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Erasmus of Rotterdam and the English
Bible

    picture of desiderius erasmus, desiderius erasmus and education

    'S o far as the history of the English Bible is concerned, three representatives of the Revival of Learning are specially worthy of mention. Erasmus, Sir Thomas more...[and] John Colet.'1 ----F.F. Bruce

    In 1524, William Tyndale crossed the English Channel enroute to Hamburg. One item in his luggage was Desiderius Erasmus' Greek Testament. But who was Erasmus and why is he important? Simply this: Both Tyndale's translation into English from the Greek and Luther's rendering into German came from Erasmus's Greek New Testament.

    As the noted British scholar F.F. Bruce pointed out: 'it was one or another of the editions of Erasmus which formed the basis for Luther's German New Testament, first printed in 1522, and for William Tyndale's English New Testament, first printed in 1525.'2

    The Man Behind the Name

    The name of Erasmus is familiar even to those who know only a little about the history of how we came to have a Bible in our own languages. Tributes to him exist in several European cities. For example, Erasmus University in Rotterdam bears his name. Near St Lawrence's Church (Laurenskerk,Dutch) ia a statue of Erasmus leafing through the pages of a book.

    The impressive World Trade Center in Rotterdam sports an Erasmus lobby. A Dutch-German international express train has been named The Erasmus. In the famous Belgian university town of Leuven is another statue of Erasmus sitting with a scroll in his right hand. It was here in this lovely township that Erasmus did much of his most important classical work.

    Even an international student exchange between British and continental universities is known as the Erasmus exchange.' The example Erasmus set for students was high. Erasmus was a classical scholar of the highest order. He laboured for many years to construct a source work that others would use to bring the marvels of the Word of God to millions in their native languages - first in German and also in English.

    Erasmus in Britain

    Ironically when Erasmus was attracted to England and first arrived on British shores in 1498, he could not speak a word of English. It did not matter; his proficiency in Latin, the language of scholars in those times, would make him immediately at home in most British academic circles. As it turned out, his real purpose was to learn not English, but Greek. In those days the skills necessary to fashion a credible Greek New Testament were rare.

    As biographer Mann Philips observed, it was on this first visit to England that Erasmus caught the first true glimpse of the purpose and meaning of his life.'3 He would bridge the gap from secular to the sacred.

    picture of desiderius erasmus, desiderius erasmus and education, who is erasmus Though Desiderius Erasmus left Cambridge in 1514, and there is a possibility that William Tyndale arrived there in 1516 (probably the closest they ever came to meeting), the unwitting 'marriage' of these unusually gifted scholarly minds was to influence British life beyond calculation. Yet they were of two different generations. Erasmus was nearly 30 when Tyndale was born.

    Although their beliefs did not coincide, Tyndale was humble enough to learn from Erasmus - and much of humankind has since benefited enormously from this beneficent scholarly connection. Altogether Erasmus spent a whole decade in England (comprising six visits between 1498 and 1517). This country across the waters became a second homeland. It was here he met English theologian, John Colet, a scholar at oxford, who urged him to become more proficient in Greek for religious purposes.

    In fact 'Colet reproached Erasmus for having devoted his life entirely to secular literature.' 4In due time, after a careful consideration of his responsibilities, the Dutchman took the rebuke to heart, although his studies of other literature would prove invaluable in his later work.

    Later at Cambridge, Erasmus began to apply himself seriously to a fresh edition of the Greek Testament. He was a learned Latin scholar from his early days, but Latin without a good knwledge of Greek has its limitations. 'Latin erudition, however ample, is crippled and imperfect without Greek.' 5 So mastering Greek became an obsession. In a letter to a friend he wrote: 'My readings in Greek all but crush my spirit, but I have no spare time and no means to purchase books or employ the services of a tutor. And with all this commotion to endure I have hardly enough to live on....

    'If there is a chance, I shall set for Italy in autumn with the intention of obtaining a doctor's degree....I have turned my entire attention to Greek. The first thing I shall do, as soon as the money arrives is to buy some Greek authors; after that, I shall buy clothes.6

    The Cost of Dedication

    Like many of the great men who had a part in producing and translating the Bible (including Tyndale), Erasmus sacrificed his material needs and lived in poverty while preparing to contribute enormously to the growth and spread of the precious biblical texts. Yet he did menage to travel to Italy where he was able to enhance his knowledge of Greek by reading Plato and Plutarch, among other great Greek classicists.

    Erasmus also had a practical side to him. He started Tyndale's view that the bible should be made available to the common man and woman. Notice the wording in his preface to the Greek New Testament of 1516: 'I totally disagree with those who are unwilling that the Holy Scriptures, translated into the common tongue, should be read by the unlearned. Christ desires His mysteries to be published abroad as widely as possible....

    'I would that they were all translated into all the languages of all the Christian people.'7 Clearly, especially for the average man an woman, a Greek New Testament was not an end in itself. A modern version, however, was indispensable for a proper translation into English.

    As Erasmus himself said:' My mind is burning with indescribable eagerness...to acquire a certain limited competence in Greek, and thereby go on to devote myself to sacred literature' 8 (emphasis ours). On March 1516 Erasmus' Greek Testament was the first to be printed in Europe.

    We should not imagine that his efforts were universally applauded. In many places he had enemies in monastic orders, including the Sorbonne. Some felt threatened by this democratisation of the Bible. His Greek New Testament was burnt in public at Bois-le-Duc in France.

    Erasmus' Enormous Contribution

    However inadequate Erasmus' Greek Testament might be when judged by our standards today, this Dutch scholar used what Greek sources he could access and got on with finishing he job. We must judge him by the scholarly standards of his day. Interestingly enough, he could find no manuscript at all for the last six verses of the Bible's last book, so he made his own private Greek translation of Revelation 22:15-21 from the Latin. The last page of an old source book was often apt to be missing.

    It is Erasmus' linguistic contribution to the growth and spreading of the New Testament message that primarily concerns us in this article. In his own unique way Desiderius Erasmus takes his place with William Tyndale, John Wycliffe, Miles Coverdale and others in their heroic accomplishments of bringing the Bible to men and women in the English language. To render the knowledge of the few to the service of many.

    Sources: 1 The English Bible, F.F. Bruce, p.26;2 op.cit.,p. 25; 3 Erasmus and the Northern Renaissance, Mann Phillips, p. 40; 4 Erasmus, James McConica, p.33; 5 Erasmus and th Northern Renaissance, Mann Phillips, p.46; 6 Erasmus - A Critical Biography, Leon-E. Halikn, p. 49; 7 The English Bible, F.F. Bruce, p.29; 8 Erasmus as a Translator of the Classics, Erika Rumel, p.13.




    The Legacy of Erasmus

    picture of desiderius erasmus, desiderius erasmus and education, who is erasmus Desiderious Erasmus was born in Rotterdam, a Dutch town situated on the mud banks of the eastern coast on the North Sea. His early environment was dogged by major impediments. Erasmus had to bear the stigma of illegitimacy and his early upbringing was largely left to disinterested relatives. This left its mark. As his biographer explains: 'Erasmus' life was darkened and harassed by the memory of his youth'

    Yet the march of events brought him to monastic order where he came upon some forgotten Latin manuscripts. The man met his life's calling Erasmus became a walking encyclopedia of classical learning. Later, to further his studies, he went to Paris where this Dutch scholar almost perished of cold and hunger.

    Yet Erasmus managed to edit and translate many Latin and Greek classics over a period of thirty years, as well as composing several books. Finally in 1521 he became financially independent and was able to live out the rest of his life in relative comfort.

    Erasmus left a legacy of Christian and secular scholarship, the spirit of which has endured down to our present age. In Rotterdam the Dutch have honoured his contribution by naming a major institution of higher education, Erasmus University.



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