This is a question that can cause a great deal of consternation amongst religious scholars. And it can be a brutal fight. Some folks prefer what is known at the “textus receptus” – which is basically what the King James uses as its basis. It’s basically the standard text that came out of the middle ages, and it’s a pretty good text. However, since then, more texts have been found, and then there are questions of variants (think typos that got copied over time). So there are different Greek texts that have been assembled – there’s Nestle Aland’s (which had been the standard one in the LCMS – but now they have said that they are going to be constantly updating and revising it, which is slightly annoying because we don’t want to keep changing everything all the time as that just gets confusing). I myself ended up using the UBS 4th Edition… because it’s small, has easy to read text, and it also has a dictionary in the back which I think is incredibly handy. I also have the SBL Greek from Biblegateway on my phone just as a handy reference.
What I will say is this. 99% of the time, it doesn’t matter. The texts are actually highly, highly uniform – so unless you are doing some in-depth scholarly work, just work first and foremost on looking at the Greek. If you are really interested, get a Nestle Aland or the UBS version, and it will have on the bottom of the page something called the “Critical Apparatus” – which will basically record the variants and note where the variants are found.
Most of the time, even the variants won’t make a large difference – it will be word order or what have you.
There are three big old texts that tend to be highly important – those are the Codex Sinaiticus (it’s denoted in the apparatus with a big aleph or a bold 01) and Codex Alexandrinus (a big A or 02) – both of which are at the British Museum — I got to read a page of John out of Sinaiticus when I visited there a few years ago. The third big one is Codex Vaticanus (B or 03). These tend to be the versions that have more… weight?
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If this seems heavy and intimidating – I’ll say this. Don’t worry about it. In my undergraduate days, I was a Classicist. I studied ancient Greek texts – and part of the problem was that there would be so few copies of ancient texts – there would be breaks where there would be nothing extant – it was frustrating. With the Scriptures we have an overabundance of texts – enough texts that any secular Classicist would dance a jig over. It’s a good thing. However – we get typos and the telephone game. In the ancient world, copies were made by scribes writing down as someone spoke – and if you are reading, sometimes you accidentally flip word order… and that would get copied down and then passed on. Or sometimes when you are writing fast, letters can get sloppy – is that an “s” or an “n” (or I guess I should say sigma or nu). These things happen – they are the typos of the ancient world. And most of the time it’s clearly a typo or just makes the grammar a bit sloppy but doesn’t change anything.
There are some passages that don’t show up – there’s debate about those. Do what most bible do – translate them but toss in a footnote.
And if you are looking at this mainly as a layman, I’d recommend lining up your Greek with whatever English version your congregation uses. We use the ESV – that ties into the Nestle Aland. So default there. If your congregation uses King James or New King James (which actually is my favorite modern translation), go with the Textus Receptus. And note differences if they show up – but more than anything pay attention to the Greek there – see some of the fullness and richness that just gets lost in translation, and you will do well.
Hope this helps,
Pastor Eric Brown
Trinity Lutheran Church – Herscher, IL