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Reviewed by:
  • Controversies: Apologia qua respondet invectivis Lei; Responsio ad annotationes Lei
  • Albert Rabil Jr.
Desiderius Erasmus . Controversies: Apologia qua respondet invectivis Lei; Responsio ad annotationes Lei. Collected Works of Erasmus 72. Ed. Jane E. Phillips. Trans. Erika Rummel. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005. ix + 450 pp. index. $150. ISBN: 0-8020-3836-0.

The Amsterdam critical edition (ASD IX–4) of the two texts translated here appeared in 2003 and was reviewed in these pages by me (Renaissance Quarterly 58, no. 4 [2005], 1380–82). Translator Erika Rummel also edited the critical edition of the Latin texts, and wrote the introductions to both volumes (more detailed in ASD than in CWE). The volume has been further edited by Jane Phillips, who added an introduction to Erasmus's biblical text, thoroughly reviewed the translation and the notes, and saw the manuscript through the press. Thus we have here a volume as carefully put together as others in each of these series.

Europe in the early sixteenth century has at least one affinity to European — and, more especially, American — culture in the twenty-first: culture wars generated and fanned by religious differences. Luther is generally regarded as having ignited these, but he was preceded by Erasmus, whose publication of the New Testament in Greek and a Latin translation of his own together with notes on the Greek text opened a veritable Pandora's box. Edward Lee was among the first theologians to express alarm. As Rummel puts it: "He expressed fears that textual criticism would be seen as a challenge to the principle of inspiration and undermine the traditions of the church. He also voiced doubts about the validity [End Page 918] of consulting Greek manuscripts and questioned the right of a private individual to correct the received text." Erasmus countered, "noting that the Vulgate translation had never been formally adopted by the church, that he was not correcting the biblical authors but removing the mistakes introduced by translators and scribes, that the church Fathers had recommended consulting the Greek original, and that he claimed no authority for his text" (xv). In these claims and counterclaims loomed questions of authority and public order. Erasmus was the liberal in the culture wars because he sought change, Lee the conservative because he was afraid change would undermine both church and state: a cleric employed by Henry VIII, he was deeply involved in both. Erasmus cites Lee as having said "that he had the gravest reasons to publish his annotations, namely that the Christian religion might not incur danger" (47). Lee did publish them in 1520 and Erasmus responded immediately. His two responses are the texts translated for this volume.

In both texts we get Erasmus's side of things. The first and briefer text, the Apologia, gives us a very partial voice indeed, as when Erasmus says he "did not want anyone to sharpen his pen against Lee and attack him in an abusive fashion" (21). The editors in their notes point to the disingenuousness of this statement, and these could be multiplied. The second is his much longer Response. Erasmus says he will take a middle course and neither refrain from replying nor give a very detailed reply, yet he goes on for 350 pages. Its introduction reads like a diatribe in places. But beyond this there is the issue, variously posed as questions raised by Erasmus's replies: who "owns" the text of scripture? Who has a right to interpret it? On what basis (that is, authority) is scripture to be interpreted? How (and by whom) are variants in manuscripts to be treated? What is the status of translations of scripture? In Western Europe this was a culture war to beat all culture wars. It toppled regimes and multiplied church hierarchies. Erasmus reminds us, in case we need reminding, that jihad and the Qur'an, Darwin and the Bible (to name only these two current issues) pose questions of authority that affect the larger societies, both political and religious, in which they are debated and acted out. The texts in this volume are a good place to begin pondering these issues. And the editors have done a superb job of...


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