The Reformation and Erasmus’s Greek Testament

Novum Instrumentum
Novum Instrumentum, 1516.
I’m not sure how I missed this, but a new exhibit opened at the Dunham Bible Museum at Houston Baptist University back in January, 2016. “Renaissance of the Bible: Erasmus’s Greek text, a foundation for Reformation” commemorates the 500th anniversary of the publication of Erasmus’s Novum Instrumentum, the first publication of the printed Greek New Testament in 1516. Erasmus hastily collected five 12th Century manuscripts, annotated them in the margins, and sent them on to be printed by Johannes Froben in Basle, Switzerland. Within a mere six months the entire New Testament was printed (1516) without much proofreading at all in order to bring it to market before the already finished Greek New Testament of the Spanish Cardinal Franciso Jimenez de Cisneros received papal approval for publication.  The ad fontes call of Renaissance humanism made Erasmus’s version a bestseller, necessitating a republication in 1519 in which he attempted–but largely failed–to correct the printing errors of the first edition.

Not to be outdone, the Spanish published their version and supported the superiority of their text over that published by Erasmus by, in part, questioning the omission of 1 John 1:7 from his text. Regardless, Erasmus’s version became the standard upon which subsequent works would build–including those by Beza, Luther, Tyndale, and others.

Martin Luther and Erasmus clashed in theological debate over the nature of human will (Luther’s On the Bondage of the Will was in response to Erasmus’s On Free Will), but Erasmus’s edition of the GNT was used by Luther and thereby changed the course of Christian theology.

The preface to the 1633 Greek NT published by Elzevir said its readers “now have the text received by all” (“textum ergo habes, nunc ab omnibus receptum”), thus the reason why it would eventually known as the “Received Text,” or the Textus Receptus, and remained the authoritative Greek New Testament through the mid-19th Century.

I do not know how long the Dunham Museum’s special exhibit on the Erasmus GNT is to be open [update: the exhibit closes in December, 2016], and I regret that I will likely not be able to visit the exhibit anytime soon, but I am grateful for the attention they are bringing to this monumental work, even with all its textual wonkiness and historical controversy.

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