Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536)
Erasmus of Rotterdam is one
of the most famed and criticised scholars who have ever lived. He was the
undisputed leader of the Revival of Learning, and the greatest intellect of his
generation. During his lifetime he was offered riches and positions beyond
anyone's wildest dreams. The kingdoms of England and Germany offered him any
position in their realms, France and Spain set their lands before him, and Pope
Paul II extended to him the position of a Cardinal. No doubt the office of the
Pope and head of Christendom could have been his had he so chosen. But all these
offers he refused.
Desiderius Erasmus was born around 1466 in Rotterdam, Holland, the illegitimate son of a Dutch priest. He became an Augustinian monk at the age of 21, but was later released from his vows, and went on to study theology at the University of Paris. Later he was professor of Greek at Cambridge University. He has the distinction of having published the first printed Greek New Testament in 1516. Upon the basis of this work came the major Bible translations of England, Germany, France, Italy, Holland, Sweden and Denmark, including Luther's (1522), Tyndale's (1525), the French Oliveton version (1535), the Italian Diodati (l607), and most famous of all, the English Authorized King James Version (1611).
Erasmus the Reformer
Erasmus became a leading figure in attempting to bring about reform within the Roman Catholic Church. He openly criticised the great many corruptions and abuses which he saw in the monasteries and among the priesthood, especially in his work In Praise of Folly (1510). He stood against the Inquisition and the treatment of the Church against so called "heretics." He rejected images, relics, prayers to Mary, clerical celibacy, pilgrimages and other superstitions of Rome, many of these criticisms finding their way into the notes alongside his text. Christianity, said Erasmus, had been made to consist not in loving one's neighbour, but in abstaining from butter and cheese during Lent. Such an impact he made that the Church hierarchies offered him bishoprics in order to silence him, but to no avail. He was not afraid of controversy. He produced his Greek text with the aim of bringing much needed reform to the Church. Despite opposition, Erasmus always enjoyed powerful support, both inside the Church and out. Perhaps one of his strongest allies was Pope Leo X. Leo had helped Erasmus immeasurably, and Erasmus in gratitude even dedicated his Greek New Testament to him. It was not until after his death that there was any official Church action against him. Until then it had been just private individuals. After his death his works, including his Greek Text, were placed on the Index of Forbidden Books by the Council of Trent (1545-1563), and he was labelled an "impious heretic."
Unlike Luther, Erasmus thought that reform would best come by raising people's intellectual understanding, and by returning to the moral teachings of Christ. Luther on the other hand sought reform, not among Europe's intellectual giants, but among the simple. For this he relied, not upon scholarly learning, but upon the power of the gospel which is foolishness to the wise and learned of this world.
However Erasmus was a moral reformer, not a doctrinal one. The evils he fault against were hypocrisy, pride, greed, selfishness, immorality, injustice and ignorance. In this he was very much influenced by the teachings of Christ, the classics, and the early church fathers. Above all he wanted moderation from both parties. He hated the bigotry and intolerance he found among the clerics of the Roman Church, but feared that Luther's intolerance would simply entrench both parties into the same error. Though Erasmus had much sympathy for the ideas of the great reformer Martin Luther, and believed that many of Luther's criticisms were just, he also felt that Luther's style of reform was in danger of destroying all the work towards tolerance that he humanists had been campaigning to bring about for so long. Initially Erasmus had looked upon Luther and the Reformation with favour. But as the lines were increasingly drawn, Erasmus could not join a movement which had failed to live out the moral precepts of Christ: "I never look for moderation in Luther, but for so malicious a calumny I was certainly not prepared."1
Finally the Church pressured Erasmus to publicly oppose the Lutheran reformation. This he did, though reluctantly, by publishing in December 1525 his De Libero Arbitrio (Of Free Will). In this way he could publicly show disagreement with Luther without criticizing the valid protests of Luther. In the book Erasmus defined ‘free will’ as "a power in the human will, by which a man may apply himself to those things which lead unto eternal salvation, or turn away from the same." Luther responded with the book 'The Bondage of the Will,' in which he rejected the idea of free will altogether, teaching that man has no power in and of himself to respond to the Gospel. He complained that Erasmus used too much eloquence and not enough substance in his work, saying, “One cannot lay hold of you. You are like an eel that slips through the fingers; or like the fabulous Proteus who changes his form in the very arms of those who wish to grasp him." Erasmus found himself caught between two increasingly intolerant parties. The Protestants held a bitter grudge against him, and the Romanists treated him with increasing suspicion. The dream of Erasmus was for a united Christendom, purged of superstition, a Europe wide Christian humanism where love, joy, righteousness and justice prevailed.
His views on reform thus differed from Luther's and caused a rift between the two.
Erasmus the Scholar
Erasmus was the leading intellectual giant and Renaissance humanist.2 Though he produced the first Greek text, and revered the teaching of Scripture, he did not believe in the inspiration of the text in the same way that it would later be understood by Evangelicals. He rejected Pauline authorship of the letter to the Hebrews, and doubted if the pastorals had been written by Paul. He believed that the Gospel of Mark was an abridgement of Matthew, and did not believe that the accounts of the Gospels were infallible in their details. However Erasmus did believe and accept the central facts of the Gospel, as declared in the Apostle's Creed.
The text produced by Erasmus was called the Textus Receptus or the Received Text. He had five manuscripts which he collated to produce his text. Erasmus' brought out five editions altogether, in 1516, 1519, 1522, 1527 and 1535. The first edition had been put together hastily, but subsequent editions corrected any minor errors. His work was continued by Robert Stephens, who had sixteen manuscripts to base his work on.3 He brought out editions in 1546, 1550, 1551 and 1559. Between 1559 and 1598 Theodore Beza, Calvin's successor, produced five editions. He had some ancient manuscripts that Stephens had not had access to. Finally the Elzevir brothers produced a Greek text in 1624, calling itself the Textus Receptus. And so in Europe, by the Received Text is meant this edition, whereas in England the 1550 edition of Stephens is meant.4 It should be noted that the vast majority of the differences in these versions were that of spelling, accents, word order and other minor differences
For the first time Europe had in its possession a pure text of the New Testament. But his work was soon bitterly criticized by conservative Churchmen when they began to realise the affect this was having on people's minds, as the traditions of centuries suddenly came under the scrutiny of the pure Gospel. They called him "Behemoth" and "Antichrist." And the Sorbonne condemned 37 articles extracted from his writings in 1527.5 Erasmus complained: "I did my best with the New Testament, but it provoked endless quarrels. Edward Lee (Archbishop of York) pretended to have discovered 300 errors. They appointed a commission, which professed to have found bushels of them. Every dinner table rang with the blunders of Erasmus. I required particulars and could not have them."6
The text of Erasmus has often been criticised for relying too heavily upon too few relatively late manuscripts. Competent scholars have challenged the assumptions drawn from this, both in the past and in our day. Though he had a few manuscripts in his possession, he nonetheless had access to far more. Erasmus had access to every library of Europe, including the Vatican, and was given the readings of its famous manuscript the Vaticanus (or Codex B), upon which the modern critical Greek texts are based. Erasmus rejected its readings as corrupt. Though originally written in the fourth century, it was retouched some centuries later, before falling into disuse. It's text has never been independently verified by any other manuscript, the closest to it being the Alexandrinus, which itself differs from it in countless places. It's Greek is a form of classical Greek, and it texts exhibits many marks of corruption and omission. Erasmus relied instead upon the Eastern manuscripts written in the common Greek of the New Testament, and did not use the Vatican translation. Another Greek text called the Complutensian Polyglot, produced by Spanish scholar Ximenes before Erasmus', though not published till after, contained virtually the same readings as the Received Text, and used ancient codices made available by the Vatican library.7 Erasmus had collated many Greek manuscripts and was familiar with the commentaries and translations of Origen, Cyprian, Ambrose, Basil, Chrysostom, Cyril, Jerome and Augustine.
Though the manuscripts Erasmus possessed were few, they were a good cross section of the mainstream of the Greek texts available. The Chairman of the 1881 Revision Committee Bishop Ellicott, a critic of the Received Text said this "The manuscripts which Erasmus used differ, for the most part, only in small and insignificant details from the bulk of the cursive manuscripts. The general character of their text is the same. By this observation the pedigree of the Received Text is carried up beyond the individual manuscripts used by Erasmus . . . That pedigree stretches back to remote antiquity. The first ancestor of the Received Text was at least contemporary with the oldest of our extant manuscripts, if not older than any one of them."8
The first two additions omitted the 'Johannine Comma,' the verse from 1 John 5:7, present in the Latin Vulgate, which spoke of the three heavenly witnesses. For this he was heavily criticised. Edward Lee, later Archbishop of York, called him an Arian. In response Erasmus answered "Is it negligence and impiety, if I did not consult manuscripts which were simply not within my reach? I have at least assembled whatever I could assemble. Let Lee produce a Greek MS. which contains what my edition does not contain and let him show that that manuscript was within my reach. Only then can he reproach me with negligence in sacred matters."9 And so the stage was set for what has become the modern critics great battle cry against Erasmus; his insertion of the comma into his text based upon one late manuscript. Now that he had agreed to put the verse into a future edition, if the verse could be found in any Greek manuscripts.10 A Greek manuscript (61) from Britain containing the verse was shown to him. He suspected that the manuscript had been written for the purpose, but true to his promise subsequent editions contained the verse.11
Erasmus the Christian
"We are assured of victory over death, victory over the flesh, victory over the world and Satan. Christ promises us remission of sins, fruits in this life a hundredfold and therefore life eternal. And for what reason? For the sake of our merit? No indeed, but through the grace of faith which is in Christ Jesus . . . Christ is our justification . . . I believe there are many not absolved by the priest, not having taken the Eucharist, not having been anointed, not having received Christian burial who rest in peace, while many who have had all the rites of the Church and have been buried next to the altar have gone to hell . . . Flee to His wounds and you will be safe."12
Erasmus fell victim to stone, gout and dysentery, and died aged 70 at Basel, Switzerland on July 12, 1536. As he passed away he spoke the words "O Jesus, have mercy; Lord, deliver me; Lord, make an end; Lord, have mercy upon me!"
He was buried in the Protestant cathedral at Basel. His funeral was attended by eminent men from both the Roman Catholic and Protestant camps.
1 Erasmus, Letters, 1,18.
2 Note that a humanist at this time was simply somebody who studied classical Greek literature, language and culture.
3 These are no longer available. There is evidence that they were burned during a Spanish firework party in the seventeenth century. Once MSS had been collated they were thought to be no longer needed.
4 This information on the different editions was taken from an article by Terence H. Brown of the Trinitarian Bible Society in London, which is used in The Providential Preservation of the Greek Text of the New Testament by Rev. W MacLean, Westminster Standard.
5 Phillip Schaff History of the Christian Church Volume VII - The German Reformation
6 Benjamin Wilkinson, Our Authorized Version Vindicated in True or False?, David Otis Fuller
7 See Frederick G. Kenyon, Handbook to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament, referred to in David Otis Fuller, ed. Counterfeit or Genuine?
8 Otis Fuller, ed., Which Bible?
9 Erasmus, Liber tertius quo respondet reliquis annotationibus Ed. Lei (LB IX 199-284) [May, 1520]. Translated by Henk J. de Jonge in "Erasmus and the Comma Johanneum" (Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses 56 , 381-389).
10 The manuscripts now known to contain the verse are 61, 88mg, 629, 634mg, 636mg, omega 110, 429mg, 221, and 2318. It is also found in two lectionaries (60, 173), and it probably appeared in Codex Ephraim (E) which dates to the 8th century, and which was used by the historian Bede. It also appears in the Latin, Armenian and Slavonic ancient versions, and possibly the old Syriac also. The verse is also found in the following early church fathers: Tertullian (200 AD), Cyprian (250 AD) Athanasius (318 AD) Priscillian (380), Jerome (390 AD), Fulgentius (527 AD), Cassiodorus (570), and the Council of Carthage (485).
11 This is Codex Monfortanius, dated by scholars at 1520, and believed to have been written for the purpose of confuting Erasmus. However the verse in this manuscript contains peculiar distinctions, which is why some have dated it much earlier, including Adam Clarke who dated it 13th century. It appears that Erasmus inserted the verse based upon Codex Britannicus, not the Montford MS. Scholars wish to equate the two, but the readings of the Montford and Erasmus are different, and Erasmus claimed to have got his reading from the Britannicus. See Charles Forster, A New Plea for the Authenticity of the Text of the Three Heavenly Witnesses, (Cambridge: Deighton Bell and Co., 1867), 126.
12 Roland Bainton, Erasmus of Christendom, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1969