The sources surrounding the earliest manuscripts of the Bible are vast and varied. In the first five centuries of the New Testament text, for example, the Bible was copied by hand in stylish capital letters called uncials, but in the next five centuries it was copied in lowercase letters called minuscules. Thus, there were different text forms, to say nothing of the variations caused by human copying in the first thousand years of the written biblical tradition.
In 1454 Johann Gutenberg put an end to textual diversity when he invented a new form of printing press. In one fell swoop he standardized the Bible that a community would use for its reading. The question Jews and Christians faced, however, was which Bible text they should use as the Textus Receptus (“received text” or standard, TR) for all printings of the Bible.
The Jewish Bible (Old Testament) was not hard to standardize because the rabbis used a version going back to the first millennium c.e. called the Masoretic Text (MT). The MT kept variations to a minimum by strictly controlling the reading and the use of the Bible, though even here the most careful copying could not prevent ambiguities and errors to slip in.
As time went on and more discoveries were made, it became clear that the MT indeed was the TR, but there were other less-influential rival texts used by Jews in various places and times.
The first printed version based on the MT was the Venice edition of 1524–25, done by Daniel Bomberg and edited by Jacob ben Hayyim. This Bible was dominant among Jews until the 20th century. At that time scholars began using the Leningrad Codex because it reflected the MT from a single and self-consistent editor.
Matters were more complicated with the Christian Bible (New Testament). Here there are thousands of Greek manuscripts, quotations from the fathers of the church, and ancient versions.
Research on which text was “correct” and therefore to be standardized for the religious community began as early as Origen (185–254) and Jerome (347–420). These scholars noted that there were a number of readings for each of the verses that they interpreted, and they set up rules to justify the ones they used.
The issue of text became important in the time of the Renaissance when scholars questioned the millennium-old Latin Bible used by the Western Church. The most influential intellectual of the time Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466–1536) published a Greek New Testament in 1516 based on a mere five to six manuscripts. In spite of his many errors and educated guesses about the original text, his pioneering work was the basis for later editions.
When Robert Estienne compiled his “Stephanus” version of the Greek (four editions, 1546–51), the Protestant world picked it up as its TR, in use until the 19th century. Martin Luther used Erasmus for his German Bible in 1519, and Anglicans in England used Stephanus after 1550. The popular King James Version of the Bible is based on the TR, and continued as the best-selling translation until the last 20 years in the United States.
As time went on it became clear the Renaissance scholars of the Bible relied too much on the minuscule texts of Byzantine manuscripts and not enough on the earlier uncial sources. Nonetheless, the TR was dominant until B. F. Wescott and F. J. A. Hort decisively led biblical scholarship in new directions with their The New Testament in the Original Greek (1881–82).