Erasmus and the making of the New Testament

The Latin Vulgate version of the Bible that had predominated throughout the Middle Ages had been translated in the late fourth century by the great Church Father, Saint Jerome. Erasmus was a huge admirer of Jerome, whose extensive writings he edited for publication by Froben in 1516, and whose phenomenal knowledge of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew stood as a model for all humanists. Nevertheless, Erasmus believed that Jerome's Vulgate was imperfect, in Latin that was inelegant and often incomprehensible. Moreover, having been copied and re-copied in manuscript over the course of many generations, the inadequacies of Jerome's Vulgate had been compounded by innumerable scribal errors.

Erasmus viewed his New Testament edition (Novum Instrumentum) as part of a grand plan for renewal of Church, culture, and society. In the prefatory Paraclesis, he asserted that if the clergy, the princes, and the teachers would base their doctrine on the gospels instead of on Aristotle, Europe would not be continually troubled by persistent warfare and there would be fewer disputes in Church and state.

At the heart of the new Renaissance Humanism was a belief that the potential for enlightenment inherent in ancient Greek and Roman learning could only be realised by a return to original manuscript sources. In applying this approach to the Bible, Erasmus was strongly influenced by earlier humanists such as Lorenzo Valla who had already published annotations on the Vulgate. In reality, the ancient Greek sources Erasmus drew on to create his Novum Instrumentum turned out to be defective and, having been pressured by his publisher to expedite the project, Erasmus introduced into his edition new errors of his own. Nevertheless, by treating the Bible as a historical text to be examined and questioned, Erasmus forged many new ways of thinking and working that prefigured modern approaches to scholarship.

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