2 Problematic Assumptions concerning Codex Bezae and its text

At the recent SBL meeting (November 21–24, 2015), I was pleasantly surprised by the number of presenters who referred to Codex Bezae, a reminder of the influence this remarkable manuscript on scholarship of the New Testament text and early Christianity. After all, Codex Bezae has a great deal of personal relevance to me, since its text will be the subject of my PhD dissertation. So in the course of the meeting, I was particularly attuned to any mention of this illustrious codex, its text, and its traditions. In the process, I couldn’t help noticing a number of typical but problematic assumptions that seemed to be taken for granted in discussion of Bezae’s text.

I will begin with two points that particularly stood out.

Codex Bezae and the so-called “Western” text are not interchangeable terms

The first problematic assumption is a tendency to exchange references to Codex Bezae and the “Western” text as though these terms were synonymous, a tendency that is particularly marked in older literature. [1] No doubt this tendency arose from Codex Bezae’s distinction as the principal Greek representative of the so-called “Western” text.

But leaving aside for the moment the larger problem of text types, this confusion of manuscripts and textual traditions attributes to Bezae’s text a generality that it simply does not possess as an individual manuscript, while assuming that a textual tradition can be represented by a single pure manuscript. This of course overlooks the reality of mixture in the textual tradition.

But in reconstructing Bezae’s traditions, the most stable starting point is the artifact that has actually been preserved, whose features are tangible rather than hypothetical. A case in point of this approach is D. C. Parker’s study, Codex Bezae: An early Christian manuscript and its text. [2] Before considering Bezae’s text, Parker examines features of the manuscript itself, including its paleography, codicology, orthography, punctuation, sense lines, nomina sacra, and correctors. This allows Parker to observe points where the character of the text itself potentially changes, for example, between Mark 9:1 and 9:47, data without which we might be tempted to attribute greater uniformity to the text than is warranted.

The text found in Codex Bezae is not a second-century text

It is of course well-known that late manuscripts sometimes contain significantly earlier texts. But does Codex Bezae attest a second-century text form?

This second assumption, that Bezae represents the prevailing text form of the second century, is rooted in Hort’s theory of the “Western” text. While not to deny that Bezae may well contain second-century elements (as do most New Testament manuscripts), we must be careful to acknowledge that Bezae’s text as it now stands differs from any second-century text. [3] While a case can be made for some limited points of contact, none of these apparent contacts is entirely precise, particularly extensive, or free from alternative explanations. In addition, it is quite possible that an unknown proportion of Bezae’s many singular readings were introduced into its text well after the second century and perhaps even by Bezae’s scribe. [4]

[1] J. Rendel Harris’ Codex Bezae: A Study of the So-Called Western Text of the New Testament (Cambridge, 1891) comes to mind.

[2] D. C. Parker, Codex Bezae: An early Christian manuscript and its text. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

[3] J. Neville Birdsall, “The Western Text in the Second Century” in Gospel Traditions in the Second Century (ed. William L. Petersen; Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989) 3–17.

[4] Michael W. Holmes, “Codex Bezae as a Recension of the Gospels” in Codex Bezae: Studies from the Lunel Colloquium, June, 1994 (ed. D. C. Parker and C.-B. Amphoux; Leiden: Brill, 1996) 123–160.