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Religion & Philosophy

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ERASMUS, Desiderio / [MÜNSTER, Sebastian]. . In Novum Testamentum ab eodem denuo recognitum, annotationes, ingenti nuper accessione per autorem locupletatae. . Basel, 1519.

Folio [34.5 x 22.5 cm], 576 pp., lacking final two leaves Bb vii-viii (address to readers, errata, index ternionum, and printer’s device). Handsome woodcut title page given to Ambrosius Holbein, woodcut initials throughout. Bound in contemporary blind-stamped calf over wooden boards, somewhat rubbed, some wormholing, chipping on spine, clasps missing, raised bands, remnants of vellum manuscript pastedown inside back cover. Some page toning and waterstaining, occasional marginal chipping and small tears not affecting legibility of annotations.


First collected edition of Erasmus of Rotterdam’s annotations to his Greek New Testament, containing manuscript marginalia derived from the polymath Sebastian Münster’s Hebrew translation of the Gospel of Matthew. The volume recalls the importance of Hebrew studies among Renaissance humanists and serves as a fascinating reminder of the double role played by Jewish language and culture during the Protestant Reformation. Fervent Reformers examined Jewish antiquities both to equip themselves better in arguments with contemporary rabbis and to understand more clearly the original Hebrew texts that lay behind the Latin Vulgate defended by so fiercely by sixteenth-century Catholics.

In a precise sixteenth-century humanist hand, an unidentified scholar painstakingly copied out the Latin/Hebrew commentary from Münster’s Evangelium secundum Matthaeum in lingua Hebreica (Basel, Henricus Petrus, 1537) into his Erasmus. This contemporary scholiast shows some facility with Hebrew, fluidly reproducing the language’s difficult characters (but rarely quoting longer Hebrew passages in their entirety). The Book of Matthew was a natural point of focus for Christian Hebraists: Early church authorities, including Jerome, held that Matthew’s gospel had originally been composed in Hebrew, not Greek, and so humanists asserted that a proper reexamination of the text must account for the peculiarities of the ancient Jewish language. (At one point, as if to hearten himself about the importance of his Hebrew labors, our unidentified annotator notes that even Erasmus confirms the patristic opinions concerning Matthew’s textual origins.) Modern scholars agree: “High Renaissance humanists like Erasmus found it second nature to argue that one must study texts in their original languages, including Hebrew” (A. Grafton, p. 100).

Nor was word-for-word copying considered a rote or passive activity at that time. Anthony Grafton stresses the importance of “copying as a tool of scholarship,” noting that Isaac Casaubon (d. 1614) copied out the Hebrew book of Esther in emulation of Demosthenes, who was said to have copied the histories of Thucydides eight (!) times. “[Joseph] Scaliger [d. 1606] did the same, starting – as many did – with the medieval Hebrew text of the Gospel of Matthew, part of a commentary on which he copied out in his own hand” (A. Grafton, p. 103). Our anonymous sixteenth-century scholar formed part of this intellectual milieu.

The purpose of Münster’s project, though, was more than philological. Having worked with Jews and having studied with the scholar-poet Elia Levita (d. 1549), he sought to directly counter contemporary Jewish misunderstanding about Christianity by writing to rabbis in their own literary language and by reworking the misleading Hebrew translation of Matthew then current, a now lost text associated with Spanish scholar Shem-Tov Ibn Shaprut (c. 1380). In his manuscript copy the anonymous annotator of this volume omitted both Münster’s direct Hebrew address to contemporary Jews and Münster’s Hebrew edition of Matthew, focusing instead on Münster’s rich philological notes and keying them to the appropriate passages in Erasmus.

The 1519 Erasmus Annotationes is of great interest in its own right, being a working version of the scholar’s explanations for his philological choices he made in producing his Greek New Testament. This 1519 edition is perhaps best known for sparking controversy over a rephrasing of the iconic opening line to the Gospel of John (“In the beginning was the Word”). Here Erasmus suggests that the Latin “sermo” would be a better choice than the “verbum” of Jerome’s Vulgate for translating “logos” in the Greek original. The alteration did not please Catholic authorities, who remained unconvinced despite Erasmus dedicating an entire treatise to the matter in 1520 (Apologia de “In principio erat sermo”).

* VD16 E 3093; Adams E 887; Anthony Grafton, “The Jewish Book in Christian Europe: Material Texts and Religious Encounters.” Faithful Narratives: Historians, Religion, and the Challenge of Objectivity. A. Sterk and N. Caputo eds. (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2014).

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