One of the common claims made against Desiderius Erasmus’ Greek New Testament is that he only had access to 6 or 7 Greek manuscripts. Like many stories about Erasmus, this one contains a kernel of truth surrounded by a coating of outright misinformation. So let’s look at what we know.
Herman C. Hoskier on Erasmus and Revelation:
I may state that if Erasmus had striven to found a text on the largest number of existing MSS in the world of one type, he could not have succeeded better, since his famiIy-MSS occupy the front rank in point of actual numbers, the family numbering over 20 MSS, beside its allies (The John Rylands Bulletin 19-1922/23. p. 118).
Looking at the book, you will notice lengthy footnotes taken from the writings of Erasmus.
“Nor let it be conceived, in disparagement of the great undertaking of Erasmus, that he was merely fortuitously right. Had he barely undertaken to perpetuate the tradition on which he received the sacred text, he would have done as much as could be required of him, and more than sufficient to put to shame the puny efforts of those who have vainly laboured to improve upon his design. His extraordinary success in that immortal work may be clearly traced to the wisdom of the plan on which he proceeded. And little more is necessary than to follow him in his defence of that plan, in order to produce, in his own words, a complete refutation of the objections on which he has been condemned ; and a full exposure of the shallowness of those principles, on which his labours would be now superseded, by a different system of critical emendation.
With respect to Manuscripts, it is indisputable that he was acquainted with every variety which is known to us; having distributed them into two principal classes, one of which corresponds with the Complutensian edition, the other with the Vatican manuscript. And he has specified the positive grounds on which he received the one and rejected Sic other. The former was in possession of the Greek Church, the latter in that of the Latin ; judging from the internal evidence, he had as good reason to conclude the Eastern Church had not corrupted their received text, as he had grounds to suspect the Rhodians, from whom the Western Church derived their manuscripts, had accommodated them to the Latin Vulgate. One short insinuation which he has thrown out, sufficiently proves, that his objections to these manuscripts lay more deep ; and they do immortal credit to his sagacity. In the age in which the Vulgate was formed, the Church, he was aware, was infested with Origenists and Arians; an affinity between any manuscript and that version, consequently conveyed some suspicion that its text was corrupted. So little dependance was he inclined to place upon the authority of Origen, who is the pillar and ground of the Corrected edition.”
Erasmus consulted many mss:
These selections from the English correspondence have made it clear that Erasmus in England was precisely what he had always been, a keen-sighted observer of men and things, a hater of all shams but his own, a sturdy beggar, a jovial companion and correspondent when he was in the mood, above all an independent liver and thinker, dreading any routine that was not self-imposed, but capable of steady and persistent work when he could put his time on congenial tasks. Of these labours, to which he devoted himself in England, the new edition of the Greek New Testament, or, as he preferred to call it, the “New Instrument,” held the first place in his interest. It was not to be published until 1516, a year or more after he had left England, and Erasmus says that he consulted manuscripts in Brabant and Basel before printing; but it seems tolerably clear that a considerable part of the preparatory work was done at Cambridge. He writes to Colet, as early as 1511: “I have finished the collation of the New Testament,” by which he must mean that he had done all that he intended to do at it in England. In speaking of the work at Basel he refers to the great haste with which it was pushed, the object being, probably, on Froben’s part, to get ahead of a similar undertaking reported to be under way in Spain. This latter work, to be known as the “Complutensian Polyglot,” was going on under the direction of Cardinal Ximenes at Alcalá (Complutum). It was to include the whole Bible, and though the New Testament was completed in 1514 it was held back to appear with the rest in 1520. When Erasmus says that he used “very many manuscripts in both languages, and those not the readiest to hand, but the most ancient and most correct,” he is speaking after the standards of his day. In fact, recent scholarship has shown that he not only used very defective manuscripts of no great antiquity, but that he failed to make adequate use of the best one at his disposal.
In spite of the fact, then, that the actual work of publication was done at Basel, we may fairly count this great work as one of the fruits of the English period. Rightly to estimate the value of this service to the cause of a reasonable Christianity, we must consider for a moment the conditions of biblical scholarship in the year 1511. That the ultimate appeal in matters of Christian faith lay to the inspired word of the recognised canon of Scripture, no one doubted for a moment. True, the governing powers of the Church had insisted that alongside this source of truth there were two others of equal importance, the tradition of the Church and the authority of the Roman papacy; but Church and papacy had always been conceived of as expressing their own judgment through their interpretation of Scripture. Nothing which they could lay down could ever be in contradiction to the true teaching of the canonical writings. A modern mind would say, therefore, that nothing could have seemed more important to these interpreting agents than to know precisely what the writers whom they were interpreting had said and meant. One would think that every effort would have been made from the beginning to secure and maintain a version of the Scriptures in their original form, of such unquestionable accuracy that all deviations of interpretation could be anticipated and checked.
Erasmus was astonished at these discussions. He had imagined the season to be most favorable. “Everything looks peaceful,” he had said to himself; “now is the time to launch my Greek Testament into the learned world.” As well might the sun rise upon the earth, and no one see it! At that very hour God was raising up a monk at Wittenberg who would lift the trumpet to his lips, and proclaim the new day. “Wretch that I am!” 1729 exclaimed the timid scholar, beating his breast, “who could have foreseen this horrible tempest!” Nothing was more important at the dawn of the Reformation than the publication of the Testament of Jesus Christ in the original language. Never had Erasmus worked so carefully. “If I told what sweat it cost me, no one would believe me.” He had collated many Greek M.S.S. of the New Testament, and was surrounded by all the commentaries and translations, by the writings of Origen, Cyprian, Ambrose, Basil, Chrysostom, Cyril, Jerome, and Augustine. Hic sum in campo meo! he exclaimed as he sat in the midst of his books. He had investigated the texts according to the principles of sacred criticism. When a knowledge of Hebrew was necessary, he had consulted Capito, and more particularly Oecolampadius. Nothing without Theseus, said he of the latter, making use of a Greek proverb. He had corrected the amphibologies, obscurities, hebraisms, and barbarisms, of the Vulgate; and had caused a list to be printed of the errors in that version.
“We must restore the pure text of the word of God,” he had said; and when he heard the maledictions of the priests, he had exclaimed: “I call God to witness I thought I was doing a work acceptable to the Lord and necessary to the cause of Christ.” Nor in this was he deceived.
At the head of his adversaries was Edward Lee, successively king’s almoner, archdeacon of Colchester, and archbishop of York. Lee, at that time but little known, was a man of talent and activity, but also vain and loquacious, and determined to make his way at any cost. Even when a schoolboy, he looked down on all his companions. As child, youth, man, and in mature years, he was always the same, Erasmus tells us; that is to say, vain, envious, jealous, boasting, passionate, and revengeful.
When Erasmus came to Basel in July, 1515, to begin his work, he found five Greek New Testament manuscripts ready for his use. These are now designated by the following numbers: 1 (an 11th-century manuscript of the Gospels, Acts, and Epistles), 2 (a 15th-century manuscript of the Gospels), 2ap (a 12th-14th-century manuscript of Acts and the Epistles), 4ap (a 15th-century manuscript of Acts and the Epistles), and 1r (a 12th-century manuscript of Revelation). Of these manuscripts Erasmus used 1 and 4ap only occasionally. In the Gospels Acts, and Epistles his main reliance was on 2 and 2ap. (12)
Did Erasmus use other manuscripts beside these five in preparing his Textus Receptus? The indications are that he did. According to W. Schwarz (1955), Erasmus made his own Latin translation of the New Testament at Oxford during the years 1505-6. His friend, John Colet who had become Dean of St. Paul’s, lent him two Latin manuscripts for this undertaking, but nothing is known about the Greek manuscripts which he used. (13) He must have used some Greek manuscripts or other, however, and taken notes on them. Presumably therefore he brought these notes with him to Basel along with his translation and his comments on the New Testament text. It is well known also that Erasmus looked for manuscripts everywhere during his travels and that he borrowed them from everyone he could. Hence although the Textus Receptus was based mainly on the manuscripts which Erasmus found at Basel, it also included readings taken from others to which he had access. It agreed with the common faith because it was founded on manuscripts which in the providence of God were readily available.
The logical conclusion, is that while he used half a dozen or so at Basel, during his travels leading up to 1516, and even after, we know that he encountered other Greek mss and made use of them is his Greek collation. Therefore, to claim he solely used half a dozen as many uncharitable critics of Erasmus do, is quite simply false. Unless one wishes to claim that 20 manuscripts and their allies is somehow only 6.