Summary of today’s post:
Today’s post celebrates a major milestone in the history of Bible translation and study of the Greek New Testament. On March 1, 1516 a scholar named Desiderius Erasmus (pictured above) became the first man in history to have published a printed edition of the Greek New Testament. The publication of Erasmus’ edition of Greek New Testament in 1516 celebrates its 500th anniversary this year. This particular post reflects on three reasons why Erasmus’ edition is practically significant today.
Below is a sample picture from a page in the 1516 edition which includes Matthew 1 in both the Greek (left column) and Latin (right column). Photo derives from pintrest.com
Three reasons why Erasmus’ edition of the Greek New Testament ought to cause celebration over God’s Word today
Dr. Nick Needham, a lecturer in church history at Highland Theological College in Dingwall, Scotland and Minister of Inverness Reformed Baptist Church in Inverness, Scotland, comments on the significance of Erasmus’ Greek New Testament for the Reformation:1
“The Renaissance rediscovery of Greek, coupled with the “ad fontes” (back to the sources) drive toward the sources of Christianity, resulted in Erasmus’ printed edition of the Greek New Testament in 1516. This was a bridge across which many students traveled from Renaissance into Reformation.” (Table Talk Magazine, October 2016, page 9).
Below are some reflections on three reasons why this major milestone in the history of the Biblical text captures why Christians ought to celebrate the Bible today.
1. Erasmus’ motive for publishing His Greek New Testament celebrates the need for God’s word
Authors Mark Galli and Ted Olsen mention a quote from the preface of Erasmus’ 1516 edition of his Greek New Testament. The quote captures Erasmus’ motivation and desire to meet what he deemed the need for everyone to have access to God’s Word:2
“Would that the farmer might sing snatches of Scripture at his plough and that the weaver might hum phrases of Scripture to the tune of his shuttle, that the traveler might lighten with stories from Scripture the weariness of his journey.”
These words remind us that we need God’s Word. We need to celebrate the fact that God used men like Erasmus’ to meet that need. But notice a second reason as to why this major milestone of Erasmus’ Greek text is cause for celebration of God’s Word…
2. Erasmus’ publication of his Greek New Testament caused increased access to God’s Word
So what spawned from this monumental achievement worked forth by God through Erasmus’ herculean efforts? Most if not all Biblical scholarship of the 16th century centered on the Latin text of the Vulgate, which had been used by the Roman Catholic church for over a millennium. Very few scholars knew the Greek of the New Testament, since such knowledge could only be acquired through study of the few available medieval Greek manuscripts. The figure below is an example of such manuscripts (the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 1):
With the advent of Erasmus’ Greek New Testament, more people could gain access to the text behind the Latin Vulgate. His publication was an achievement for its day. By consulting what was then available to him (half a dozen or so Greek manuscripts), Erasmus’ put together the first printed critical edition of the Greek New Testament. Subsequent editions of the Greek New Testament would for sure reflect improvement as scholarship would advance. Still, Erasmus’ publication marked a watershed moment in the history of the Biblical text.
Erasmus’ text dawned a new era in the study of the Greek New Testament that would result in future editions of the printed Greek New Testament produced by later generations of scholars for public consumption. One prime example was the edition of the Greek New Testament produced by French printer Robert Stephanus. Bible specialist Dr. Donald L. Brake notes how Stephanus’ edition relied heavily upon Erasmus’ text:3
“It was the French printer Robert Stephanus who standardized the text of Erasmus. In 1546 and 1549, he printed two very small editions of the Greek New Testament based upon Erasmus.”
Stephanus is a very important figure not only in the history of publishing, but also in the history of the English Bible. Stephanus was the man responsible for introducing verse divisions, a feature which generations since his time have found invaluable in navigating the Biblical text. His 1550 edition of Greek New Testament, based largely on the text of Erasmus, included the famous verse numbers which would appear in our English Bibles.
Photo below is derived from pinterest.com. This is a page from Mark 1:1-8. Note the verse numbers in both columns of the text..
Events and persons such as these were used by God to make access to God’s Word more easier than ever before.
3. Erasmus publication of His Greek New Testament enabled recovery of the Biblical Gospel
Not only did the later Martin Luther find his insights into the doctrines of justification by faith through the study of Erasmus’ text, but that same text became the base for Luther’s translation of the German Bible. Dr. Nick Needham, mentioned at the beginning of this post, quotes Luther and then comments on how he gleaned insights from Erasmus’ text:4
“When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘Repent’, He meant that the entire life of believers should be a life of repentance. The word cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of repentance – that is, confession and satisfaction – as administered by the priests’.
Dr. Needham then makes the following observation:5
“Luther here appeals to the Greek word for “repent”, which, on account of the Latin Vulgate translation ‘peontitentiam agite’, ‘do penance’, was previously understood as referring to the sacrament of penance. (Table Talk, October 2016 page 9)
The German translation of the New Testament by Martin Luther served to spread the flames throughout Germany, causing the common people to have access to a Bible in their own language that was based on a fresh translation of the Greek. Erasmus’ Greek New Testament filled a necessary gap for the deepening need for God’s Word and provided greater access to it.
In addition to these two thoughts, we can note how men like Martin Luther were able to recover the Gospel – with specific reference to the doctrine of justification by faith alone.6 This doctrine in effect declares that at saving faith, God declares the sinner “innocent” with respect to the condemnation of the Law of God. Additionally, justification credits the sinner the righteousness that Jesus Christ achieved in His perfect life, death and resurrection. It would be Erasmus’ edition of the Greek New Testament that would be instrumental in lighting the way for the beginnings of Reformation.
Today we considered the significance of the 500th anniversary of the publication of Erasmus’ edition of the Greek New Testament. We discovered three reasons why what he did was used by God to impact history and contemporary culture:
A. Erasmus’ motive for publishing His Greek New Testament celebrates the need for God’s word
B. Erasmus’ publication of his Greek New Testament caused increased access to God’s Word
C. Erasmus’ publication of His Greek New Testament enabled recovery of the Biblical Gospel
1. Dr. Nick Needham. Article: “A Century of Change”. Table Talk Magazine. October 2016, page 9.
2. Mark Galli and Ted Olsen .”131 Christians everyone should know”. Kindle Edition.
3. Dr. Donald L. Brake. A Visual History of the English Bible. Baker Books. 2008. Page 232
4. Dr. Nick Needham. Article: “A Century of Change”. Table Talk Magazine. October 2016, page 9.
5. Dr. Nick Needham. Article: “A Century of Change”. Table Talk Magazine. October 2016, page 9.
6. So why the emphasis of “faith alone” in Luther’s formulation of the doctrine? Unlike the Medieval and contemporary Roman Catholic Church’s view of justification, which declares that although faith is necessary, yet it is not sufficient by itself – justification by faith alone captures the Biblical emphasis that we are saved by grace through faith, apart from works (see Ephesians 2:8-9). Rome taught and still teaches that justification not only requires faith, but also the additional participation of the sinner in the sacramental system of the Roman Catholic church (namely baptism, confession, doing penance and participation in the mass).