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Third part in FCN series on Payette Bibles

Erasmus English Latin Paraphrase nearly flawless, previously not known to exist

POSTED: August 24, 2014 12:02 a.m.
Micah Green/

Charless Payette looks on as the Rev. John Martin, pastor at Deer Creek Shores Presbyterian Church, and his wife, Jennifer, inspect the pristine first volume of the 1548 Erasmus Paraphrase on the Gospels in English. As one copy of this was originally required in all churches, it was heavily read as this was in fact the general public’s first opportunity to read scriptures in the English language. Just imagine that many had no idea what it even said. Sadly, in 1553 under the new Queen Mary, al...

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Payette Bible Series: Erasmus (1549)

FORSYTH COUNTY — In this third installment of the Forsyth County News series on resident Charles Payette’s Bible collection, readers will remember back to our first week when the Matthews Bible was profiled.

William Tyndale translated the Bible into English using the original Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic texts. That was the first time such a thing had been done for the entire Bible.

Tyndale primarily used Erasmus Desiderius’ translation of the Greek New Testament. 

Erasmus was born in probably late 1466 to unmarried parents, but he was not an “accident” and indeed his name means “desired.”

His father was a priest. Though forbidden by church doctrine from marrying, many priests had wives or lived with the mother of their children.

He attended school 100 miles from home and was eventually admitted into a monastery, more out of a financial necessity than for religious reasons. 

After being ordained as a priest, he traveled to Paris for further study. Though bored by the politics of the day, he made money by tutoring wealthy boys. This is perhaps where his interest in and love of education was born.

One of his students invited him to come to England. While there, Erasmus met John Colet, who encouraged him to perfect his Greek, which he did during the next three years.

In the next quarter of a century, Erasmus became the most famous scholar in Europe. He translated many classics from Greek into English, but perhaps his most famous were these Latin biblical paraphrases composed between 1517-24.

The Payette collection includes the actual 1523 Erasmus New Testament, which it is believed Tyndale worked from. By translating the Bible in this way, he basically unified and updated both versions, making them compatible.

For example, some verses of Revelation were missing from the Greek manuscript Erasmus had. To remedy this, Erasmus translated the text from the Vulgate back into Greek.

In summer 1547, royal injunctions ordered all churches to obtain and install “one book of the whole Bible of the largest volume in English,” (the Great Bible featured in last weeks’ issue) within 12 months. It was this weeks’ feature, the English translation of Erasmus’ Paraphrases on the Gospels.

For most churches, the cost was enormous. Edward VI wanted the paraphrases to be placed “in some convenient place” so that all parishioners had access to the writings. This clearly emphasizes the influence of Erasmus on the English Reformation.

These Paraphrases of Erasmus had much influence on English Christianity during this tumultuous time, when there was so much religious strife.

Catherine Parr, the last wife of Henry VIII quite possibly wanted the paraphrases translated into English “to guide English Scripture readers into less contentious paths.”

Parr assembled a group of translators for the project and may have translated parts of the Gospel of Matthew and Acts of the Apostles. Mary I of England, who at the time was a princess, translated the Gospel of John.

Edward Whitchurch and Richard Grafton, also the printers of the Matthews Bible and The Great Bible (last week), were given the job of printing the translated Paraphrases. 

The pristine condition of these volumes is astounding. In fact, the only previously known second volume to exist lacks at least 50 leaves, which is in stark contrast to this flawless edition.

Just another example within Payette’s collection which with the dimensions 234 x 136 is considered not to exist in the world — yet it does.

This scarcity is partly attributed to the efforts of Mary I of England to restore the Latin Vulgate Bible after she became queen in 1553.

In her effort to promote Roman Catholicism, she specifically ordered all copies of the book to be destroyed. This action came despite her having translated Erasmus commentary on St. John, for which she is actually praised in this very book.

A provenance is the chronology of the ownership of a historical object. The provenance on leaf XV is dedicated and then signed on leaf XVI William Barlow. Barlow played an important role in the Reformation and his signature makes this volume more rare and incredible.

Barlow had close ties to Anne Boleyn, and heartily supported the translation of the Bible.

Even more fascinating is the fact that two folios of ancient medieval 12th century manuscript with elaborate hand-colored initials from the book of John are found bound at the end of volume one.

Based on their unusual inclusion in this original binding, the close ties that Barlow had with the likes of Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Thomas Cromwell and eventually serving as Bishop of Bath and Wells, could this possibly be the actual transcript that Queen Mary had been working from?

Certainly, this is possible, albeit extraordinary.

Erasmus dedicated his work to Pope Leo X and truly felt all of his translating efforts were his contribution to the cause of Christianity.

He once wrote: "But one thing the facts cry out, and it can be clear, as they say, even to a blind man, that often through the translator’s clumsiness or inattention the Greek has been wrongly rendered; often the true and genuine reading has been corrupted by ignorant scribes, which we see happen every day, or altered by scribes who are half-taught and half-asleep.”

As our series continues, next week we will profile a 1562 Geneva Bible First Folio which, as the actual printers edition belonging to and heavily annotated by John Calvin and Theodore Beza, remains the lone copy of such in the world, and a 1565 Greek New Testament also created by Beza.


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