Erasmus' Greek NT changed history 500 years ago

HOUSTON (BP) -- A conference and museum exhibit at Houston Baptist University helped mark the 500th anniversary of a Greek New Testament edition the exhibit's curator said "spurred the Reformation" and "continues to be important" for biblical studies.

Erasmus
Photo from Wikimedia Commons
On March 1, 1516, a Dutch priest named Desiderius Erasmus published the Greek New Testament's first ever "critical edition" -- a version that drew from all available Greek manuscripts to compile a text with wording as close as possible to that of the original inspired authors. That work, which went through four revisions, was the first published Greek text available to the public. It is credited with changing Bible translation, preaching and even the course of church history.

HBU commemorated the anniversary with a Feb. 25-27 conference and an exhibit in its Dunham Bible Museum scheduled to run through Dec. 16 titled "Renaissance of the Bible: 500th Anniversary of Erasmus' Greek Text, the Foundation for Reformation."

"We have the first three editions of Erasmus' Greek text in our collection, as well as Erasmus' 'Annotations' and 'Paraphrases' in English, so it was natural for us to have a special exhibit for this 500th anniversary," Dunham Museum director Diana Severance told Baptist Press. "As I began studying and putting together our exhibit, I gained new appreciation for Erasmus' foundational importance to the Reformation.

The first edition of Erasmus' Greek New Testament was printed with Greek on the left of each page and a new Latin translation on the right.
Houston Baptist University photo
"Erasmus saw the corruption in the church of his day and wanted to go back to the original source of the Christian faith, the Bible," Severance said in written comments. "He believed the Bible should be for everyone, not just for the educated elite, and should be translated into the common vernacular of the people."

'Textus Receptus'

Erasmus was born in 1466 in Rotterdam, the second largest city in the Netherlands today. After both his parents died of the plague, Erasmus was raised by monks in a monastery, where he fostered a love for books. Eventually, he left the monastery to study at the University of Paris and became a leading scholar of the 16th-century "humanist" movement, which studied ancient Greek and Latin works.

He experienced what church historian Timothy George called a "turning point" in 1504 when he discovered a century-old manuscript by Lorenzo Valla with notes about Paul's Epistles based on various Greek manuscripts. Inspired by Valla, Erasmus decided to publish a critical edition of the Greek New Testament.

"That had never been done before," said George, a keynote speaker at HBU's conference and dean of Samford University's Beeson Divinity School. Erasmus "collected manuscripts from all the places he could go -- universities and monasteries that kept these manuscripts -- brought them together, and began to collate them. And in 1516, a publisher in the city of Basel, Switzerland, named Froben published the first-ever critical edition of the New Testament, which Erasmus had edited."

Not even Erasmus realized the significance of his accomplishment, George told Baptist Press. His work became the basis for Martin Luther's German translation of the New Testament, William Tyndale's English translation and Hungarian and Spanish translations.

A century later, Erasmus' work was dubbed the "textus receptus" (Latin for "received text") and became the basis for the King James Version.

In the late 1520s, Erasmus proposed a "new" way of pronouncing Greek he believed to be consistent with classical Greek pronunciation. Known as "Erasmian" pronunciation, his scheme remained the standard method used in academic settings to pronounce biblical Greek for nearly 500 years until some scholars challenged it recently, George said.

'The egg Luther hatched'

In Germany, Luther studied the first edition of Erasmus' Greek New Testament as he formulated his "95 Theses," the document widely credited with launching the Protestant Reformation in 1517 by articulating a series of grievances against the Roman Catholic Church. The first three theses drew on Erasmus' translation of the Greek word metanoeite, in Matthew 3:2 and elsewhere, as "repent" rather than the traditional Catholic rendering of "do penance," which supported the sacramental system.

Erasmus, George said, "uncovered" that the Greek word referenced "a change of heart, a conversion of life" and "not just an act you do, a good work you perform."

"Luther got that, and he used Erasmus' Greek New Testament to give a whole different understanding of what repentance and penance was about," George said. "And that's what triggered the Reformation."

Though Erasmus never left the Roman Catholic Church, it has been said since of the Reformation for five centuries, "Erasmus laid the egg that Luther hatched."

A change in preaching

Rick Melick, distinguished professor of New Testament at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, told BP it is "unclear how many manuscripts [Erasmus] used in his work," but most originated in approximately the 10th century -- much later than the third- and fourth-century manuscripts that have since been discovered and are used by contemporary scholars.

"Now most scholars reject the Erasmus text as the best text," Melick said in written comments, "and therefore the translations based on it are also considered less than the best," though they are quite accurate.

Still, Erasmus' work "marked a significant turning point in history," Melick said, and "changed the way serious pastors approach preaching."

When today's preachers reference Greek words and language-study resources, they are following a tradition instituted in part by Erasmus.

Thanks to Erasmus and his successors who produced other critical New Testament editions, "pastors can read the Greek texts to verify the content of the New Testament," Melick said. "Critical editions enable them to make choices they believe are correct in places where there are variants. Pastors should work from the Greek text and in seminary are taught how to use it.

"Second, there are an abundance of resources that help pastors, based on the critical texts," he continued. "These include word studies, theological dictionaries, commentaries, lexicons and translations. These significantly improve the content of preaching. Third, the critical text enables pastors to make their way through the multiplicity of translations in any language."

'I vehemently dissent'

Erasmus wasn't without flaws, George said, noting he "missed ... the total gravity of sin and the depth of our alienation from God and so, therefore, the necessity of a grace that reaches deeper and is much more transformative."

Yet "at his heart, I think he really wanted to follow Jesus Christ and encourage other people to live a Christian life," George said.

That included providing common people with access to the New Testament, which appeared in Latin translation alongside the Greek in his original edition.

"I vehemently dissent from those who would not have private persons read the Holy Scriptures nor have them translated into the vulgar tongues," Erasmus wrote in the preface to his 1516 edition. "... Would that they were translated into all languages so that not only Scotch and Irish, but Turks and Saracens [a medieval term for Arabs] might be able to read and know them."

David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.
Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP).
Download Story