Herculean Labours: Erasmus and the Editing of St. Jeromes Letters in the Renaissance

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He wrote, "There remains the New Testament translated by me, with the Greek facing, and notes on it by me. So he included the Greek text to permit qualified readers to verify the quality of his Latin version. But by first calling the final product Novum Instrumentum omne "All of the New Teaching" and later Novum Testamentum omne "All of the New Testament" he also indicated clearly that he considered a text in which the Greek and the Latin versions were consistently comparable to be the essential core of the church's New Testament tradition. In a way it is legitimate to say that Erasmus "synchronized" or "unified" the Greek and the Latin traditions of the New Testament by producing an updated version of either simultaneously.

Both being part of canonical tradition, he clearly found it necessary to ensure that both were actually presenting the same content. In modern terminology, he made the two traditions "compatible". This is clearly evidenced by the fact that his Greek text is not just the basis for his Latin translation, but also the other way round: there are numerous instances where he edits the Greek text to reflect his Latin version. For instance, since the last six verses of Revelation were missing from his Greek manuscript, Erasmus translated the Vulgate's text back into Greek.

Erasmus said it was "rushed into print rather than edited", [37] resulting in a number of transcription errors. After comparing what writings he could find, Erasmus wrote corrections between the lines of the manuscripts he was using among which was Minuscule 2 and sent them as proofs to Froben. Recognitum et Emendatum. Erasmus used several Greek manuscript sources because he did not have access to a single complete manuscript.

Most of the manuscripts were, however, late Greek manuscripts of the Byzantine textual family and Erasmus used the oldest manuscript the least because "he was afraid of its supposedly erratic text. In the second edition, the more familiar term Testamentum was used instead of Instrumentum. This edition was used by Martin Luther in his German translation of the Bible , written for people who could not understand Latin.

Together, the first and second editions sold 3, copies. By comparison, only copies of the Complutensian Polyglot were ever printed.


The first and second edition texts did not include the passage 1 John —8 that has become known as the Comma Johanneum. Erasmus had been unable to find those verses in any Greek manuscript, but one was supplied to him during production of the third edition.

That manuscript is now thought to be a creation from the Latin Vulgate , which likely got the verses from a fifth-century marginal gloss in a Latin copy of I John.

The Roman Catholic Church decreed that the Comma Johanneum was open to dispute 2 June , and it is rarely included in modern scholarly translations. Erasmus published a fourth edition in containing parallel columns of Greek, Latin Vulgate and Erasmus's Latin texts. In this edition Erasmus also supplied the Greek text of the last six verses of Revelation which he had translated from Latin back into Greek in his first edition from Cardinal Ximenez 's Biblia Complutensis.

In Erasmus published the fifth and final edition which dropped the Latin Vulgate column but was otherwise similar to the fourth edition. Erasmus dedicated his work to Pope Leo X as a patron of learning and regarded this work as his chief service to the cause of Christianity. Immediately afterward, he began the publication of his Paraphrases of the New Testament , a popular presentation of the contents of the several books.

These, like all of his writings, were published in Latin but were quickly translated into other languages, with his encouragement. Martin Luther's movement began in the year following the publication of the New Testament and tested Erasmus' character. The issues between growing religious movements, which would later become known as Protestantism , and the Catholic Church had become so clear that few could escape the summons to join the debate. Erasmus, at the height of his literary fame, was inevitably called upon to take sides, but partisanship was foreign to his nature and his habits.

In all his criticism of clerical follies and abuses, he had always protested that he was not attacking the Church itself or its doctrines, and had no enmity toward churchmen. The world had laughed at his satire , but few had interfered with his activities. He believed that his work so far had commended itself to the best minds and also to the dominant powers in the religious world. Erasmus did not build a large body of supporters with his letters.

He chose to write in Greek and Latin, the languages of scholars. His critiques reached an elite but small audience. Noting Luther's criticism of the Catholic Church, Erasmus described him as "a mighty trumpet of gospel truth" while agreeing, "It is clear that many of the reforms for which Luther calls are urgently needed. Luther hoped for his cooperation in a work which seemed only the natural outcome of his own.


In their early correspondence, Luther expressed boundless admiration for all Erasmus had done in the cause of a sound and reasonable Christianity and urged him to join the Lutheran party. Erasmus declined to commit himself, arguing that to do so would endanger his position as a leader in the movement for pure scholarship which he regarded as his purpose in life.


Only as an independent scholar could he hope to influence the reform of religion. When Erasmus hesitated to support him, the straightforward Luther became angered that Erasmus was avoiding the responsibility due either to cowardice or a lack of purpose. However, any hesitancy on the part of Erasmus stemmed, not from lack of courage or conviction, but rather from a concern over the mounting disorder and violence of the reform movement. To Philip Melanchthon in he wrote:. I know nothing of your church; at the very least it contains people who will, I fear, overturn the whole system and drive the princes into using force to restrain good men and bad alike.

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The gospel, the word of God, faith, Christ, and Holy Spirit — these words are always on their lips; look at their lives and they speak quite another language. Here Erasmus complains of the doctrines and morals of the Reformers:. You declaim bitterly against the luxury of priests, the ambition of bishops, the tyranny of the Roman Pontiff, and the babbling of the sophists; against our prayers, fasts, and Masses; and you are not content to retrench the abuses that may be in these things, but must needs abolish them entirely Show me any one person who by that Gospel has been reclaimed from drunkenness to sobriety, from fury and passion to meekness, from avarice to liberality, from reviling to well-speaking, from wantonness to modesty.

I will show you a great many who have become worse through following it The solemn prayers of the Church are abolished, but now there are very many who never pray at all I have never entered their conventicles, but I have sometimes seen them returning from their sermons, the countenances of all of them displaying rage, and wonderful ferocity, as though they were animated by the evil spirit Who ever beheld in their meetings any one of them shedding tears, smiting his breast, or grieving for his sins?

Confession to the priest is abolished, but very few now confess to God They have fled from Judaism that they may become Epicureans. Apart from these perceived moral failings of the Reformers, Erasmus also dreaded any change in doctrine, citing the long history of the Church as a bulwark against innovation. In book I of his Hyperaspistes he puts the matter bluntly to Luther:. We are dealing with this: Would a stable mind depart from the opinion handed down by so many men famous for holiness and miracles, depart from the decisions of the Church, and commit our souls to the faith of someone like you who has sprung up just now with a few followers, although the leading men of your flock do not agree either with you or among themselves — indeed though you do not even agree with yourself, since in this same Assertion [47] you say one thing in the beginning and something else later on, recanting what you said before.

Hilmar M. Pabel (Editor of Early Modern Catholicism/John)

Continuing his chastisement of Luther—and undoubtedly put off by the notion of there being "no pure interpretation of Scripture anywhere but in Wittenberg" [49] — Erasmus touches upon another important point of the controversy:. You stipulate that we should not ask for or accept anything but Holy Scripture, but you do it in such a way as to require that we permit you to be its sole interpreter, renouncing all others.

Thus the victory will be yours if we allow you to be not the steward but the lord of Holy Scripture.

Though he remained firmly neutral, each side accused him of siding with the other, perhaps because of his neutrality. It was not for lack of fidelity with either side but a desire for fidelity with them both:. I doubt that either side in the dispute can be suppressed without grave loss. In his catechism entitled Explanation of the Apostles' Creed , Erasmus took a stand against Luther's teaching by asserting the unwritten Sacred Tradition as just as valid a source of revelation as the Bible , by enumerating the Deuterocanonical books in the canon of the Bible and by acknowledging seven sacraments.

Erasmus, they said, had laid the egg, and Luther had hatched it. Erasmus wittily dismissed the charge, claiming that Luther had hatched a different bird entirely. Twice in the course of the great discussion, he allowed himself to enter the field of doctrinal controversy, a field foreign to both his nature and his previous practice.

One of the topics he dealt with was free will, a crucial question. In his De libero arbitrio diatribe sive collatio , he lampoons the Lutheran view on free will. He lays down both sides of the argument impartially. The "Diatribe" did not encourage any definite action; this was its merit to the Erasmians and its fault in the eyes of the Lutherans. In response, Luther wrote his De servo arbitrio On the Bondage of the Will , which attacks the "Diatribe" and Erasmus himself, going so far as to claim that Erasmus was not a Christian.

Erasmus responded with a lengthy, two-part Hyperaspistes — In this controversy Erasmus lets it be seen that he would like to claim more for free will than St. Paul and St. Augustine seem to allow according to Luther's interpretation. The content of Erasmus' works also engaged with later thought on the state of the question, including the perspectives of the via moderna school and of Lorenzo Valla, whose ideas he rejected.

As the popular response to Luther gathered momentum, the social disorders, which Erasmus dreaded and Luther disassociated himself from, began to appear, including the German Peasants' War , the Anabaptist disturbances in Germany and in the Low Countries, iconoclasm and the radicalization of peasants across Europe. If these were the outcomes of reform, he was thankful that he had kept out of it.

Yet he was ever more bitterly accused of having started the whole "tragedy" as the Catholics dubbed Protestantism. When the city of Basel was definitely and officially "reformed" in , Erasmus gave up his residence there and settled in the imperial town of Freiburg im Breisgau.

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Certain works of Erasmus laid a foundation for religious toleration. For example, in De libero arbitrio , opposing certain views of Martin Luther, Erasmus noted that religious disputants should be temperate in their language, "because in this way the truth, which is often lost amidst too much wrangling may be more surely perceived.

He wrote, "It is better to cure a sick man than to kill him. A test of the Reformation was the doctrine of the sacraments , and the crux of this question was the observance of the Eucharist. In , Erasmus published a new edition of the orthodox treatise of Algerus against the heretic Berengar of Tours in the eleventh century.


He added a dedication, affirming his belief in the reality of the Body of Christ after consecration in the Eucharist, commonly referred to as transubstantiation. When his strength began to fail, he decided to accept an invitation by Queen Mary of Hungary, Regent of the Netherlands , to move from Freiburg to Brabant.

However, during preparations for the move in , he suddenly died from an attack of dysentery during a visit to Basel. This is consistent with his view that outward signs were not important; what mattered was the believer's direct relationship with God, which he noted "as the [Catholic] church believes". Erasmus wrote both on ecclesiastic subjects and those of general human interest.

By the s, the writings of Erasmus accounted for 10 to 20 percent of all book sales in Europe. Erasmus is also generally credited with originating the phrase " Pandora's box ", arising through an error in his translation of Hesiod 's Pandora in which he confused pithos storage jar with pyxis box. His more serious writings begin early with the Enchiridion militis Christiani , the "Handbook of the Christian Soldier" translated into English a few years later by the young William Tyndale.

A more literal translation of enchiridion - 'dagger' - has been likened to "the spiritual equivalent of the modern Swiss Army knife. The chief evil of the day, he says, is formalism - going through the motions of tradition without understanding their basis in the teachings of Christ. Forms can teach the soul how to worship God, or they may hide or quench the spirit. In his examination of the dangers of formalism, Erasmus discusses monasticism, saint worship, war, the spirit of class and the foibles of "society.