Erasmus, King James, and His Translators (Part 1 of 3)

By David H. Sorenson

This is from chapter 10 of the book Touch Not The Unclean Thing: The Text Issue and Separation, ISBN 0-9711384-0-0, Copyright ©2001 David H. Sorenson, used with permission. Available from Northstar Baptist Ministries, 1820 West Morgan Street, Deluth, MN 55811-1878 and from Dr. Sorenson is the author of the Understanding the Bible commentary.

[Part 1: Erasmus] [Part 2: King James] [Part 3: The KJ Translators]


Many Fundamentalist proponents of the critical text have already heard most of the charges of apostasy filed against various textual editors thereof. Their reaction more often than not is to ignore the evidence and rather respond by attacking key figures related to the Received Text. There are several, standard, diversionary tactics used by advocates of the critical text position when charged with irregularities in its lineage. The first option is to bring up Desiderius Erasmus. When faced with charges against various editors of the critical text, the retort often is, "Well, what about Erasmus? Was he not a Roman Catholic?" Another standard response is "Well, what about King James I? Was he not a bawdy fellow and even a homosexual?" And then, they ask, "What about the King James translators? Were not they a group of profane men? Moreover, were not King James and his translators all Anglicans?"

The rationale therefore is, if there are problems with those connected with the critical text, there (allegedly) are also problems with those connected with the Received Text and its famous translation, the King James Version. Their mutual problems therefore cancel each other out. Thus, the apostasy of the critical text is of no importance because the lineage of the Received Text is just as bad. However, that logic is faulty. First, as we will demonstrate, the charges against Erasmus, King James, and the King James translators are empty. Second, even if they had some merit, they do not begin to measure up to the utter apostasy connected with the critical text. Let us therefore examine each of the allegations against key figures of the Received Text.

Desiderius Erasmus

It should be recalled that Desiderius Erasmus was the Renaissance humanist who first published the Received Text in 1516. [1] This was prior to the beginning of the Reformation in 1517 when Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. Regarding the origins of the Reformation, it has been said by Catholic enemies thereof that "Erasmus laid the eggs and Luther hatched the chickens." Other Catholic enemies of both Erasmus and Luther charged that "Erasmus is the father of Luther." [2] These charges were based upon the fact that Luther was influenced in no small measure by Erasmus's publication of his Greek New Testament in 1516. In that year, there was no Reformation nor were there yet any official Protestants.

From Erasmus's 1516 edition of his Greek New Testament came another four editions, all of the Received Text. After the death of Eras-mus, Robert Stephanus continued to publish and edit the Received Text from Paris. After Stephanus's death, Theodore Beza published nine or ten editions of the Greek New Testament. And, the King James trans-lators worked primarily from Beza's fifth edition of 1598. There is no question that Desiderius Erasmus played a key role in the transmission of the Received Text. Thus, he is the primary figure that critics seek to disparage by saying he was a Catholic.

Erasmus the Scholar

Let us therefore briefly examine the life of Erasmus. Desiderius Erasmus grew up in fifteenth-century central Europe. Apart from the Waldenses in the valleys of the Alps and other remote separatist groups, there were very few other forms of Christianity than the Roman Catholic Church in that part of the world. (Even Wycliffe and Tyndale had been nominal Catholics.) The Reformation had not yet begun. There were no Protestant churches in central Europe or England at this time. Therefore, to charge Erasmus with being a Catholic is somewhat of a hollow charge. Though he was a clergyman in the Catholic Church, there is no record that he ever presided over any parish. Rather, he traveled across Europe throughout most of his career as a scholar. He was more or less an "independent Catholic." In his day, he was considered the foremost scholar of classical Greek and Latin literature. The course of his travels took him from Holland to France, England, and Switzerland.

Over the years, Erasmus became intimately acquainted with biblical manuscripts available throughout Europe, particularly of the New Test-ament. Because the Word of God is quick and powerful and sharper than any two-edged sword, it is evident as Erasmus began to search the Scriptures, they had a profound effect upon his life. By the time of his death, the theology of Erasmus had shifted closer to that of the Ana-baptists than that of Rome. This will shortly be documented.

As noted above, in 1516, Erasmus published from Basel, Switzer-land, his Greek New Testament which he called the Novum Instru-mentum. In English that means the "New Instrument. [3] Contrary to popular misconception, Erasmus had more than a handful of manu-scripts at his disposal. Preserved Smith, the noted expert on the life of Erasmus, comments, "For the first edition Erasmus had before him ten manuscripts, four of which he found in England, and five at Basle. . . . The last codex was lent him by John Reuchlin . . . (and) appeared to Erasmus so old that it might have come from the apostolic age." [4] He was aware of Vaticanus in the Vatican Library and had a friend by the name of Bombasius research that for him (165). He, however, rejected the characteristic variants of Vaticanus which distinguishes itself from the Received Text. (These variants are what would become the disting-uishing characteristics of the critical text more than 350 years later.)

Erasmus's Shift in Theology

The more Erasmus became involved in the study and editing of the New Testament, the more his theology and convictions began to change. He came to reject the typical Roman Catholic interpretation of Matt. 16:18 establishing papal primacy. He began to vehemently attack the abuses and scandals of the Roman Catholic clergy, particularly as they violated their vows of celibacy. He even attacked celibacy as fallacious (171).

Critics of Erasmus have been quick to point out that he dedicated his first edition of his Greek New Testament to Pope Leo X. However, there is more to that than meets the eye. The long established Catholic position was that the Latin Vulgate was the official church Bible. There was a hostility toward anything that threatened that primacy. Erasmus knew that and he knew the opposition his Greek text would receive. Therefore, without the pope even knowing it, he dedicated it to him and at the same time had his friend in Rome, Bombasius, obtain formal approval of his publication because it had been dedicated to the pope. Thus, when the Catholic establishment in central Europe began to vehemently attack his work, Erasmus produced the approval of the pope. Erasmus was not a separatist, but he was shrewd.

After having done an end run around the Catholic establishment in central Europe, he was accused by powerful elements of the church of being even more dangerous than Luther (174). Contrary to conventional Catholic dogma of the day forbidding laymen from the reading of the Scriptures, Erasmus rather invited all men to read the Bible. This drew great wrath upon him from French Catholic authorities (180). It was such deviation from Rome's dogma which prompted Catholics across Europe to soon utter the proverb, "Erasmus laid the eggs and Luther hatched the chickens" (209). In other words, Erasmus was the root of the Protestant Reformation. Though Erasmus had no personal influence upon Luther, his writings certainly did, especially his Greek Testament and his commentaries. Ironically, because Erasmus never officially left the Catholic Church, he soon came to be attacked by Luther and other of the Reformers. The attacks accordingly developed into a war of words between Erasmus and the Reformers.

Erasmus thus became an enigma. He slowly but surely shifted away from Catholic theology, but stopped short of joining with Luther. He attacked the Roman Catholic Church, but never officially left it. Part of this confusion is to be found in the personal temperament of Erasmus. Whereas Luther had the temperament to stand and thunder, "Here I stand, I can do no other," Erasmus was more timorous. He was not an open fighter. His battling was through his pen. Whereas Luther eventually was excommunicated from the Catholic Church, Erasmus tried to reform it from within. [5] Whereas Luther became a "come-outer," Erasmus remained a "stay-inner." He would have been better served to follow Luther's example. However, he did not. He thus became a target from both sides. The establishment of the Catholic Church detested him. Most of the Reformers were suspicious of him as well.

Erasmus the Evangelical

Reading some of the quotations of Erasmus in his later years is insightful. They reveal a man who had shifted from conventional Roman Catholic theology to one much closer to a biblical position. For example, he wrote: "Therefore if you will dedicate yourself wholly to the study of the Scriptures, if you will meditate on the law of the Lord day and night, you will not be afraid of the terror of the night or of the day, but you will be fortified and trained against every onslaught of enemies." [6]

Elsewhere, he wrote, "Christ Jesus . . . is the true light, alone shattering the night of earthly folly, the Splendor of paternal glory, who as he was made redemption and justification for us reborn in him, so also was made Wisdom (as Paul testifies): 'We preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block, and to the Gentiles foolishness; but to them that are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God.' " [7] The question may therefore be asked, does that sound more like a Fundamentalist sermon or a Roman Catholic homily? The quotations illustrate the shift of the convictions of Erasmus.

Erasmus and the Anabaptists

However, what is most amazing is that in Erasmus's later years, he came very close to becoming an Anabaptist. Though he never joined with them, his theology became somewhat parallel with theirs. Friesen shows that by 1530, his name had come to be associated with the Anabaptists whom the Catholics and many Protestants considered to be the arch-heretics of the sixteenth century. [8] One church historian, Walter Koehler, has gone so far as to assert that Erasmus "was the spiritual father of the Anabaptists" (22). Another historian, Leonhard von Muralt, credits Erasmus with having "prepared the way for Anabaptism and provided material for the construction of their teachings" (22). Friends of Erasmus thus warned him that he was moving dangerously close to an Anabaptist position (36).

Perhaps more than anything else, Erasmus began to advocate baptism by immersion after conversion. Though this was called an Anabaptist heresy by the Catholics and Protestants, it was simply Bible teaching. The third edition of his Greek New Testament of 1522 differed from the second only in its introductory notes. There, Erasmus advocated that Christian youth be taught biblical instruction first - before they were baptized. He even advocated re-baptism for those already sprinkled as infants (45). Moreover, he came to believe that baptism was to be by immersion. In his annotations (i.e., commentary or notes) on Matthew 28, Erasmus wrote, "After you have taught them these things, and they believe what you have taught them, have repented their previous lives, and are ready to embrace the doctrine of the gospel (in their life), then immerse them in water, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost" (51, emphasis mine).

That teaching concerning baptism is perilously close to, if not synonymous with, Fundamental Baptist theology. It certainly was Ana-baptist doctrine. Balthasar Hubmaier was an early Anabaptist leader. He essentially quoted Erasmus's statement above to establish his own point regarding baptism by immersion in his book of 1526 entitled Old and New Believers on Baptism. After having quoted the above-mentioned statement by Erasmus, Hubmaier noted, "Here Erasmus publicly points out that baptism was instituted by Christ for those instructed in the faith and not for young children" (53). In his annotations (i.e., commentary or notes) on Matt. 28:18-20, Erasmus also went on to write, "The Apostles are commanded that they teach first and baptize later."

Erasmus in Summary

Erasmus is a fascinating character in the lineage of the Received Text of the New Testament. His Greek New Testament, without doubt, was the catalyst which sparked the Reformation. He was a Catholic at the beginning of the Reformation. However, as he continued to search the Scriptures, he increasingly became less and less Catholic in his position. By the time he died in 1536, he had virtually become an Anabaptist in his theology. To his demerit, he never officially left the Catholic Church. However, when he died, it was not in the arms of Rome. Rather, in 1534, he returned to Basel, Switzerland, and two years later died in the midst of his Protestant friends, "without relations of any sort, so far as known with the Roman Catholic Church." [9]

To try and deflect attention from the apostasy of the critical text by pointing out that Erasmus was a Catholic reveals a lack of knowledge of who he was, what he did, and what he believed. Like virtually all of the Reformers, Erasmus originally was a Catholic.  However, unlike the rest of the Reformers, he never formally left the Catholic Church. His crusade was with his pen. Accordingly, his own writings show that he changed to a position that even the persecuted Anabaptists used to support their theology. The Catholic establishment became a fierce opponent to him by the time of his death. Though not a separatist, by the time he had published the third edition of his Greek New Testament, the charge of Roman Catholic apostasy can no longer be applied to Eras-mus.


[1] The term humanist in the context of the Renaissance had an entirely different sense from the modern use. Its Renaissance meaning was of one who was a scholar and learned in the humanities. That is, he was expert in classical literature and classical languages such as Greek and Latin.

[2] Preserved Smith, Erasmus, 209.

[3] Ephraim Emerton, Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1899), 200.

[4] Smith, Erasmus: A Study of His Life, 163.

[5] It should be noted that Luther as well hoped to stay within the Catholic Church and work reform from the inside. Events so conspired that he did not. However, Erasmus was able to get away with that.

[6] Matthew Spinka, Advocates of Reform: From Wyclif to Erasmus (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1953), 304.

[7] Ibid., 309.

[8] Abraham Friesen, Erasmus, the Anabaptists, and the Great Commission (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), 21.

[9] Edward Hills, The King James Version Defended (Des Moines, Iowa: Christian Research Press, 1956), 194.