Erasmus (1469-1536)

Erasmus was one of the main figures of 16th century Humanism ; he was cultured, tolerant and ahead of his time because he was European in outlook. He prepared the first critical edition of the New Testament in Greek, which appeared in 1516.

A return to the sources of Scripture

  • Érasme (1469-1536)
    Erasmus (1469-1536) © Église réformée de Savoie

The Humanists advocated a return to the sources (ad fontes) of Scripture, that is, to the original manuscripts. For centuries, the West had only known the Vulgate version of the Bible, which was a translation into Latin written by Saint Jerome at the beginning of the 5th century.

However, when Greek manuscripts of the Bible were brought back from the East in the 15th and 16th centuries, it became clear that there were major discrepancies with the Latin translation. A comparison with these Greek texts, allowed a better Latin translation to be prepared.

In 1504 Erasmus took on this scholastic work, influenced by the Italian Humanist Lorenzo Valla, who had edited his Notes on the New Testament in 1455. Valla had declared that it was important to return to the Greek source as the “Latin stream” had become “cluttered up with silt and rubbish”. Erasmus continued to work in the tradition of scholars before him who had tried to establish the best “source text”, following the example of the 3rd century theologian Origenes, who in Hexaples, included different versions of the Old Testament in Greek. He had studied these before finally compiling his own translation.

In 1516, the publication of Erasmus’ New Testament was very successful. Alongside the Greek text, it offered a Latin translation which corrected the errors of the Vilgate.

This New Testament in Greek served as the reference work for both the Humanists and the Reformers.

Erasmus was a European and a Humanist

  • Traduction du Nouveau Testament par Erasme
    Translation of the New Testament by Erasmus © Bibliothèque universitaire de Montréal

Desiderius Erasmus was born in Rotterdam in 1469 and entered a monastery at an early age. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 1492 and he became secretary to the Bishop of Cambray, who financed his theology studies in Paris. The pope had given him a dispensation from his monastic vows in 1495 so he was able to start a teaching career which later led him to England, France and Italy,where he graduated as Doctor of Divinity in 1506.

When he returned to England he published his famous work Praise of Folly (1508), which was a satire and testament to his intellectual independence. In this book he ridiculed several of the social groups of his time, primarily philosophers and theologians, but first and foremost, monks.

In 1516 he published The Education of a Christian Prince which he dedicated to Charles V. Erasmus was a highly gifted Humanist who travelled throughout Europe, moving frequently from one place to another : England, Holland, Brussels, Anvers, Gand and Leuvzen. In 1521 he settled in Basel, which he left in 1529 to go to Freiburg, but returned to Basel again in 1525, where he died a year later. Nicknamed the “Teacher of Europe” and the “Father of Humanism”, throughout his life he corresponded with all the leading intellectual figures of his time.

Erasmus and the Reform Movement

Erasmus’ writings and his desire to establish a Christian form of Humanism inspired Luther and other reformers. Indeed, the latter used the Greek text prepared by Erasmus as a basis for his own translation of the New Testament into German, which was published in 1522.

Erasmus’ scholastic work and that of his successors undermined reliance on the Vulgate as a reliable Latin translation of Scripture. Their work sparked many attacks. Their critiscism of the Church and the corruption of the clergy aligned them with the Reformers. None-the-less, Erasmus was always in favour of Church unity, not schism.

Luther shared some of his ideas, for example the principle that theology should be grounded in Scripture, the importance of personal spirituality rather than works or ecclesiastical ceremonies and also the principle that everyone should be able to read the Bible in his own language.

“The sun belongs to everyone ; the science of Christ is just the same. I am totally opposed to the fact that divine scripture should not be translated into one’s native language, to be read by the non-clergy ; it is as if Christ’s teaching was so mysterious that only a handful of theologians could understand it, or as if the fortress of religion was built with the ignorance which the Church has forced on the common man. I would like even the humblest of women to be able to read the Gospels and Saint Paul’s epistles.

May these books be translated into every language, so that the Scots and the Irish, as well as the Turks and the Saracens may read them and know them…. May the peasant sing extracts from the Scripture as he ploughs the field, may the weaver sing a Biblical song while working at his loom or the tired traveler find refreshment in its narrative”.(Preface to theNew Testament, 1516)

Erasmus refused to break away from the Roman Catholic Church, but he also kept a certain distance from the Reform Movement. Luther accused Erasmus of lack of fervor or conviction and a disagreement arose between them. In 1524 Erasmus published his Essay on Freewill and Luther responded in 1525 with On the Bondage of the Will. They disagreed on the following points : the view that God gives man freewill, the importance of tradition and that grace could only be obtained through good deeds. According to Erasmus, man could work together with God in order to bring about his own salvation.


  • Books
    • CHOMARAT Jacques (éd.), Actes du Colloque international Érasme, Tours, 1986
    • HALKIN Léon Ernest , Érasme parmi nous, Le Grand livre du mois, Paris, 1997
    • PHILLIPS Margaret Mann, Érasme et les débuts de la réforme française (1517-1536), Champion, Paris, 1933

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