When Erasmus Killed Latin: Revisiting the New Testament

Declan McCarthy

Historians of Queens’ College, Cambridge sometimes describe the institution as a superstitious mediaeval establishment built to shave years off one or two queens’ time in Purgatory. That is, until Desiderius Erasmus (c.1466–1536) came to teach and study there (1511–14), and “the world woke from the slumber of the Middle Ages”.[1] How did Erasmus achieve this? Allegedly he made the Bible more accessible. Local guides agree that he made the Bible more accessible – but how? Did this errant Dutch scholar rewrite the Bible? Did he translate it into English? Or did he just translate it, conveniently, into Greek?

A 19th-century engraving of Cloister Court, Queens’ College, with Erasmus’ Towter visible in the back right (L. May, 1854).

Erasmus would enjoy the confusion, but alas none of these suggestions is correct. Erasmus’ achievement was historic, but it was academic, and might initially sound less than earth-shattering. Erasmus spent the greater part of his academic career attempting to convince the scholars of Europe that Greek, which he had gained αὐτοδιδάκτως (autodidactōs, “autodidactically”, i.e. by teaching himself), was essential to the study of the Classics, and (more importantly) of theology. In fact, at Queens’ he began work in earnest on his Novum Instrumentum (1st edition 1516; 2nd edition 1519), a text of the Greek New Testament that was checked against an impressively wide range of manuscripts (by the standards of his time). Erasmus had read the conflicting manuscripts and produced a new text of the New Testament. He had not written anything new; he had not changed the substance of the text. He had edited a coherent Greek text. He had made his own name for ever. This was a landmark of textual criticism, and established Erasmus’ reputation as one of the leading ‘Humanist’ scholars.

Portrait of Erasmus, Hans Holbein, 1523 (National Gallery, London, UK).

Erasmus certainly managed to produce a coherent Greek text. Since the initial response was less dramatic than hoped for, when he revised the text for a second edition, he added a Latin translation on facing pages (not unlike the English renditions of ancient texts in the Loeb Classical Library today). This translation was intended to improve upon  the Latin version of the Bible then in circulation. The text of this so-called ‘Vulgate’ (the standard Latin translation of the Bible produced by St Jerome in the late 4th century AD and authorised by the Church), had suffered some corruption over the course of being copied and recopied through a millennium of manuscript transmission.

St Jerome as scholar, El Greco, c.1610 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA).

Although the post-Classical Greek of the original lay beyond Erasmus’ stylistic criticism (being the directly inspired word of God), the Vulgate was not. Erasmus was unsure whether Jerome was really responsible for the Vulgate translation and  decided to improve upon the text of his hero, his theologorum princeps (“prince of theologians”), in around 600 places. Some of these were simply corrections to defects in the text that had been introduced by successive generations of copyists, but many were not. While his Greek text of the Bible was Erasmus’ greatest achievement; his Latin was to prove his most infamous.

Title page to Erasmus’ 2nd edition of the Novum Instrumentum (now called Testamentum), published by Johann Froben of Basel in 1519; the book can be browsed here.

Criticism was fierce: preachers and bishops, beginning at St Paul’s Cross in London, attacked both the Latin translation and the Greek text of the Novum Instrumentum. The Franciscan friar Henry Standish OFM, who was consecrated Bishop of St Asaph in 1518, dismissed Erasmus as Graeculus quispiam, “some little Greek” – a term implying not just foreignness but petty pedantry. It was claimed in Brussels that Erasmus had changed the original words of the Gospels. Debate was not always dignified, and Erasmus’ partisans were no less partisan than his opponents. A future Archbishop of York, Edward Lee (1482–1544), put together a particularly biting volume criticising Erasmus; debate was so dignified that one copy was found to have been smeared with human shit.

From the 1520s, early Protestants began to claim Erasmus as one of their own, and even in the 20th century misused the Novum Instrumentum, taking advantage of Erasmus’ presence in England when he began working on it, to claim this work as the unique basis for the theological strength of the Church of England, and its uniquely Biblical Protestantism.[2] They were welcome to: the Roman Church banned Erasmus’ text.

York Minster, England.

Even after a more or less reliable and correct text of Jerome’s Vulgate was established, the issues of unambiguous errors in his translation had to be addressed. Erasmus found such an error in one of the most famous lines of the Gospels, although he dared to correct it only in his second edition. John 1.1, in English “In the beginning was the Word…”, had been rendered by most of the Vetus Latina (“Old Latin”) translations of the Bible predating Jerome as in principio erat verbum… St Jerome himself accepted this, but Erasmus was dissatisfied; in his commentary he listed various Latin equivalents to the original Greek λόγος (logos), verbum among them, and argued in favour of a practice he called copia, effectively defining the Greek word, for Latinists, as having the shades of all those words he cited. But only one could sit in the text, and for ‘suitability’ Erasmus opted instead for sermo.

Sermo conveyed, in Erasmus’ eyes, the sense of dialogue implied in the original, and plurality with a singular noun. God was not a single, but a complex idea with a singular unity (thus verba would imply an unacceptable plurality). In English, “word” might, counterintuitively, imply multiple words, when standing for “news” (“any word about…?”) or a pronouncement (the final word). Erasmus felt that good Classical usage denied verbum the suitable range; sermo approximated it better. This choice was in service of clear expression, to serve as a useful example for Erasmus’ stated goal: to ensure access to the Bible. His Greek text reconstructed the original texts as closely as possible, granting those who had Greek the most direct access to the actual words of Scripture, and providing an encouragement to learn it for those who did not; he did, however, encourage vernacular translations.

Why, then, produce a Latin text? Erasmus was a scholar, and Latin was the language of scholarship, and it remained an acceptable ‘vernacular’ among Protestants for the divine offices (other than the Mass) in College chapels long after the Reformation. At universities, it was the language of College dining tables, and it was the language of the colloquia, the academic discussions promoted by Humanists and intended to be conducted in something as close to Classical Latin as possible. As such, producing a new Latin text was always going to create a much greater splash than the first edition of the Greek text ever could.

The section of Queens’ College’s 16th-century statutes where scholars are told to use Latin when sitting at lunch and dinner, and to talk only about learned subjects; unless the President has given permission for them to use their “mother tongue”, any rule-breaker will face a halfpenny fine.

Never mind the variety of Latin actually common among scholars and churchmen of Erasmus’ day. In the Novum Instrumentum, Erasmus provocatively insisted on good Latin, even when a phrase was as fossilised as in principio erat… As such, the arguments listed above never really concerned Erasmus nearly so much as what he presented as a neat and unchallengeable riposte to his critics: in the 2nd and early 3rd centuries, the Latin Church Fathers St Cyprian and Tertullian themselves quote John 1:1 with sermo, not verbum.

Erasmus doesn’t decide whether Latin is alive or dead. He quotes Church Fathers from the Classical period as the few linguistic authorities who were also acceptable on theological grounds. Jerome had rejected the Ciceronian for the Christian; Erasmus was determined to be both.  But Bishop Standish’s criticisms of Erasmus may have had a point. Just as English “word” is not a close translation of λόγος at the beginning of the Gospel of John, verbum might have been an unsuitable rendition of the term, for all the reasons Erasmus outlines. It was falling out of use among Christians even in Jerome’s lifetime (generally in favour of the New Testament-inspired Greek loanword parabola). Over the course of a thousand years, it had ‘loan-shifted’ on the model of λόγος: verbum meant λόγος. Just as modern English-speaking Christians hear word in casual speech differently from Word in a sermon, so mediaeval Churchmen, learning Latin effectively as Jerome’s language, knew what was meant by verbum. Some might have attempted to read the Vulgate with Classical definitions to defend or criticise subtle theological arguments, but they would have been wrong. They would have been reading the Vulgate as if it were effectively written in a different language, and Erasmus provides a better alternative: λόγος (as long as it’s compared to ‘Koine’ – Biblical – Greek parallels).

The beginning of John’s Gospel in the Great Hours of Anne of Brittany, Queen of France, illuminated by Jean Bourdichon c.1505 (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France MS Lat 9474, f.17r).

Any translation into modern English which felt the need to do away with ‘In the beginning was the Word’ would be unnecessary, and the disruption fairly criticised; needless to say, none does. To choose another alternative from Erasmus’ own list of approved synonyms, to replace verbum with oratio would be to translate it as “prayer”, sapientia as “wisdom”. Sermo, in Erasmus’ own scholarship, stands for “preaching”, or even “sermon”. In the Ecclesiastes, Erasmus argues that preaching is the bringing of the λόγος into church via a well-supplied preacher, making a sermo the Sermo; a suitable translation indeed.

Yet Erasmus exemplifies the most persistent vice of the humanists, which is implicit even in the most modern scholarly assumptions about the ‘suitability’ of sermo: that Latin should be ‘good Latin’, and early-modern Ecclesiastical Latin, lively though it was as a language of scholarship and invective, was not ‘good’.

Declan McCarthy is a graduate student in Classics at Queens’ College, Cambridge. His interests include literature, religion and local history (and Doctor Who).

Further Reading:

Marjorie Boyle, Erasmus on Language and Methodology in Theology (Univ. of Toronto Press, 1977).

Denis Drysdall (ed.), Collected Works of Erasmus (Univ. of Toronto Press, 2015), which contains the Apologia de In Principio Erat Sermo and other polemical writing.

Simon Goldhill, Who Needs Greek? Contests in the Cultural History of Hellenism (Cambridge UP, 2001).

Catherine Jarrott, “Erasmus’ ‘In Principio Erat Sermo’: a controversial translation,” Studies in Philology 61 (1964) 35–40.


1 J.H. Gray, History of the Queens’ College, Cambridge (Cambridge UP, 1926) 38.
2 In the words of John Sherren Brewer “that new school of teaching on which Anglican theology professes exclusively to rest.”