Monday, July 19, 2010

Εrasmus, the Comma Johanneum & the "Arian heresy" /
Ο Έρασμος, το Κόμμα Ιωάννου & η "Αρειανική αίρεση"

«The first accusation the theologians debated on June 27 was a familiar one: Erasmus’s treatment of the verse called the comma Johanneum, 1 John 5:7, which read: ‘‘There are three who bear witness in heaven, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and these three are one.’’ The comma was recognized as the major proof-text against the Arian heresy because it supported the Trinity’s unity of essence. Erasmus had had the nerve to omit it from both the Greek and Latin texts of his first two editions of the New Testament, dated 1516 and 1519: he had used Greek as the archetype for the Latin, and he did not find the line in any of the Greek manuscripts he consulted. Lee and Stunica rebuked him for the excision on the grounds that Lorenzo Valla had not contested the comma’s authenticity. Later, in his third apologia against Lee, Erasmus explained why he had omitted the verse, and noted that if any Greek manuscript had contained it, he would have included it. An Irish text quickly appeared with the comma added in the margin by a contemporary hand. Erasmus restored the line in subsequent editions of the New Testament, but the Valladolid censors still wrote that he attacked the verse relentlessly, defended corrupt manuscripts, and thereby protected and even pleaded the Arian cause.

All twenty-nine theologians responded to these allegations about 1 John 5:7, and twenty-three explicitly professed a belief in the comma’s legitimacy, including Francisco de Castillo, a Salamancan Franciscan, who declared that ‘‘First, I believe that testimony of blessed John, ‘Tres sunt . . . ,’ to be from the canon of sacred Scripture.’’ Still, a few delegates questioned exactly how inviolable the verse really was, and participants disagreed as to whether the comma’s sanctity was determined simply by papal and conciliar references to it. One contingent pointed out the papacy’s failure to define an authentic scriptural text, and argued that delegates should not proclaim the comma’s canonicity when the Church itself had not done so. Another group asserted that customary invocation of the verse was enough to prove its authenticity. The conflict reveals that at least some participants would concede the lack of a conclusive version of the Latin Bible; their recognition of that fact matches Vergara’s acknowledgment of the same point. But the majority did not entertain such explosive issues in their written responses; instead, they concentrated on the more obvious aspects of Erasmus’s alleged errors.

Erasmus’s treatment of the comma indicated that the Latin biblical text was amendable in light of the Greek, but most participants read the charge literally and refused to consider its ramifications. Eight delegates bluntly affirmed that Erasmus really could not find 1 John 5:7 in the Greek manuscripts he consulted, restored it when he did, and hence already had corrected his mistake. Lerma’s reaction was typical: ‘‘That he says that that triplicity of heavenly testimony was not found by him in a Greek manuscript, he amply demonstrates; and seeing that he does not omit that verse in his translation, it may be passed over.’’ Another approach was to go outside the charge in search of exculpatory material. Royal preacher Gíl López de Bejar, professor Antonio de Alcaráz, and the rector of the Spanish college at Bologna, Miguel Gómez, maintained that Erasmus expounded the comma brilliantly in his Paraphrase of 1 John: logically, that exposition proved that he accepted the comma as part of the canon. Gómez and Jacobo Cabrero, the Albanian bishop, even defended the omission with one of Erasmus’s own criteria for amending texts, for they pointed out that the comma was missing from the writings of the early church fathers, who surely would have used it in their polemics had it been available.

But literality, extra evidence, and a lack of patristic testimony could not sway others who argued on the simple basis of Latin superiority, and contended that Erasmus should not have preferred Greek in the first place. Like Lee and Stunica before him, Juan de Quintana, who moved in imperial circles, stated that Erasmus’s Greek manuscripts were fallacious. Diogo de Gouvea, head of the Portuguese college at the University of Paris, insisted that the comma had to be legitimate because of the authenticity of the whole epistle of John; Erasmus should have remained silent until the right manuscript came along, and anyone who doubted the verse’s veracity was comparable to ‘‘a burned-up heretic.’’ In all, fifteen out of twenty-nine delegates saw only Erasmus’s fault in expurgating the line, and refused to allow any circumstances to mitigate the omission.

His reason for restoring the comma in 1522 did not make them any happier. While numerous participants felt that Erasmus should be exonerated because he eventually returned 1 John 5:7 to the New Testament, for others the reinstatement just deepened suspicions about his orthodoxy. In the Annotations on his New Testament translations, Erasmus wrote that he finally included the comma to avoid slander: ten theologians thus decided that his decisions about the verse signified more than just a philological quandary. Córdoba summed up their position by noting that Erasmus ‘‘openly implies that he added that testimony because he finds it written, not because he thus believed it or felt it must be believed.’’ Francisco de Vitoria, the famous commentator on Aquinas and controversialist on native Americans, claimed that Erasmus’s rationale left the reader doubtful, and therefore must be removed or revised. Even López de Bejar, who seemed to understand Erasmus’s interest in Greek, wished he would bow to majority opinion and declare the comma’s rightful inclusion in canonical Scripture.

The Valladolid repertory also challenged Erasmus’s outlook on Jesus’ divinity, and cited in particular his remarks about Romans 9:5. Erasmus’s complete commentary follows; the dates in brackets signify the editions of the Annotations in which his statements appeared.

Romans 9:5. ‘‘Who is God over all things.’’ [1516–22: Unless this bit is added on, as we do come upon certain added-on bits.] [1516–27: Certainly in this passage Paul openly pronounced Christ as God. And in fact the Greek manuscripts that I have seen agree.]

When it appeared in the Spanish accusations, Erasmus’s gloss took the following form:

On Romans 9, although the most obvious authority is that of the apostle speaking of Christ, ‘‘Who is God blessed forever,’’ and this is the clear, frank, and obvious meaning; and also in which, as the same Erasmus testifies, all the manuscripts agree, he resorts to the most impudent evasion as he says, ‘‘unless this bit is added on, as we do come upon certain added-on bits,’’ etc.

According to the inventory, the annotation proved that Erasmus wavered over Jesus’ part in the Godhead. The implication was that Erasmus backed Arianism, but the theologians responded to his textual criticism instead.

Only one of the sixteen delegates who replied, Miguel Gómez, was entirely comfortable with the idea that scriptural passages might have been appended. In contrast, Francisco de Vitoria thought Erasmus’s annotation weakened the Bible’s authority and scandalized the faith; Lerma found the gloss offensive and wanted it torn from the book; Antonio de Guevara, inquisitor and bishop, called the commentary completely heretical and scandalous. Others pondered Erasmus’s language and wondered whether he really claimed that Romans 9:5 was tacked on: Bernardino Vázquez de Oropesa, a professor of theology at Salamanca, and Alonso de Córdoba thought he did not, although to their minds the ambiguity did little to lessen the insult. If inquisitorial secretary Luís Coronel spoke publicly what he wrote privately, he may have prompted his peers’ uncertainty about Erasmus’s meaning, for he proposed that the comment was innocuous if it were read scholastically; he also noticed that Erasmus had deleted the remark from the latest edition of his Annotations. But even Coronel could not evade completely the question of whether Erasmus’s gloss diminished confidence in the New Testament’s authenticity, although he tried to delay answering it: he stipulated that he would speak on the matter when he and his counterparts reached the category labeled ‘‘on the authority of sacred Scripture.’’ He declined to endorse or refute his peers’ reproach.»

* Lu Ann Homza,
Religious Authority in the Spanish Renaissance
(The Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science)
[Οι Θρησκευτικές Αρχές στην Ισπανική Αναγέννηση],
The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000,
pp./σσ. 56-59.

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