He left England in July 1514, and made his way through fog and customs to Calais. There he received from the prior of his forgotten monastery at Steyn a letter suggesting that his leave of absence had long since expired, and that he had better return to spend his remaining years in repentant piety. He was alarmed, for in canon law the prior might call upon secular power to drag him back to his cell. Erasmus excused himself, and the prior did not press the matter; but to avoid a recurrence of the embarrassment the wandering scholar asked his influential English friends to secure for him, from Leo X, a dispensation from his obligations as a monk.
While these negotiations were proceeding, Erasmus made his way up the Rhine to Basel, and offered to Froben the printer the manuscript of his most important production—a critical revision of the Greek text of the New Testament, with a new Latin translation and a commentary. It was a labor of love, pride, and risk for author and publisher alike: the preparation had taken years, the printing and editing would be laborious and expensive, the presumption to improve upon Jerome’s Latin version, long sanctified as the “Vulgate,” might be condemned by the Church, and the sales would probably fail to meet the costs. Erasmus reduced one hazard by dedicating the work to Leo X. In February 1516, Froben at last brought out Novum Instrumentum omne, diligenter ab Erasmo Rot. recognitum et emendatum. A later edition (1518) changed Instrumentum to Testamentum. In parallel columns Erasmus presented the Greek text as revised by him, and his Latin translation. His knowledge of Greek was imperfect, and he shared with the typesetters the responsibility for many errors; from the standpoint of scholarship this first edition of the Greek New Testament to be published in print was inferior to that which a corps of scholars had completed and printed for Cardinal Ximenes in 1514, but which was not given to the public till 1522. These two works marked the application of humanistic learning to the early literature of Christianity, and the beginning of that Biblical criticism which in the nineteenth century restored the Bible to human authorship and fallibility
Erasmus’ notes were published in a separate volume. They were written in clear and idiomatic Latin, intelligible to all college graduates at the time, and were widely read. Though generally orthodox, they anticipated many findings of later research. In his first edition he omitted the famous Comma Johanneum (I John 5:7), which affirmed the Trinity but is rejected by the Standard Revised Version today as a fourth-century interpolation. He printed, but marked as probably spurious, the story of the woman taken in adultery (John 7:53; 8:11), and the last twelve verses of the Gospel of Mark. He repeatedly signalized the difference between primitive and current Christianity. So on Matthew 23:27, he commented:
What would Jerome say could he see the Virgin’s milk exhibited for money, with as much honor paid to it as to the consecrated body of Christ; the miraculous oils; the portions of the true cross, enough, if collected, to freight a large ship? Here we have the hood of St. Francis, there our Lady’s petticoat, or St. Anne’s comb .... not presented as innocent aids to religion, but as the substance of religion itself—and all through the avarice of priests and the hypocrisy of monks playing upon the credulity of the people.
Noting that Matthew 19:12 (“Some have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake”) was alleged to counsel monastic celibacy, Erasmus wrote:
In this class we include those who by fraud or intimidation have been thrust into that life of celibacy where they were allowed to fornicate but not to marry; so that if they openly keep a concubine they are Christian priests, but if they take a wife they are burned. In my opinion parents who intend their children for celibate priesthood would be much kinder to castrate them in infancy, rather than to expose them whole against their will to this temptation to lust.39
And on I Timothy 3:2 :
There are priests now in vast numbers, enormous herds of them, seculars and regulars, and it is notorious that very few of them are chaste. The great proportion fall into lust and incest and open profligacy. It would surely be better if those who cannot be continent should be allowed lawful wives of their own, and so escape this foul and miserable pollution.40
Finally, in a note on Matthew 11:30, Erasmus sounded the basic note of the Reformers—the return from the Church to Christ:
Truly the yoke of Christ would be sweet, and his burden light, if petty human institutions added nothing to what he himself imposed. He commanded us nothing save love for one another, and there is nothing so bitter that affection does not soften and sweeten it. Everything according to nature is easily borne, and nothing accords better with the nature of man than the philosophy of Christ, of which the sole end is to give back to fallen nature its innocence and integrity.... The Church added to it many things, of which some can be omitted without prejudice to the faith... as, for example, all those philosophic doctrines on... the nature of—and the distinction of persons in—the Deity.... What rules, what superstitions, we have about vestments! .... How many fasts are instituted! .... What shall we say about vows .... about the authority of the pope, the abuse of absolutions and dispensations?... Would that men were content to let Christ rule by the laws of the Gospel, and that they would no longer seek to strengthen their obscurant tyranny by human decrees! 41
It was probably the notes that carried the book to a success that must have surprised author and publisher alike. The first edition was disposed of in three years; new and revised editions were issued in sixty-nine printings before Erasmus died. Criticism of the work was vehement; many errors were pointed out; and Dr. Johann Eck, professor at Ingolstadt and proto-antagonist of Luther, branded as scandalous Erasmus’ statement that the Greek of the New Testament was inferior to that of Demosthenes. Leo X, however, approved the work, and Pope Adrian VI asked Erasmus to do for the Old Testament what he had done for the New; but the Council of Trent condemned Erasmus’ translation, and pronounced Jerome’s Vulgate the only authentic Latin version of the Bible. Erasmus’ New Testament was soon superseded as scholarship, but as an event in the history of thought its influence was immense. It facilitated and welcomed the vernacular translations that were soon to follow. Said a fervent passage in the preface:
I would have the weakest woman read the Gospels and the Epistles of St. Paul.... I would have those words translated into all languages, so that not only Scots and Irishmen, but Turks and Saracens might read them. I long for the plowboy to sing them to himself as he follows the plow, the weaver to hum them to the tune of his shuttle, the traveler to beguile with them the dullness of his journey.... . Other studies we may regret having undertaken, but happy is the man upon whom death comes when he is engaged in these. These sacred words give you the very image of Christ speaking, healing, dying, rising again, and make him so present, that were he before your very eyes you would not more truly see him.
Rejoicing in the competence of Froben’s press and staff, Erasmus issued (November 1516) a critical edition of Jerome, and followed it with similarly revised classical and patristic texts, correcting 4,000 errors in the received text of Seneca; these were substantial services to scholarship. He retold the story of the New Testament in Paraphrases (1517). Such tasks required frequent stays in Basel, but a new attachment fixed his residence near the royal court at Brussels. Charles was at this time only King of Castile and ruler of the Netherlands, not yet Emperor Charles V. He was only fifteen, but his keen mind already ranged over diverse interests, and he was readily persuaded that his court might enhance its luster if he included the outstanding writer of the age among his privy councilors. It was so ordered; and on returning from Basel (1516) Erasmus accepted the honorary position at a modest salary. He was offered a canonry at Courtrai, with the promise of a bishopric; he refused it, remarking to a friend, “There’s a dream to amuse you.”42 He received and rejected invitations to teach at the universities of Leipzig and Ingolstadt. Francis I tried to detach him from Charles with a flattering request that he join the court of France; Erasmus said no with flowered courtesy.
Meanwhile Leo. X had sent to London the solicited dispensations. In March 1517, Erasmus crossed to London, and received the papal letters freeing him from his monastic obligations and the disabilities of bastardy. To the formal documents Leo added a personal note:
Beloved son, health and apostolic benediction. The good favor of your life and character, your rare erudition and high merits, witnessed not only by the monuments of your studies, which are everywhere celebrated, but also by the general vote of the most learned men, and commended to us finally by the letters of two most illustrious princes, the King of England and the Catholic King [of France], give us reason to distinguish you with special and singular favor. We have therefore willingly granted your request, being ready to declare more abundantly our affection for you when you shall either yourself minister occasion, or accident shall furnish it, deeming it right that your holy industry, assiduously exerted for the public advantage, should be encouraged to higher endeavors by adequate rewards.43
Perhaps it was a judicious bribe to good behavior, perhaps an honest gesture from a tolerant and humanist court; in any case Erasmus never forgot this papal courtesy, and would always find it hard to .break from a Church that had so patiently borne the sting of his critique.