Erasmian Myths: The Rush to Print

In Erasmus Myths by Chris Thomas1 Comment

One of the more pernicious myths circulating about Erasmus concerns the quality of his Greek New Testament.  The story goes that it was filled with errors because Erasmus was rushing to print.  This myth was decimated by the eminent scholar Dr. M. A. Screech back in 1986 in his introduction to the Annotations of Erasmus.  Below are excerpts from that introduction which is almost impossible to acquire.  Dr. Jeffrey Riddle deals with this myth as well in his Word Magazine #25.  The purpose of this myth stems from the belief that if one can undermine the work of Erasmus, then one can undermined the Textus Receptus, the original and authentic Greek New Testament of the Reformers.  However, this assumes that no further work than that which was done by Erasmus occurred with regards to the Greek New Testament.  A patently absurd assumption.

The edition of 1516 formed a separate section of the Novum Instrumentum and is often bound separately, as a second volume. ‘l in, colophon is dated 1 March 1516. Since the printing of the work as a when, did not begin until 2 October 1515, it was set up and printed with some considerable speed -‘dashed out’ (praecipitatus) is the term Erasmus used. Yet Erasmus was not content simply to correct the proofs of a finished manuscript. Froben and others encouraged him to make fundamental modifications and additions to his texts as he went along. The Greek of the New Testament itself was modified during printing – not always by Erasmus in person. As for the Annotations, they were recast and expanded in proofs up to the last moment. It must have been a nightmare. Yet the 1516 Annotations are remarkably free of misprints; even the Greek New Testament is not quite so full of them as is often alleged. Anyone reading histories of New Testament scholarship finds that Erasmus has his detractors who repeat each other with bland assurance. Writers of established reputation pass on fantasies or legends, (Few of those who do show much acquaintance with the Annotations.) One legend, repeated from book to book for a century or more, asserts that Erasmus and Froben hurriedly skimped their work in order to steal a march on better scholars based in Spain. In Alcala de Henares – ‘Complutum’ in Latin – a team of scholars and theologians were working under Cardinal Ximenes and Lopes Stunica. Their aim was eventually fulfilled in a major work of scholarship, the Complutensian Polyglot, the complete Bible with texts in Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic and Latin. It is a fact that the New Testament forming part of this Polyglot had already been set up and printed at Complutum by 10 January 1514 – two years before Erasmus’ edition appeared on sale. But the work was not published, the intention being to bring out the volumes all together. Manuscripts were sent from the Vatican, and funds seemed limitless, Eventually a papal faculty to publish was granted on 22 March 1520, but even then there was delay and it was not put on sale until 1522. Erasmus and Froben had no need to hurry: Alcala de Henares is the home of manana.

One curious by-product of this legend of Erasmus’ unseemly haste is that a role has been foisted on to his Greek New Testament which was never claimed for it. The volume which Froben printed is not, primarily, an edition of the Greek text at all. This is an important point. Erasmus never gave the Greek Testament pride of place in his work as editor. Where New Testament texts were concerned, his scholarly life was dominated by recensions of the Vulgate. Of course, the evidence of the Greek Testament played a vital part in such work; of course he realised that Greek manuscripts needed editing; but that purpose remained subsidiary to another. Erasmus’ starting-point was the Vulgate, and his goal was a scholarly revision of it. It is often assumed that he translated his own new Latin text directly from the Greek. He did not. The enterprise was far more complicated.

Some time about 1505 Erasmus turned his critical attention to the Latin New Testament and started work on detailed, critical notes on it. Much of the work was carried out in England. His sources were both Latin and Greek. He pored over manuscripts of the New Testament – Latin first and then Greek – but also over the Fathers and exegetes. For some time the Latin element dominated, but both Latin and Greek made their contribution. During his years in England his task lay in restoring lost readings, eliminating scribal errors and detecting later interpolations. But that was not enough. Even the authentic, original Vulgate, in so far as it can be recovered, is seen to contain errors once it is compared with the Greek; such errors must be corrected. The Vulgate is often needlessly ambiguous or obscure. A better translation can often put that right. Here Erasmus had to tread with care. The Vulgate translation enjoyed great prestige: was it not the work of St Jerome? Even if Jerome had not translated it all, had he not revised it? Virtually everyone said so. Erasmus hesitated. He admired Jerome, and he could not allow that the Vulgate as known to his contemporaries with all its infelicities and corruptions should hide behind so great an authority. Jerome could not be held responsible for subsequent corruptions and interpolations, of course. But Erasmus went much further like the Frenchman Lefévre d’Etaples, he could not believe that Jerome himself had done so poor a job. By questioning Jerome’s responsibility, both scholars hoped to appease hostile critics; to condemn Jerome was unwise, but was he not justified in differing from an anonymous ‘translator’? Erasmus soon lost his air of cool detachment, and his tone was destined to set conservative teeth on edge:

I do not willingly differ from the translator (whoever he was). But when the matter itself cries out that he had nodded or was deluded, I have not been afraid to point this out to the reader, defending the truth in such a way as to offend nobody. (Preface to Annotations, *2v°)

But for ‘translator’ many continued mentally to substitute ‘Jerome’. Perhaps Jerome may, by implication, be said to have ‘nodded’ – Horace had said the same of Homer. But was it tactful – was it designed to ‘offend nobody’ – to claim that the ‘translator’ who was responsible for that most holy Latin text ‘had been deluded’ (hallucinatum fuisse)? Cicero had said as much of Epicurus (De Natura Deorum 1.26.72). An urbane bishop of Rome such as Leo X was not at all disturbed when Erasmus claimed that the Vulgate contained ‘evident and monstrous solecisms’, but the less urbane were scandalised – and some of them were powerful.

On his work of editing, correcting and improving Erasmus brought to bear the evidence of the best and oldest Latin manuscripts he could get hold of. Age was an important factor. He wanted to get back behind corrupt medieval texts to purer, older Vulgate readings. But as his knowledge of Greek and early Christian Latin improved, he saw more and more clearly that it was not enough to attempt to restore the Vulgate to its pristine state: the Vulgate is a translation which really does at times betray the Greek. But even when it does, the Annotations show that Erasmus did not simply emend it by translating his Greek directly into Latin. He minutely examined any ancient Latin versions of Scripture that came his way; isolated quotations or paraphrases in a Latin Father or in a Latin version of, say, Origen, might provide a better rendering of a word or phrase. He never restricted himself to manuscripts of the text of the New Testament. From the outset he made excellent use of commentaries and glosses.

P.S. Allen believed that Erasmus found himself in Basle without a copy of his own recension and that his last visit to England, in 1515, was a partly unsuccessful attempt to obtain one. But this seems unlikely. The letter cited by Allen written to Cardinal Grimaldi on 15 May 1515 , does not support his conjecture (of. EB 11, no. 384, preface, p. 183). There is a problem, however: in these manuscripts Erasmus is on the whole far less conservative than in his printed recension of 1516, and not until the 1519 edition do manuscripts and printed texts come close together. These divergencies cannot simply be explained in terms of manuscripts left behind in England. Some of Erasmus’ most provocative changes are ones which anybody would remember: Sermo for Verbum, say, in the first chapter of St John. Their absence from the 1516 edition must be explained on other grounds. Yet the 1516 text has a boldness of its own, and prudence cannot be the explanation. In 1516 Erasmus shocked critics by making Christ thank God the Father for revealing the secrets of the kingdom not to ‘babes’ but to ‘fools’ (deriving the idea from the Basle Theophylact). If prudence was the only consideration, can we say that Sermo for Logos is less rash than stulti for Christ’s népioi? Some of these bolder translations of 1516 disappear in 1519, precisely at the time when Erasmus put into print What is, in essentials, the more fundamental recension written out by Peter Meghen. Obviously the question demands further study.”






  1. Pingback: James White, Inconsistency, & Lying | Confessional Bibliology

Leave a Comment