Friday, October 30, 2020
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Erasmus of Toronto

The culmination of years of work by Mechtilde O'Mara CSJ and Edward A Phillips Jr. is in print: Collected Works of Erasmus, Volume 43: Paraphrases on the Epistles to the Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians. Robert D. Sider is editor of the New Testament works of Erasmus.

The Collected Works of Erasmus (CWE), begun in 1968, is a major project of the University of Toronto Press. When completed it will number 86 volumes as a reference collection, especially for university libraries: pictured above are some of the volumes already in print.

The project began when Ron Schoeffel at the University of Toronto Press discovered that Erasmus "the greatest intellectual of the Renaissance and a man whose writings helped create the modern age" according to Robert Fulford in a 1999 article, had not been translated into contemporary English. Schoeffel and his colleagues consulted with Erasmus scholars around the world, who were then invited to a conference and the bold plan - the Erasmus Project - was born. The first volume was printed in 1974. This Paraphrases is number 43 in the series, all through the University of Toronto Press, hence Fulford's "Erasmus of Toronto" article title.

Erasmus' s Writings

Besides his New Testament works (the first printed publication of the Greek New Testament, Latin translation, annotations, paraphrases) Erasmus also edited Greek and Roman classical authors and early Christian texts; his satirical Praise of Folly, dedicated to Sir Thomas More with whom he lived in England for several months, is probably the most famous of his works. Our Sister Geraldine Thompson's book, Under Pretext of Praise, focuses on that text.

There are many volumes of letters to his contemporaries, to Thomas More, to John Fisher, Chancellor of Cambridge University where Erasmus was, for a while, professor of Greek, to popes and cardinals, to King Henry VIII and other civic and religious leaders, to his friends and to his challengers. They provide perspectives on life in northern Europe, on renaissance society, on educational undertakings, and on the daily life of a much-travelled citizen of the Republic of Letters. He also wrote Adages, Colloquies, spiritual and pastoral works, poems and educational treatises.

Translators are found

The breadth of Erasmus' interests means that almost any subject connected with 16th century Europe will involve Erasmus' works. But increasingly there are fewer people with the linguistic skills necessary to read his works in the original Latin. For that reason I was invited to share with many other scholars from around the world (mostly classicists, historians, and theologians) in the U of T project to provide accurate and readable translations of the collected works of Erasmus.

The process included establishing the text based on a comparison of the various approved editions published during Erasmus' lifetime, translating, and annotating the text. The footnotes point to textual variants, to some of the sources of Erasmus in the Greek and Latin authors of the early Church, to parallels in other writings of Erasmus, and to controversies about ecclesiastical issues in the 1520's, soon after the beginning of the Reformation.

About the Paraphrases

As part of his effort to make the Bible an effective instrument of reform in society, the church and everyday life, Erasmus composed the Paraphrases, a kind of commentary written to assist the ordinary reader to understand the epistles. Paul's writing is usually directed to particular congregations and addresses issues current among them. The Paraphrase, written in the first person as if Paul is speaking, unpacks Paul's teaching and expands the condensed references to issues of the early church.

Erasmus, a close student of Jerome, and editor of the works of Jerome, Augustine, and many of the Greek and Latin Church authors, was well equipped for this task, and his paraphrases were endorsed and encouraged by many within the Church. His fresh Latin translation of the New Testament was dedicated to Pope Leo X who strongly encouraged Erasmus' New Testament studies.

There was also opposition, especially from the scholastically trained theologians who wanted to use the existing translation, what we call the Vulgate, as a source of proof texts in theological arguments. Erasmus addresses their criticisms in strongly worded replies through letters and especially through his Annotations on the New Testament.

Because he could see merit in some of Luther's criticisms of the Church, Protestant reformers wanted to claim him as a fellow Reformer; because he refused to break from the Church and continued faithful to her teaching as he understood it, always declaring that he did not want to be in opposition to the Church, he was in fact on the Catholic side of the
Catholic Reformation.

The invention of moveable print and the work by Gutenburg about 1439 had given an impetus to the publishing of printed books, to literacy beyond the class of clerics, and, with the coming of the Reformation, to the increased desire for personal copies of the bible and aids to its understanding.

What doing this work has meant to me

Through meetings, conferences, and solitary work, it has been a constant learning experience and a joy to study this section of the New Testament. Through the perspective of one whose profound knowledge of the ancient world and whose desire to pattern his method of teaching after what he calls 'the philosophy of Christ,' Erasmus invites his reader to deeper knowledge of the faith and to a more loving response to God's unfailing goodness. We are called to share in the inheritance of Jesus; not that he obtains one part and we another, but as co-heirs with Christ, we inherit all of the Father's inestimable gifts. It is an added delight that the work has appeared in this Year of Paul.

By Mechtilde O'Mara CSJ, retired professor of Classics at St. Michael's College, University of Toronto
Photos by Mary McNamara and Gisela Côté


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