Bryn Mawr Classical Review 94.09.05


John J. Bateman (trans.), Erasmus, The Collected Works of Erasmus, volume 44. New Testament Scholarship: Paraphrases on the epistles to Timothy, Titus and Philemon; the epistles of Peter and Jude; the epistle of James; the epistles of John; the epistle to the Hebrews. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993. Pp. xviii + 413. ISBN 0-8020-0541-1.


Reviewed by William McCuaig, Erindale College, University of Toronto.

The New Testament scholarship of Erasmus comprises his Greek and Latin texts of the NT with accompanying apparatus, his paraphrases on all the books of the NT, and his separate annotations on the same books. The Toronto Erasmus (CWE) will eventually include translations into English of all the paraphrases and annotations -- a considerable corpus in itself, but only a subset of one much larger. The volumes are coming out as they are completed, therefore in no particular order; volume 44 is the fourth to appear of the eventual nine volumes of paraphrases. There is not yet a modern edition of the Latin text, so the Leclerc edition of Erasmus's Opera Omnia published in the early eighteenth century (LB) is still standard. In the volume under review a running head guides the reader to the corresponding columns in the LB edition (t. 7), but Bateman has chosen as his base text not LB but the last edition published with the authority of Erasmus, in 1532. He records significant variants in his notes, which thus serve as a textual apparatus in addition to their function as commentary. I found it convenient, as will most readers, to study Bateman's translation alongside the LB edition, because of the running head, and because Leclerc also prints the text of the Vulgate and keys it to the corresponding passages in the paraphrase of Erasmus.

The scholarship displayed in the translation and notes (118 pages of them) is meticulous, and impeccable, as far as I am able to judge. The rendering into English was flawless in the passages I compared. The patristic (and later) sources upon which Erasmus drew for the content of his paraphrase are identified, and Bateman also draws upon the NT editions and annotations of Erasmus in order to demonstrate the foundations of the paraphrase. The study of Erasmus was a workshop of Christian philology, and so is the study of Bateman.

The paraphrases of Erasmus had an editorial success in the early sixteenth century and thus are undoubtedly of historical importance. Their success reveals the religious earnestness of a large section of the literate part of the population of Christian Europe, some of whom were in the process of choosing the Protestant option which others abhorred. The earnestness they shared overrides, in historical perspective, the differences between them that were paramount at the time. Erasmus was their evangelist, and indeed I have never read a work by him on any subject that was not at bottom a piece of evangelical literature. The early Christian message was his alpha and omega, as it was of his contemporary readers, and their common desire to draw close to the world of the first Christians is one of the principal historical forces at work in the Reformation age.

The epistles paraphrased here are the surviving documents of a Christian community which already feels the gulf of time gradually widening between itself and the life on earth of its master. In these epistles there is neither the vivid psychological and historical drama of the life of Jesus as related in the four gospels, nor the phantasmagoria of the apocalypse. Instead we have a mixed group of letters exchanged by scattered groups of the faithful; to these letters the names of "Paul," "Peter," "James," and "John" have been attached, perhaps at the time of composition or perhaps long after -- pseudepigraphic eidola which to Erasmus and his readers are of course quite real. Much of the content of the epistles is unremarkable, consisting of exhortations to Christians to behave properly, believe in their salvation by Jesus, submit to the powers that be but live not as the world lives, keep quiet if they are women, love and obey their masters if they are slaves, and so on. Erasmus expands all of it faith fully. Where the Latin of the Vulgate can be dense and difficult, not always clear in meaning to the ordinary reader of normal Latin, Erasmus is ample and expansive, his Latin perspicuous; and likewise this translation of it into English.

Some of these letters allude darkly to turbid events occurring in the Christian churches, and anyone who has read accounts of struggles for control (with their sequel of revolt, schism, recrimination, and anathema) within closed groups of dedicated believers -- the clans of Freudians for instance -- will recognize the archetypal pattern here. The letters contain many vengeful promises of wrath to come, many bitter reproaches against apostates, relapsers, false prophets, persons who have deviated or disobeyed somehow, individuals who were once converts, or potential converts, but who disappointingly turned out to be scoffers ... and there is a certain dreadful fascination about reading the original in the Vulgate text, where the strangeness and abruptness of the Latin matches the strangeness of the atmosphere. Per contra, there is something incongruous about reading such passages in the expansive paraphrase of Erasmus, with the strangeness of the style smoothed away and the strangeness of the content retained. But the first readers of the paraphrases, those earnest Christians of the early sixteenth century who took their evangel at face value, received these paraphrases differently, and it is their response that counts historically.

One modern Bible commentary suggests that this legion of the damned is nothing more than a rhetorical fiction: the writers of the letters created imaginary enemies for the sake of dramatic contrast. Surely this is reductive. As we learn in Bateman's commentary, an earlier exegesis had made a different identification: for Chrysostomus and other eminent fathers and doctors, the opponents were Judaizing Christians. Erasmus accepted this identification, and turned many non-specific passages from the NT letters into vehement, specific denunciations of the Jews and Jewish culture. There is an excess of zeal in these expressions of anti-Semitism on Erasmus's part that I find disturbing, though no doubt his devotees will protest that he was merely typical of his age, as Luther's followers do when faced with the same predicament. The personal zeal of Erasmus also comes through, it seems to me, in his paraphrase of passages where the NT authors have deprecated, in their gnomic way, the wisdom of worldlings. Erasmus enhances their import, making them into anti-intellectual tirades perfectly similar to ones that are voiced through various personae in his works. They seem to me to have their crude and sinister side, but that's only a matter of perspective, for like any complex phenomenon evangelism can be looked at from different angles. I will however defend the view that for the historian evangelism is the category to which Erasmus should rightly be assigned, and to the extent that that is true these paraphrases on the NT should have an important place in any attempt to understand the man and his age.