Soon after Martin Luther made public his 95 Theses in 1517, he found a sympathetic ear in Desiderius Erasmus, perhaps the most notable scholar of the Renaissance who made a monumental contribution to biblical studies with his various publication of the Greek New Testament. Erasmus took the initiative in defending the validity of Luther’s position by advising others not to attempt to exterminate Luther, but to hear him out in a civilized manner. Although Luther and Erasmus never met face to face, the relationship between the two men became increasingly tense as the Reformation that Luther had set in motion threatened to divide all of Christendom and European nations. In the 1519 letter to Albert of Brandenburg, Erasmus wrote, “I was sorry that Luther’s books were published; and when some or other of his writings first came into view, I made every effort to prevent their publication, chiefly because I feared a disturbance might result from them.” 1
Luther, heavily influenced by the theology of Augustine, was disturbed by Erasmus’ apparent skepticism as to whether Romans 5:12 supported the doctrine of original sin. In a letter to Johann Lang in March of 1517, Luther’s expressed his distrust of Erasmus spirituality: “The human prevails more than the divine in him.”2 Their differences ultimately culminated in fierce literary combat when Luther endeavored to eviscerate Erasmus’s theological arguments for the doctrine of human free will in his definitive work The Bondage of the Will (1525). In his frustration with Erasmus, Luther famously declared, “Erasmus is an eel. Only Christ can grab him.”3
Nevertheless, Luther also benefited from the labors of Erasmus’s textual output. After the Diet of Worms in 1521, Luther spent about three months translating the New Testament into German using Erasmus’s second edition of Greek New Testament as his basis.
Erasmus’s first edition of the Greek New Testament, titled Novum Instrumentum, saw publication in February of 1516, with the biblical text rendered in dual columns of both Greek and Latin. Some of his translation decisions were controversial for diverging from the Latin Vulgate, particularly the exclusion of a direct Trinitarian reference in 1 John 5:7-8 (commonly known as the Johannine Comma), the aforementioned rendering of Romans 5:12, and his paradigm-shifting verbal choice in Matthew 4:17 as “Repent” (rather than “Do penance.”4 The publication of the first edition of his Annotations on the New Testament came the following month, a justification for his translation that identified the errors in the Vulgate and appealed to multiple Church Fathers such as Ambrose, Augustine, Origen, Chrysostom, and Jerome. Erasmus prepared four more revised editions of the Greek New Testament, which were published under the altered title of Novum Testamentum in 1519, 1522, 1527, and 1535.5
Southern Seminary is privileged to own authentic copies of Erasmus’s 1522 Novum Testamentum (third edition) and the corresponding volume of his Annotations, both volumes having been previously owned by the seminary’s founder James Petigru Boyce. The 1522 edition is notable for Erasmus’s reinsertion of the Johannine Comma despite reservations as to its original authenticity. William Tyndale used this edition as the basis for translating the New Testament into English in 1526, and it subsequently guided the translations of both the Geneva Bible and the King James Version.
Eels are known for being slippery, but both 1522 Erasmus volumes are available for viewing upon request in the Archives and Special Collections on the second floor of the James P. Boyce Centennial Library.
1J. Bronowski and Bruce Mazlish, The Western Intellectual Tradition: From Leonardo to Hegel (New York: Harper Perennial, 1960), 71; Erasmus, “Letter to Albert of Brandenburg,” in Christian Humanism and the Reformation: Selected Writings of Erasmus, ed. John C. Olin (New York: Fordham University Press, 1975), 137.
2 Charles Trinkaus, “Introduction” to Collected Works of Erasmus: Controversies, Volume 76, ed. Charles Trinkaus, trans. Peter Macardle and Clarence H. Miller (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 1999), xxvi.
3 E. Gordon Rupp, “The Erasmian Enigma,” in Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation, ed. E. Gordon Rupp and Philip S. Watson (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1969), 2.
4 Collected Works of Erasmus: Annotations on Romans, Volume 56, ed. Robert Sider, trans. John Payne (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 1994), 137-163; Roland H. Bainton, Erasmus of Christendom (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1969), 139; Collected Works of Erasmus: Paraphrase on Matthew, Volume 45, ed. Robert Sider, trans. Dean Simpson (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 2008), 79.
5 Albert Rabil, Jr., Erasmus and the New Testament: The Mind of a Christian Humanist (San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 1972), 92.