Ad Fontes!—Scripture v. Tradition

Erasmus’ new Latin translation of the Bible 500 years ago threatened the Church in numerous ways. When a beloved translation is changed, everyone takes note. Jerome, writing to Augustine in AD 404, defended his translation’s “ivy” over the traditional “gourd” in Jonah 4:6, despite Augustine’s recalling the riot that such a translation produced:

You [Augustine] tell me that I have given a wrong translation of some word in Jonah, and that a worthy bishop narrowly escaped losing his charge through the clamorous tumult of his people, which was caused by the different rendering of this one word.

Change can be difficult! How much more when a translation has 1,000 years of history and has been the foundation of a whole theological system! Erasmus was treading where many would fear to tread.

Jerry H. Bentley discusses numerous examples of Erasmus treading on ecclesiastical toes in his Humanist and Holy Writ (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1983), pp.161-173. One example Bentley cites comes from Matt 3:2, where John the Baptist preaches, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” The Vulgate translates the Greek imperative μετανοεῖτε with poenitentiam agite. In the sixteenth century, such a translation went hand in hand with the Catholic sacrament of Penance and for many theologians of the day provided it with “biblical” support. John the Baptist is encouraging his hearers to “do Penance!” Erasmus retained it in his translation in Matt 3:2 but added a note explaining that the Greek word behind this translation does not require anyone to undertake an act of penance. He stressed that it is about a change of mind and so suggested respicite (“return to your senses”) as a more suitable Latin translation. He then used respicite in his translation of Matt 4:17. Such notes and changes clearly undermined the traditional reading of the text and so upset many.

There are numerous other examples which we need not cite. Needless to say Erasmus was not popular! Bentley sufficiently sums up the situation as it developed in the years following publication in 1516:

Medieval theologians had invested much Catholic doctrine in the precise language of the Vulgate and any revision of that prized work might undermine important tenets of the Roman faith. Erasmus’ entire literary corpus, translation of the New Testament included, found its way onto the first Roman Index of Prohibited Books (1559), and conservative theologians continued all through the sixteenth century to hunt for errors in Erasmus’ Latin New Testament. (p.173)

Timothy Edwards is editor of the Hebrew program for the BibleMesh Institute. He also serves as academic dean and fellow of theology at New Saint Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho.