First Published Greek New Testament: 500th Anniversary
March 1st, 2016 marked the 500th anniversary of the first publication of a printed Greek New Testament edited by Desiderius Erasmus (born 1466), the work published in Basle, Switzerland. Erasmus is widely cited as one of the greatest scholars of his time. For an ad hoc photo of a copy of this edition click here.
Erasmus prepared his edition mainly from two rather late Greek manuscripts (14th-15th century), one of the Gospels and another of the Acts and Epistles, which are preserved in the University library in Basle. For the book of Revelation, Erasmus had to hand only one manuscript, which was missing its final leaf containing the last six verses. So, he retro-translated these verses from the Latin Vulgate!
Thereafter, Erasmus prepared five successive editions of the work, each with improvements, and each a Greek-Latin edition (1519, 1522, 1527, 1535). The 1519 edition served as the basis for Martin Luther’s translation of the New Testament into German.
It was also a pioneering step in the development of New Testament textual criticism, although the apparatus to Erasmus’ successive editions never made reference to more than eight manuscripts, all of them actually comparatively late in the light of the manuscripts used today.
But pioneering efforts are typically afflicted with mistakes or things that can be improved on, so in this 500th anniversary year, let’s simply celebrate this pioneering work by one of history’s great scholars. All users of the Greek New Testament today (and all who use translations based on modern critical editions of the Greek New Testament as well) are, in some way, in his debt.
(For a history of the printed text of the Greek New Testament, see, e.g., Philip Schaff, A Companion to the Greek New Testament and the English Version [4th ed. rev.; New York/London: Harper & Brothers, 1911], 225-98. Appendix I [pp. 497-524], prepared by Isaac H. Hall, is a list of printed editions of the Greek New Testament down to 1887.)