Among the many anniversaries of 2016, one in particular has passed unnoticed: the quincentenary of the first edition (editio princeps) of the Greek New Testament by Erasmus of Rotterdam.
Though not actually the first edition of a compiled New Testament in Greek, Erasmus’ editio princeps
became an important landmark. Martin Luther used the second edition of
Erasmus’ work for his translation of the New Testament into German, the
so-called ‘September Testament’. The third edition was used as the
textual base for the King James Version of the Bible.
As an article in the Osservatore Romano notes, Erasmus of Rotterdam
studied at Paris, Oxford, and in Italy and was ordained a Catholic
priest in 1492 in the Augustinian Canons Regular. He was a constant
critic of ecclesiastic institutions but maintained a healthy distance
from Martin Luther and other reformers, with whom he engaged in frequent
Already noted as a brilliant philologist and humanist, Erasmus was
approached by Johann Froben of Basel in 1514, who asked him to assemble
the Greek text of the New Testament for printing. Oddly enough, Erasmus
called his first edition the Novum Instrumentum omne, or New Instrument, instead of New Testament, a name which changed with the second edition.
Erasmus hurriedly assembled the edition, basing the text on Greek
manuscripts he had on hand, which were of dubious textual traditions. It
became known as the textus receptus, or ‘received text’.
In reality, Erasmus used relatively-late miniscule manuscripts from
the 12th century, rather than manuscripts from the third to fifth
centuries, which scholars now hold to be more faithful to the original
New Testament text.
In several places, Erasmus even corrected the Greek text with
translated readings from the Latin Vulgate of St. Jerome. One noteworthy
example involves the final verses of the Book of Revelation, which were
lacking in the codex Erasmus had borrowed from his friend Johannes
Despite these and other failings, most modern versions until
the 19th century were translated from the Greek text of Erasmus’ New
But the editio princeps wasn’t the first Greek edition of
the New Testament to be printed on the modern printing press. That honor
belongs to the Complutensian Polyglot Bible of Alcalá de Henares. Under
the direction of the Archbishop of Toledo, Cardinal Francisco Ximénez
de Cisneros, the New Testament section of the Complutensian was printed
in January of 1514 in six volumes.
But the necessary papal letter
sanctioning its publication was only given in 1520 by Pope Leo X,
because Erasmus had been given exclusive publication rights for four
years by the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian.
The second through fifth editions – published in 1519, 1522, 1527,
and 1535 respectively – included corrections of the Greek text.
Interestingly, Erasmus made use of the Complutensian text for a number
of the corrections, which even he recognized as belonging to a better
and more trustworthy textual tradition.
No matter the problems of Erasmus' editio princeps, 500 years is still an anniversary to celebrate.