The American Bible Society has a superb collection of old and rare Bibles. The Society began this collection in 1818, just one year after its founding, and much of it is now on display in New York’s Museum of Biblical Art. It includes a rare treasure: a first edition Novum Instrumentum omne, Desiderius Erasmus’ Greek New Testament of 1516, the first printed edition of the New Testament in Greek. This Bible was to go on to play a key role in the Reformation and for that reason it is one of the 25 objects through which we can trace the history of Christianity.
Desiderius Erasmus was born in Holland in 1466, the illegitimate son of a Roman Catholic priest. He was given a fine education at monastic schools and, when he was twenty-five years old, was ordained as a priest. Three years later he began studies at the University of Paris and there he was exposed to Renaissance humanism and seeds were planted which would later make him a fierce opponent of excess and superstition within the Catholic Church. He soon travelled to England and while there was persuaded by John Colet, an English scholar, to study the New Testament. Erasmus believed that to properly understand the New Testament he would need to first learn Greek and for that reason he began an intense, three-year study of the language. Before long he was not only fluent in Greek, but had become an eminent scholar.
This dedication to Greek would eventually lead Erasmus to begin work on a Greek New Testament, his greatest contribution to the history of the church. At that time the Latin Vulgate remained the authorized Bible of the Church even though it had been translated over 1,000 years prior and even though Latin had long since become a dead language known only by scholars and clerics. Erasmus came to see that the Vulgate had certain inaccuracies and that the language could be polished, and for those reasons he set out to create a new Latin text. To do this, he first had to collect available Greek manuscripts, rather a difficult task since Greek was regarded with suspicion. He borrowed manuscripts from fellow scholar Johann Reuchlin and from the Dominican Library at Basel, Switzerland. While he had relatively few manuscripts available to him, and while he ignored some of the best of those at his disposal, the final result was still remarkably good. James White points out that Erasmus’ success, “is more a witness to the preservation of the Scriptures over time than the (admittedly) great scholarship of Erasmus.”