Robertus Stephanus was born in 1503 in Paris. (His French name was Robert Estienne, but we know him more commonly by his Latin name). He lived and worked in Paris for most of his life, until his death in 1559. His life perfectly corresponds to the early, formative decades of the Reformation. Stephanus’s father was an established Paris printer, and when Stephanus came of age, he took over the family business. He married a woman named Perrette, whose father was also a printer. Stephanus and Perrette had four children together, two of whom became prominent printers in their own right.
One of the first projects Robertus Stephanus undertook was a Latin Bible. He didn’t publish numerous Latin texts of the classics, or Greek texts of the philosophers, poets, and great thinkers, although he did publish a Latin dictionary and a French dictionary.
He comes to us in church history because of his Greek New Testament. He first printed a Greek New Testament in 1546. (Prior to this, there had been only the Erasmus text.) After a few revisions and additions, and much time spent compiling manuscripts from monasteries scattered throughout Europe, in 1550 Stephanus published what has come to be known as the Textus Receptus, which means “the received text.” This was hugely influential, and for centuries this Greek text was the basis for all English Bibles, as well as many Bibles in other languages.
Things became a little difficult for Stephanus in Paris. Up until 1547 he enjoyed the favor of the king, but when Henry II came to the throne, he did not like Stephanus and his Bible printing. In 1550 Stephanus fled to Calvin’s Geneva. He spent the last nine years of his life there, dying in 1559.
Here is what Stephanus contributed to us over his lifetime. He was responsible for the book of Acts being placed between the Gospels and the Epistles. Before him the Acts came after the Epistles in Bibles; so every time you say, “Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and the Acts,” you can thank Stephanus. And guess where the verse divisions in your Bible came from? If you guessed Stephanus, you were right. Chapter divisions came in around the 1200s, but Stephanus gave us verse numbers. They first appeared in the Textus Receptus in 1550, and they also appeared in 1560 in the English Bible, the Geneva Bible.
While Stephanus was in Geneva, he printed French Bibles as well as books by Calvin, including editions of Calvin’s classic text, The Institutes of the Christian Religion. Stephanus was hailed as one of the best printers of the sixteenth century, the heyday of printing. He was very skillful. He applied himself diligently to his job, and he surrounded himself with accomplished artists and craftsmen. He worked with artists to develop what came to be the best fonts for Greek printing, for Hebrew printing, for French printing, and for Latin printing. His books were truly works of art. And of course we know how important the printed page, the printed Bible, was to the Reformation. Stephanus stood up to kings, served the church, and was a significant figure in the Protestant Reformation.