I WOULD have these words translated into all languages, so that not only Scots and Irish, but Turks and Saracens too might read them . . . I long for the ploughboy to sing them to himself as he follows his plough, the weaver to hum them to the tune of his shuttle, the traveler to beguile with them the dullness of his journey. (Clayton 2006, 230)

Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus penned those words in the early part of the 16th century. Like his English counterpart, William Tyndale, it was his greatest desire that God’s Word is widely translated and that even the plowboy would have access to it.

Much time has passed since the Reformation, and 98 percent of the world we live in today has access to the Bible. There is little wonder that the Bible has become the bestseller of all time. It has influenced men from all walks of life to fight for freedom and truth. This is especially true during the Reformation of Europe throughout the 16th century. These leading men were of great faith, courage, and strength, such as Martin Luther, William Tyndale, while others, like Erasmus, was more subtle in the change that he produced. Thus, it has been said of the Reformation that Martin Luther only opened the door to it after Erasmus picked the lock.

The Complete Guide to Bible Translation

There is not one historian of the period, who would deny that Erasmus was a great scholar. Remarking on his character, the Catholic Encyclopedia says: “He had an unequalled talent for form, great journalistic gifts, a surpassing power of expression: for strong and moving discourse, keen irony, and covert sarcasm, he was unsurpassed.” (Vol. 5, p. 514) Consequently, when Erasmus went to see Sir Thomas More, the Lord Chancellor of England, just before Erasmus made himself known, More was so impressed with his exchange that he shortly said: “You are either Erasmus or the Devil.”

The wit of Erasmus was evidenced in a response that he gave to Frederick, elector of Saxony, who asked him what he thought about Martin Luther. Erasmus retorted, “Luther has committed two blunders; he has ventured to touch the crown of the pope and the bellies of the monks.” (Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature: Vol. 3 – p, 279) However, we must ask what type of influence did the Bible have on Erasmus and, in turn, what did he do to affect its future? First, let us look at the early years of Erasmus’ life.

Erasmus’ Early Life

He was born in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, in 1466. He was not a happy boy living in a home as the illegitimate son of a Dutch priest. He was faced with the double tragedy of his mother’s death at seventeen, and his father shortly thereafter. His guardians ignored his desire to enter the university; rather they sent him to the Augustinian monastery of Steyn. Erasmus gained a vast knowledge of the Latin language, the classic as well as the Church Fathers. In time, this type of life was so detestable to him; he jumped on the opportunity, at the age of twenty-six, to become secretary to the bishop of Cambrai, Henry of Bergen, in France. This afforded him his chance to enter university studies in Paris. However, he was a sickly man, always ill, suffering from poor health throughout his entire life.

It was in 1499 that Erasmus was invited to visit England. It was here that he met Thomas More, John Colet and other theologians in London, which fortified his resolution to apply himself to Biblical studies. In order to understand the Bible’s message better, he applied himself more fully in his study of Greek, soon being able to teach it to others. It was around this time that Erasmus penned a treatise entitled Handbook of the Christian Soldier, in which he advised the young Christian to study the Bible, saying: “There is nothing that you can believe with greater certitude than what you read in these writings.” (Erasmus and Dolan 1983, 37)

While trying to escape the plague, make a living in an economy that had bottomed worse than our 20th century Great Depression, Erasmus found himself at Louvain, Belgium, in 1504. It was here that he fell in love with the study of textual criticism while visiting the Monastery of Parc. Within the library, Erasmus discovered a manuscript of Italian scholar Lorenzo Valla: Annotations on the New Testament. Textual criticism is an art and science that studies manuscripts, evaluating internal and external evidence, especially of the Bible or works of literature, in order to determine which readings are the original or most authentic. Erasmus had commissioned himself toward the task of restoring the original text of the Greek New Testament.

Erasmus moved on to Italy and subsequently pushed on to England once again. It is this trip that brought to mind his original meeting with Thomas More, meditating on the origin of More’s name (moros, Greek for “a fool”); he penned a write or satire, which he called Praise of Folly. In this work, Erasmus takes the abstract quality “folly” as being a human being and pictured it as encroaching in all aspects of life, but nowhere is folly more in obvious than amid the theologians and clergy. This is his subtle way of exposing the abuses of the clergy. It is these abuses, which had brought on the Reformation that was now festering. “As to the popes,” he wrote, “if they claim to be the successors of the Apostles, they should consider that the same things are required of them as were practiced by their predecessors.” Instead of doing this, he perceived, they believe that “to teach the people is too laborious; to interpret the scripture is to invade the prerogative of the schoolmen; to pray is too idle.” There is little wonder that it was said of Erasmus that he had “a surpassing power of expression”! (Nichols 2006, Vol. 2, 6)

The First Greek Text

Whilst teaching Greek at Cambridge University in England, Erasmus continued with his work of revising the text of the Greek New Testament. One of his friends, Martin Dorpius, attempted to persuade him that the Latin did not need to be corrected from the Greek. Dorpius makes the same error in thinking that the “King James Only” people make, arguing: “For is it likely that the whole Catholic Church would have erred for so many centuries, seeing that she has always used and sanctioned this translation? Is it probable that so many holy fathers, so many consummate scholars would have longed to convey a warning to a friend?”  (Campbell 1949, 71) Thomas More joined Erasmus in replying to these arguments, making the point that the importance lies within having an accurate text in the original languages.

In Basel, Switzerland, Erasmus was about to be hassled by the printer Johannes Froben. Froben was alerted that Cardinal Ximenes of Toledo, Spain, had been putting together a Greek and Latin Testament in 1514. However, he was delaying publication until he had the whole Bible completed. The first printed Greek critical text would have set the standard, with the other being all but ignored. Erasmus published his first edition in 1516, while the Complutensian Polyglot (many languages) was not issued until 1522

The fact that Erasmus was rushed to no end resulted in a Greek text that contained hundreds of typographical errors alone.[1] Textual scholar Scrivener once stated: ‘[It] is in that respect the most faulty book I know,’ (Scrivener 1894, 185) This comment does not even take into consideration the blatant interpolations (insert readings) into the text that were not part of the original. Erasmus was not lost to the typographical errors, which corrected a good many in later editions. This did not include the textual errors. It was his second edition of 1519 that was used by Martin Luther in his German translation and William Tyndale’s English translation. This is exactly what Erasmus wanted, writing the following in that edition’s preface: “I would have these words translated into all languages. . . . I long for the ploughboy to sing them to himself as he follows his plough.”

Do We Still Need a Literal Bible

Sadly, the continuous reproduction of this debased Greek New Testament, gave rise to it becoming the standard, being called the Textus Receptus (Received Text), taking over 400 years before it was dethroned by the critical Text of B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort in 1881. Regardless of its imperfection, the Erasmus critical edition began the all-important work of textual criticism, which has only brought about a better critical text, as well as more accurate Bible translations.

As was true with many other early Bibles in the early days of the Reformation, it had its detractors. Like the Geneva Bible, but on a much tamer note, Erasmus was critical of the clergy in his notes. For instance, the text of Matthew 16:18, which says, “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.” (Douay) Very plainly, he rejects the idea that this text is applied to primacy Peter, and that the pope is a successor of such. Imagine writing such a thing in the very edition you are going to dedicate to the pope! We can certainly see why Erasmus’ works were prohibited, even in the universities.

Erasmus was not only concerned with ascertaining the original words; he was just as concerned with achieving an accurate understanding of those words. In 1519, he penned Principles of True Theology (shortened to The Ratio). Herein he introduces his principles for Bible study, his interpretation rules. Among them is the thought of never taking a quotation out of its context nor out of the line of thought of its author. Erasmus saw the Bible as a whole work by one author, and it should interpret itself.

Erasmus Contrasted With Luther

Erasmus penned a treatise called Familiar Colloquies in 1518, where again he was exposing the corruptions on the Church and the monasteries. Just one year earlier, in 1517, Martin Luther had nailed his 95 theses on the church door at Wittenberg, denouncing the indulgences, the scandal that had rocked numerous countries. Many folks were likely thinking that these two could bring change and reform. This was not going to be a team effort, though, as they both were at opposite ends of the spectrum on how to bring this reform about. Luther would come to condemn Erasmus, because he was viewed as being too moderate, seeking to make change peacefully within the Church. Many have viewed it as Erasmus thinking and writing, while Luther appeared to go beyond that with his actions.

The seemingly small bond they may have shared (by way of their writings against the Church establishment), was torn down the middle in 1524 when Erasmus penned the essay On the Freedom of the Will. Luther believed that salvation results from “justification by faith alone” (Latin, sola fide) and not from priestly absolution or works of penance. In fact, Luther was so adamant on his belief of “justification by faith alone” that in his Bible translation, he added the word “alone” to Romans 3:28. What Luther failed to understand was that Paul was writing about the works of the Mosaic Law. (Romans 3:19, 20, 28) Thus, Luther denied the notion that man possesses a free will. However, Erasmus would not accept such faulty reasoning, in that it would make God unjust because this would suggest that man would be unable to act in such a way as to affect his salvation.

As the Reformation was growing throughout Europe, Erasmus saw complaints from both sides. Many of the religious leaders who supported the reform movement chose to leave the Catholic Church. While they could not predict the result of their decision, they moved forward, many ending in death. This would not be true of Erasmus though, for he withdrew from the debate, yet he did refuse to be made cardinal. His approach was to try to appease both sides. Thus, Rome saw his writings as being that of a heretic, prohibiting them, while the reformers denounced him as refusing to risk his life for the cause. Here was a man, emotionally broken over criticism, but in fear of rocking the boat with Rome, so he cautiously sat on the sideline.

The affairs of Erasmus to the Reformation can be summarized as follows: “He was a reformer until the Reformation became a fearful reality; a jester at the bulwarks of the papacy until they began to give way; a propagator of the Scriptures until men betook themselves to the study and the application of them; depreciating the mere outward forms of religion until they had come to be estimated at their real value; in short, a learned, ingenious, benevolent, amiable, timid, irresolute man, who, bearing the responsibility, resigned to others the glory of rescuing the human mind from the bondage of a thousand years. The distance between his career and that of Luther was therefore continually enlarging, until they at length moved in opposite directions, and met each other with mutual animosity.”— (McClintock and Strong 1894, 278).

The greatest gain from the Reformation is that the common person can now hold God’s Word in his hand. In fact, the Englishperson has over 100 different translations from which to choose. From these 16th-century life and death struggles, in which Erasmus shared, there has materialized dependable and accurate Bible translations. Consequently, the ‘plowboy’ of 98 percent of the world can pick up his Bible, or at least part of it.

The Textus Receptus

The Dark Ages (5th to 15th centuries C.E.), was a time when the Church had the Bible locked up in the Latin language, and scholarship and learning were nearly nonexistent. However, with the birth of the Morning Star of the Reformation, John Wycliffe (1328-1384), and more officially in the 16th century Reformation, and the invention of the printing press in 1455, the restraints were loosened, and there was a rebirth of interest in the Greek language. Moreover, with the fall of Constantinople to the Turks 1453 C. E., many Greek scholars and their manuscripts were scattered abroad, resulting in a revival of Greek in the Western citadels of learning.

About fifty years later, or at the beginning of the sixteenth century, Ximenes, archbishop of Toledo, Spain, a man of rare capability and honor, invited foremost scholars of his land to his university at Alcala to produce a multiple-language Bible, not for the common people, but for the educated. The outcome would be the Polyglot, named Complutensian corresponding to the Latin of Alcala. This would be a Bible of six large volumes, beautifully bound, containing the Old Testament in four languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin) and the New Testament in two (Greek and Latin). For the Greek New Testament, these scholars had only a few manuscripts available to them, and those of late origin. One may wonder why this was the case when they were supposed to have access to the Vatican library. This Bible was completed in 1514, providing the first printed Greek New Testament, but did not receive approval by the pope to be published until 1520 and was not released to the public until 1522.

Froben, a printer in Basel, Switzerland became aware of the completion of the Complutensian Polyglot Bible and of its pending consent by the pope to be published. Immediately, he saw a prospect of making profits. He at once sent word to the Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus (1469-1536), who was the foremost European scholar of the day and whose works he had published in Latin, beseeching him to hurry through a Greek New Testament text. In an attempt to bring the first published Greek text to completion, Erasmus was only able to locate, in July of 1515, a few late cursive manuscripts for collating and preparing his text. It would go to press in October of 1515 and would be completed by March of 1516. In fact, Erasmus was in such a hurried mode he rushed the manuscript containing the Gospels to the printer without first editing it, making such changes, as he felt was necessary on the proof sheets. Because of this great rush job, this work also contained hundreds of typographical errors. Erasmus himself admitted this in its preface that it was “rushed through rather than edited.” Bruce Metzger referred to the Erasmian text as a “debased form of the Greek testament.” (B. M. Metzger 1964, 1968, 1992, 103)

Needless to say, Erasmus was moved to produce an improved text in four succeeding editions of 1519, 1522, 1527, and 1535. Erasmus’ editions of the Greek text, we are informed, ended up being an excellent achievement, a literary sensation. They were inexpensive, and the first two editions totaled 3,300 copies, in comparison to the 600 copies of the large and expensive six-volume Polyglot Bible. In the preface to his first edition, Erasmus stated, “I vehemently dissent from those who would not have private persons read the Holy Scriptures, nor have them translated into the vulgar tongues.” (Baer 2007, 268)

Except for everyday practical consideration, the editions of Erasmus had little to vouch for them, for he had access to five (some say eight) Greek manuscripts of reasonably late origin and none of these were of the whole Greek New Testament. Rather, these comprised one or more sections into which the Greek texts were normally divided: (1) the Gospels; (2) Acts and the general epistles (James through Jude); (3) the letters of Paul; (4) Revelation. In fact, of the 5,800 Greek New Testament manuscripts that we now have, only about fifty are complete.

Consequently, Erasmus had but one copy of Revelation (twelfth century). Since it was incomplete, he merely retranslated the missing last six verses of the book from the Latin Vulgate back into Greek. He even frequently brought his Greek text in line with the Latin Vulgate; this is why there are some twenty readings in his Greek text not found in any other Greek manuscript.

Martin Luther would use Erasmus’ 1519 edition for his German translation, and William Tyndale would use the 1522 edition for his English translation. Erasmus’ editions were also the foundation for further Greek editions of the New Testament by others. For instance, the four published by Robert Estienne (Stephanus, 1503-59). According to Bruce Metzger, the third of these, published by Stephanus, in 1550, became the Textus Receptus or Received Text of Britain and the basis of the King James Version. This took place through Theodore de Beza (1519-1605), whose work was based on the corrupted third and fourth editions of the Erasmian text. Beza would produce nine editions of the Greek text, four being independent (1565, 1589, 1588-9, 1598), and the other five smaller reprints. It would be two of Beza’s editions, that of 1589 and 1598, which would become the English Received Text.

Beza’s Greek edition of the New Testament did not even differ as much as might be expected from those of Erasmus. Why do I say, as might be expected? Beza was a friend of the Protestant reformer, John Calvin, succeeding him at Geneva, and was also a well-known classical and biblical scholar. In addition, Beza possessed two important Greek manuscripts of the fourth and fifth century, the D and Dp (also known as D2), the former of which contains most of the Gospels and Acts, as well as a fragment of 3 John and the latter containing the Pauline epistles. The Dutch Elzevir editions followed next, which were virtually identical to those of the Erasmian-influenced Beza text. It was in the second of seven of these, published in 1633, that there appeared the statement in the preface (in Latin): “You therefore now have the text accepted by everybody, in which we give nothing changed or corrupted.” On the continent, this edition became the Textus Receptus or the Received Text. It seems that this success was in no small way due to the beauty and useful size of the Elzevir editions.

[1] In fact, his copy of Revelation being incomplete, Erasmus simply retranslated the missing verses from the Latin Vulgate back into Greek.