Project Preservation: Making Latin Texts Accessible to Modern Scholars

Project Preservation: Making Latin Texts Accessible to Modern Scholars

Dr. Thomas Scheck has just come out with a new book, Erasmus’s Life of Origen: A New Annotated Translation of the Prefaces to Erasmus of Rotterdam’s Edition of Origen’s Writingspublished by Catholic University of America Press. Scheck’s latest is the first English translation from the original Latin of Erasmus’ final work, namely, the Prefaces to his edition of Origen’s writings. These Prefaces, originally published posthumously in 1536 (two months after Erasmus’ death), provide a survey of Origen of Alexandria’s life (185-254) and work. Scheck’s edition includes four chapters of introductory material, a complete annotated translation of Erasmus’ Prefaces, and an appendix focusing on Erasmus’ legacy in the 16th century.

Scheck’s interest in Erasmus predates his reversion to Catholicism, going back to his days as a protestant pastor working to raise money to become a missionary in Germany. In May 1992, he came across John P. Dolan’s The Essential Erasmus (1964) in a used bookstore. Scheck picked up the book and started reading. “I was deeply impacted by it,” he recalls. “Erasmus’s spirituality really appealed to me.”

While earning his Ph.D. at the University of Iowa, Scheck took a seminar on the Protestant Reformation. For the class, he wrote a paper comparing John Calvin and Erasmus on the theme of the intercession of the saints. He found that Calvin rejected prayers to departed saints in principle as outright idolatry, whereas Erasmus, while recognizing that abuses and superstitions were very real dangers to European Christians, nevertheless strongly defended the validity of the Catholic practice. For Erasmus, “abuse does not take away proper use.” There was a book on Erasmus’ stance on prayer which Scheck found particularly helpful for writing the paper; he began corresponding with the author. “The scholar who wrote this book invited me to translate one of Erasmus’ writings for a series he was involved in,” Scheck explains. “At first I hesitated, but then I began the work of translating the final written work of Erasmus, the Prefaces to his translation of Origen’s writings.”

“Erasmus,” Scheck continues, “is the greatest Catholic patristics scholar of the 16th century.” He published the first complete edition of St. Jerome’s writings in 1516; the 9-volume collection is famous, says Scheck. “It was the first time all of Jerome’s writings were made widely accessible to educated readers.” This publication marked the beginning of Erasmus’ scholarly career in the field of Theology (he had previously published a famous collection of Greek and Latin Adages); over the next twenty years, he continued to publish the writings of the Church Fathers, completing complete editions of Cyprian, Arnobius, Hilary, Chrysostom, Irenaeus, Ambrose, Athanasius, Faustus of Riez, Augustine, Gregory Nazianzen, Basil and Origen. Prior to Erasmus’ efforts to collect and publish, the patristic texts were in manuscript format, floating around in libraries and monasteries across Europe.

“I greatly admire the way that Erasmus dedicated his life to this task, which is so similar to the way that Jerome lived his life,” Scheck says. “Erasmus was like the 16th century Jerome.” Both of these men spent their lives focused on the preservation and transmission of wisdom that came before them—for Jerome, it was Scripture and the exegesis of Origen that merited being translated and transmitted, for Erasmus, the patristic texts. These two giants of scholarship—Jerome and Erasmus—are Scheck’s own models. “This is the example I wish to follow,” he shares. “God has given me the self-disciple to make writings currently buried in Latin available to general readers. It is a difficult task but a worthy one.”

Dr. Thomas Scheck is Associate Professor of Theology at Ave Maria University. He earned a B.A. in Bible/Theology from the Moody Bible Institute and a M.Div. magna cum laude from the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Scheck completed his interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Religion, Classics and Philosophy from the University of Iowa in 2004. From 2004-2006, he was Post-Doctoral Research Associate and Adjunct Visiting Professor at the University of Notre Dame; he has been with Ave Maria since 2006. Besides his latest work on Erasmus, Scheck has published eight volumes of translations of patristic texts, he has a ninth in production, and a tenth—a student-involved translation project—is in the works.