Reformation:Erasmus von Rotterdam and Martin Luther

Reformation:Erasmus von Rotterdam and Martin Luther

Portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam (1523) by Hans Holbein the Younger

Erasmus was in contact with Martin Luther, and in many points, both men were very close. but Erasmus never joined the protestant movement.

June 08, 2017 | Bern, Switzerland. | Prof. Andrist Patrick, EUD NEWS.

501 years ago, the New Testament in Greek was printed and published for the first time, by Erasmus von Rotterdam (~1466-1536) in Basel, as many manifestation in the word celebrated it last year. For the first time people in the Western world had an easy access to the Greek text of the New Testament, and scholars could study it with a text much closer to the original than the Latin translation they were accustomed to. But this publication, which had a tremendous impact on Luther and ultimately provided the basis Greek text for all the major protestant translation barely never appeared… Let us briefly sketch the surprising story of a book with such an important influence.

Desiderius Erasmus was born in Rotterdam around 1464-1469 as the second child of a priest (!) and the daughter of a physician. His parent cared for him and he received a very good education. In 1492 he became a priest, but his knowledge of Latin and his large culture were soon noticed by his bishop, who used him as secretary and allowed him to study in Paris.

In 1504, Erasmus, while travelling in Belgium, bumped into a Latin manuscript of an Italian scholar called Lorenzo Valla (1406/7-1457). More than 50 years before, Valla criticised the official text of the Bible, which was the Latin translation by Jerome, from the end of the 4th and the beginning of the 5th Century, called the Vulgate. Valla compared the Vulgate, at least how it was transmitted at his time, with some Greek manuscripts and contended that, in many places, the official Latin text was misleading or confused. Erasmus was enthusiastic about the work of Valla, which he published in 1505.

When Erasmus presented himself to the Basle publisher Johann Froben (1460-1527) in August 1514, he did not have in his papers a ready-to-publish Greek text of the New Testament, nor a new latin translation of it. As far as the Bible is concerned, Erasmus, who was following the example of Valla, just wanted to publish a series of scholarly and critical notes on the Vulgate. One will never know if he had some hidden plan or if Froben pushed him, but about a month later Erasmus had already modified his plans and decided to publish a new Latin translation as well as the Greek text of the New Testament, which was, ultimately, the best justification for his notes and his translation. One also wonders if the two men did not wish to overrun a similar Spanish project (including the Hebrew text of the Old Testament), which had already started a few years earlier, and ended up with the publication of the “Biblia políglota complutense” in 1520.

Preparing the edition took Erasmus more than a year and a half, as he was also travelling and working on other projects. He first concentrated on his notes, then he or his editor hired two assisting scholars to help him with the Greek text during the autumn 1415. The eight main manuscripts he used are well known: they were brought from Constantinople to Basel in 1437 by the Dominican John Stojković (ca. 1393-1443 ; from Dubrovnik in Croatia) during the Concile of Basel; most of these manuscripts are still in Basel today, which the author of the present paper was recently able to study in depth. Erasmus also used notes from Greek manuscripts he saw in England or during his travels, quotes by Church Fathers, and the remarks by Valla and others.

Finally, after a hectic work, the volume is published at the beginning of March 1516. It is made of three main parts: an introduction in Latin (ca. 27 pages, including a dedication to the pope Leo X). The text of the New Testament in 2 columns (for the Greek and a synoptical Latin translation), as well as short traditional prologues (ca. 556 pages), the notes of Erasmus (ca. 400 pages) and 4 conclusive pages.  The title is peculiar, since it is not called “Novum Testamentum” but “Novum Instrumentum”. Some years later Erasmus explained that “Testament” is a bad word to designate it, while ancient authorities like Jerome and Augustine sometimes used the word “Instrumentum”, which was a usual word for “document”. But the pressure was too strong: in his following four editions of the Greek text, he went back to the traditional and largely accepted expression “Novum Testamentum”. 

In the introduction, Erasmus explains a little about his intentions. He starts with a vibrant call for the study of the Bible. He says he is surprised that the Christians do not devote more time to read and learn it, even thou it is simple to understand. “Why, then, out of pious curiosity do we not investigate, examine, explore each tenet ? … The journey is simple and it is ready for anyone. Only bring a pious and open mind, possessed above all with a pure and simple faith”. Even though his publication is in Greek and Latin, he pleads that the Bible should be translated in every language. In a famous passage, he writes, “Indeed, I disagree very much with those who are unwilling that Holy Scripture, translated into the vulgar tongue, be read by the uneducated, as if Christ taught such intricate doctrines that they could scarcely be understood by very few theologians, or as if the strength of the Christian religion consisted in men’s ignorance of it. The mysteries of kings, perhaps, are better concealed, but Christ wishes his mysteries published as openly as possible. I would that even the lowliest women read the Gospels and the Pauline Epistles. And I would that they were translated into all languages so that they could be read and understood not only by Scots and Irish but also by Turks and Saracens.” He also explains that, through the Bible, one finds the true “philosophy of Christ”; more than that, it brings the readers “the living image” of the mind of Christ.

Erasmus also clarifies his position toward scholarly studies. On the one hand, he criticises the theological schools of his days, which used the “scholastic” method of learning, based on dialectical reasoning around the dogmas, and necessitating a strong knowledge of (Aristotelian) philosophy and syllogisms. He writes “To me, he is truly a theologian who teaches not by skill, but by a disposition of mind… And if anyone under the inspiration of the spirit of Christ preaches this kind of doctrine, inculcates it, exhorts, incites, and encourages men to it, he indeed is truly a theologian, even if he should be a common labourer or weaver. And if anyone exemplifies this doctrine in his life itself, he is in fact a great doctor.” On the other hand, he is not against the subtleties of theological doctrines “if it seems worthwile [be] discussed among the educated”. It is a matter of priority.

In the second section of the Introduction, called “Method”, Erasmus also explains that the best way to understand the Bible, is to read it in the languages in which it was written. This is why, he also advocates learning Hebrew and Greek, and deepening one’s understanding of the historical and cultural context, in which the biblical books were written. In Erasmus’ time, it was not so obvious that Bible could be best understood if studied in the language it was written in. As mentioned above, the theologians of the time were relying on the Vulgate, the Latin translation made by Jerome. As Valla had already done but in a smaller scale, Erasmus, in this introduction as in other writings shows that, in front of the Greek text, the Vulgate sometimes misses the point, or is incorrectly understood by many readers, so that many religious and theological questions or problems could be, if not solved, at least better approached if discussed in the light of the original language. The position of Erasmus belongs to a larger movement of his day, called “humanism”. In general, humanism was a powerful re-discovery of the roots of western culture in the literary and artistic production of Antiquity. Erasmus was applying to the Bible and to other Christian authors what other scholars were doing to other texts : going back to the sources. He did it so well, that he was nicknamed the “prince of the Humanists”.

The task of Erasmus was difficult, above all because very few Greek manuscripts of the New Testament were available in Europe northern of the Alps at the time, and travelling was not easy. As already mentioned, Erasmus found some of them in Basel, but he quickly realised they were not always agreeing with one another. As his small team was pressed by time, they did what they could to reconstruct the Greek text, as he also explained in letters to some friends. For the Gospels, they had 2 biblical manuscripts at their disposal besides a manuscript with an ancient commentary, where the biblical text was systematically quoted; Erasmus choose one of these manuscripts, made corrections in its margins and sent it to the press. For the Acts, they had 3 biblical manuscripts and used the same method. For the Catholic epistles, they the same 3 manuscripts, but it is not clear what was the printing exemplar for the Catholic epistles. For the Pauline Epistle, they hat 4 biblical manuscripts and a commentary. Their major problem however was with the Revelation, because they only had a commentary manuscript, in which the end of the text was lacking, starting with Rev. 22.16c. For this very last part, they retro-translated the text from the Latin Vulgate, with the help of quotes in the patristic and scholarly literature, but still missed the point in a few cases. 

In March 1516, the Edition was finished printed. But, as already mentioned, it was a hastly work, and, as the British scholar Frederick Scrivener stated, “Erasmus’ first edition is in that respect the most faulty book I know” (A plain introduction…, vol 2, 1894, p. 185). Erasmus was well aware of these shortcomings, and soon produced a second edition in 1519, of much better quality, then three other editions, in 1522, 1527 and 1536. Even if he was always correcting typographical errors and improving the introductory and commentary material, the Greek text remained essentially unchanged, with a few exceptions. In particular, the end of Revelation remained with errors, even though he later had access to complete manuscripts and other editions.

The impact of Erasmus editions of the New Testament was enormous.

As far as biblical studies are concerned, Erasmus set up not less than a new paradigm. After his works, it is no longer possible to just ignore the Greek text of the New Testament in any serious discussion on doctrines. As a result, since then, many theologians strived either to establish the best possible text of the New Testament, or to understand and comment it within the cultural and linguistic context. It was the starting points of many debates, since a lot of doctrines, based on the Latin text, had to be discussed again, and the explanations around them, either for or against them, had to be re-formulated; this brought a new approach to understanding the New Testament and the message of Jesus.

The Catholic Church firstly took Erasmus publication, which was authorised by the bishop of Basel, very positively. Several months later, the pope Leo X not only thanked Erasmus for his dedication, but also underlined the utility of his work for the theologians and encouraged him to pursue his good job for the benefit of Christianity. Only after Martin Luther hanged his thesis, and violent controversies between Protestants and Catholics multiplied, Erasmus and his works were more and more frequently and harshly accused to favour the Protestants. 40 years after the publication of his New Testament, Erasmus was to be found in the official list of the heretical authors, all the works of which were forbidden. However, because of the debates originated by his work, the Catholic Church admitted there were problems with the Vulgate and decided… to revise it, in order to make it closer to the Greek and Hebrew texts. 

Erasmus was in contact with Martin Luther, and in many points, both men were very close. but Erasmus never joined the protestant movement. However, Erasmus publication of the Greek new Testament is probably had a huge influence on the new movement: Luther’s translation of the New Testament in German in 1522 was based on Erasmus second edition of 1519, while the French translation of Olivetan in 1535 was based on his fourth edition of 1527. Even more importantly, the Greek text of Erasmus, inclusive some of his errors, was basically reproduced by later Protestant printers, and is at the core of the so-called Textus receptus. For example, Robert and Henri Estienne, in their later editions, modified their first edition of the Bible (published in 1546), in order to make its Greek text agree with the edition of Erasmus; their last edition in 1551 is at the base of the translations of both the Geneva Bible (1557) and the Bible de Genève (1560). This is also true of the editions of Theodore de Bèze, including the edition of the 1589 and 1598, which were the textual support for Authorised (King James) version of the New Testament (with very few exceptions. The Greek text of Erasmus is simply at the core of the book which at the core of the Protestant movement…

This is why, today, either as biblical scholar or as simple readers of the Bible, we are all much indebted to this achievement. In this sense, we are all the grandsons of Erasmus.



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