(Vatican Radio) Among the many anniversaries of 2016, one in particular has passed unnoticed: the quincentenary of the first edition (editio princeps) of the Greek New Testament by Erasmus of Rotterdam.
Listen to Devin Watkins' report on this historic work:
Though not actually the first edition of a compiled New Testament in Greek, Erasmus’ editio princeps became an important landmark. Martin Luther used the second edition of Erasmus’ work for his translation of the New Testament into German, the so-called ‘September Testament’. The third edition was used as the textual base for the King James Version of the Bible.
As an article in the Osservatore Romano notes, Erasmus of Rotterdam studied at Paris, Oxford, and in Italy and was ordained a Catholic priest in 1492 in the Augustinian Canons Regular. He was a constant critic of ecclesiastic institutions but maintained a healthy distance from Martin Luther and other reformers, with whom he engaged in frequent polemics.
Already noted as a brilliant philologist and humanist, Erasmus was approached by Johann Froben of Basel in 1514, who asked him to assemble the Greek text of the New Testament for printing. Oddly enough, Erasmus called his first edition the Novum Instrumentum omne, or New Instrument, instead of New Testament, a name which changed with the second edition.
Erasmus hurriedly assembled the edition, basing the text on Greek manuscripts he had on hand, which were of dubious textual traditions. It became known as the textus receptus, or ‘received text’.
In reality, Erasmus used relatively-late miniscule manuscripts from the 12th century, rather than manuscripts from the third to fifth centuries, which scholars now hold to be more faithful to the original New Testament text.
In several places, Erasmus even corrected the Greek text with translated readings from the Latin Vulgate of St. Jerome. One noteworthy example involves the final verses of the Book of Revelation, which were lacking in the codex Erasmus had borrowed from his friend Johannes Reuchlin. Despite these and other failings, most modern versions until the 19th century were translated from the Greek text of Erasmus’ New Testament.
But the editio princeps wasn’t the first Greek edition of the New Testament to be printed on the modern printing press. That honor belongs to the Complutensian Polyglot Bible of Alcalá de Henares. Under the direction of the Archbishop of Toledo, Cardinal Francisco Ximénez de Cisneros, the New Testament section of the Complutensian was printed in January of 1514 in six volumes. But the necessary papal letter sanctioning its publication was only given in 1520 by Pope Leo X, because Erasmus had been given exclusive publication rights for four years by the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian.
The second through fifth editions – published in 1519, 1522, 1527, and 1535 respectively – included corrections of the Greek text. Interestingly, Erasmus made use of the Complutensian text for a number of the corrections, which even he recognized as belonging to a better and more trustworthy textual tradition.
No matter the problems of Erasmus' editio princeps, 500 years is still an anniversary to celebrate.
(Devin Sean Watkins)