Erasmus and the Search for the Original Text of the New Testament Erasmus’s Greek New Testament was a monumental achievement, but left room for later scholars to improve it. Martin HeideThe Greek New Testament published in Basel (Switzerland) in 1516 was the greatest achievement of the magnificent Dutch philosopher, philologist, and Catholic theologian Erasmus of Rotterdam (ca. 1466–1536). At that time in Western Europe, the Latin Bible was the “Gold standard” of Holy Writ; it was often seen as the inspired text. Philologists and theologians such as Erasmus, however, knew that the Latin Bible of his time, also known as the “Vulgate,” was actually a translation, and that it had been translated by Jerome from the Greek in the 4th century AD. While revising Jerome’s Latin translation and preparing to publish a new Latin edition, Erasmus often consulted Greek manuscripts to ensure his decisions. During that process, he felt encouraged to print the (revised) Latin and the Greek New Testament on facing pages and publish it under the title Novum Instrumentum omne (Complete New Testament), thus allowing qualified readers to verify his revision. Erasmus used the only Greek New Testament manuscripts available in Basel at his time. The publication of the Novum Instrumentum omne was a great success. However, because the printing process was done in a hurry, the first edition had many editing errors and typos, which were partly dealt with in the ensuing edition(s). For printing the Greek part of his Novum Instrumentum, Erasmus used the only Greek New Testament manuscripts available in Basel at his time. These eight manuscripts were written between the 10th and 15th centuries. They once belonged to Cardinal John of Ragusa (ca. 1393–1443), who, before the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, had brought about 60 Greek manuscripts, covering all fields of learning, from Constantinople to Basel. John of Ragusa bequeathed these manuscripts to the convent of the Dominicans in Basel. Except for two manuscripts that were already in the hands of Johann Reuchlin (ca. 1455–1522) at Erasmus’s time and that he had to borrow from this great scholar, the Dominican library loaned six manuscripts directly to Erasmus. Today, six of the eight are housed in the University library of Basel, while manuscript 2814, the only manuscript with the book of Revelation, is owned by the University Library of Augsburg. Manuscript 2105, which Erasmus used mainly for his separately published textual commentary, the Annotationes (Annotations), was discovered in the Bodleian Library of Oxford in 1966. The eight manuscripts are listed in the table below, with the respective Gregory-Aland (GA) numbers that are in use today: GAContentsDateShelf Number1Acts, epistles, four gospels12th c.Basel A.N. IV. 22Four Gospels12thBasel A.N. IV. 12815Acts, epistles12thBasel A.N. IV. 42816Acts, epistles15thBasel A.N. IV. 52817Pauline Epistles10–11thBasel A.N. III.11817Four Gospels with Theophylact’s commentary15thBasel A.N. III. 152814Apocalypse with Andrew’s commentary12thAugsburg I.1.4° 12105Pauline Epistles with Theophylact’s commentary12thOxford E. 1. 6Manuscripts used by Erasmus Understandably, Erasmus was used to the text of the Latin Bible from his childhood and indebted to the general scholarly opinion of his time that favored this text. Thus, from the first edition in 1516 onward, Erasmus introduced, knowingly or unknowingly, some Latin readings into the Greek text. For example, in Acts 9:5–6, he added the following phrase: “it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks, and he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him” (KJV). In his Annotationes, Erasmus admitted that, “in most Greek manuscripts this addition is not found.” However, this phrase, being not known from any of the Greek manuscripts at Erasmus’s disposal, is actually found in some later Latin manuscripts and in the printed Latin editions of Erasmus’s time (such as the Gutenberg Bible, and many more). Since the same text is known from Acts 22:10, it might be argued that Erasmus thought the introduction of the Latin phrase would neither change the meaning nor the inspiration of the text. Moreover, high opinions of the Latin Vulgate and negative views of the Greek text moved Erasmus to write extended apologies for readings which departed from the Latin in his Annotationes. In addition, unfavorable reviews of his first edition forced him to include a late reading based on the Latin in his third edition, the so-called Comma Johanneum, which is added here in brackets: “For there are three that bear record [in heaven, Father, Word, and Holy Ghost: and these three are one. 8 And there are three that bear witness in earth], Spirit, and water, and blood, and the three agree in one” (1 John 5:7–8 according to Erasmus’ third edition). As Greek manuscript support was lacking for this reading, it was not included in the first (1516) and second (1519) editions. Erasmus seems to have yielded to pressure to include the passage when he learned that a Greek manuscript in England, the so-called Codex Britannicus, known today as Codex Montfortianus (GA 61), contained the text (fig. 1). Fig. 1. Codex Britannicus or Montfortianus (GA 61), fol. 439r, with the text of 1 John 5:7–9 including the Comma Johanneum. Source This codex was actually written around 1520 by a monk named Roy, most likely to provide Erasmus with the missing “evidence.” Erasmus claimed in his Annotationes that he did not believe the reading to be genuine and that it looked very similar to the Vulgate reading. Erasmus wondered why this codex lacked the phrase “and these three agree in one” in verse 8, in accordance with the Latin Vulgate, while it is found in nearly all Greek copies. Moreover, Erasmus saw evidence for a Latin origin of the Greek text in the missing articles before important nouns such as “father” (πατὴρ), “word” (λόγος), and “spirit” (πνεῦμα). Ultimately, however, Erasmus chose to include the Comma Johanneum from his third edition onward, gaining wider acceptance of his Latin and Greek texts, so that, in his own words, no one would have a basis to criticize him. A comparison of the Codex Montfortianus and Erasmus’ third edition reveals that he added “and” (καί) between “spirit” and “water,” and supplemented the phrase “and these three agree in one.” In the 4th and 5th editions, he polished the Greek, inserting the missing articles. After Erasmus’ death, the text received further improvement, so that the Comma Johanneum reads today: “For there are three that bear record [in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. 8 And there are three that bear witness in earth], the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one” (1 John 5:7–8 according to the KJV). Get new articles and updates in your inbox. Leave this field empty if you're human: The Comma Johanneum is not found in Luther’s German New Testament of 1522, which was translated from a reprint of Erasmus’ first edition. Martin Luther stated in his “Lecture on the First Epistle of John” that the Comma Johanneum had been “clumsily inserted by the zeal of the old theologians against the Arians … I could easily make fun of the fact that there is no more unsuitable place of proof for the Trinity.” In a similar way as Erasmus, Luther did not really buy the text. In the margin of 1 John 5 in his own Bible, he added the remark that, “there is no testimony in heaven” (in coelo non est testimonium). The German Bible did not include the Comma Johanneum before 1581. The Text of Revelation For the text of Revelation, Erasmus had but one Greek manuscript, no. 2814, which actually was a commentary of archbishop Andrew of Caesarea (ca. 563–614). There are many places where Erasmus (or his associate, or his printer) had problems to read the text or to distinguish between the commentary and the biblical text, so that Erasmus’s Greek text of Revelation has not a few unique readings. Most of these faulty readings have never been corrected by Erasmus or those responsible for reprinting the Received Text. For instance, fig. 2 shows leaf no. 64 (folio 64r) of manuscript 2814. Most of the text consists of Andrew’s commentary, but the red marks in the left margin indicate the next Bible verse (Rev. 17:8b) to be commented upon: “they shall wonder … when they behold the beast that was, and is not, and is” (θαυμασθήσονται … βλεπόντων τὸ θηρίον ὅτι ἦν καὶ οὐκ ἔστιν καὶ παρέσται). However, the last two words cited here appear, due to misreading, in Erasmus’s text not as “and is” (καὶ παρέσται), but as “and yet is” (καὶπερ ἔστιν). Fig. 2. The last two words of the biblical text (in orange) were misread in Manuscript 2814, University Library of Augsburg (12th c.), f. 64r. Source In Revelation 21:23–24, Erasmus’s Novum Instrumentum introduced a unique reading due to a confusion of Bible text and commentary. As can be seen in fig. 3, the first visible line begins with Revelation 21:23c: “for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof” (γὰρ δόξα τοῦ θεοῦ ἐφώτισεν αὐτήν καὶ ὁ λύχνος αὐτῆς τὸ ἀρνίον). Immediately after that, Andrew’s commentary resumes, before line four is again marked as biblical text in the margin. However, the scribe of the manuscript mispositioned the marginal signs! The text of line four simply continues Andrew’s commentary with the words translated in the KJV as “and the nations of them which are saved shall walk in the light of it” (καὶ τὰ ἔθνη τῶν σωζομένων τῷ φωτί αὐτῆς περιπατήσουσιν). This commentary text naturally deviates from the usual Bible text attested in Revelation 21:23–24 which should read “by its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it” (καὶ περιπατήσουσιν τὰ ἔθνη διὰ τοῦ φωτὸς αὐτῆς). Thus, a few words of Andrew’s commentary crept into the Received Text as Holy Writ and, from there, into the early translations such as Luther’s German Bible and the KJV. Fig. 3. Because of a miswritten marginal sign, the commentary text (in orange) was read as the biblical text in Manuscript 2814, University Library of Augsburg (12th c.), f. 88v. Source Moreover, as is well-known, a leaf is missing toward the end of manuscript 2814, so that the biblical text quoted ends abruptly with Revelation 22:16 (fol. 92v), while the next leaf (fol. 93r) continues with Andrew’s commentary until its last page (fol. 94r). To fill the gap in his Greek text, Erasmus had to retranslate it from the Latin, which he freely admits in the defense of his text against the critique of Edward Lee: “At the end of my copy of Revelation, a few lines were missing. I added them in accordance with Latin copies,” which means that he retranslated them from the Latin Vulgate into Greek. Similarly, he writes in his Annotationes to the Apocalypse: “Although at the end of this book I have found some words in our text [i.e., the Latin] that were missing in the Greek copies, we have nevertheless added them from the Latin.” Fig. 4. Rev. 22:19 in a 1512 Latin Bible with the word “book” (libro) in the text and the usual reading “tree” (ligno) in the margin. Source Up to today, the textus receptus or “Received Text,” as Erasmus’s Greek text was called from the 17th century onwards, has some Greek readings that hail from Erasmus’s retranslation procedure and that have no manuscript support whatsoever. Although most of these readings are trivial, some are visible in the translations, such as the “book of life” (KJV) instead of “the tree of life” (NASB) (Rev. 22:19). This reading is based on late Latin manuscripts, which confused ligno “tree” with libro “book,” as can be seen in fig. 4. Further Research after the Reformation Period After the Reformation, scholars such as the Lutheran pietist clergyman J. A. Bengel (1687–1752) realized that the textus receptus or Received Text was largely based on late medieval Greek manuscripts and that its revision was overdue, in face of many more and much older Greek manuscripts that had become known in Europe. Back in 1516, Erasmus had no choice; he had to use what was available at his time. Bengel, on the other hand, in the spirit and zeal of Erasmus, seized the opportunity and compared the manuscripts newly known in his time to the Received Text. For instance, with the help of the Codex Alexandrinus (5th century) and medieval manuscripts, Bengel was able to correct the most obvious faults of the Book of Revelation (fig. 5) and made text-critical observations that are still valid today. Fig. 5. Bengel’s Testamentum Novum (1734) has the reading τοῦ ξύλου (tou xylou) “of the tree” in the text of Rev. 22:19, while Erasmus’s reading βίβλου (biblou) “of [the] book” is merely cited as a variant. It is marked by the Greek letter ε to signal a reading “to be rejected, though approved by some.” Source Erasmus’s Legacy The Novum Instrumentum was the only printed and published Greek text available at the onset of the Reformation and it has done the church a great service. The success and deep impact of the Reformation and its aftermath would be unthinkable without this new spiritual and intellectual basis of the New Testament text. Moreover, no cardinal doctrine is jeopardized by its obvious shortcomings. However, the Greek of the Novum Instrumentum, or the “Received Text,” as it was later called, “soon became, as it were, stereotyped in men’s minds; so that the readings originally edited on most insufficient manuscript authority, were supposed to possess some prescriptive right, just as if … an apostle had been the compositor.”1Samuel. P. Tregelles, An Account of the Printed Text of the Greek New Testament (London: Bagster, 1854), 29. The work of the ingenious and industrious Erasmus marks the beginning of modern New Testament textual criticism, of the science that compares Greek New Testament manuscripts to reconstruct and print the earliest and original text. As it would be foolish today to think that the knowledge, of, e.g., Roman history during the 16th century was superior to our knowledge of the past and to ignore all the progress that has been made in reconstructing ancient history, so it would be foolish to claim that we should see the Novum Instrumentum as the only valid Bible text, arguing that God in some mysterious way restored the original text through the error-prone work of Erasmus. We do not need to bend our brains to explain away the errors of the Received Text. Thanks to Erasmus, we do not believe anymore that the Vulgate is the only truly inspired text of the church. And thanks to such men as John Mill (1645–1707), Johann A. Bengel (1687–1752), Samuel P. Tregelles (1813–1875), Constantin v. Tischendorf (1815–1874) and many others who followed in their footsteps and worked hard to restore as close as possible the original Greek text of the New Testament, we do not need to bend our brains to explain away the errors of the Received Text, seeing the text and its ramifications today as it is.Notes1Samuel. P. Tregelles, An Account of the Printed Text of the Greek New Testament (London: Bagster, 1854), 29.