What mattered to Erasmus

James McConica

  • Erasmus’s Annotations on the New Testament. The Gospels: Facsimile of the final Latin text with all earlier variants edited by Anne Reeve
    Duckworth, 284 pp, £35.00, March 1986, ISBN 0 7156 1990 X
  • Erasmus’s Annotations on the New Testament: From Philologist to Theologian by Erika Rummel
    Toronto, 234 pp, £24.50, January 1987, ISBN 0 8020 5683 0
  • A New Rabelais Bibliography: Editions of Rabelais before 1626 by Stephen Rawles and M.A. Screech
    Droz, 691 pp
  • The Library of Robert Burton by Nicholas Kiessling
    Oxford Bibliographic Society, 433 pp, £25.00, May 1988, ISBN 0 901420 42 5

Erasmus’s edition of the New Testament, which made the Greek text available in print for the first time, is remembered as his most important achievement. This is partly because his profound influence in another sphere, that of education and Christian piety, became virtually invisible by its general absorption into the mainstream of European thought: the presence of his Adagia throughout the works of Shakespeare is an example. Nevertheless, the symbolic importance of the Novum lnstrumentum in defining the impact of Christian humanism on the intellectual culture of the day is matched by that of no other single work, including his own Praise of Folly. The fact that the editio princeps of 1516 became notorious for its errors, that its very status as an ‘edition’ was unclear even to his contemporaries, and that its own absorption into the textus receptus of biblical scholarship contributed to a legacy of critical problems that were not unravelled until the advent of ‘higher criticism’ in the 19th century – all of these serious qualifications notwithstanding, where the name of Erasmus is remembered, it is remembered first for the printing of the New Testament in Greek.

A new generation of scholars has given us, for the first time, a proper understanding of the curious inception of this famous work, and of its true nature. It is now clear that the printing of the Greek text was – in the strict sense – the last thing that mattered. However, attention to it as an editio princeps has diverted attention away from the two other components of the Novum lnstrumentum, a new Latin version of the Bible by Erasmus revising the Vulgate, and an assembly of notes or annotations. In the standard Leiden edition (1703-6) these are printed as if they were intended to be footnotes to the Greek and Latin texts. They were not footnotes, but an independent work which is actually an extended commentary on the Vulgate textus receptus of the day. Thanks to the critical scholarship of Andrew Brown, we have known also since 1985 that Erasmus’s Latin text was not begun in 1505-6 under inspiration from Valla, as was long thought, but composed, as he claimed, under considerable pressure of time during his stay in Basel. Of the three elements contained in the Novum lnstrumentum then – the Greek text, the Latin translation, and the Annotationes – only the last was the product of a long and painstaking scholarly enterprise. At the same time, Erasmus’s annotations provided the firm foundation for his critical revision of the Vulgate, and explain why he was able to produce that text so swiftly.

In the successive editions of Erasmus’s Annotationes we find the history of his personal study of the New Testament, a study which no doubt began during his initial editorial work on the letters of St Jerome. His quest for the ‘very face’ of Jesus in the Greek text was spurred on by his discovery of Valla’s annotations in 1504, as it was disciplined and enriched by his autodidactic efforts on the epistles of St Paul, some of which lost endeavour may survive as a residue in the Annotationes. Throughout this time, while he was becoming familiar with the Greek text underlying the received Latin version, his aim was not to edit the Greek, but to revise the familiar Vulgate. He compared the Vulgate, not only with the Greek manuscripts he encountered in his travels, but with citations to be found in the Fathers, early exegetes, and commentators on both the Greek and early Latin versions. He could not have been in the least unaware of the significance of a printed text in Greek, but it is unmistakably clear that the decision to include it was made more or less at the last, certainly with the full support of his publisher, Johann Froben, who may well have sponsored the idea.

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[*] M.A. Screech’s Erasmus: Ecstasy and the Praise of Folly was republished in paperback by Penguin on 25 August 1988 (267 pp., £5.99, 0 14055235 9).