Chapter 4: Erasmus and the Apocalypse
In chapter four, White begins his discussion of specific passages in the KJV. The first passage he presents comes from the conclusion of the Book of Revelation. His discussion of this passage is broken up over a span of twelve pages, so I’ll copy the relevant statements here before proceeding. Beginning on page 55, White writes,
"Erasmus struggled with the text of Revelation. Not finding any manuscripts that contained the book, he borrowed one from his friend Reuchlin ... He had an unknown copyist make a fresh copy and returned the original to Reuchlin. The copyist had difficulty with the text ... and as a result made some mistakes that found their way into the printed editions of Erasmus' Greek text, and finally into the text of the King James Version."
White returns to this theme later in the chapter where he writes:
"The final six verses were absent from his lone manuscript. Pressed for time, Erasmus, so as to avoid a 'gaping lacuna' in the text, translated the passage from the Latin Vulgate into Greek ... Of course, in the process he made a number of mistakes, as we would expect. The amazing thing is that these errors continue in the Textus Receptus to this very day ... He unashamedly made use of better texts of Revelation in later editions of the work, but he left these errors intact. Even more mindboggling is the fact that these errors then survived the editorial labors of Stephanus and Beza, to arrive unchanged in the hands of the KJV translators, and subsequently ended up in the King James Version." (emphasis in original)
White again interrupts this train of thought until he picks it back up a page later in a different context where he writes:
"Often this is due to Erasmus' importing of entire passages from the Latin Vulgate. This is how Erasmus came up with ‘the book of life’ at Revelation 22:19 rather than the reading of the Greek manuscripts, ‘the tree of life.’ Seemingly the edition of the Latin Vulgate that Erasmus used to translate the last six verses of Revelation into Greek contained this reading, and it survived all the editorial work on the text over the next century to end up serving as the basis of the KJV.
There are several problems with White’s account. Right off the bat, we find him repeating the fictional claim that Erasmus did not have the last six verses of Revelation in Greek. This is an ancient claim that has been repeated by many scholars. White doesn’t appear to have done any original research of his own before writing this book, so it is no surprise at all that he was deceived into accepting this claim as true. I spent several hours attempting to find the origin of this claim, and I was able to trace it back to 18th century writings of Johann Wettstein. I have not been able to determine Wettstein’s source or even if he had one. I have, however, been able to determine that the claim itself is false.
Erasmus did not back-translate the last six verses of Revelation from Latin as James White claims. It is true that a manuscript was discovered in 1861 that is believed to have been the manuscript that Erasmus used for his text of Revelation, and it is true that this particular manuscript is missing the last six verses, but Erasmus never claimed to be missing those verses, nor did any of his contemporaries make such a claim against him. What Erasmus and his contemporaries actually claimed was that his manuscript was missing verse 19 which says,
"And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book."
When Erasmus published the first edition of his text, he included a note about this verse in which he said “However, at the end of this book, I found some words in our versions which were lacking in the Greek copies, but we added them from the Latin.”
Erasmus provided a more detailed explanation in his response to criticisms from Edward Lee. In this work, Erasmus stated exactly what had been missing from the manuscript.
"Because the book of the Apocalypse never found much favour with the Greeks, it is rare among them. Hence, since I did not want anything to be missing from our edition, I extracted with some difficulty a very old codex containing commentaries on this work from the famous scholar Johann Reuchlin. From it I had the words of the text copied out. But at the end these words had been omitted by the carelessness of the scribes: ‘And if anyone shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the book of life and from the holy city and from the things which are written in this book.’
"I realized what had caused the scribe to make a mistake. Since the words ‘in this book’ are repeated, his eyes skipped to the second phrase, omitting what was in between. Indeed, no stumbling block more frequently trips up scribes. There was no doubt that the words had been omitted, and they were only a few. To avoid leaving a lacuna in my text, I supplied the Greek out of our Latin version. I did not want to conceal this from the reader, however, and admitted in the annotations what I had done. My thought was that the reader, if he had access to a manuscript, could correct anything in our words that differed from those put by the author of this work. You can see that Lee is making a tragedy out of an insignificant matter. And yet I would not have dared to do in the Gospels or even in the apostolic Epistles what I have done here. The language of this book is very simple, and the content has mostly a historical sense, not to mention that the authorship was once uncertain. Finally, this passage is merely the conclusion of the work."
I have not been able to find anything in the works of Erasmus or in the writings of his contemporaries that even hints at the idea that Erasmus was missing the last six verses of Revelation. That claim appears to be a myth that originated more than two centuries later.
White makes a big deal about the supposed “number of mistakes” that Erasmus made when back-translating from the Latin, but White only gives the details of one of these supposedly numerous mistakes. The reason that White only mentions one of them is that, even if we assume that Erasmus back-translated all six verses from Latin, the differences between his text and various other texts for this portion of Revelation are essentially nothing more than spelling differences and the occasional disagreement about whether a given word had an article before it or not. There is only one difference that has any effect at all on the text and that is the question of whether Revelation 22:19 should read “book of life” or “tree of life.”
White claims that the presence of “book of life” in the TR and the KJV is “mindboggling,” but what he should find even more mindboggling is the fact that none of Erasmus’s critics appear to have noticed this “error.” Lee made a big deal out of Erasmus’s admission that he had back-translated a few verses from Latin, but as far as I can tell, Lee only cited this admission to cast aspersions on the whole of Erasmus’s work. I haven’t found anything to indicate that the “book of life” reading was ever disputed during Erasmus’s lifetime. This dispute appears to have originated with the textual critics of the 19th century who claimed that there was no known Greek text which included the “book of life” reading, but Hoskier demonstrated conclusively that this reading is found in multiple Greek manuscripts including two which predated Erasmus’s text. Using the old numbering system, Hoskier wrote,
“Apoc. 46 is really nearer the textus receptus than Apoc. 1 itself, and we have no doubt now of the true ending of Apoc. 1, which is wanting from xxii 16 … to the end. If Erasmus used Apoc. 1 as a model, then surely Aldus and Stephen must have had access to Apoc. 46 or a sister-MS.”
Hoskier dated Apoc. 46 as being from the 14th or 15th century which means that it could not have been a reproduction of Erasmus’s text which was published in the 16th century. Hoskier also noted that Apoc. 46 disagreed with Erasmus’s text in several places and that the texts produced by Adus and Stephanus often chose the readings from Apoc. 46 rather than blindly following Erasmus’s text. The significance of this observation may be lost on the reader until he realizes that the TR which was used by the KJV translators was the 1550 publication by Stephanus and not the 1516 publication from Erasmus. Hoskier observed that Stephanus and Aldus had access to Apoc. 46 in creating their texts, and he noted that Apoc. 46 included the “book of life” reading in Revelation 22:19. Thus, James White’s “mindboggling” mystery is solved. The reason that the “book of life” reading “survived the editorial labors of Stephanus” is that Stephanus had access to a Greek manuscript which included this reading.
It is likely that Erasmus knew of this additional Greek manuscript because he requested that the Aldine text be used to correct any errors in his back-translation, and Aldus, as Hoskier demonstrated, had used Apoc. 46 in creating his text. Erasmus wrote about this in his Apologia against Edward Lee.
“At the end of the Apocalypse, the manuscript I used (I had only one, for the book is rarely found in Greek) was lacking one or two lines. I added them, following the Latin codices. They were of the kind that could be restored out of the preceding text. Thus, when I sent the revised copy to Basel, I wrote to my friends to restore the place out of the Aldine edition; for I had not yet bought that work. They did as I instructed them … I did not have a manuscript in the first edition; in the second edition I had the help of the Aldine edition. Therefore I fulfilled the promise I had made in the first edition."
Erasmus recognized the possibility that he could have made an error in his back-translation, so he asked that a different text based on a manuscript which included Revelation 22:19 be used to check his work. The Aldine text agreed with Erasmus’s use of the “book of life” reading because that reading was found in the Greek manuscripts available to Aldus. The textual critics of the 19th century only consulted the manuscript supposedly used by Erasmus and assumed that neither Aldus nor Stephanus had access to any other manuscripts.
White says of Erasmus that
"The Annotations give us a great insight into the thinking and beliefs of Erasmus and, when coupled with the many apologies he wrote against his chief opponents, make it possible to understand the methods and goals of this great scholar in his work on the text of the New Testament."
But White rejects Erasmus’s own statements in his Annotations and Apologias and chooses to believe instead that there was some sort of “mindboggling” conspiracy among the various compilers of the TR to include the phrase “book of life” in the ending of Revelation.
Continue reading: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
 Desiderius Erasmus, Novum Instrumentum, “Annotations,” (Basel, Switzerland, 1516), 625 https://www.e-rara.ch/bau_1/content/zoom/896543
 Jane E. Phillips and Erika Rummel, Collected Works of Erasmus: vol. 72, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005), 343-344
 H. C. Hoskier, Concerning the Text of the Apocalypse, vol. 1, (London, Bernard Quaritch, LTD., 1929), 128 https://archive.org/details/Hoskier-ConcerningTheTextOfTheApokalypse/page/n195
 Ibid, 127
 Jane E. Phillips and Erika Rummel, Collected Works of Erasmus: vol. 72, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005), 44-45
Bill Fortenberry is a Christian philosopher and historian in Birmingham, AL. Bill's work has been cited in several legal journals, and he has appeared as a guest on shows including The Dr. Gina Show, The Michael Hart Show, and Real Science Radio.
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