By George Carter
His Greek New Testament, together with his commentaries, are regarded as the catalyst that sparked the Reformation
Photo: Hans Holbein d. J. – Erasmus – Louvre
Erasmus was a Roman Catholic priest who never pastored a church. He devoted his life to early manuscripts in order to bring the truth of the New Testament to the general public, contrary to the bidding of church authority. He insisted that the Gospel belonged to the people and was vital to their welfare.
Because of his wilful honesty, he was maligned by his contemporaries. He refuted any interpretation of Matthew 16:18, which might suggest that the authority of the Pope was passed down from Peter as the first head of the church, found no support for the doctrine of the Trinity in viable scripture and adamantly opposed infant baptism as illogical and clearly not the practice of the apostles or the first century church. Erasmus observed that those who advocated the unnatural practice of celibacy seldom adhered to it.
During the ‘Dark Ages’ reading and writing went into sharp decline. It fell to monasteries to preserve the scriptures and other literature. So highly esteemed were men who could read and write that they were not to be executed even when guilty of capital offences. Throughout these ages of relative ignorance, despite the inroads of false tradition and pagan belief into the churches, God moved particular men to maintain the integrity of scripture and we should never take that for granted.
Johannes Gutenberg’s inspired new printing press effectively broke the monopoly of the church and the moneyed elite. When Gutenberg printed 180 Bibles simultaneously in 1455, it was really the beginning of modern times. The Renaissance and the Reformation came together, joined hand-in-hand as it were by the printing press.
Long before Martin Luther’s 95 theses were nailed to the door of Wittenberg Castle in 1517 (thus starting the Reformation) there were Protestant groups such as the Waldensians, the Albigenses, Paulicians, and the Lollards. Individuals like John Knox, William Tyndale, John Calvin and countless others who paid with their lives for upholding Biblical truth, often being publicly burned alive as a deterrent to other would-be opponents of church authority.
Desiderius Erasmus (1464 – 1536) was born into this world wherein men must earnestly contend for the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3). In 1516 Erasmus published the New Testament in Greek, which is now often referred to as the Textus Receptus, or received text. He went on to publish five editions, correcting each one. The Third Edition was used by Tyndale for the first English New Testament (1526) and then by the translators of the Geneva Bible and the King James Version. Luther used it for his German translation and in fact it was the basis for most subsequent New Testament translations from the 16th through the 19th centuries.
Erasmus worked in Basel, Switzerland with the printer Johann Froben. He took no manuscripts with him, but relied on those he consulted in Basel where he also had a friend familiar with Hebrew. He chose three manuscripts of the Gospels, four of the Pauline Epistles, but had only one of Revelation, which was missing the last part. He used the Latin Vulgate to finish it, but found it to be incorrect and so corrected it in the next edition. Although there was no other Greek New Testaments in print at that time, his effort was not well received by scholars at Oxford and Cambridge.
He was taken to task for omitting parts of 1 John 5: 7- 8, the most famous insert used to bolster belief in the Trinity doctrine. Erasmus replied that he had not found it in any Greek manuscript. He was told that Latin manuscripts were more reliable and was further accused of Arianism (denying that Jesus was indeed one in substance with the Father). In fact, Erasmus argued, even some of the Latin manuscripts did not contain the words in question, so it was not a matter of omission on his part as of non-addition (see Revelation 22:18-19).
Meanwhile, he had apparently promised that if those words (the so-called Comma Johanneum) were indeed found in any manuscript, he would include it. A single 16th century document – the Codex Montfortianus – contained it, so he added it, but expressed doubt of its authenticity in his annotations.
He travelled at will over Holland, England, France and Switzerland, being recognized as one of the foremost scholars of Greek and Latin literature and an academic well-versed in the Bible. He became familiar with manuscripts of the Bible all over Europe and his readings led him to oppose much of traditional Christianity. Even so, unlike Luther, he preferred to remain in the church and work for reform from within.
It is held against Erasmus that he dedicated the first edition of his ‘Novum Instrumentum’ (New Instrument) to Pope Leo X without seeking permission and had his friend Bombasius get formal approval. However, he was well aware that the Latin Vulgate was the official Bible and that the Greek New Testament would be opposed. He was smart, but authorities began to regard him as more dangerous then Martin Luther, especially since he wanted all men to read the Bible.
It became a popular proverb that ‘Erasmus laid the eggs and Luther hatched the chickens’. However, although his Greek New Testament, together with his commentaries, strongly affected Luther, Martin and other Reformers attacked Erasmus because he did not officially leave the church. Ergo he was targeted from both sides. Unbending, Erasmus quoted from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: We preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Gentiles foolishness, but to them that are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:23).
Popular demand for Greek New Testaments caused a frenzy of publishing, both authorized and otherwise, but most of them were based on Erasmus’s work. Today a groundswell of scholarly opinion opposes any idea that the Gospels and Epistles were originally written or published in Greek, maintaining that they must have been in Hebrew and Aramaic – another story for another time perhaps.