Who is this Erasmus that taught William Tyndale, influenced Martin Luther, and printed a Greek New Testament that was consulted by the KJV translators, and later was given the name Textus Receptus?
A proverb in Erasmus’ day claimed,
“Whatever is ingenious, scholarly, and wisely written, is termed erasmic, that is, unerring and perfect.”
Erasmus has been said to be “the intellectual father of the Reformation.” From his Textus Receptus the fruit of the Reformation spread around the world, in the form of such Bibles as the German Luther, French Olivetan, Italian Diodati, Spanish Valera, and the English King James Bible.
Was it mere coincidence, that Erasmus’ first edition was printed the very year that Luther posted his 95 theses?
However, KJV critics love to claim that Erasmus was a “devoted Roman Catholic”, and that his Greek Text was “hastily” thrown together. Let’s explore these accusations.
Background of Erasmus
Born in 1466, Desiderius Erasmus spent his life surrounded by God’s words, before dying in 1536 at the age of 70, in a time when the average span of a man’s life was approximately 35-40 years.
Erasmus’ father was a priest who earned their living by copying manuscripts. For six years, Erasmus attended the Gerard Groote’s School of the Brethren of the Common Life, a group which made their living by the copying of manuscripts. However, both of his parents fell victim to the plague while Erasmus was still in his younger years. As a result, he and his brother were shipped off to a Roman Catholic monastery, having no say in the matter. Rather than fall in line by being a “good Roman Catholic”, Erasmus refused to keep vigils, never hesitated to eat meat on Fridays, and though ordained, chose never to function as a priest He was a constant critic of the Pope and the papal monarchy. In his writings, he composed a tract, “Against the Barbarians” which was directed against the overt wickedness of the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Catholic Church criticized his works for his refusal to use Jerome’s Latin translation, a translation that he said was inaccurate.
In his pursuit of pure manuscript lines, Erasmus detected that the Greek text had been corrupted as early as the fourth century.
Lastly, in 1559, twenty-three years after his death, Pope Paul IV put Erasmus’ writings on the “Index” of books, forbidden to be read by Roman Catholics.
Was Erasmus in a hurry?
One of the common charges against the Textus Receptus underlying the King James Bible is that Erasmus threw it together “in great haste”.
The reality is that Erasmus was surrounded by Bible manuscripts from his childhood in the 1460’s–and his Greek Text was published in 1516. This is over 40 years.
“The preparation had taken years” Durant p. 283
“Through all these struggling years he had been patiently labouring at his New Testament…” Froude, The Life and Letters, p. 119
In 1505, eleven years prior to completing his Greek Text, Erasmus wrote to a friend,
“I shall sit down to Holy Scripture with my whole heart, and devote the rest of my life to it…All these three years I have been working entirely at Greek, and have not been playing with it” Froude, The Life and Letters, p. 87
The following is from Erasmus’ dedication to his Greek New Testament,
“I perceive that teaching, which is our salvation, was to be had in a much purer and more lively form if sought at the fountainhead and drawn from the actual sources than from pools and runnels. And so I have revised the whole new Testament against the standard of the Greek originals…” —The Collected Works of Erasmus, 3:222-223, Epistle 384
Consider that Erasmus had access to the most manuscripts in his time of anyone. In his time, Rome had the greatest collection of Bible manuscripts the world over…Rome built majestic libraries to house them. After this was all completed, Erasmus came and spent years studying the manuscripts. It is said that he was “devouring the libraries.” “Comparing two codices…for the more correct reading of some intricate passage” was his passion. (Durant, p. 275, Mangan, pp. 275, 91)
Was it Divinly appointed that Erasmus should have “devoured the libraries”, considering the French besiegement of Rome in 1527 when the libraries were demolished, and hundreds of manuscripts lost and destroyed?
Erasmus’ good friends Angelo Colocci and Jacopo Sadoleti both had priceless treasures of rare books and manuscripts and lost everything. But Erasmus had already studied, and notated and soaked them up.
“It may be easily guessed how large a part of the usefulness of my work would have been lacking if my learned friends had not supplied me with manuscripts.” Mangan, p. 241
Erasmus wrote that he spent all his time in great libraries, devouring all the books he could find, moving constantly, after he had exhausted them in each city. Erasmus wrote to a friend, very early in his career,
“I am comparing Greek MSS. I am determined to devote myself to undiscovered copies of the epistles, which I burn to handle.” Froude, The Life and Letters, p.63, note 2
He wrote that he had acquired so many manuscripts that he needed two assistants to help carry them and plenty of time to “arrange them”. (Froude, The Life and Letters, pp. 55, 57-58, 54)
By the age of 40, Erasmus was the world’s leading authority on the Greek language and the Greek New Testament. He was hired to teach Greek at Cambridge University…after already declining invitations to many professorships in Europe. (Durant, p. 275)
Interestingly, Erasmus’ own manuscript collection was so large and valuable that it was seized by customs when he left England to go to the Continent to finalize the Greek NT in 1514. He protested saying “they had stolen the labors of his life.” And the manuscripts were returned in a few days. (Froude, The Life and Letters, p.169)
Yet false claims abound by modern scholarship, that Erasmus only had a few Greek manuscripts at his disposal.
The Cambridge History of the Bible, vol. II, p. 498, says,
“It is an exaggeration to maintain, as some do, that Erasmus only used the Greek manuscripts that he had found in the library of the Basle Dominicans for his edition.”
“He himself protested against accusations of this sort, in his dedicatory letter to Leo X. And it seems undeniable that he used notes, at any rate, which he had made on the manuscripts that he had seen in England…”
If Erasmus were alive today, he would find that he had managed to match almost all of the over 5,200 Greek manuscripts and wisely ignore the other 44 corrupt ones. How’s that for statistically impossible? God’s hand was on Erasmus for the preservation of His holy words. The Cambridge History of the Bible affirms this, regarding the Greek NT of Erasmus:
“It corresponds to the manuscript tradition which in fact prevailed in the Greek Church; and not until the end of the nineteenth century were editions proposed that differed [Westcott and Hort] other than on points of detail” (vol. 2, p. 499)
Quotes by Erasmus for us to ponder…
“Heresy does not arise among the laity who have the scriptures in the vernacular, but among the doctors.” (Bainton, p. 203)
“The Spirit teaches, not Aristotle; grace, not reasoning; inspiration, not the syllogism.” (Cambridge History of the Bible, vol. III, p. 82)
“I advised divines to leave scholastic subtleties and study Scriptures…I wish there could be an end of scholastic subtleties, or, if not an end, that they could be thrust into a second place, and Christ be taught plainly and simply. The reading of the Bible…will have this effect. Doctrines are taught now which have no affinity with Christ and only darken our eyes” (Froude, The Life and Letters, pp. 356, 187)
“He upbraided the Pharisees, the Scribes, and the Doctors of the Law, while he sedulously protected the unlearned multitude. For what else does, ‘Woe to you Scribes and Pharisees’ mean but ‘Woe to you wise ones’? But he seems to have been wonderfully delighted with children, women and fishermen…” (Mangan, p. 310)
And lastly, I love this one: “Just bring the two little fishes.”
“Do not assume that you are a great doctor of whose wisdom the people should not be deprived. Just see what you have at home and bring that to the Lord. He will bless it and give it back to you to distribute. The people will then receive more benefit than if some superstitious Pharisee, some arrogant philosopher, some eloquent orator should come with a carefully prepared discourse…If some pompous doctor comes announcing that he has more to deliver than time will permit and mysteries to expound which will be over the heads of his audience, they will go away hungry. Just bring the two little fishes. Bring them to Jesus. Nothing which he has not touched will be of any avail.” (Bainton, p. 144)
The above informantion is minor compared to how much more I could share here in defense of Erasmus’ great qualifications and vast resources enabling him to be used of God in his compilation of the Greek New Testament, the Textus Receptus. Isn’t his-story amazing?