Erasmus' writing History
Presented by:
The Master's Table Web Site
Information from

Erasmus by Holbein

Publication of the Greek New Testament

The first New Testament printed in Greek was part of the Complutensian Polyglot. This portion was printed in 1514, but publication was delayed until 1522 by waiting for the Old Testament portion, and the sanction of Pope Leo X .Erasmus had been working for years on two projects: a collation of Greek texts and a fresh Latin New Testament. In 1512, he began his work on this Latin New Testament. He collected all the Vulgate manuscripts he could find to create a critical edition. Then he polished the Latin. He declared, "It is only fair that Paul should address the Romans in somewhat better Latin." In the earlier phases of the project, he never mentioned a Greek text: "My mind is so excited at the thought of emending Jerome’s text, with notes, that I seem to myself inspired by some god. I have already almost finished emending him by collating a large number of ancient manuscripts, and this I am doing at enormous personal expense."

While his intentions for publishing a fresh Latin translation are clear, it is less clear why he included the Greek text. Though some speculate that he intended to produce a critical Greek text or that he wanted to beat the Complutensian Polyglot into print, there is no evidence to support this. He wrote, "There remains the New Testament translated by me, with the Greek facing, and notes on it by me." He further demonstrated the reason for the inclusion of the Greek text when defending his work: "But one thing the facts cry out, and it can be clear, as they say, even to a blind man, that often through the translator’s clumsiness or inattention the Greek has been wrongly rendered; often the true and genuine reading has been corrupted by ignorant scribes, which we see happen every day, or altered by scribes who are half-taught and half-asleep."

So he included the Greek text to permit qualified readers to verify the quality of his Latin version. But by first calling the final product "Novum Instrumentum omne" ("All of the New Teaching") and later "Novum Testamentum omne" ("All of the New Testament") he also indicated clearly that he considered a consistently parallelized version of both the Greek and the Latin texts as the essential dual core of the church's New Testament tradition. In a way it is legitimate to say that Erasmus "synchronized" or "unified" the Greek and the Latin traditions of the New Testament by producing an updated (he would say: "purified") version of either simultaneously. Both being part of canonical tradition, he clearly found it necessary to ensure that both were actually presenting the same content. In modern terminology, he made the two traditions "compatible". This is clearly evidenced by the fact that his Greek text is not just the basis for his Latin translation, but also the other way round: there are numerous instances where he edits the Greek text to reflect his Latin version. For instance, since the last six verses of Revelation were missing from his Greek manuscript, Erasmus translated the Vulgate 's text back into Greek. Erasmus also translated the Latin text into Greek wherever he found that the Greek text and the accompanying commentaries were mixed up, or where he simply preferred the Vulgate’s reading to the Greek text.

Acknowledgement page engraved and published by Johannes Froben , 1516

Erasmus's hurried effort (Erasmus said it was "rushed into print rather than edited"was published by his friend Johann Froben of Basel in 1516 and thence became the first published Greek New Testament, the Novum Instrumentum omne , diligenter ab Erasmo Rot. Recognitum et Emendatum. Erasmus used several Greek manuscript sources because he did not have access to a single complete manuscript. Most of the manuscripts were, however, late Greek manuscripts of the Byzantine textual family and Erasmus used the oldest manuscript the least because "he was afraid of its supposedly erratic text." He also ignored much older and better manuscripts that were at his disposal.

In the 2nd (1519) edition the more familiar term Testamentum was used instead of Instrumentum. This edition was used by Martin Luther in making his German translation of Bible for his own religious movement. Together, the first and second editions sold 3,300 copies. Only 600 copies of the Complutensian Polyglot were even printed. The 1st- and 2nd-edition texts did not include the passage (1 John 5:7–8) that has become known as the Comma Johanneum . Erasmus had been unable to find those verses in any Greek manuscript, but one was supplied to him during production of the 3rd edition. That manuscript is now thought to be a 1520 creation from the Latin Vulgate , which likely got the verses from a fifth-century marginal gloss in a Latin copy of I John. The Roman Catholic Church decreed that the Comma Johanneum was open to dispute (June 2, 1927), and it is rarely included in modern scholarly translations.

The 3rd edition of 1522 was probably used by Tyndale for the first English New Testament (Worms, 1526) and was the basis for the 1550 Robert Stephanus edition used by the translators of the Geneva Bible and King James Version of the English Bible. Erasmus published a definitive 4th edition in 1527 containing parallel columns of Greek, Latin Vulgate and Erasmus's Latin texts. He used the now available Polyglot Bible to improve this version. In this edition Erasmus also supplied the Greek text of the last six verses of Revelation (which he had translated from Latin back into Greek in his first edition) from Cardinal Ximenez's Biblia Complutensis. In 1535 Erasmus published the 5th (and final) edition which dropped the Latin Vulgate column but was otherwise similar to the 4th edition. Subsequent versions of Erasmus's Greek New Testament became known as the Textus Receptus.

Erasmus dedicated his work to Pope Leo X as a patron of learning and regarded this work as his chief service to the cause of Christianity. Immediately afterward, he began the publication of his Paraphrases of the New Testament, a popular presentation of the contents of the several books. These, like all of his writings, were published in Latin but were quickly translated into other languages, with his encouragement.

Beginnings of Protestantism

Martin Luther's movement began in the year following the publication of the New Testament and tested Erasmus's character. The issue between European society and the Roman Church had become so clear that few could escape the summons to join the debate. Erasmus, at the height of his literary fame, was inevitably called upon to take sides, but partisanship was foreign to his nature and his habits. In all his criticism of clerical follies and abuses, he had always protested that he was not attacking church institutions themselves and had no enmity toward churchmen. The world had laughed at his satire, but few had interfered with his activities. He believed that his work so far had commended itself to the best minds and also to the dominant powers in the religious world.

Disagreement with Luther

"Free will does not exist", Luther's letter to Erasmus translated into German by J. J. Wittenberg in 1526
Initially Erasmus was sympathetic with the main points in the Lutheran criticism of the Church, describing him as "a mighty trumpet of gospel truth" and admitting that, "It is clear that many of the reforms for which Luther calls are urgently needed.” He had great respect for Martin Luther , and Luther always spoke with admiration of Erasmus's superior learning. Luther hoped for his cooperation in a work which seemed only the natural outcome of his own. In their early correspondence, Luther expressed boundless admiration for all Erasmus had done in the cause of a sound and reasonable Christianity and urged him to join the Lutheran party. Erasmus declined to commit himself, arguing that to do so would endanger his position as a leader in the movement for pure scholarship which he regarded as his purpose in life. Only as an independent scholar could he hope to influence the reform of religion. When Erasmus hesitated to support him, the straightforward Luther felt that Erasmus was avoiding the responsibility due either to cowardice or a lack of purpose. Erasmus, however, dreaded any change in doctrine and believed that there was room within existing formulas for the kind of reform he valued most. Also, it is said that Erasmus chose to remain a Roman-Catholic because of a lecture he heard from Savonarola , the Dominican friar who ruled Florence for a time.Though he remained firmly neutral, likely because of it, each side accused him of siding with the other. It was not for lack of fidelity with either side but a desire for fidelity with them both: "I detest dissension because it goes both against the teachings of Christ and against a secret inclination of nature. I doubt that either side in the dispute can be suppressed without grave loss." In his Catechism (entitled Explanation of the Apostles' Creed) (1533), Erasmus took stand against Luther's teaching by asserting the unwritten Sacred Tradition as just as valid a source of revelation as the Bible , by enumerating the Deuterocanonical books in the canon of the Bible and by acknowledging seven sacraments . He called "blasphemers" anyone who questioned the perpetual virginity of Mary and those who defended the need to occasionally restrict the laity from access to the Bible. In a letter to Nikolaus von Amsdorf , Luther objected to Erasmus’ Catechism and called Erasmus a "viper,", "liar," and "the very mouth and organ of Satan."

Freedom of the will

Twice in the course of the great discussion, he allowed himself to enter the field of doctrinal controversy, a field foreign to both his nature and his previous practice. One of the topics he dealt with was the freedom of the will , a crucial point. In his De libero arbitrio diatribe sive collatio (1524), he lampoons the Lutheran view on free will. He lays down both sides of the argument impartially. The "Diatribe" did not encourage any definite action; this was its merit to the Erasmians and its fault in the eyes of the Lutherans. In response, Luther wrote his De servo arbitrio ( On the Bondage of the Will ) (1525), which attacks the "Diatribe" and Erasmus himself, going so far as to claim that Erasmus was not a Christian. Erasmus responded with a lengthy, two-part Hyperaspistes (1526–27). In this controversy Erasmus lets it be seen that he would like to claim more for free will than St. Paul and St. Augustine seem to allow. For Erasmus the essential point is that humans should have the freedom of choice.

As the popular response to Luther gathered momentum, the social disorders, which Erasmus dreaded and Luther disassociated himself from, began to appear, including the Peasants' War , the Anabaptist disturbances in Germany and in the Low Countries, iconoclasm and the radicalization of peasants across Europe. If these were the outcomes of reform, he was thankful that he had kept out of it. Yet he was ever more bitterly accused of having started the whole "tragedy" (as the Roman Catholics dubbed Protestantism). When the city of Basel was definitely and officially "reformed" in 1529, Erasmus gave up his residence there and settled in the imperial town of Freiburg im Breisgau .


A test of the Reformation was the doctrine of the sacraments , and the crux of this question was the observance of the Eucharist . In 1530, Erasmus published a new edition of the orthodox treatise of Algerus against the heretic Berengar of Tours in the eleventh century. He added a dedication, affirming his belief in the reality of the Body of Christ after consecration in the Eucharist, commonly referred to as transsubstantiation . The anti- sacramentarians , headed by Ecolampadius of Basel , were, as Erasmus says, quoting him as holding views similar to their own in order to try to claim him for their schismatic and "erroneous" movement.
Erasmus died of a sudden attack of dysentery in 1536 in Basel and was buried there in the cathedral . His last words, as recorded by his friend Beatus Rhenanus , were "lieve God", Dutch for Dear God


Erasmus wrote both on ecclesiastic subjects and those of general human interest. He seems to have regarded the latter as trifling, a leisure activity. By the 1530’s, the writings of Erasmus accounted for 10 to 20 percent of all book sales. He is credited with coining the adage," In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king ." He formed a collection of adages, commonly called Adagia . Erasmus is also generally credited with originating the English phrase" Pandora's box ", arising through an error in his translation of Pandora by Hesiod in which he confused "pithos", storage jar, with "pyxis", box. His more serious writings begin early with the Enchiridion militis Christiani, the "Handbook of the Christian Soldier" (1503) (translated into English a few years later by the young William Tyndale ). In this short work, Erasmus outlines the views of the normal Christian life, which he was to spend the rest of his days in elaborating. The chief evil of the day, he says, is formalism, going through the motions of tradition without understanding their basis in the teachings of Christ. Forms can teach the soul how to worship God, or they may hide or quench the spirit. In his examination of the dangers of formalism, Erasmus discusses monasticism , saint worship, war, the spirit of class and the foibles of "society."

The Enchiridion is more like a sermon than a satire . With it Erasmus challenged common assumptions, painting the clergy as educators who should share the treasury of their knowledge with the laity. He emphasized personal spiritual disciplines rather than institutional sacraments, and called for a reformation which he characterized as a collective return to the Fathers and Scripture. Most importantly, he extolled the reading of scripture as vital because its power to transform and motivate toward love. Much like the Brethren of the Common Life , he wrote that the New Testament is the law of Christ we are called to obey and Christ is the example we are called to imitate. Erasmus also wrote of the legendary Frisian freedom fighter and rebel Pier Gerlofs Donia (Greate Pier), though more often criticism than praise of his exploits for Erasmus saw him as dumb brutal man preferring physical strength over wisdom.

Marginal drawing of Folly by Hans Holbein in the first edition of Erasmus' Praise of Folly, 1515
Erasmus's best-known work was The Praise of Folly (published under the triple title Moriae encomium (Greek, Latinised) and Laus stultitiae (Latin)), and Ego sum aliquantulus cattus atque ego amo piscis (Latinised). a satirical attack on the traditions of the Catholic Church and popular superstitions, written in 1509, published in 1511 and dedicated to his friend, Sir Thomas More. The Institutio principis Christiani (Basel, 1516) ( Education of a Christian Prince ) was written as advice to the young king Charles of Spain, later Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor . Erasmus applies the general principles of honor and sincerity to the special functions of the Prince, whom he represents throughout as the servant of the people. The Education of a Christian Prince was published in 1516, sixteen years before Niccolò Machiavelli ’s The Prince . A comparison between the two is worth noting. Machiavelli stated that, to maintain control by political force, it is safer for a prince to be feared than loved. Erasmus, on the other hand, preferred for the prince to be loved and suggested that the prince needed a well-rounded education in order to govern justly and benevolently and avoid becoming a source of oppression.

As a result of his reformatory activities, Erasmus found himself at odds with both the great parties. His last years were embittered by controversies with men toward whom he was sympathetic. Notable among these was Ulrich von Hutten , a brilliant but erratic genius, who had thrown himself into the Lutheran cause and had declared that Erasmus, if he had a spark of honesty, would do the same. In his reply, Spongia adversus aspergines Hutteni (1523), Erasmus displays his skill in semantics . He accuses Hutten of having misinterpreted his utterances about reform and reiterates his determination never to break with the Church. The Ciceroniamus came out in 1528, which attacked the style of Latin that was based on Cicero's writing. As Cicero wrote before Christ, Erasmus deemed his Latin pagan, and not suitable for use in the Christian era. Etienne Dolet wrote a reposte titled Erasmiamus in 1535, defending Ciceronian Latin. The most important work of this last period is the Ecclesiastes or "Gospel Preacher" (Basel, 1536), in which he comments on the function of preaching.

Sileni Alcibiadis (1515)

Erasmus’s Sileni Alcibiadis is one of his most direct assessments of the need for Church reform. It was seen first in Johann Froben ’s revised edition of the Adagia published in Basel in 1515. Then, it was published separately by Froben in 1517. This essay compares to John Colet ’s Convocation Sermon, though the styles differ. The term Sileni can be understood as something on the inside is more and different than what one sees on the outside. For instance, something ugly on the outside can be beautiful on the inside. In support of this, Erasmus states: “Anyone who looks closely at the inward nature and essence will find that nobody is further from true wisdom than those people with their grand titles, learned bonnets, splendid sashes and bejeweled rings, who profess to be wisdom’s peak”. Erasmus lists several Sileni and then questions whether Christ is the most noticeable Silenus of them all. The Apostles were Sileni since they were ridiculed by others. He believes that the things which are the least ostentatious can be the most significant. For instance, one cannot see the most special aspects of humans. The Scriptures also have Sileni. Erasmus believes that the Church constitutes all of the Christian people. People call priests, bishops, and popes the Church, but they only serve the Church. He criticizes those that spend the Church’s riches at the people’s expense. Riches should not be held above everything else. The true point of the Church is to help people lead Christian lives. Priests are supposed to be pure, though when they stray away, no one condemns them. He criticizes the riches of the popes, believing that it would be better for the Gospel to be most important. Furthermore, the Word of God should be most important for people.Legacy

Cast of a skull presumed to have been that of Erasmus at the Rotterdam library Erasmus collection.
His books' extraordinary popularity has been shown in the number of editions and translations that have appeared since the sixteenth century, and in the undiminished interest excited by his elusive but fascinating personality. Ten columns of the catalogue of the British Library are taken up with the bare enumeration of the works and their subsequent reprints. The greatest names of the classical and patristic world are among those translated, edited or annotated by Erasmus, including Saint Ambrose , Aristotle , Saint Augustine , Saint Basil , Saint John Chrysostom , Cicero and Saint Jerome .

Today in his home town of Rotterdam, the University and Gymnasium Erasmianum have been named in his honor. However, Rotterdam has ignored the life of one of its famous citizens for a long time. Research in 2003 showed that most Rotterdammers believe Erasmus was the designer of the "Erasmusbridge" in Rotterdam. This shocking information led to the founding of the Erasmushuis (Erasmushouse), a house dedicated to celebrate the legacy of Erasmus. Nowadays in Rotterdam, three famous moments in the life of Erasmus are celebrated annually. On April 1, the city celebrates the release of his best-known book The Praise of Folly. On October 28, the birthday of Erasmus is celebrated. And, in the summer, the so-called Night of Erasmus celebrates the lasting influence of his work.

However, Erasmus's reputation and the interpretations of his work have varied greatly over time. Following his death, there was a long period of time when the citizens of the land all mourned his death. Moderate Catholics felt that he had been a leading figure in attempts to reform the Church, while Protestants recognized his initial support for Luther's ideas and the groundwork he laid for the future Reformation. By the 1560s, however, there was a marked change in reception.

Erasmus of Rotterdam censored by the Index Librorum Prohibitorum
The Catholic Counter-Reformation movement often condemned Erasmus as having "laid the egg that hatched the Reformation." Their critique of him was based principally on his not being strong enough in his criticism of Luther, not seeing the dangers of a vernacular Bible and dabbling in dangerous scriptural criticism that weakened the Church's arguments against Arianism and other doctrines. All of his works were placed on the Index of Prohibited Books by Paul IV , and some of his works continued to be banned or viewed with caution in the later Index of Pius IV .

Protestant views of Erasmus fluctuated largely depending on region and period, with continuous support in his native Netherlands and in cities of the Upper Rhine area. However, following his death and in the late sixteenth century, Reformation supporters see Erasmus's critiques of Luther and lifelong support for the universal Catholic Church as damning. His reception was particularly cold by the Reformed Protestant groups. By the coming of the Age of Enlightenment , however, Erasmus increasingly returned to become a more widely respected cultural symbol and was hailed as an important figure by increasingly broad groups. In a letter to a friend, Erasmus once had written: "That you are patriotic will be praised by many and easily forgiven by everyone; but in my opinion it is wiser to treat men and things as though we held this world the common fatherland of all." Several schools, faculties and universities in The Netherlands and Flanders are named after him, and so is Erasmus Hall in Brooklyn , New York, USA.