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The History of Christianity in 25 Objects: Novum Instrumentum Omne

The American Bible Society has a superb collection of old and rare Bibles. The Society began this collection in 1818, just one year after its founding, and much of it is now on display in New York’s Museum of Biblical Art. It includes a rare treasure: a first edition Novum Instrumentum omne, Desiderius Erasmus’ Greek New Testament of 1516, the first printed edition of the New Testament in Greek. This Bible was to go on to play a key role in the Reformation and for that reason it is one of the 25 objects through which we can trace the history of Christianity.

Novum InstrumentumDesiderius Erasmus was born in Holland in 1466, the illegitimate son of a Roman Catholic priest. He was given a fine education at monastic schools and, when he was twenty-five years old, was ordained as a priest. Three years later he began studies at the University of Paris and there he was exposed to Renaissance humanism and seeds were planted which would later make him a fierce opponent of excess and superstition within the Catholic Church. He soon travelled to England and while there was persuaded by John Colet, an English scholar, to study the New Testament. Erasmus believed that to properly understand the New Testament he would need to first learn Greek and for that reason he began an intense, three-year study of the language. Before long he was not only fluent in Greek, but had become an eminent scholar.

This dedication to Greek would eventually lead Erasmus to begin work on a Greek New Testament, his greatest contribution to the history of the church. At that time the Latin Vulgate remained the authorized Bible of the Church even though it had been translated over 1,000 years prior and even though Latin had long since become a dead language known only by scholars and clerics. Erasmus came to see that the Vulgate had certain inaccuracies and that the language could be polished, and for those reasons he set out to create a new Latin text. To do this, he first had to collect available Greek manuscripts, rather a difficult task since Greek was regarded with suspicion. He borrowed manuscripts from fellow scholar Johann Reuchlin and from the Dominican Library at Basel, Switzerland. While he had relatively few manuscripts available to him, and while he ignored some of the best of those at his disposal, the final result was still remarkably good. James White points out that Erasmus’ success, “is more a witness to the preservation of the Scriptures over time than the (admittedly) great scholarship of Erasmus.”

In 1516 the first printed edition rolled off the presses of John Froben who was based in Basle, under the title Novum Instrumentum omne. While this first edition contained many unfortunate typographical errors, a result of rushing the book to print, the second and subsequent editions corrected the majority of them; even then, few of the errors were of great significance. For centuries Erasmus’ text would be the accepted Greek text and would soon be known as the textus receptus. It would provide a far more accurate text than the Vulgate and would far outlast his Latin translation.

A decade after Erasmus died, the Council of Trent would condemn his work and re-affirm that the Vulgate was to be the official text of the Roman Catholic Church. But by then Erasmus’ work had already been widely disseminated. This recovered Greek allowed vernacular Bibles to be translated directly from the original text rather than having to translate from an already-translated Latin edition. One author writes, “It was the fountain and source from which flowed the new translations into the vernaculars which like rivers irrigated the dry lands of the mediaeval Church and made them blossom into a more enlightened and lovely form of religion.” Erasmus’ Greek New Testament would be the primary source Martin Luther would rely on when translating the New Testament to German; it would the primary source William Tyndale would use for his English translation. In fact, it would be the basis for almost every translation from the 16th to the 19th centuries.

Erasmus Greek New Testament
The volume owned by the American Bible Society is a first edition, printed in 1516. It is a two-column Bible with the Greek in the left column and Erasmus’ fresh Latin translation in the right. It remains as a testament to God’s preservation of the Greek text, through which we can enjoy access to the words of Scripture as God gave them to us. And it stands as an object created in a pre-Reformation world that would play a crucial role in the great upheaval that would soon come.

Pre-Reformers had begun to battle the Roman Catholic Church, recovering the pure gospel and attempting to give the people the Bible in their own tongues. The printing press had given the ability to disseminate ideas with much greater speed and at far lower cost. And now the Greek New Testament text had been recovered and collated, allowing accurate translations into the common tongues. The framework for Reformation was now in place and all that remained was a spark that would light a great fire.


For more information, you may wish to consult James White’s excellent article on Erasmus and his text.