History of English Bible Translation 06 Erasmus Greek New Testament 1516

History of the English Bible - Chapter 6

Bible Translations Erasmus Greek NT1516 Erasmus Greek New Testament

Studies of the original Greek texts pave the way for the Bibles of the Reformation.English Bible History

An Accurate Greek Bible

An important first step for the English Bible to become a reality was a publication made not in English, but in Greek.  Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, (October 27, 1466 - July 12, 1536) was a Dutch humanist and theologian.  He published the first scholarly accurate Greek New Testament in parallel beside side his own translation of the Latin.  It was the first attempt on the part of a competent and liberal-minded scholar to ascertain what the writers of the New Testament had actually said.  His work exposed just how corrupt and inaccurate the Latin Vulgate had become, and how important it was to go back and use the original languages to maintain accuracy.  One of the most famous and amusing quotes from Erasmus was, "When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes."

While living in England Erasmus had managed to collate a half-dozen partial old Greek New Testament manuscripts he had acquired. His resulting Greek New Testament became known as the "Received Text". This was the first non-Latin Vulgate text of the scripture to be produced in a thousand years and the first ever to come off a printing press. 

The Impact of the Publishing of the Greek New Testament

This Greek translation became the foundation of Luther's German Bible.  William Tyndale used the second and third editions of Erasmus' New Testament as the basis for his English translation.  Its influence on the academic world helped to launch the Protestant Reformation. Ironically, Erasmus dedicated his work ironically, to Pope Leo X., and he justly regarded this work as his most important service to the cause of a sound Christianity.

Releasing the Greek New Testament into the academic world caused a small-reformation that became a prelude to the coming wave of English and German Bibles and subsequent conversions to Christ.  The priests who studied Greek at Oxford and Cambridge were quite able to comprehend the New Testament in its native format and many of them were saved as a result for reading it.

The Salvation and Martyr of Thomas Bilney

Perhaps the best-known person who was saved at this early time in the Reformation was a student named Thomas Bilney.  For some thime, Bilney had been uneasy about his state with God since his prayers, confessions, penances, and purchase of indulgences did not bring him peace.  Thinking that he was the "Judas of his age", he was convinced that he would eventually be in Hell due to his unfaithfulness.

Erasmus Greek Latin Bible Leaf

Many of Bilney's acquaintances were talking about a new book, the Greek New Testament. But the priests had forbidden Bilney to read it.  Being a good Catholic who desired to fulfill all obligations, and especially ecclesiastical commands, he resisted the urge to read the forbidden book. Finally, overcome with curiosity, he determined to read it in secret. With considerable fear he purchased a copy.  At night time while locking himself in his room, he began to read the scriptures looking for answers to his guilt.  When he came to 1 Timothy 1:15 "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners...", his relief was immeasurable.  His guiltiness - not his good works and prayers - was the very feature of his life that qualified him as a candidate for God's grace! 

Quietly at first, and then more boldly over time, Thomas Bilney led other priests to faith in Christ instead of faith in the Church. He preached simply and directly that Jesus Christ delivered from sin often pointing to 1 Timothy 1:15, the verse that God used in Bilney’s salvation.  As matter-of-fact as this statement may sound to present-day Christians, it was nearly as startling as an atomic bomb to the people living in sixteenth-century Europe. They knew but one route to heaven - good works, fasting, indulgences, purgatory, and the mass. Such was the early impact of exposing people to the Holy Scripture.  Finally, this little man was tried for heresy and burned at the stake in Smithfield, London.  He was the first in line of many who would soon follow.

Later in life, when Erasmus was charged by the Church with having "laid the egg that Luther hatched" he half admitted the truth of the charge, but said he "had expected quite another kind of a bird!"

Caught in the Middle

Erasmus preferred to remain neutral in the chaos of the Reformation joining neither the Catholic nor the Protestant side.  He moved from place to place in Europe taking criticism and praise from both Lutherans and Catholics. He was offered many positions of honor and profit in the academic world, but declined them all on one or another pretext, preferring to remain independent.  He believed that to declare sides would endanger his position as a leader in the movement for pure scholarship which be regarded as his real work in life.  He dreaded any change in the doctrine of the Church and believed that there was room enough within existing environment for the kind of reform he valued most.