holy Scriptures. I have not seen a single meaningful argument which addresses how a text that disagrees with the text of the previous era can possibly be the same preserved text. On one hand, a Christian offers lip service to the perfect preservation and inerrancy of God’s Word, and on the other, adopts a text that nobody actually involved in the creation of that text thinks is inerrant or preserved in any meaningful way. All it takes is a brief conversation with a textual scholar at Tyndale House to realize as much.The reality is, if I believed that the modern critical text was the only option, I wouldn’t believe it preserved either. It disagrees in important places with the vast majority of manuscripts and even more importantly, the testimony of the church throughout the ages. It disagrees with the same text which theologians built doctrine upon that modern scholars have casually tossed out in modern bibles. The only logical conclusion that can be drawn from the modern critical text is that the bible has not been preserved. Any attempt to claim otherwise is simply a Kantian leap of faith. It should be abundantly clear that the theological problems posed by the modern critical text have not been answered in any way that comports with the reality that God has preserved His Word.