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October 31, 1517 is the date most people think of as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation—the date that changed Western Christianity forever, when Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg Castle church. But at the time, the publication of Erasmus of Rotterdam's New Testament in the spring of 1516 might have seemed more important.

Today we would call Erasmus's work a "study Bible." It had three parts: the Greek text, which Erasmus edited; his new Latin translation, a more elegant and accurate alternative to the traditional Vulgate; and brief scholarly comments on exegetical issues. Erasmus prefaced this monumental work of scholarship with an exhortation to Bible study. The New Testament, he proclaimed, contains the "philosophy of Christ," a simple and accessible teaching with the power to transform lives.

In words that would become prophetic, Erasmus declared his disagreement with those who wanted to keep the Scriptures from the common people: "If only the farmer would sing something from them at his plow, the weaver move his shuttle to their tune, the traveler lighten the boredom of his journey with Scriptural stories!" Ironically, Erasmus's work was unintelligible to plowmen, or to anyone outside a small intellectual elite: Erasmus wrote exclusively in Latin.

Born in Rotterdam, Erasmus spent his life traveling throughout Europe, living in such cultural centers as Paris, Basel, and the university towns of Italy. Between 1499 and 1517, he spent about five years in Cambridge, England, doing much of the work on his New Testament. In England he found many of his warmest admirers. Sir Thomas More, author of Utopia, persecutor of Protestants, and future Catholic martyr, was a close friend, and English ...

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