Erasmian Myths: Revelation Back Translated from the Vulgate?

One of the more notorious myths about Erasmus is that he backtranslated the last 6 verses of the book of Revelation.  There are many articles on the internet purporting to prove conclusively that Erasmus did in fact back translate from the Latin Vulgate the last few verses of Revelation.  However, this makes little sense when one takes into account Erasmus’ refusal to utilize portions of Codex Vaticanus that were provided to him, because of his belief that the codex was in part itself modified through backtranslation to conform more closely with the Latin Vulgate when the Greek Orthodox Christians were allowed into the Latin communion in 1439 during the Florentine Council. (note 1) (note 2) (note 3) It makes even less sense when one looks at his correspondence with Edward Lee.  In this post we will look at the following:

  • Comments from Erasmus used to support the claim that he back translated the last 6 verses of Revelation from the Latin Vulgate
  • Comments from Erasmus that demonstrate that people have misinterpreted what Erasmus previously said
  • And a comparison of Erasmus’ Greek with other Greek texts to demonstrate the over blown claim that the text of Erasmus has wild differences in it

Erasmus said he back translated

Quamquam in calce huius libri nonnulla ver ba reperi apud nostros quae aberant in Graecis exemplaribus; ea tamen ex latinis adiecimus.

However, at the end of this book, I found some words in our versions which were lacking in the Greek copies, but we added them from the Latin.

Annotationes in ed. 1516, p. 675

Dubium non erat quin essent omissa, et er – ant perpauca. Proinde nos, ne hiaret lacuna, ex nostris Latinis supplevimus Graeca. Quod ipsum tamen noluimus latere lectorem, fassi in annotationibus quid a nobis esset factum ut, si quid dissiderent verba nostra ab his quae posuisset autor huius operis, lector nactus exemplar restitueret. … Et tamen hoc ipsum non eramus ausuri in Euangeliis, quod hic fecimus, ac ne in epistolis quidem apostolicis. Huius libri sermo simplicissimus est, et argumentum fere historicum, ne quid dicam, de autore olim incerto. Postremo locus hic coronis tantum est operis.

There was no doubt that the words had been omitted, and they were only a few. To avoid leaving a lacuna in my text, I supplied the Greek out of our Latin version. I did not want to conceal this from the reader, however, and admitted in the annotations what I had done. My thought was that the reader, if he had access to a manuscript, could correct anything in our words that differed from those put by the author of this work. … And yet I would not have dared to do in the Gospels or even in the apostolic Epistles what I have done here. The language of this book is very simple, and the content has mostly a historical sense, not to mention that the authorship was once uncertain. Finally, this passage is merely the conclusion of the work.

Source:  Resp. ad annot. Ed. Lei, ASD IX-4, p. 278 ll. 35-39 and 39-43; cf. p. 120 ll. 303-304.  Translated by Erika Rummel

Looking at these quotes it seems pretty convincing that Erasmus back translated from the Latin Vulgate and put that in his printed editions.  But here’s the problem.  If Erasmus truly printed a back translation of the Latin Vulgate in his editions, then how do we explain the following:

In calce Apocalypsis in exemplari quod tum nobis erat unicum (nam is liber apud Graecos rarus est inventu), deerat unus atque alter versus. Eos nos addidimus, secuti Latinos codices. Et erant eiusmodi ut ex his quae praecesserant possent reponi. Cum igitur Basileam mitterem recognitum exemplar, scripsi amicis ut ex aeditione Aldina restituerunt eum locum. Nam mihi nondum emptum erat hoc opus. Id ita, ut iussi, factum est. Queso, quid hic debetur Leo? An ipse quod deerat restituit? Atqui nullum habebat exemplar nisi meum. Sed admonuit. Quasi vero non hoc testatus sim in prioribus annotationibus, quid illic egissem et quid de syderarem.

At the end of the Apocalypse, the manuscript I used (I had only one, for the book is rarely found in Greek) was lacking one or two lines. I added them, following the Latin codices. They were of the kind that could be restored out of the preceding text. Thus, when I sent the revised copy to Basel, I wrote to my friends to restore the place out of the Aldine edition; for I had not yet bought that work. They did as I instructed them. What, I ask you, do I owe to Lee in this case? Did he himself restore what was missing? But he had no text except mine. Ah, but he warned me! As if I had not stated in the annotations of the first edition what I had done and what was missing.

Source: Apolog. resp. inuect. Ed. Lei(Apologia qua respondet duabis inuectiuis Eduardi Lei), ASD IX-4, pp.54-55 ll. 894-914. Translation Erika Rummel in CWE 72, p. 44.

So much for the supposed admission of back translation in his Annotations.  The Greek for the last few verses (or just v 19 depending upon whom you read) was provided from the Greek manuscripts of the Aldine printers.  The idea that Erasmus would emend his Greek text from the Latin Vulgate was contrary to the very thing he was producing:  a fresh Latin translation!  It is the height of absurdity to claim that he back translated from the Vulgate into Greek and then retranslated his Latinized Greek back into Latin.

And let us not forget the episode with Erasmus and the Comma Johanneum.  It was not printed in his first 2 editions.  Now this should strike his critics who accuse him of back translation as very odd indeed.  Why didn’t he simply back translate the CJ from the Vulgate and provide the Greek text for it that and thereby avoid the controversy?  All that time and effort spent on procuring a Greek text with the verse could have been avoided as well.  And yet, he chose not to print it because he had no Greek manuscript which contained the verse.  That alone tells us all we need about the last 5 verses in Erasmus Greek New Testament.  From Erasmus’ own behavior in dealing with the CJ, we can conclude that he would not put a back translation of the Vulgate in place of the Greek text.

This contention is made even more ridiculous when one compares his Greek text with other Greek texts.  The purpose of such claims about Erasmus is to undermine the authentic Greek text, the Textus Receptus.  However, such people fail to take into account the work of Beza and Stephanus on the Textus Receptus.  Let’s not forget the Stephanus’ 1550 Greek New Testament is an independent witness to the Textus Receptus composed primarily of 15 Greek manuscripts that Stephanus borrowed from the Library of the King of France.  Why is this important?  For two reasons:  1)  Attempts to discredit the Textus Receptus by attempting to discredit Erasmus become meaningless as the 1550 edition became the standard Greek text of the Reformation.  2)  It is often claimed that Erasmus introduced never before seen Greek readings when he back translated.  But this is shown to be false in the below comparison chart.

Erasmus Greek compared with the Aldine Greek

Like the story about the Comma Johanneum Wager and Codex Vaticanus, this story is nothing but smoke and mirrors.  Another myth in a long series of myths about Erasmus that are designed to undermine one’s faith in the authentic Greek text.

About the Author:

I hold to the historic Confessional view of Scripture as found in Chapter 1 of the WCF/2LBCF. I reject Restorationist Textual Criticism and affirm Preservationist Textual Criticism

2 Comments

  1. James Snapp Jr June 10, 2016 at 4:55 pm - Reply

    Surely something has gone unnoticed regarding the chronology of Erasmus’ statements; the statement in which Erasmus refers to the Aldine edition must have been written after Erasmus’ first edition was already published (and after the initial retro-translation at the end of Rev. had already been done, and was in print). In other words, that comment pertains to the third edition, not to the first edition, of Erasmus’ compilation.

    Hoskier made a thorough study of all known Greek MSS of Revelation. It is available online. If you find therein MSS (not copied from printed books) of Revelation that agree with Erasmus’ text of the last six verses of Revelation, please point them out.

    • Chris Thomas June 10, 2016 at 5:23 pm - Reply

      Not unnoticed, just not pertinent to the backtranslation myth. And I believe it is his 2nd and not his 3rd he’s referencing. The point is that Erasmus’ emphasis was on making a new Latin translation. Which makes rather the silly the back translation claim when taken in light of his rejection of Vaticanus (see de Jonge) because it had been emended.

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