“Prostitutes and Pimps Shall Read Him!” The Need for a Vernacular Bible

Erasmus, Desiderius (ca.1466-1536)

Ein scho[e]n Epistel || Erasmi von Ro/||terdam/ das die Euangelisch || ler von yederman sol ge=||lesen vnd verstanden || werden.

Basel: Adam Petri, 1522


Quarto: [30] pp. Collation: A-D4 (lacking final blank D4)

ONE OF TWO EDITIONS (both printed 1522) of this anonymous German translation of Erasmus’ “Exhortatio ad studium evangelicae lectionis”, which originally accompanied his “Paraphrasis in Evangelium Matthaei” (Basel, 1522).

Modern boards. A good copy, the fore-edge of the title border and some side-notes shaved, some staining. Rare. Only a single copy of any printing in North America (Yale.)

In his "Exhortation to the Reading of the Gospel," Erasmus emphasized that Scripture was intended not only for theologians but also for the laity, and by this Erasmus meant not just lay scholars but all people, including the illiterate. In light of this, Erasmus argued, the Bible needed to be translated into the vernacular.

For Erasmus, it was clear that Christ intended the gospel to be heard by everyone, regardless of his or her status, sex, or age:

“Let us reflect on what sort of hearers Christ himself had. Were they not the indiscriminate crowd including the blind, the lame, beggars, tax collectors, women, and children? Would he be vexed if he were read by whom he wanted to hear him? Indeed, if I have my way, the farmer, the smith, the stone-cutter will read him, prostitutes and pimps will read him, even the Turks will read him.”

“Why does it seem inappropriate if someone sounds forth the Gospel in his native language, the language he understands –the French in French, The English in English, the German in German, and the Indian in the language of India? It seems to me more out of place, even ridiculous, that the uneducated and women, like parrots, mumble their psalms and the Lord’s Prayer in Latin, although they do not understand themselves what they are uttering.”

The book is remarkable not only for its message but also because it forcefully demonstrates Erasmus’ courage when it came to maintaining his philosophical principles. Erasmus had first discussed the need for a vernacular Bible in the “Paraclesis”, a short work that served as the preface to his first Greek New Testament of 1516. But between the publication of the “Paraclesis” and the “Exhortation” Luther had launched his Reformation. By 1522, the pressure being exerted upon Erasmus by those who accused him of agreeing with and promoting Luther’s heresies was enormous. And in the very year that the “Exhortation” appeared, Luther, using Erasmus’ Greek New Testament, translated and published his German New Testament.

The “Exhortation” had tremendous impact. It eclipsed the “Paraphrase” to which it had been originally appended, and there was immediate demand (quite naturally, given its message) for this vernacular rendering.

Erasmus Online 1881; VD16 E 2921; Weller 2050; B. Er. 1., p. 88 (ep. ad car. caes.); Allen V, 66, note 38 • RM 665