Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Response to Ryan M. Reeves: "Church History's Greatest Myths: Erasmus and the Greek NT"

Update (2.12.16):  I have posted a "spoken word" version of this critique as Word Magazine # 46:  Reeves on Erasmus.

A friend recently called my attention to an article by Ryan M. Reeves posted this month (February 2016) on the Reformation 21 blog [read the article here].  The article is titled “Church History’s Greatest Myths:  Erasmus and the Greek New Testament.” Reeves is assistant professor of historical theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

The topic sparked my interest, particularly since I’m gearing up to attend the HBU Conference marking the 500 year anniversary of Erasmus’ Greek New Testament (1516) [see Dan Wallace’s recent post on the conference here].  I was also intrigued by the mention of “myths” surrounding Erasmus, thinking the article might address some of the modern scholarly myths that continue to circulate in seminary classrooms and textbooks without documentation from reliable sources (e.g., the first edition of Erasmus’ Greek NT was an error-filled rush job attempting to beat the Complutention Polyglot to the market; when receiving criticism for omitting the CJ in the first two editions, Erasmus made a rash promise to include it if a Greek manuscript containing it could be produced and one was then custom made by his critics to force his hand; Erasmus had an inadequate number of Greek mss., so he liberally back-translated long portions; etc.).

Unfortunately, I found Reeves’ article disappointing.

He begins promisingly by noting the “mythology” surrounding Erasmus’ Greek NT. Unfortunately, he then proceeds to further scholarly myth by noting “Erasmus’ slapdash effort to bring the text to print” and his stepping “into a quagmire of textual criticism.” He adds, with overmuch flourish, that “the tale is embellished to the point of being an overfed caricature of Reformation hagiography.”

He proceeds to note how Erasmus “cobbled together a series of Greek texts” with his supposedly “flawless” (very odd adjective used here) humanistic skill that “fueled the rise of textual, linguistic, and scholarly work on the Bible.”

Having inadvertently promoted a number of Erasmian myths, we finally get to what Reeves says is the real Erasmian myth:  a misunderstanding of the historical context in which his Greek NT appeared. The “first misstep” is “the idea that Greek had been completely lost until the sixteenth century.”  According to Reeves, there was robust interest in the Biblical languages prior to the Reformation and Catholics only staked out dogmatic commitments to the Latin Vulgate after the Reformation.  I know this is only a popular blog post and not an academic article, and certainly not an academic monograph, but at this point I wanted to say:  What?  Can Reeves please give the evidence for this?  Sure, there was some interest in the Biblical languages prior to the Reformation but was not one of the guiding slogans of the Reformers ad fontes, back to the sources?  Was this not a significant insight and commitment of the Reformers which distinguished them from the pre-Reformation RC theologians?  Was this not fueled by an array of providential circumstances, like the fall of Constantinople and the movement of Greek mss. (both pagan and Christian works) and Greek-speaking scholars into Western Europe and the rise of Renaissance humanist interest in the classical age? Even Wycliffe made his English translation from the Latin, did he not?  Yes, only after the Reformation had begun did Trent codify RC views on the Vulgate’s authority and the Westminster Confession declare that the Scriptures are only immediately inspired in the original languages, but were not these developments the result of the inherently conflicting visions of Catholics and Protestants that was at the heart of the Reformation dispute about the Bible?

Reeves then proceeds to assert that Erasmus was not a true “Greek scholar by today’s standards.”  He did not have modern 1400 page grammars.  He only spent five years learning Greek while in Cambridge from 1510-1515.  There are several things that do not seem quite right with this assessment.  First, in his celebrated biography of Erasmus [see Erasmus of Christendom, p. 59], Roland Bainton states that the Dutch humanist “learned the rudiments” of Greek before ever coming to England and had used several Greek quotations in his 1500 work Adages.  By the time he left for Paris he supposedly declared he would rather spend his money buying Greek books than clothes! More importantly, Erasmus was a peerless classical scholar and brilliant linguist.  Men of his generation had a facility with ancient languages that cannot be duplicated in the modern scene.   He was hardly held back by lacking a modern Greek grammar (even one with 1400 pages!).

Reeves also strangely suggests that Erasmus had a naïve view of the Greek manuscripts of the NT, thinking he need “only to walk into a library, find several editions [sic; rather:  manuscripts] of the Greek text, and then head off to the publisher.”  Erasmus has indeed often been faulted for the relatively few Greek mss. he used to compile his Greek NT.  Given, however, that his text was based on the Majority or Byzantine text, scores of mss. were hardly necessary.  A single Byzantine ms. would be basically the same as hundreds of others.  Nevertheless, Erasmus exercised due diligence in seeking out Greek ms. evidence as it was available to him, apparently even writing to compare readings in Codex Vaticanus in Rome.  Reeves repeats the popular anecdote about back translation of the ending of Revelation, but this assertion is not easily verifiable and Reeves provides no references (again, it is a popular blog post and not an academic article).  He throws out other anecdotes regarding Erasmus “at one point" adding a phrase at Acts 9:6 and forgetting “which verses in Revelation were his,” but, again, no hard or specific evidence is provided.  We are only left with questions:  If Erasmus merely considered options for Acts 9:6 but did not adopt them in the end, how can you fault him?  Which verses in Revelation is he talking about?

Reeves furthermore repeats the “rush to print” and the work was "error-laden" myths of Erasmus’ Greek NT.  He even has the audacity to blame Erasmus for creating “one of the great publishing catastrophes in early modern history. Errors in typesetting and transcription appeared everywhere.”  Ouch!  Oxford University Erasmian scholar M. A. Screech does not agree, however, with Reeves’ assessment of Erasmus’ work [see his “introduction” in Anne Reeve, Ed., Erasmus’ Annotations on the NT:  The Gospels, p. xii).  He describes the idea that Erasmus “hurriedly skimped” in his editing work on the Greek NT in order to beat the Spaniards to print as a “legend, repeated from book to book for a century or more.”  He also says that the Annotations “were remarkably free from misprints” and “even the Greek NT is not quite so full of them as is often alleged.”

Yes, Erasmus’ work was not well received by some in his day, most especially by those committed to the RC church, who did not welcome his challenge to the Vulgate.  As Reeves rightly points out and other scholars (like H. J. de Jonge) have solidly explained, Erasmus’ first concern in the Novum Instrumentum was his own new Latin translation.  His Greek text was a supplement to the Latin.  Early Reformers (like Luther, Tyndale, and even Calvin) no doubt used Erasmus, but it was the later printed editions of the TR from Protestant scholars like Stephanus and Beza that would have wider influence.  Reeves fails to note this.

The “second misstep” which Reeves identifies is the supposed assumption that the early Reformers could learn biblical languages “without limits.”  This is another place where I’d like citations.  Who has assumed this, for example?

He notes especially the weaknesses of the early Reformers with Hebrew.  Two objections:  (1) Reeves provides no specific examples but only generalities; (2) He fails to note that the transmission of the Hebrew Bible did not depend on the Reformers but on the Masoretic scribes.

One of the main rubs I have with Reeves throughout is that he seems to assert that we know the Bible and the Biblical languages better now than the Reformers did.  We may have “a comedy of riches” (strange term) at our digital fingertips but this does not mean we have the mastery and discipline of the great men of the Reformation.   Would Luther’s access to the Dead Sea Scrolls or to the Akkadian language really have made him a better expositor of justification by faith?  Does a modern seminary graduate really finish his degree with “a stronger foundation in biblical grammar” than Erasmus had?

Yes, 2016 marks 500 years since Erasmus’ Greek NT was published.  It is a work still surrounded by myths.  I am afraid Reeves has added to this condition rather than alleviated it.


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