Church History's Greatest Myths

Article by   February 2016
Erasmus and the Greek New Testament

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the publication of Erasmus' Greek New Testament. It was a landmark publication for biblical studies, though we may tend to forget its role in the Reformation. 2016 will not receive as much attention as 2017, which may as well be dubbed Luther-palooza for all the books, seminars, and conferences that will cover the 95 Theses. But to those who have struggled with their aorist declensions, this is the root of your frustration. Tyrant, thy name is Erasmus. 

The mythology of Erasmus' New Testament is another story--one repeated by well-intentioned Greek professors hoping to inspire students. In my life, it was during an exegesis course that I first heard of Erasmus' slapdash efforts to bring the Greek text to print. For all the grandeur I expected in the story, I was unprepared for how Erasmus stepped into a quagmire of textual criticism that even his mind could not fathom. 

Still the story made sense in seminary. If Greek was good enough for Luther, then it is good enough for us--and we later heard stories of Luther translating in the Wartburg with Erasmus' text resting under his elbow. The story is only compounded by the fact that Erasmus' third edition New Testament was used to produce the translations of William Tyndale, the Geneva Bible and the KJV. 

But the tale is embellished to the point of being an overfed caricature of Reformation hagiography. 

The facts of the story are not in dispute. Erasmus cobbled together a series of Greek texts--helped by two early Reformed theologians, Oecolampadius and Reuchlin--and he printed his text in 1516 at the shop of Johan Froben. Erasmus' text was the second of these books, the first being the Complutensian Polyglot (1514) from Spain. But Erasmus was famous, his humanistic skill flawless, and so his work fueled the rise of textual, linguistic, and scholarly work on the Bible. For nearly 400 years the most significant text used in the study of Greek was that of Erasmus. 

So the myth of this story is not that Erasmus altered the course of biblical scholarship. He did influence future scholarship. It is not that the reformers considered Greek irrelevant. The myth is how we understand the context. 

Prior to Erasmus a number of scholars learned Greek, mostly for the sake of classical studies, but at times to study the Bible. The Renaissance was centuries old by the time of the 95 Theses, though the movement had begun to focus on classical and biblical languages only in the previous century. Over the years, though, humanists strove to learn the scriptures to the best of their ability, even in the originals. Luther's own right-hand man, Melanchthon, was one of these prodigies in the study of Greek and taught this as a professor at Wittenberg. 

The first misstep in our story, then, is the idea that Greek had been completely lost until the sixteenth century. It is not true that everyone prior to the Reformation rejected the original languages for a view of the Vulgate as a pristine text. Catholic commitment to the Vulgate was as much a result of the Reformation as its cause. Prior to the Reformation there was no real dispute over it and other translations were not scorned, except in cases where texts were used by heretical movements. During the medieval period, Bibles did not languish in chains in dusty libraries, unloved and unread. Most people were illiterate, and so only the educated few could read the Bible. The reason they chained it was because it cost as much as a house to produce. One does not chain up things that are unwanted. 

What was lacking in Luther's education--in any education in the sixteenth century--was a deeper understanding of the grammar and syntax of Koine Greek. Widespread knowledge of Greek had passed from European minds as a result of the fall of western Rome in 476 AD and the detachment of East from West. Most being ignorant of Greek, it was only vaguely known how textual variants might raise exegetical issues, and those who sought to explore Greek would have had at their disposal no more than a handful of manuscripts. The reception history of disputed books, too, was known at only a surface level, mostly from the incomplete stories in Eusebius about the formation of the canon. The problem, then, was not primarily a lack of desire by scholars but a lack of any serious resource by which to pursue these studies. 

When Erasmus published his text, all of this backstory was in play. What we find with Erasmus and his readers is not a sense of the recovery of the Greek grammar itself, but the dangerous idea that textual studies would solve the problems in the church by exposing bad Catholic teaching. They wanted to get behind the Vulgate to the originals. So by learning Greek and Hebrew they felt as if they stood at the mouth of a river they hoped would carry them to better lands. 

Still Erasmus was not a Greek scholar by today's standards--at least he did not have the resources we have available today. Today the two most popular Greek grammars alone run to nearly 1400 pages, and they are both listed as for beginning and intermediate students. Erasmus, by contrast, had taught himself Greek during his professorship at Cambridge from 1510-1515. This is not to pitch Erasmus as a fool, but merely as a trailblazer. We can hardly fault a pilgrim for not building a skyscraper. So when Erasmus agreed to publish the New Testament he did so with the expertise available only in his day. 

Erasmus assumed he had only to walk into a library, find several editions of the Greek text, and then head off to the publisher. What he found was a series of 12th century Byzantine texts--not ideal in their quality and lacking a complete edition of Revelation, forcing Erasmus to translate the last six verses back into Greek. Worse still, Erasmus had only given himself ten months to complete the work and so created one of the great publishing catastrophes in early modern history. Errors in typesetting and transcription appeared everywhere. At one point Erasmus added the question 'Lord, what will you have me do?' to Paul's conversion in Acts 9:6 and in later editions he even forgot which verses in Revelation were his. When Frederick Scrivener set himself to edit existing Greek texts in the nineteenth century he remarked that Erasmus' text was one of the worst he had ever seen. For a text that would change biblical scholarship, this was a lodestone around Erasmus' neck. 

Not surprisingly Erasmus' New Testament was not entirely welcomed. Students at Oxford and Cambridge were barred from it, though mainly because Erasmus offered a few jabs at wanton priests. Established theology professors found reason enough to howl at the shoddy work in the text, but they also harbored doubt that Greek texts, only recently discovered, were of greater value than the Vulgate, which had almost reach its 1000th anniversary. At least one faculty wrote Erasmus directly about their concerns for this newfangled path to biblical study. They assumed it was merely a Trojan Horse to smuggle in false teaching. 

So why did the New Testament sell well enough to warrant more editions? Why did Luther, Tyndale, and others use it in their translations?

In part, the answer lies in how Erasmus arranged the text for print. Despite popular belief, Erasmus did not provide people with a bare Greek text. What he devised was something like an interlinear: the Greek text (such as it was) on one side with a new, cleaner Latin translation on the other. This Latin text was where Erasmus drew his knives and went after the Vulgate, but it was functionally useful for anyone wanting to explore the New Testament. Those using the Latin text, of course, would be educated men who had learned Latin in their youth. For them, Latin was a living language, so Erasmus' text would have been as useful as an English interlinear is to us today. 

And so Luther sat and grew his beard and worked with his interlinear. 

The second misstep, in other words, is our assumption that the reformers could learn biblical languages without any limitations. But Luther, like Erasmus, was no master of Greek exegesis to the extent we see in New Testament scholarship today. The majority of the reformers were latecomers to biblical languages; Luther was no exception. When he sat down to translate the Bible he needed tools, and Erasmus' text allowed him to work 'backwards', from his knowledge of Latin grammar to his weaker grasp of Greek. 

So in reality the reformers were equipped to master Greek or Hebrew grammar but only to the extent it was known in their day.

For example, the earliest Hebrew grammar book by Reuchlin--used by most of the reformers--was hardly a grammar. The text contained roughly 12-15 pages of quick grammar points followed by several hundred pages of Hebrew etymological roots, not all of them accurate. Aramaic was believed by many to be an unknown dialect of Hebrew. Still yet to be discovered were other ANE languages, the riches of biblical archaeology, and other extra-scriptural aids to biblical context--to say nothing of the syntactical complexities of even Koine Greek. 

Erasmus' New Testament changed the world, then, not by providing a complete text to a world already steeped in Greek, or ready to learn biblical languages with all the necessary grammatical tools in hand. Rather it exposed the complexities of the Bible and opened new horizons for those now championing a return to the text. For many reformers, Latin was their academic language, Greek they could learn relatively well, and Hebrew they would have known little more than the basics save the lucky few who lived near an expert. Those reformers who did become highly skilled in biblical languages are the exception not the rule. 

In time they made up ground. Greek study matured the longer people sat with Erasmus' New Testament. Advances in Hebrew were driven in part by the conversion of Jewish men to Protestantism, in part by constant labor to learn beyond the basics. The numerous commentaries published on the Bible, too, drove scholars deeper into the original languages for clues about passages they found complex. As years gave way to decades and decades to centuries, the growing body of research carried on from the ground that Erasmus had cleared. 

The Reformation certainly prized the return to biblical languages. This is a heritage we have not forgotten, despite the tendency of some to blanch at the idea of Greek and Hebrew class. We must recognize, however, that we are heirs not only to the Reformation commitment to the Bible, but also to those who, over the centuries, have dramatically expanded our understanding of Greek and Hebrew in their studies. 

The fact is that early Protestants may have wanted to learn the languages, but were limited by how new they were to biblical languages. Moderns have, by comparison, a comedy of riches at our fingertips, though we yet at times forget what treasures our fathers have stored up for us. The modern seminary graduate today, assuming they remained half awake in class, will have been given a stronger foundation in the biblical grammar than sixteenth century students could have dreamed. 

What we do with this heritage...well that's a different story.


Ryan M. Reeves is Assistant Professor of Historical Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also serves as Dean of the Jacksonville campus



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