'Treat a friend as a possible enemy' - that Classical saw must have been on many sadder and wiser lips as Renaissance friends broke up into rival groups. Lefèvre d'Etaples's Biblical studies won him the support of the French King's sister, Margaret, and ought to have made him a natural ally of Erasmus. He was soon at Erasmus's throat. I 'treat Christ with contumely', Erasmus exploded. He picked over Lefèvre's worst insults in a letter addressed to Guillaume Budé (who had the ear of the French King): I 'side with the Jews'! I am 'opposed to the spirit' and, worst of all, 'I cling to the flesh and the literal meaning!' Lefèvre was making Erasmus into the enemy of the Gospel, an 'adversary' - like the Devil. The bone of contention was Hebrews 2, 7. Does the Greek and its Hebrew source mean that Christ was made 'a little lower than the angels', or was he made 'for a while, lower than God'? We have learned to live with such uncertainties. Lefèvre had not. He did, however, have the art of slinging at Erasmus precisely the insults which hurt the most, insults which, from Erasmus's own point of view, were hopelessly wrong-headed. Erasmus's whole 'philosophy of Christ' was platonically opposed to 'Jewish' literalness: he saw Jewish scholarship largely through the eyes of a distorted St Paul - and sought out the 'spirit', not the 'letter'. His dislike of Jews at this stage in his career is an embarrassment to modern admirers, though Heiko Oberman has shown it was pretty typical of the time. His version of Gospel truth owes much to Plato and the early Fathers, seeing reality in the spirit and playing down the flesh as passing shadows.
LRB 16 June 1983 | PDF Download