Erasmus was a dutch theologian.  He was a priest, social critic and teacher.

In 1516 he translated the New Testament in to Greek.  I know that might sound odd, as the original was a form of Greek with a bit of Aramaic thrown in . . . but, for over 1000 years the church had primarily been using the translation of St Jerome, who had written the Old and New Testament in Latin way back in the 4th Century.  Jerome had written it for ordinary Christians of the then Roman Empire so they could read the Word of God.

Jerome was passionate about the Bible, he put it like this, “ignorance of the scriptures is ignorance of Christ.”  Wow, that is pretty challenging when you think about it . . .

OK, prepare to have your mind blown.

Erasmus noticed something when he was translating back to Greek (rather than simply convert the Latin back, he had obtained a few Greek copies of the New Testament to act as his source texts) – here is what he saw,

But Peter said to them : Do Penance and be baptised.” Acts 2:38

And God indeed having winked at the times of ignorance, now declared to all men, that all should everywhere do penance.” Acts 17:30

And in those days cometh John the Baptist preaching in the desert of Judea.  And saying, Do penance, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Matthew 3:1-2

In St Jerome’s latin translation everywhere that the word “metanoeo” was used in the Greek it was translated as “do penance”.

But.  This is not what metanoeo means!

“metanoeo” means to repent.  To change ones mind.  It means a sorrow accompanied by a change of heart towards God.  In the time of Christ, if a group of soldiers had been marching along and needed to change direction the cry would have gone up, “repent!”

For more than 1000 years the Church had been teaching people of the need to “do penance”.  This phrase is not found in the Bible.

Penance is a work we do ourselves.  We “do penance” when we consider that in some way we have to make up for what we have done. Yet this is not repentance!  You and I cannot make up for what we have done.  An outward act cannot deal with our sinful nature and our sinful acts.  We must repent!

In Joel we read, “rend your heart, not your garments.”

What our sin demands is not acts of penance, but the one act that only Christ could accomplish.  We need to turn from our sin and turn to Christ.

This discovery of Erasmus shocked Luther – it may well have set him on the path of discernment and discovery that it is only through Christ alone, by faith alone, that we are made right with God.

So, what then does this mean for our understanding of the Bible?

How can we know that what we are reading is God’s Word – if for more than 1000 years the Church was getting it wrong (so much so that a huge industry grew around the whole practice of “doing penance”)?

Well – don’t panic.  Two things,

  1.  Translating the source texts and determining the meaning as clearly and precisely as possible – the Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek – has become of paramount importance to Bible scholars.  We have not changed the Bible with our contemporary translations, nearly all brand new versions go back to the earliest available source documents and work from those.
  2. Study the text yourself.  You don’t need to know Greek or Hebrew.  A great website I use is – you can bring up the Greek or Hebrew alongside the English and have a good think about the original meaning, what the author was trying to say and see some of the nuances that – without study – we completely miss.  Take just the word “love” for example.  In English we have just the one word.  I “love” my CD collection, I love me car and I love my wife.  The word “love” does not convey the difference in strength and depth of love between my wife and the CDs and car!  An example from scripture is the conversation between Jesus and Peter in John chapter 21.  Peter is being re-instated by Jesus as he asks him three times “do you love me?” Except, the first two times he says, “Peter do you agape me?” so – do you love me unconditionally Peter? To which Peter replies, “I like you a lot.”  The third time, Jesus too changes the word he uses and says, “Peter, do you like me as a friend?”  Now this does not come across in English, but there is depth and heartache to this conversation we miss . . . if we do not study!

The Bible is AMAZING – but don’t take my word for it.

Look in the Word, explore it for yourself – marvel at the discovery of Erasmus – and see what YOU might discover!