Students who are learning Hellenistic Greek often ask me which version of the Greek New Testament they should use. In order to answer that question properly, we have to understand a bit about why there are different versions in the first place.
Why are there different versions?
Disagreements about details in the wording
In part it’s because no one surviving manuscript of the NT preserves exactly what the authors originally wrote. Scholars have to reconstruct our best approximation of that original text. We call this branch of scholarship “textual criticism.” At least 99% of the time, it’s clear what the original wording was. But scattered throughout the NT are places where the evidence isn’t so clear, and scholars disagree about the original reading. None of these uncertain points would change question the basic idea in any passage. Whichever option we choose in each case, the overall thinking of the author would remain the same. But our decisions at these points can affect the subtle details of our interpretation. So they do matter. This means it’s important to use a version of the Greek NT that is based on sound text critical scholarship.
Differences in the textual information they provide
Most versions of the Greek NT don’t just give you the reconstructed original wording of the text. They also provide information about some of the points where the ancient manuscripts disagree, where different copies have different words. This is important so that we aren’t totally dependent on the judgement of the scholars that edited the version we’re using. We can see what the options are in a given verse for ourselves. This information is provided in what’s called a “textual apparatus,” a dense series of footnotes that in a physical book are usually printed at the bottom of the page.
But no printed book could contain all of the options for every disagreement among the manuscripts. There are too many thousands of surviving copies to compare, and too many differences between them. The United Bible Societies maintains a database that includes them all, and this is used by text critical scholars. For most of us, though, this volume of information would actually be counter-productive. The vast majority of the disagreements among the manuscripts are obvious copying mistakes, or occasional attempts to tweak the text’s theology in a certain direction. Scholars can easily recognize these and the original reading at these points isn’t seriously debated. So we don’t need to see the variant readings (different wording options) for all of these. But which points of disagreement do we include? How many do we list? Which points of disagreement might be important for readers to know about, and which would just be a distraction? The editors of different editions make different decisions here
The main choices: NA28 and UBS5
The two Greek NT versions used by scholars, and by most students, are the Nestle-Aland text and the United Bible Societies edition. Since the Nestle-Aland text is now in its 28th edition, this is usually abbreviated as NA28. The United Bible Societies version is in its 5th edition, so it is abbreviated UBS5. Both of these are available free online thanks to the German Bible Society:
These two editions have identical wording in the main text. The only differences are in their textual apparatuses. Both are produced by teams of the top textual critics in the world. Their judgements aren’t perfect, but scholars use these editions because we trust the judgement of these top experts. Both are based on the best and earliest manuscript evidence. And both provide a good textual apparatus that allows us to make our own judgements in the occasional spot where we might disagree with the editorial team.
Which should I choose? The two editions are intended for different kinds of work. The NA28 is intended for scholars and students who are reading and interpreting the Greek text. Its textual apparatus includes more manuscript variants than the UBS5 apparatus does. It also includes some variants that are almost certainly not original, but that help us to see how a passage was understood at an early stage in the text’s transmission.
The UBS5 on the other hand is intended for use by Bible translators. Its apparatus deals with fewer points of disagreement, focusing just on the places where a translator might have to decide which wording to use. The apparatus is much easier to read, though, than the NA apparatus, which uses a lot of symbols that take some getting used to. Often the UBS5 apparatus also lists more of the specific manuscripts behind each variant reading. The UBS5 also includes an introduction with a lot of very helpful information about the different kinds of manuscript evidence, and this can help students who are learning to make text-critical judgements for themselves. The UBS text also assigns letter grades in each case to the reading the team chose for the main text. This helps us to recognize places where the main text is fairly certain, and places where it’s a toss-up which wording is more original.
In a sense you really can’t go wrong with either the NA28 or the UBS5. If you’re just reading the text, you won’t find any difference between them, and unless you’re getting into doing your own textual criticism you’ll be pretty safe trusting the editors’ judgements.
Tyndale House Greek NT
Another more recent version is the Tyndale House Greek New Testament (THGNT). This version, like the NA28 and UBS5, is based on the best early manuscript evidence. Its wording does differ from those other two versions here and there, but not in drastic ways and not in ways that significantly change the thought of a passage. The textual apparatus of the THGNT is more concise, covering fewer points of disagreement and providing less specific information about the evidence for each option. The interesting thing about the THGNT, though, is that it pays more attention to ancient scribal habits and the physical layout of the text in ancient copies. Rather than dividing the text into paragraphs based on their own sense of the flow of ideas, the editors generally follow the paragraph divisions we find in early manuscripts. This can help us to get a sense of how ancient readers understood the text. The apparatus also includes some variant readings that aren’t important for reconstructing the wording, but that illustrate ancient scribal habits. And the THGNT often keeps the irregular spelling of Greek words from early copies, rather than correcting it to more standardized spelling for ease of reading. I’m not sure I would use the THGNT as my primary edition, but it’s good to complement the NA28 and UBS5. It is also available freely online in several places because it is published with less restrictive copyright than the editions published by the German Bible Society. It can be found on Bible Gateway, or in the Step Bible.
SBL Greek NT
The Society of Biblical Literature Greek NT (SBLGNT) is in some ways the precursor of the THGNT. The reason for producing it was to provide a NT text that could be freely shared online, but that was more reliable than the texts like WH that were beyond the copyright period. It is freely available as a download in multiple formats, as well as being published freely on a variety of web sites (https://sblgnt.com/). The SBLGNT was the work of one editor, Michael Holmes, who went on to head up the committee that produced the THGNT. The text actually does not vary much from the NA28, but it was based primarily on WH. The paragraph divisions and punctuation follow the NRSV English translation, which means it is almost identical to the UBS5 in these regards. As in most other modern editions, the spelling of words has also been normalized to align with the BDAG lexicon and NA28.
The SBLGNT does have a textual apparatus of sorts, but it does not provide direct information about ancient manuscripts and other witnesses. Instead, it shows where four copyright-free texts of the NT differ from Holmes’ main text: Westcott and Hort, Tregelles, Goodrich and Lukaszewski (the text behind the NIV), and Robinson and Pierpont. This may give students a rough sense of where older (mostly 19th century) scholars differed in their judgements about the original text. It also highlights where the NIV is translating a different wording than Holmes has chosen. It does not, though, allow for real examination of textual issues and variant readings.
International Greek New Testament Project
Recent editions of the NA and UBS versions are based on the Editio Critica Maior being produced by the International Greek New Testament Project and the Institute for New Testament Textual Research in Münster/Westphalia. This is not the kind of edition that most students will use, but for those with a serious interest in textual criticism it’s a goldmine. The group is collecting and collating all of the surviving witnesses to the NT text, which since the 1980s have been digitized in a vast database. All of this digitized textual material can now be studied online at the New Testament Virtual Manuscript Reading Room (https://ntvmr.uni-muenster.de/liste/). The project is slowly producing editions of sections of the NT with a textual apparatus that is by far the most complete ever assembled. So far print editions have been published on John and part of Luke (http://www.igntp.org/). The complete collection of manuscript transcriptions for John is available online (https://itseeweb.cal.bham.ac.uk/iohannes/transcriptions/index.html), and individual transcriptions can be downloaded. Other transcriptions of manuscripts are available for Galatians, Ephesians, and Philippians (https://itseeweb.cal.bham.ac.uk/igntp/transcriptions.html). All of these transcriptions are made available under a Creative Commons Attribution license, meaning they can be used very freely.
Westcott and Hort
Before the SBLGNT and THGNT were produced, the best copyright-free text available was the edition of Westcott and Hort (WH) from 1881. This was the text used as the basis of the first Nestle-Aland text, so it still bears a significant similarity to the NA28 and UBS5. Westcott and Hort were pioneers in modern textual criticism and their edition was generally based on good, early manuscript evidence. Since the 19th century, though, textual criticism has continued to improve and many more ancient witnesses have been discovered and collated. So one of the newer editions is a better choice today.
Tischendorf’s edition of 1849 is even older than WH and was one of the first critical editions published after the initial wave of modern manuscript discoveries. Tischendorf himself was the discoverer of many important witnesses like codex Sinaiticus and codex Vaticanus. Although the main text of Tischendorf’s edition is not used these days, his extremely thorough textual apparatus was until recently the most complete collection of variant readings in print. The final edition was published in 1872, so it only includes witnesses discovered and collated before that date.
What about the “Textus Receptus”?
If you read about the NT text online you’ll come across people talking about the so-called “textus receptus” or “received text” (TR). This is also sometimes called the “majority text.” It is true that this version often represents the wording of the majority of surviving NT manuscripts. The problem is that most of those manuscripts were copied very late, well after the year 1000 CE. Naturally, more copies have survived from more recent eras, and fewer copies have survived from the first few centuries CE. But that means that if you simply count up the number of manuscripts that support a particular variant reading you will always end up going with those late medieval versions. Scholars agree, though, that we should give more weight to the earliest surviving copies–especially the ones made before about 500 CE. Some of those copies get us back very close to the time when the books were actually written. One fairly complete copy of Paul’s letters, for example, dates to about 200 CE. But these early readings are ignored by the TR. That’s kind of like playing a game of “broken telephone” and accepting the version of the message that has been passed on 20 times, rather than going and asking the 2nd or 3rd person in the line what they heard. It’s even more of a problem because we know that in the Byzantine period, after the Christianization of the Roman Empire, there was a deliberate attempt to harmonize the variations in the copies of the New Testament. That’s why the TR is sometimes also called the Byzantine Text. But that harmonization didn’t follow sound text-critical principles. Rather, it tended to just throw together and combine the wording from all of the earlier copies. All of this means that the TR is not a reliable version.
Nevertheless, some non-scholars vehemently insist that this version is correct and that other more modern scholarly versions are all corruptions of the text. This attitude largely stems from a handful of famous passages that aren’t included in modern editions. For example, the TR includes the longer ending to Mark’s Gospel. Non-specialists have sometimes seen these specific omissions as threatening and as a watering down of the theological message of the NT. Scholars would argue that this thinking gets things backwards. We should first look at the earliest evidence for the text’s wording, and then decide what the writers were trying to say. We shouldn’t decide what the NT said first, and then look for the manuscripts that give us what we want!
The bottom line
For most students, almost any version other than the TR/Majority Text will be good enough. Since there’s good free access to the NA28, the UBS5, and the THGNT, I recommend going with one of those. Then you’ll be working with the same wording that scholars begin with when they write commentaries, etc.