Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Promise Erasmus Probably Never Made

Have you ever heard of the promise that Erasmus made about including 1 John 5:7? It goes like this: Erasmus did not include what is known as the Comma Johanneum (1 John 5:7) in his first two editions of the Greek New Testament. The verse reads: "For there are three that bear record in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one." He was challenged for not including it. Apparently, if countless publications are correct, is Erasmus made some sort of promise that he would include it if even a single manuscript could be produced that contained it. It's probably the most important promise in text-critical studies ever. But did Erasmus ever make such a promise? Well, let's just take a look at how the account appears in a few publications by some more than reputable names.
A. T. Robertson: "The third edition of 1522 introduced the passage in 1 John v: 7 because of a foolish promise made to Stunica (editor of the Complutensian. Ximenes died in 1517) that he would insert it if he found it in any Greek MS. When MS. 61 of the sixteenth century was produced, Erasmus rightly inferred that it had been translated from the Latin, but he put it in because of his rash promise and thus it got into the Textus Receptus" (An Introduction to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament [Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2014; reprint of 2nd ed. of 1928], 19).
J. K. Elliott: "Erasmus indicated that he would have included these words only if a Greek witness including them were produced. The discovery of the inclusion of the Comma in ms. 61 (sixteenth century) persuaded Erasmus to include the words in his third edition in order to silence his critics over what he regarded as a minor point. However, Erasmus rightly suspected that ms. 61 was recent (de Jonge 1980)" (J. Keith Elliott, "The Text of the New Testament," in A History of Biblical Interpretation, vol. 2 [Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2009], 251).
And Bruce Metzger and Bart Ehrman: "Among the criticisms leveled at Erasmus, the most serious appeared to be the charge of Stunica, one of the editors of Ximenes' Complutensian Polyglot, that his text lacked part of the final chapter of 1 John, namely the Trinitarian statement concerning 'the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth' (1 John 5.7–8, King James Version). Erasmus replied that he had not found any Greek manuscript that contained these words, though he had in the meanwhile examined several others besides those on which he relied when first preparing his text. In an unguarded moment, Erasmus may have promised that he would insert the Comma Johnanneum, as it is called, in future editions if a single Greek manuscript could be found that contained the passage. At length, such a copy was found–or was made to order! As it now appears, the Greek manuscript had probably been written in Oxford about 1520 by a Franciscan friar named Froy (or Roy), who took the disputed words from the Latin Vulgate. Erasmus inserted the passage in his third edition (1522), but in a lengthy footnote that was included in his volume of annotations, he intimated his suspicion that the manuscript had been prepared expressly in order to confute him" (Metzger and Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament, 4th ed. [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005], 146–147).
Very similar statements are found in introduction after introduction and commentary after commentary. Notice in the latter the authors say "may have promised." There is obviously some reason to question whether any such promise was made. So again, did Erasmus ever make such a promise?

Earlier this evening, one of my colleagues up in Pennsylvania sent me an article by H. J. de Jonge regarding this very issue. The title is "Erasmus and the Comma Johanneum" (Ephemerides theologicae Lovanienses 56:4 [Dec. 1980]: 381-389). This is the same author referenced by Elliott above.

So what does de Jong say about this issue? In short, no promise was ever made. He first demonstrates just how many people have included the story of the promise in their publications. Basically it's all the big names, and since 1960, when de Jong's study was published, the number has just continued to increase. De Jong writes: "How often must those who lecture in the New Testament or textual criticism at universities the world over have passed on the story of the good faith with which a deceived Erasmus kept his word, to the students in their lecture halls! The writer of these lines cannot plead innocence in this respect" (382). Nor can I. In fact, the reason my friend Jerry sent me the article was I had included the story of the promise in my dissertation. He saved me.

So what are the problems? De Jong mentions the following issues regarding the historicity of this promise:
1. There is no record of this promise in texts from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. 
2. The accounts of the promise story are different. Some say he made the promise in response to Zúñiga, some in response to Lee, some to both, and some without context. De Jonge says it would have been impossible for him to have made the promise to Zúñiga since he did not first respond to him–in print I should add–until 1521. It was in his Apologia respondents ad ea quake in Nouo Testamento taxaureat Iacobus Lopis Stunica that he mentioned the codex from England, actually a transcript of that manuscript, that was shown to include it. And de Jonge points out that no record of correspondence between Edward Lee and Erasmus contains a record of such promise. 
3.  No one includes a reference to any sentence in Erasmus citing such a promise. Why? There is no promise in his extant writings. 
If we just stop there, the evidence is pretty strong. In fact, it is really strong. If you want to read more about why de Jonge doesn't think it is likely Erasmus made any promise about 1 John 5:7, check out his essay. It's well worth the read, I promise. Who knows? Maybe we'll stop spreading the rumor of a promise that someone never made.

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