Erasmus’ first edition of the printed Greek New Testament – it was released by the printer Johann Froben in 1516 – has several famous features. One of them involves the way Erasmus treated the last six verses of Revelation. Erasmus had only one Greek manuscript of Revelation when he compiled the text for his Novum Instrumentum (the official name of the first edition): GA 2814, which had been loaned to Erasmus by Johann Reuchlin. (For a long time, this manuscript was simply referred to as manuscript 1r.)
Note the textual variant in Revelation 8:13:
▪︎ This manuscript reads αγγελου (“angel”)
▪︎ although the Byzantine text (and the Nestle-Aland compilation) reads αετου (“eagle”).
Oikoumenios also used the reading “eagle” in his commentary on Revelation, stating, “The eagle in midheaven, looking sadly at the misfortunes of those on earth, you will understand is a kind of divine angel sympathizing with the plight of human beings.” (Cf. John N. Suggit’s translation.)
If you consult the final pages of the manuscript, you can see that at the foot of fol. 92v, most of the text of Rev. 22:16 appears, interrupted by, and followed by, Andreas’ commentary – and on the next extant page (93r), we find ourselves in the summary of the contents of Revelation with which Andreas ended his commentary.
On 93v, Andreas’ review of the contents of Revelation continues, and then on 94r, in entirely different handwriting (as if someone had noticed that the manuscript had been damaged, and made this replacement-page, although the entire loss was not detected), we find the last words of Andreas’ commentary.
There are a few more pages, but they are blank. (It looks like 95v may have been prepared to hold a framed illustration which was never added.)
This fits the description that was supplied by Erasmus regarding the manuscript that he used as the main basis for his compilation of the text of Revelation. Erasmus mentioned that he used a Greek manuscript which was deficient at the end: in the course of correspondence with Edward Lee, Erasmus wrote:
In calce Apocalypsis in exemplari, quod tum nobis erat unicum, nam is liber apud Graecos rarus est inventu, deerat unus atque alter versus. Eos nos addidimus secuti Latinos codices. Et erant ejusmodi, ut ex his quae praecesserant possent reponi.
That is, in English: “At the end of my exemplar of Revelation – of which I had only one, because Greek copies of this book are rare – a few lines were missing. I added them, using Latin copies as the basis. These lines were of the sort that could be reconstructed [in Greek] by consulting the preceding text.”
This accounts for the very unusual Greek text of Revelation 22:16b-21 in Erasmus’ compilation. For these verses, Erasmus took in hand a copy of the Vulgate, and translated its Latin text of Revelation 22:16b-21 into Greek (beginning with ὁ ἀστήρ).
Erasmus’ reconstruction of this passage, however, does not match up with any Greek manuscripts at several points (at least, not with any Greek manuscripts made prior to his compilation). Although the Textus Receptus went through several revisions in the 1500s, Erasmus’ retro-translation of Revelation 22:16b-21 survived the process; as a result, the Textus Receptus continues to perpetuate some Greek readings in this passage that originated with Erasmus.
Bruce Metzger (in a footnote on page 100 of The Text of the New Testament, third edition) wrote about some of them:
“For example ἀκαθάρτητος (Revelation 17:4; there is, however, no such word in the Greek language as ἀκαθάρτης, meaning ‘uncleanness’); ὀρθρινός (Revelation 22:16); ἐλθέ twice, ἐλθέτω (Revelation 22:17); συμμαρτυροῦμαι γάρ . . . ἐπιτιθῇ πρὸς ταῦτα (Revelation 22:18); ἀφαιρῇ βίβλου . . . ἀφαιρήσει (future for ἀφελεῖ!!), βίβλου (second occurrence) (Revelation 22:19); ὑμῶν (Revelation 22:21).”
How significant are these variations?
Almost all of them are trivial. If one takes in hand the KJV and the NASB, and compares the two, it appears that the most of the new readings invented by Erasmus made no difference in translation:
v. 18: KJV: “For” / NASB does not have “For.”
v. 19: KJV: “the book of life” / NASB: “the tree of life”
v. 19: KJV: “and from the things which are written” / NASB: “which are written.” (That is, in the KJV, three things are referred to: the book of life, the holy city, and the things written in this book. Whereas in the NASB, two things are referred to: the book of life and the holy city, which are written about in this book.)
v. 20: KJV: “Even so, come” / NASB: does not have “Even so.”
v. 21: KJV: “our Lord Jesus Christ” / NASB: “the Lord Jesus.”
v. 21: KJV: “you all” / NASB: “all.”
Only the difference between “tree of life” and “book of life” yields a significant change to the meaning of the text.
Metzger, in his Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (albeit not in all editions), proposed a theory to account for this: “The corruption of “tree” into “book” had occurred earlier in the transmission of the Latin text when a scribe accidentally miscopied the correct word ligno (“tree”) as libro (“book”).”
If Metzger’s theory is true, the confusion between ligno and libro may have occurred much earlier – early enough to affect some early Latin texts and the Bohairic version. All Greek manuscripts of Revelation, however – at least, all Greek manuscripts prior to Erasmus’ printed text – support the reading “tree of life.”
Some more information about Erasmus’ manuscript of Revelation may be helpful. For many years after Erasmus used it, its location was not publicly known, and there was some concern that it had been lost.
In 1861, however, it turned up, and the scholar who discovered it – Franz Delitsch – wrote a detailed essay (in German) describing its readings, and showing how tightly its contents match up with Erasmus’ compilation, leaving no doubt that it was indeed Codex Reuchlins, the manuscript used by Erasmus.
It was later given a new identification-number (GA 2814).
Accompanying the text of Revelation in 2814 is a commentary which was composed by archbishop Andreas of Caesarea in 611. Contrary to a recent claim made by James White, this commentary is not written in Latin; it is Greek.
Prior to Andreas of Caesarea (this Caesarea is the same place as Kayseri in Turkey, not the Caesarea on the coast of Israel), a writer named Oikoumenios had also written a commentary on Revelation, in the late 500s.
The work of Oikoumenios was known to Andreas; he refers to it repeatedly. There is not a lot of data about the setting in which Oikoumenios wrote, but one of his statements indicates the time when he wrote: he stated specifically that more than 500 years had passed since John wrote the book of Revelation.
The time between the composition of Oikoumenios’ commentary, and the commentary by Andreas, cannot have been great.
Andreas’ commentary became something of a standard work. (Meanwhile the Latin commentary on Revelation by the fourth-century writer Tyconius similarly was widely used, despite Tyconius’ Donatist views.)
It was often copied with the text of Revelation itself, in a specialized format, which Metzger described in The Text of the New Testament: “He divided the book into twenty-four λόγοι, or discourses, because of the twenty-four elders sitting on thrones about the throne of God (Revelation 4:4). He further reflected that the nature of each of the twenty four elders was tripartite (σῶμα, ψυχή, and πνεῦμα), and therefore divided each λόγος into three κεφάλαια, making a total of seventy-two chapters for the entire book.”
An English translation of Andreas’ commentary on Revelation, with an insightful introduction, was recently completed by Eugenia Constantinou.
It can be downloaded for free – although you might have to spend a few minutes tracking it down from a large collection of academic papers. It is also available to purchase as a paper book. The Greek text of Andreas’ commentary, extracted from Volume 106 of Migne’s Patrologia Graece series, is also online.
Some writers who tend to defend the Textus Receptus, such as Thomas Holland and Chris Thomas, have insisted that Erasmus did not reconstruct Revelation 22:16-21 from Latin, or at least that there is little evidence for such a reconstruction.
I read that included in Erasmus’ annotations was: “Thus, when I sent the revised copy to Basel, I wrote to my friends to restore the place out of the Aldine edition; for I had not yet bought that work. They did as I instructed them.” and, indeed, in the 1518 Aldine edition, as eventually published, Revelation 22:19 is identical to the wording in Erasmus’ first edition.
In addition, Textual scholar Herman C. Hoskier also provides evidence that Erasmus used other Greek manuscripts than the few that are often cited, such as 2049 (16th Century which Hoskier calls 141).
Manuscript 2049 contains the reading of Revelation 22:19 that is found in the Textus Receptus. The textual variant is also included in the Greek manuscript evidence of 296, and in the margin of 2067.
Most of these concerns about the wording used seems more to reflect a Greek exemplar having been used, than what would be expected to be produced from a simple backward translation from the Latin.
Certainly on wording, the use of the phrase “book of life” is a more natural and consistent use that is associated with the notion to “blot” out ones name within the context of the Bible in general and even within the book of Revelation specifically.
Certainly there is clear and early reliable evidence to support its use by both Jerome and the Old Bohairic version, and the writings of Ambrose (397 AD), Bachiarius (late fourth century), Primasius (552 AD) and Haymo (ninth century).