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The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible A richly illustrated account of the story of the Bible written by leading scholars.

Sixteenth-century Scholarship and Its Influence

Photographie Giraudon.

By permission of the British Library.

When the humanists of the Renaissance looked around them, they became critical of the dependence of western Christendom on the Latin Bible, the Vulgate. More and more, they studied Greek manuscripts and noted its differences from them. They concluded that, since the New Testament writings were first composed in Greek, these differences must necessarily be due to corruptions in the Latin. And so, in accordance with their general desire to rebuild on the Graeco-Roman foundations of our civilization, they wished to restore the Greek New Testament to its rightful place as the source and originator of the Latin text, and therefore its superior. The printing press was the means to this end. Although such ambitions were expressed in the fifteenth century, it was only in the second decade of the sixteenth that they were realized. Two editions claim the right of priority. The Complutensian Polyglot, produced at Alcalá in Spain, was the first text to be printed. Its New Testament volume, with the text in Greek, with a Graeco-Latin glossary, is dated 10 January 1514. But the Pope was slow to grant permission for its release, and the Dutchman Desiderius Erasmus decided to forestall it. With the Greek, his own text, and the Vulgate in parallel columns, it became the first published Greek New Testament on its appearance in 1516. Erasmus worked fast—too fast, it has been said. Certainly, the number of printing errors has earned it the description of the most inaccurate book ever printed. But such blemishes were easily corrected in subsequent editions. From today's vantage point we may see one more serious factor which determined many of the problems of the subsequent three and a half centuries. Erasmus was in Basel in 1516, and he used the manuscripts which he happened to find there. There were only six which he used and, as chance would have it, they were all fairly recent: the oldest, which he trusted least, was a tenth-century copy bearing a much older form of text. The rest date from various points between then and the fifteenth century. None of them contained more than a part of the New Testament, so that he rarely relied on more than two copies. Moreover, Erasmus could find no manuscript containing the final verses of Revelation. He made this lack good by translating back from Latin to Greek, thereby creating a number of completely new readings.

The printed text thus began its history on a base as far from the manuscripts of the early centuries as it is possible to be. The consequences of this were enormous, for the manuscripts on which Erasmus most heavily relied represented a late form of the text, one that is different in many places from those of earlier centuries. It is known as the ‘Byzantine Text’, for it is a kind of text which was produced in the Byzantine empire. It began to be formed from the sixth century, and was increasingly the only kind of text of the New Testament to be copied, down to the end of the Byzantine empire in the fifteenth century. Although its text is principally different in the cumulative effect of small changes, it should first be observed that this later text contained some large passages absent in early copies. Some of these have regularly been the focus of controversy. One is Mark 16: 9–20 , the ‘Longer Ending’ of Mark's Gospel. Mark ended his gospel abruptly and shockingly at 16: 8 . This was surprising to early Christianity, which by the end of the second century had produced several alternative endings. One short coda is found only in one Latin manuscript. The other, 16: 9–20 , is found in virtually every Greek manuscript. None of those few which omitted it was known to Erasmus. The other long passage is John 7: 53–8: 11 (the story of the woman taken in adultery). Again, this was firmly established in the Byzantine Text. Only a few early copies survive, attestation to the fact that this tradition was introduced into the gospel later, perhaps a century or more after its compilation. Another telling passage is Luke 22: 44f. , the story of Christ's bloody sweat. This is another legendary addition to the text. Finally we note 1 John 5: 7f . (the ‘Johannine comma’), which will be discussed below. But it is often the small details which are the more telling: details which bring the New Testament into closer accord with orthodox doctrine, such as the addition ‘son of God’ at Mark 1: 1 , which will be discussed later; harmonizations, which remove differences between the gospels, particularly the first three; changes of wording or grammar which improve the Greek; clarifications of obscurities, such as the change from ‘the only begotten God’ to ‘the only begotten Son’ at John 1: 18 ; and removals of confusions. Such influences were at work from the very beginning of the process of the transmission of the New Testament writings, and they had made a strong impact by the time that the manuscripts of the Byzantine period came to be copied. The characteristics of the Byzantine text are that it attempted to keep everything it possibly could: any verse or story which had been brought into the New Testament; in detail, we find additions to names of Jesus, expansions (note how a congregation tends to add ‘Amen’ spontaneously in the middle of a reading if a doxology or phrase such as ‘This is the very word of the Lord’ is used).

It was on manuscripts of this late period that Erasmus relied. That Erasmus's Greek text was thus ‘corrupt’ is clear to us. But to his contemporaries that it was Greek was enough to commend it. Its influence was immediate, and felt far beyond the studies of the humanists. For it was from Erasmus's text, in this or one of his four subsequent editions, that Luther made his German version in 1522, that Tyndale produced his English New Testament of 1526, and translations into other tongues, such as Tuscan (1530) and Spanish (1543), were made. Other versions were based either on Erasmus's Latin translation (such as the Dutch version of Doen Pietersz, the 1533 Czech New Testament, Olivétan's French translation of 1535, a revision of an earlier Vulgate-based text) or on Luther's German (such as the 1526 Dutch Bible, and the 1524 Danish version). Thus the new vernacular Bibles, in this period generally associated with the spread of the Reformation, owed much of their innovative character to Erasmus.

It would be a gross over-simplification to claim that all traditionalists favoured the Latin Vulgate, and all progressives and reformers the Greek text. But this issue did become a touchstone of sixteenth-century debate. Thus, for example, as the equal struggle of Henrician reform in England swayed to and fro, successive translations were made from Greek or from Latin texts, as Henry accorded the precedence to one group or the other.

The progressive party claimed that the differences between the Greek text and the Vulgate demonstrated the latter to be corrupt, since the original must necessarily be prior to the version. The traditionalists invoked the authority of the church and the weight of tradition. Thus it was that the Council of Trent in 1546 declared the Vulgate to be sacred and canonical, and that in many places preference for the Greek text was more a theological than a scholarly matter. But, whatever your persuasion, it became increasingly difficult to undertake biblical study without any reference at all to the printed Greek text. This simple and evident fact is the foundation of modern study of the New Testament.

By permission of the British Library.

In spite of the Complutensian Polyglot, and in spite of a remarkably independent-minded edition of 1534 by the Frenchman Simon de Colines, it was Erasmus's editions that were to be the parents of the text of the subsequent centuries. He produced five in all (1516, 1519, 1522, 1527, and 1535), of which the third, with the Greek, his own Latin translation, and the Vulgate in parallel columns, was the most influential. Next in line to him are the editions of Robert Estienne (Stephanus) (1503–59), one in a famous line of scholar-printers, first of Paris and then, from 1551, of Geneva. To Stephanus we owe several considerable inventions. The first is the system of verse numberings, introduced in his edition of 1551. The division of the text into chapters is considerably older. Our system is attributed to Stephen Langton, archbishop of Canterbury (d. 1228). But there were still earlier systems: several are known to us from the fourth century or even earlier. In these the chapter or section lengths are considerably less. In one of them, for example, the Gospel of Matthew is divided into 170 portions (this is Codex Vaticanus, which will be described in more detail below). Stephanus's second innovation is less obvious, but more significant. In order to understand it, we must retrace our steps.

From the beginning, Erasmus's text excited criticism. It was naturally the places where he printed a Greek text evidently different from the Vulgate that were treated with the most scepticism. Opponents of Erasmus realized very quickly that the best way to fight him was to find Greek manuscripts with readings which supported the Vulgate. Almost inevitably, certain passages became storm centres. One almost blushes to repeat this well-worn tale, but it illustrates most neatly the point at issue. One important passage of debate was 1 John 5: 7f. , translated in the Authorized Version as ‘For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one’. It is in the Vulgate, but Erasmus did not find it in his Greek manuscripts, and therefore omitted it. But, when pressed, he rashly stated that he would print the passage in his next edition, if there could be found one Greek manuscript containing it. Such a manuscript was produced (I use the word in the senses both of ‘written’ and of ‘made available’), and Erasmus kept his promise. This was evidently unscientific. Admittedly, there are one or two other Greek manuscripts containing the verse, the oldest of the fourteenth century. Today we can see both the appeal of such an orthodox declaration, and how it reflects a degree of theological formulation which lay far in the future when 1 John was written. The textual evidence now available shows it to have been formulated in Latin Christianity, in response to doctrinal controversy. This story illustrates the difficulties of editing the New Testament. The production of editions of the classics was often difficult enough. But in editing the Greek New Testament, there were two huge problems. The first was the sensitivity of the subject matter. Every generation has argued about the text of the Bible, both in the original and in translation. Jerome's Vulgate, itself sanctified by the sixteenth century, had caused a riot in one church eleven hundred years previously when the faithful heard it, because the learned saint had decided that Jonah's gourd was really an ivy. Small wonder, then, that passages touching on the person of Christ and on the holy Trinity should cause controversy. The second problem was scientific.

The humanists were concerned to recover authentic texts. Thus, they demonstrated various spuria to be forgeries. These included the correspondence of Paul and Seneca (a set of fourteen letters allegedly exchanged between Paul and the Roman philosopher Seneca, in fact written in Latin in the fourth century), 3 Corinthians (a second-century letter that is found with one from the Corinthians to Paul, both separately and in the Acts of Paul) and Paul's Epistle to the Laodiceans (produced at some point between the second and fourth centuries, purporting to be the letter mentioned in Col. 4: 16 ). They sought also to recover authentic and reliable copies of texts. But how to establish the age of an undated manuscript and to gauge the accuracy of its text were disciplines hardly even born. With a manuscript tradition as vast and as complicated as the New Testament, the difficulties were enormous. The first stage was to gather evidence. We can see how the need was recognized, from the argument over 1 John 5 . It was Stephanus who found a convenient way, in his edition of 1550, of setting out the information. He provided the variant readings (or at any rate some of them) of fifteen manuscripts. These readings were printed in the margin, and each manuscript was designated by a Greek numeral, as α′, β′, down to ιε′. This compendious way of providing valuable information is essentially still in use today.

Stephanus's text was, as has been said, based on that of Erasmus. That is to say, he printed Erasmus's text except in those places where he deliberately chose to change the wording. His text in turn was the base used by Theodore Beza (1519–1605), the successor of Calvin in the Genevan church, in his ten editions. These were produced between 1565 and 1611. It is with Beza that two noteworthy manuscripts come fully into notice. Stephanus's text was as Byzantine as Erasmus's. Into Beza's hands, however, came two far older manuscripts. Both, coincidentally, were bilingual, consisting of a Greek text with a Latin translation. One, containing the gospels and Acts, we now know to date from about the year 400. To Beza it was simply vetustissimus, ‘very old’, the Greek being written in a majuscule hand. This manuscript was markedly different from any other used by either Erasmus or Stephanus (although Stephanus had examined it, it being one of the fifteen codices cited by him in 1550, he did not adopt its readings). While Beza doubted its accuracy, he was initially convinced of the authenticity of a story which it contained at the end of Luke 6: 4 : ‘On the same day, seeing somebody working on the sabbath, he [Jesus] said to him, “Man, if you know what you are doing, then you are blessed; but if you do not, then you are accursed and a transgressor of the law”’. He included this otherwise unattested story in his edition of 1563, but then dropped it. In the end, he gave the manuscript away to Cambridge University, expressing the hope that it would be buried in obscurity. That was not to be. It is to these events that the manuscript owes its name of Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis. The second manuscript, of the Pauline epistles, was less ancient by a good century, and less distinctive. But the fifth century is still early enough for it be recognized as ‘very old’, and its distinctive character again gave occasion for thought. It is the leader of a group of bilingual manuscripts of Paul, which give us a fourth-century text current in the west. South Italy and Sardinia are both possible places where it was copied. Coming to Beza from the town of Clermont in northern France, it is known as the Codex Claromontanus. This habit of naming manuscripts from the place of discovery, or the name of their discoverer, or the library where they now live, continues, particularly where the manuscript is ancient, distinctive, or important. It was fortunate that these two manuscripts were found when they were. For they demonstrated a problem which Erasmus could not have anticipated: the degree and number of differences between different copies of the Greek New Testament. It seemed that these early texts sometimes supported the Vulgate against the printed text. But the supporter of the Vulgate must also feel perplexed, for the Latin text of both these manuscripts was not at all of the Vulgate type: they represent two of the many Old Latin, pre-Jerome versions.

The sixteenth century saw also the printing of editions of some of the important early versions of the New Testament. The most significant of these was the Peshitta Syriac, published in 1555. The Peshitta is the form of Syriac text which by the fifth century was emerging as the most widely used and ecclesiastically approved text of Syrian Christianity. It developed, by a gradual process of revision, out of far more ancient Syriac versions. It thus, with the Vulgate, stood as one of the great versions of the early church. The value of the versions became apparent fairly soon: they are a witness to the manuscript or manuscripts used by the translator. If the translation is ancient, then we have evidence for the text of a long lost ancient manuscript. This same period saw also the publication of the writings of many early Christian writers. Where these writers quote the New Testament, they again provide a testimony to a now lost text. These enterprises were fraught with the same problems as those of editing the Greek New Testament: the number of manuscripts was huge (in the case of a writer like Chrysostom, even greater than the New Testament, while his works are many times more voluminous), and nobody could yet find the best of these manuscripts. But these editions at any rate laid the foundations and provided the material for later generations to build on and to improve.

A number of English versions were produced in this period. They seem to have no connection with the Wyclif Bible, perhaps because of linguistic and theological developments, perhaps because the reformers wished to follow the Greek text, and not the Latin Vulgate on which Wyclif was based. It begins with William Tyndale. There was then a period of cautious reform and conservative reaction, which lasted until the end of Henry VIII's reign. The version of this period which was destined to have the longest use was Miles Coverdale's Bible of 1535, for his version of the Psalter (revised for the Great Bible, made in 1540) is that found in the Book of Common Prayer. The next major advance came about during Mary's reign, when a group of exiles who had gone to Geneva set about a new translation. Known as the Geneva Bible, it enjoyed great popularity among English Protestants for the rest of the century and to the end of the next. It showed sound scholarship. However, it was to be superseded by the famous revision inaugurated in the reign of James I. It was from the Greek text of the kind produced by Beza that the translators of the Authorized Version worked, their edition appearing in 1611. In this it was little different from the Geneva Bible, except that the text had changed somewhat in the intervening years. The revisers consulted other sources, including earlier translations. But it is the text descended from Erasmus that is their base.

English Catholics also produced a translation. Made from the Vulgate, though not without consultation of other sources, it was published at Rheims in 1582.

From Beza is descended a text printed in Leiden in 1633. It claims in its preface to be the ‘text received by all’, the textus receptus. And indeed it did, in its many many printings, actually attain the distinction of being for some two centuries the only generally and readily available Greek text. It is sometimes said that a publisher's blurb achieved this. But it is nearer the mark to say that theologians get the text which they deserve. The spectacle of a procession of textual phantoms arising from early Christianity was not particularly welcome to seventeenth-century Europe, either Protestant or Roman Catholic. The former quickly came to accord in practice to the Greek text the same privileged position of authority that the Vulgate occupied among the latter. Thus the two camps each possessed an authoritative text. The one had the virtue of being in the language in which the writings were originally produced, but the defect that it was based on extremely late copies. The latter had the defect that it could only claim to be a version, and it was in fact known also in a late and corrupt form. But if the theologians were thus entrenched, some scholars were more adventurous. For the next stage, we must follow Codex Bezae across the waters from the Continent to England.

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