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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.

The Bible in Hebrew and Greek

Among the leading Reformers, especially of a more humanist stripe, some reserve is discernible towards the teaching of Hebrew. This is evident in Philipp Melanchthon, ‘the tutor of Germany’, nervous lest Hebrew studied too early corrupt the purity of the classical tongues of Latin and Greek. Nevertheless, Luther, Calvin, Martin Bucer, and Peter Martyr Vermigli were not the only Reformers to acquire a commendable expertise in Hebrew—Calvin to the extent of being able to preach in French and lecture in Latin on the Old Testament with nothing but a Hebrew Bible in front of him.

Hebrew Bibles had been printed since 1488, when the first complete edition was issued in Soncino, near Mantua in Italy. Three other editions, all likewise by Jewish scholars, appeared before 1500. The two-part Brescia printing of 1492–4 was used by Luther in translating the Old Testament into German. Christian interest in printing the Hebrew text first bore fruit in the six-volume Polyglot (‘multi-lingual’) Bible printed in Spain at Alcalá (and known as Complutensian from the place's Latin name) during 1514–17. Papal authorization delayed publication until 1522, depriving it of the distinction of being the first publicly available Greek New Testament. The Alcalá Polyglot deserves recognition as a high water mark of pre-Reformation scholarship on the text of scripture.

By permission of the British Library.

Daniel Bomberg at Venice was the first Christian printer to issue a Hebrew Old Testament (together with Targumim and rabbinical commentaries) in 1516–17. Far more mould- breaking for religious awakening was Erasmus' Latin–Greek Novum Instrumentum (Basel, 1516). As the first published Greek New Testament (even if provided chiefly to justify the fresh Latin translation), as well as typographically avant-garde, it and subsequent editions (revised, but not always for the better) enlightened several early Reformers in the meaning of key words or statements in the New Testament. They thus became ‘Erasmians’ before coming out as ‘Martinians’, that is, Lutherans. When Jesus challenged hearers to ‘Repent’, he did not mean ‘Do penance’ (as the Latin of the Vulgate was taken to mean). Paul's declaration about God's righteousness in Romans 1: 17ff. referred not to punitive or judicial iustitia (Latin could not distinguish between ‘justice’ and ‘righteousness’) but to God's gift of righteousness to penitent sinners.

Erasmus was the dominant figure among the ‘biblical’ humanists who directed the humanist drive back to the sources of classical Greek and Roman learning into Christian channels—the New Testament but also the church Fathers of the early centuries. The second part of his Novum Instrumentum of 1516 was a commentary in the form of Annotations, expanded in successive editions down to 1535, from which one can trace the developing learning and thought of this witty and provocative scholar. Numerous nuggets found their way into the margins of later New Testaments. Erasmus also wrote Paraphrases of the New Testament, similarly in Latin, the language which ensured his Europe-wide influence. Yet he expressed his strong support for vernacular renderings of sacred scripture so that (with reference to the Paraphrases in particular) it might reach ‘the farmer, the tailor, the stonemason, prostitutes, pimps, and Turks’. Among the vernaculars which fulfilled this hope for the Paraphrases was English. King Edward VI ordered in 1547 that Erasmus' Paraphrases of the gospels be set up in all parish churches for everyone to read.

The Greek text of the New Testament provided by Erasmus was an imperfect instrument. His manuscript base was narrow, some verses he retroverted into Greek from the Vulgate on finding them missing from his manuscripts in Greek, and in his third edition (1522) he inserted 1 John 5: 7–8 , the so-called Johannine comma, on learning of a single Greek manuscript that contained its undoubtedly inauthentic testimony to the Trinity. The 1534 Paris Greek Testament produced by Simon de Colines, stepfather of Robert Estienne, came nearer to a critical edition, using Erasmus, the Complutensian text, and unnamed manuscript sources which obviously furnished some good readings. But although used by Calvin, it seems, for a few years in the 1540s, the Colines edition was overshadowed by the Erasmian series.

It was again the achievement of the Estiennes to move the infant science of New Testament textual criticism a significant step forward. The edition Robert Estienne published at Paris in 1550 was the first to contain an apparatus criticus, that is, a record in the margins of variant readings of the Greek text collated from manuscripts by his son Henri. Theodore Beza built on Estienne's work in his Greek Testament of 1565, using more of Henri Estienne's collations and a wider range of manuscripts. But two weighty manuscripts at his disposal, including the one later known from his donation of it to Cambridge University in 1581 as Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis, he used sparingly because of the divergence of their texts from the standard version.

There were in truth relatively insignificant differences between the Greek texts of Erasmus, the Complutensians, Estienne, and Beza. They each purveyed a text close to what underlay the King James translation of 1611, commonly referred to as the Byzantine Text, but also as the ‘Received Text’. This Latin phrase, textus receptus, caught on from the preface to the neat and economic Greek Testament issued at Leiden in 1633 by the Elzevir press: ‘You have then a text received by all.’

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