Was Erasmus, the editor of the Textus Receptus, a "good" Roman Catholic?
Erasmus, who edited the Greek text which was later to be known as the
Textus Receptus, was an embarrassment to the pope and a poor example of a
"good" Roman Catholic.
Desiderius Erasmus was born in 1466 and died in 1536 at the age of
seventy. This was no mean feat during the days when the plagues, coupled
with primeval medical practices, worked together to limit the average age
of a man's life to approximately 35-40 years.
Both of his parents fell victim to that same plague while Erasmus was
just a lad. He and his brother were then placed in the care of an uncle
who promptly sent them off to a monastery just to be rid of them. Thus
Erasmus's destiny was sealed long before he could ever have a say in the
Young Erasmus became well known for his charm, urbanity and wit, and
was in possession of an obviously above average intellect. He was later to
choose to be an Augustinian on the sole attribute that they were known to
have the finest of libraries.
His behavior was somewhat bizarre by Augustinian standards. He refused
to keep vigils, never hesitated to eat meat on Fridays, and though
ordained, chose never to function as a priest. The Roman Church had
captured his body, but quite apparently his mind and heart were still
He is known to history as one of the most prolific writers of all
Erasmus was a constant and verbal opponent of the many excesses of his
church. He berated the papacy, the priesthood and the over indulgences of
the monks. He stated that the monks would not touch money, but that they
were not so scrupulous concerning wine and women. He constantly attacked
clerical concubinage and the cruelty with which the Roman Catholic Church
dealt with so called "heretics." He is even credited with saving a man
from the Inquisition.
One of his many writings consisted of a tract entitled "Against the
Barbarians" which was directed against the overt wickedness of the Roman
He was a constant critic of Pope Julius and the papal monarchy. He
often compared the crusade leading Pope Julius to Julius Caesar. He is
quoted as saying, "How truly is Julius playing the part of Julius." He
also stated, "This monarchy of the Roman pontiff is the pest of
Christendom." He advised the church to "get rid of the Roman See." When a
scathing satire, in which Pope Julius was portrayed as going to Hell,
written in anonymity was circulated, it was fairly common knowledge that
its author was Erasmus.
He was offered a bishopric in hopes that it would silence his
criticism. He rejected the bribe flat.
Erasmus published five editions of the New Testament in Greek. They
were brought out successively in 1516, 1519, 1522, 1527 and 1535. His
first two editions did not contain I John 5:7 although the reading had
been found in many non-Greek texts dating back as early as 150 A.D.
Erasmus desired to include the verse but knew the conflict that would rage
if he did so without at least one Greek manuscript for authority.
Following the publication of his second edition, which like his first
consisted of both the Greek New Testament and his own Latin translation,
he said that he would include I John 5:7 in his next edition if just
one Greek manuscript could be found which contained it.
Opponents of the reading today erringly charge that the two manuscripts
found had been specially produced just to oblige Erasmus's request, but
this charge has never been validated and was not held at the time of
The Roman Catholic Church criticized his works for his refusal to use
Jerome's Latin translation, a translation that he said was inaccurate. He
opposed Jerome's translation in two vital areas.
He detected that the Greek text had been corrupted as early as the
fourth century. He knew that Jerome's translation had been based solely on
the Alexandrian manuscript, Vaticanus, written itself early in the fourth
He also differed with Jerome on the translation of certain passages
which were vital to the claimed authority of the Roman Catholic Church.
Jerome rendered Matthew 4:17 thus: "Do penance, for the kingdom of
Heaven is at hand."
Erasmus differed with: "Be penitent for the kingdom of heaven is at
Erasmus was also a staunch defender of both Mark 16:9-21 and John
8:1-12. Zeal which our modern day scholars cannot seem to find.
Possibly Erasmus's greatest gift to mankind was his attitude toward
the common man. In the rigidly "classed" society in which he lived, he was
an indefatigable advocate of putting the Scripture in the hands of the
common man. While Jerome's Latin had been translated at the bidding of the
Roman hierarchy, Erasmus translated his Latin with the express purpose of
putting it into the hands of the common people of his day. A practice that
the Roman Catholic Church knew could be dangerous to its plan to control
Erasmus is quoted as saying, "Do you think that the Scriptures are fit
only for the perfumed?" "I venture to think that anyone who reads my
translation at home will profit thereby." He boldly stated that he longed
to see the Bible in the hands of "the farmer, the tailor, the traveler and
the Turk." Later, to the astonishment of his upper classed colleagues, he
added "the masons, the prostitutes and the pimps" to that declaration.
Knowing his desire to see the Bible in the hands of God's common
people, it seems not so surprising that God was to use his Greek text for
the basis of the English Bible that was translated with the common man in
mind, the King James Bible.
It has been said that "Erasmus laid the egg that Luther hatched."
There is probably far more truth to this statement than can be casually
discerned. For the reformers were armed with Erasmus's Bible, his writings
and his attitude of resistance to Roman Catholic intimidation. Of Luther
he said, "I favor Luther as much as I can, even if my cause is everywhere
linked with his." He wrote several letters on Luther's behalf, and
wholeheartedly agreed with him that salvation was entirely by grace, not
He refused pressure by his Roman Catholic superiors to denounce Luther
as a heretic. If Erasmus had turned the power of his pen on Luther, it
would undoubtedly have caused far more damage than the powerless threats
of the pope and his imps were able to do. As it is, only his disagreement
with Luther's doctrine of predestination ever prompted him to criticize
the Reformer with pen and ink.
Erasmus's greatest point of dissension with the Roman Church was over
its doctrine of salvation through works and the tenets of the church.
He taught that salvation was a personal matter between the individual
and God and was by faith alone. Of the Roman system of salvation he
complained, "Aristotle is so in vogue that there is scarcely time in the
churches to interpret the gospel." And what was "the gospel" to which
Erasmus referred? We will let him speak for himself.
"Our hope is in the mercy of God and the merits of Christ." Of Jesus
Christ he stated, "He ... nailed our sins to the cross, sealed our
redemption with his blood. " He boldly stated that no rites of the Church
were necessary for an individual's salvation. "The way to enter paradise,"
he said, "is the way of the penitent thief, say simply, Thy will be done.
The world to me is crucified and I to the world."
Concerning the most biblical sect of his time, the Anabaptists, he
reserved a great deal of respect. He mentioned them as early as 1523 even
though he himself was often called the "only Anabaptist of the 16th
century." He stated that the Anabaptists that he was familiar with called
themselves "Baptists." (Ironically, Erasmus was also the FIRST
person to use the term "fundamental.")
So we see that when Erasmus died on July 11, 1536, he had led a life
that could hardly be construed to be an example of what could be
considered a "good Catholic."
But perhaps the greatest compliment, though veiled, that Erasmus's
independent nature ever received came in 1559, twenty-three years after
his death. That is when Pope Paul IV put Erasmus's writings on the "Index"
of books, forbidden to be read by Roman Catholics.