Erasmus Novum Testamentum

Erasmus’ Novum Testamentum

written by Kevin Stilley

It is not easy to break with tradition. This is especially so when that tradition is over 1,000 years old.

In 1516 Erasmus published a new edition of the New Testament. For almost eleven centuries theologians had studied, recited and preached from the Latin Vulgate. Now, this philologist had the audacity to try to correct it! One historian comments on the courage required to execute such an enterprise, “As a gesture by an individual, and as a challenge to authority, Erasmus’ New Testament can be compared for boldness with Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses.”[1]

Erasmus loved libraries.[2] In the summer of 1504 Erasmus was searching through the library in the Premonstatensian monastery near Louvain when he made a discovery that would eventually lead to the production of his New Testament. Lorenzo Valla had previously attempted scientific criticism of the Vulgate and it was a copy of his 1444 comparison of the Vulgate with Greek manuscripts that Erasmus found.

Erasmus carried Valla’s notes on the New Testament to Paris and in March1505 he published these Adnotationses with his own enthusiastic introduction. Prior to this Erasmus had often spoken of recovering true spirituality through study of the ancient Greek and Latin authors. However, in this introduction we find the first record of him speaking of accomplishing this by recovering the text of the Bible.[3] He became more and more convinced of the insufficiency of the Vulgate and the need for a new translation. With the encouragement and assistance of John Colet be began work on this project in 1506.[4] As he worked on this project he set three objectives for his translation of the New Testament: “1. clarity, 2. correctness and purity of Latin in conformity with the usage of the classical authors, and 3. simplicity.”[5]

Initially, Erasmus intended only a new Latin translation. However, as he began to collate and work with the Greek texts he also began to see the need for a critical edition of the Greek.[6] While commenting on the adage The Labors of Hercules he noted the state of manuscripts available at the time.

And now, shall I mention another thing — the bad state of the books themselves, whether Latin or Greek MSS, so corrupt that when you want to quote a passage you hardly ever find one which does not show an obvious error, or make one suspect a hidden one? Here is another labor, to examine and correct the different MSS . . . and a great many of them, so as to detect one which has a better reading, or by collating a number of them to make a guess at the true and authentic version. This must be done, if not all the time, at least whenever you quote, and quotations occur everywhere.[7]

Erasmus was not the only one to see that the availability and corruption of present texts was problematic. Previously, Pope Nicholas V had directed Gianozza Manetti to work on a new Latin edition.[8] Additionally, Cardinal Francisco Ximenes was working on an edition of the Greek New Testament in Spain at the same time as Erasmus and actually completed his editon as early as January 10, 1514. However, it was not put into circulation. Smith has said that the delay was “partly in order to allow the addition of a Greek vocabulary and other explanatory matter, partly in order to get approval of the Pope.”[9] Thus, Erasmus beat Cardinal Ximinis into print.[10]

In February1516 Erasmus published his New Testament under the title Novum Instrumentum. [11] This was a “landmark in the history of Biblical scholarship” in that it was the first time that the New Testament in Greek was printed in its entirety.[12]

The Greek text was printed in one column with the corresponding revised Latin text in a column to the right. Hoping to receive the good will and protection of Pope Leo X, Erasmus dedicated the work to him.[13] As a preface to the text he added “the Paraclesis, Methodus, and Apologia, respectively an encouragement to read the New Testament, pointers to the fruitful reading of it, and a defense of the undertaking.”[14] Additionally, Erasmus appended almost 300 pages of Annotations in which he provided critical notes on the text. The first print run was made up of 1200 copies in folio size.[15] However, it was not long until the work was “disseminated throughout Europe in over 250 editions.”[16]

For some time the humanists had been anxiously awaiting the finished product. Now, with it in their hands, their enthusiasm only grew. Even Pope Leo X, responding to Erasmus’ dedication of the work to the pontiff, sent Erasmus a letter complimenting him for this achievement. However, his opponents were likewise swift in responding to this “novelty.” The Novum Instumentum was even banned from the precincts of one of the Cambridge colleges.[17] From all over Europe voices were raised and Erasmus was razed.

Edward Lee, Henry Standish,[18] Lefevre d ‘Etaples, James Lopez de Stunica, John Eck, Maartan van Dorp, Latomus, Jacques Masson , and many others immediately raised objections to Erasmus’ New Testament.[19] There were a variety of objections that were levied against the work itself such as questions regarding the integrity of the Greek manuscripts,[20] the sacrifice of direct word for word translation in order to achieve clarity of meaning,[21] and deviation from the traditional text.[22]

Other objections were aimed at Erasmus himself. Some argued that Erasmus was not qualified for such an undertaking. It is interesting to note that the arguement concerning his qualifications was not directed primarily at his abilities. Erasmus had studied Greek with Alexander Hegius,[23] Latin was his adopted language, and he had taught language at Cambridge. He had honed his philological abilities by prior critical work on classical authors and was respected as a scholar. Thus, his detractors questioned his qualifications on the basis that he did not have official authorization to pursue this endeavor.[24]


Ad hominum argumentation was an accepted mode of discourse at this time and many resorted to it in their attacks upon Erasmus. “Some went so far as to rename him Errasmus because he erred (errare ), Arasmus because he plowed (arare ) up old truths, and Erasinus because he made himself an ass (asinus ).”[25] Latomus[26] did his best to identify Erasmus with Luther,[27] taking advantage of some of the witticisms that were popular at the time; “Erasmus laid the egg that Luther hatched,” and “I don’t know whether Erasmus lutheranizes or Luther erasmianizes.”[28]

The issue that Erasmus detractors argued most vehemently was the sacrosanct nature of the Vulgate.[29] Although Erasmus’ work was still in production at the time, Maartan van Dorp wrote to Erasmus in September of 1514 with concerns about Erasmus challenge to the Vulgate.

Now I differ from you on this question of truth and integrity, and claim that these are qualities of the Vulgate edition that we have in common use. For it is not reasonable that the whole church , which has always used this edition and still both approves it and uses it, should for all these centuries have been wrong.[30]

The kind of attachement to the Vulgate that is indicated in the above quote was not an anomaly. In fact, some went so far as to claim inerrancy for the Vulgate. Bainton quotes a professor at the Sorbonne;

If in one point the Vulgate were in error the entire authority of Holy Scripture would collapse, love and faith would be extinguished, heresies and schisms would abound, blasphemy would be committed against the Holy Spirit, the authority of theologians would be shaken, and indeed the Catholic Church would collapse from the foundations.[31]

Shortly after publishing his Novum Instrumentum Erasmus commited to revise it. Anticipating that his detractors would identify this an an action that indicated that even Erasmus was dissatisfied with the work, Erasmus claimed that he was simply following the examples of such men as Origen, Jerome, and Augustine who also revised their own works.[32]

As an editor Erasmus had come to expect criticism. He once noted in a letter to Germain Brie that if an editor was to successfully revise a text he must dutifully note the flaws in the original and thus it was the fate of an editor to appear to the world as a “mean-spirited fellow out to denigrate another man’s good name.” [33] However, Erasmus never came to the point that he could accept criticism without perturbation.[34] Thus, when he began work on the second edition of this work he included Pope Leo X’s letter of approval in the preface. He wrote to Cuthbert Tunstall that he hoped this “would make his enemies burst with envy.”[35]

Having committed himself to revising his work, Erasmus was determined that the text should be as free from error as possible. However, the task proved to be very demanding and at times Erasmus wished he had not committed himself to this work. While engaged in this process he wrote to friends indicating that;

“He longed for sleep, he day-dreamed of cloistered retirement in the company of English humanists where he might sing to Christ and the Muses. The ingratitude of some theologians drove him to hate his work. This revision became a “treadmill” and a “labyrinth.” It nearly deprived him of eyesight and his very life. But fate had cast his role, Erasmus sighed, “and we must play out the play.” He begged excuse from invitations and pressed on, in seclusion and under deadline. The progress of good men would be his comfort. He would please posterity or die.[36]

Erasmus persevered and his second edition was published in 1519. Among the changes was the title of the work. He changed the title from Novum Instrumentum to Novum Testamentum . Misprints were corrected and there were about 400 changes to the text. It has been noted that not all of these changes were improvements.[37]



[1]E. G. Rupp, Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969), p. 6.

[2]Roland Bainton was fond of quipping that Luther joined the monastery to get close to God while Erasmus joined the monastery to have access to a fine collection of books.

[3]Albert Rabil, Jr., Erasmus and the New Testament: The Mind of a Christian Humanist (San Antonio: Trinity Universtiy Press, 1972), pp. 58-59.

[4]Preserved Smith, Erasmus: A Study of His Life, Ideals, and Place in History (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1923), p. 162.

[5]H. J. de Jonge, “Erasmus’ Method of Translation in His Version of the New Testament,” The Bible Translator vol. 37, No. 1, January 1986, p. 136. [It has been posited by at least one individual that Erasus' approach was really more intuitive in nature and that it was not until he defended himself against his critics that he clearly stated his objectives. Thus, according to this view, he stated what he had done rather than describing the parameters within which he had worked.]

[6]Some have implied that his Greek New Testament was more inspired by the pressure of his printer than by his perceived need. However, this inferrence is drawn from very scanty evidence.

[7]Quoted in Rabil, p. 69.

[8]Smith, p. 162.

[9]Smith, p. 162.

[10]Allen dismisses the notion that Erasmus rushed his New Testament into print in order to precede the Complutension Polyglot of Cardinal Ximinis. [P. S. Allen, Erasmus: Lectures and Wayfaring Sketches (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1934), pp. 44-45.] However, there seems to be some evidence that this may well have been the case. Erasmus admitted that this first edition had been “hurried through the press rather than edited.” [Quoted by Marjorie O'Rourke Boyle in Erasmus on Language and Method in Theology (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1977), p. 3.]

[11]Louis Bouyer, “Erasmus In Relation To the Medieval Biblical Tradition,” The Cambridge History of the Bible: The West From the Fathers to the Reformation vol. 2., ed. G. W. H. Lampe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), p. 498. [There seems to be some disagreement as to whether the Novum Instrumentum appeared in February or March. See Cornelis Augustijn, Erasmus: His Life Works, and Influence trans. J. C. Grayson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991), p. 90.]

[12]Roland Bainton, Erasmus of Christendom (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1969), p. 133.

[13]Bainton notes that this was strictly out of practical concerns for Erasmus was well aware that Pope Leo X was a playboy and scoundrel.

[14]Augustijn, p. 90. [In 1518 Erasmus published an expanded version of his preface entitled Ratio verae theologia .]

[15]Edwin M. Yamauchi, “Erasmus’ Contributions To New Testament Scholarship,” Fides et Historia vol. 19, no. 3, October 1987, p. 11.

[16]de Jonge, p. 135.

[17]Yamauchi, p. 15.

[18]Henry Standish was Bishop of St. Asaph. In response to Standish’ criticisms Erasmus called him the Bishop of St. Ass. (Smith, p. 177).

[19]For a comprehensive examination of these objections see Erika Rummel, Erasmus and His Catholic Critics (Nieuwkoop: De Graaf, 1989).

[20]For a description of the manuscripts that Erasmus employed for his work see Yamauchi’s previously cited article “Erasmus’ Contributions to New Testament Scholarship.”

[21]Erasmus responded in his Capita argumentorum contra morosos , Opera Omnia , and Apologia that his method of translation was really much more conservative than that used in the Vulgate; the translator(s) of the Vulgate had been much less strict when it came to variations and paraphrases.

[22]Over forty percent of the word were changed in Erasmus revision of the Vulgate text so there was a bountiful supply of material for them to debate. [de Jonge, p. 138.]

[23]While affirming that Erasmus was a Greek scholar Erika Rummel has minimized the importance of his having studied under Hegius. She makes a strong case that Erasmus Greek expertise was gained from a variety of sources. [Erika Rummel, Erasmus as a Translator of the Classics (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985), pp. 3-19.

Erika Rummel, Erasmus and His Catholic Critics: 1 (1515-1522) Nieuwkoop: De Graaf, 1988), pp. 17-19.

[25]Yamauchi, p. 15.

[26]Latomus, a Louvain theologian, was really quite sly in his argumentation. He often aimed his attacks at Erasmus but claimed that they were directed at lesser reknowned men such as Oecolampadius and Petrus Mosellanus.

[27]The connection seemed to be a natural one due to some of Erasmus’ notes in the Annotations . In his notes relating to Matthew 3:2 “he had challenged the notion that Christ had instituted aural confessions; he also had departed from the traditional interpretation of poenitentiam agite , showing that Greek metanoein denoted a change in attitude rather than an external act of penance.” [Rummel, "Erasmus Conflict With Latomus," p. 12

Erika Rummel, “Erasmus’ Conflict With Latomus: Round Two,” Archiv Fur Reformationsgeschichte volume 80, 1989, p. 10. Erasmus was later to use a similar strategy when debating Luther over free will. By identifying Luther with the Manicheans and Wycliffe he was able to identify him with condemned heretics.

[29]To observe the objections raised against Erasmus’ New Testament one can consult Dorp’s letter which is representative of most of the major attacks on it. Dorp’s letter is accessible through a number of anthologies. Another option is to read Erasmus’ reply in which one gets the objection and response together. This letter is also available in several works including an anthology edited by John C. Olin; Christian Humanism and the Reformation (Fordham University Press, 1987), pp. 67-96.

[30]Maartin van Dorp, epistle 304.

[31]Bainton, p. 135.

[32]Boyle, pp. 3-4.

[33]Rummel, Erasmus and His Catholic Critics , p. 1.

[34]It is interesting to note that during the preparation of his second edition Erasmus actually consulted with several of the Louvain scholars (Latomus, Maartin van Dorp, Brian of Ath) who were among the most critical of his work. Perhaps he thought that by including them in the work by asking for their suggestions that he could co-opt them and illimanate a few of his critics.

[35]Boyle, p. 3.

[36]Boyle, p. 4.

[37]Yamauchi, p. 12. Smith, p. 165.