Friday, December 11, 2020

Translation Transformation

I have been reading a book by Michael Massing, entitled Fatal Discord: Erasmus, Luther, and the Fight for the Western Mind.  I have not been writing on it, as it would turn my reading into a huge burden.  The book is terribly long – over 800 pages before getting to a hundred pages or more of endnotes; further, it reads like a friendly biography – actually, dual biographies.  So, I wanted to take this book “off” when it came to the blog.

There have been a couple of times that I read something and thought it would make for a good post, but decided to keep going in my simpler path.  Until now.  The subject is the New Testament of Erasmus, his Novum Instrumentum.

Right off the bat: he called it a New Instrument, not a New Testament.  I will come to the why of this in due time.  What most interested me and moved me to write about this episode was the backstory of the translation, the speed at which it came together, its influence over many centuries, and especially the errors.  Although I won’t call these errors, because the word implies that I am more qualified than I actually am.  Let’s just call these “controversies,” and I will leave it to better minds to parse out the issues (which certainly has been done in the intervening 500 years, albeit I am quite certain many controversies, old and new, remain).

And to this end, I want to be clear about my purpose: in my presentation, I don’t intend to take one side or the other on several controversial aspects of his translation.  My intention is merely to offer something of the difficulty had by Christendom in getting it right.  I want to look at it strictly from the historical perspective – combining this time and place, the new technology of printing, the crash of the Renaissance and humanism, and the time just before the Reformation that finally took the name.

With this said: This translation was not really a translation; Erasmus wanted to offer a Greek New Testament, a New Testament in its original language as opposed to the Latin used in the West.  He would also include a Latin translation, the two languages in parallel columns on each page and further explanatory notes, etc.  With this, he was to correct what he saw as errors in Jerome’s Vulgate – a task certain to arouse displeasure.

And this displeasure would begin even before publication.  He would receive a letter from Martin Dorp, a twenty-nine-year-old lecturer in philosophy – a letter that Erasmus was certain was written at the urging of more powerful individuals:

What sort of business was this, he asked, “to correct the Latin copies by means of the Greek”?  the Vulgate “contains no admixture of falsehood or mistake.”  It was not reasonable that the whole Church, in using this edition, “should for all these centuries have been wrong.”  Nor was it probable that all the Holy Fathers and all the saintly men who had relied on it “should have been deceived.”

If the Latin varied from the Greek, Dorp would bid the Greek goodbye.  Not because the Greek might be more corrupted than the Latin, but because he couldn’t be persuaded that the Greek could not be less corrupted than the Latin.  In other words, both might have faults.

Erasmus did not take kindly to the veiled warning:

Such men, he observed, “poke fun at Greek and Hebrew and even Latin, and, though stupid as pigs and not equipped with the common feelings of humankind, they suppose themselves to hold the citadel of all wisdom.”

Further, why the attack on the Greek Scriptures?

The same people who considered Greek exegetes renegades had turned the pagan Aristotle into an unassailable authority.

This was Erasmus the humanist writing of the Thomistic Scholastics.

Would someone abandon Christ merely because it was come to be known that long ago someone scribbled some error in haste?  Erasmus thinks not…but this seemed not to be the concern coming from the other side.

It wasn’t as if Erasmus followed all of the best practices of translation himself.  For example, if the Greek text was unavailable to him, or the translation was unclear (at least in fifty occurrences, plus the last verses of Revelation), he would often translate from the Vulgate to the Greek! 

Other, more controversial, alterations would follow; keep in mind: I am not taking one side or the other.  I am merely demonstrating the differences on topics that were certain to cause major controversy in the Church.

For example, the Latin would use the word sacramentum regarding the sexual union of a man and a woman; hence, a sacrament as far as the Church was concerned.  Erasmus would find the word to be properly understood as mysterium – a mystery.

Whereas the Vulgate would offer that through one man (being Adam), sin entered the world (and, hence, original sin), Erasmus would find a more appropriate translation would be that all are fallen and all, therefore, all sin.

The Vulgate has the angel Gabriel greeting Mary: “Hail, full of grace.”  This was understood to mean that Mary was full of God’s grace and free of sin.  But the underlying Greek word is better understood as “beloved”; hence, “Greetings, beloved one.”

I John 5:7 speaks of the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; Erasmus would change this to the Spirit, the water, and the blood.

Finally, one of the more potentially financially impactful modifications: the Vulgate has John the Baptist calling people to do “penance” in Matthew 3:2; Erasmus would change this to “repent.” 

Overall, through his notes included in the publications, Erasmus would work to modify the tone of the New Testament.  For example, where Jesus says “Blessed are the poor,” Erasmus would note:

“Christ’s words are what make us true Christians, not the subtle arguments of Scotists and Ockhamists, nor the insipid, meaningless institutions of men.”

The work was done at a rapid pace – within a few months the work would be completed and printed.  The quality of the first edition would suffer for it, but being first with a Greek translation was important to the publisher. 

The rush drove the publisher to many mistakes, forcing Erasmus to be his own proofreader.  But he was a terrible proofreader!  At the same time, he was in the middle of several other projects.  Suffice it to say, many errors survived into this edition.

Finally, on March 1, 1516, the New Testament was done.  It was about 1000 pages, 550 of which had the parallel Greek and Latin texts, another 300 or so pages had annotations, the rest with introductory material and prefaces.  He would entitle it a New Instrument as opposed to the traditional New Testament: while a testament is a will or covenant that might or might not be written down, an instrument was a written document establishing terms of a pact or agreement.  This alteration was met with such pushback, that he returned to the traditional name beginning with the second edition.

Erasmus received much praise from many quarters.  At the same time, the attacks were coming.  And the haste by which the work was done would make attacks much easier.  Hundreds of errors, shoddy and inconsistent translations, etc.  Whatever might have been appropriate in Erasmus’s modifications could get buried under the weight of obvious errors. 

Yet, his work would serve as the basis for Scriptural study in the West for hundreds of years, influencing many vernacular editions of the Bible, including the King James Bible of 1611.

At the same time, his work would get the attention of a relatively obscure Augustinian priest.  A letter would be sent to Erasmus on behalf of this priest, calling attention especially to two concerns: Erasmus’s treatment of original sin, and his treatment regarding the value of works.  Merely mention of these topics should provide a clue regarding the identity of this priest.

Yes, Martin Luther.


  1. I enjoyed reading this fascinating post. Thank you, Bionic. You contribute to my attempt to understand this world of ours. Since it is known now that pigs are far from stupid, it gives further insight into the machinations of mankind's philosophers. Peg

    1. Peg, as is true in many fields of science, our knowledge has increased throughout history. Erasmus likely was not aware of pig IQ!