Was Bezae’s Latin text coequal with the Greek?

In an earlier post, I discussed Ambrosiaster’s critique of the Greek tradition for its many discrepancies, which he attributes to “a spirit of controversy” introduced by “heretics and schismatics” (see translation). But in turning to the Old Latin version, Ambrosiaster makes an unexpected claim, implying that the latter has somehow escaped a similar level of corruption.

“it is well-known that very long ago native Latin speakers (Latinos) translated the text we now have from ancient Greek codices.  Let us not keep silent … because our codices take their origin from ancient Greek copies, which the innocence (simplicitas) of former times certifies to us without corruption (incorruptos)” (Comm. Rom. 5:14, edition α)

How is Ambrosiaster able to justify this extraordinary claim? Is it empty rhetoric? Or might there be a peculiar logic behind its seeming absurdity?

In fact, Ambrosiaster’s exhortation to speak up against critics of the Old Latin version suggests he is utterly sincere. [1] Noting perhaps surprisingly that the translators were “native Latin speakers” — when we might expect skill in Greek rather than Latin to be emphasized — Ambrosiaster seems eager to show that the Latin tradition is in no way deficient in its power to convey the original meaning simply because it is in Latin. Of course, by commending the original Greek codices and the original Latin translation for their antiquity, he situates them in time (it is thought) before the major corruptions. In a sense, Ambrosiaster is suggesting that the Old Latin version is self-sufficient with respect to the recent Greek tradition.

But what is this naïveté concerning the “innocence of the times”? Is Ambrosiaster simply romanticizing about a bygone era?

Not necessarily. Early in his argument Ambrosiaster notes the deleterious effect of theological controversy on the stability of the text, suggesting that this “innocence of the times” refers to a kind of innocence that avoided certain theological developments in the Greek tradition. With the Origenist controversy already looming on the horizon, Ambrosiaster may even be alluding to the theological speculation associated specifically with Origen. In any case, as a theological backwater, the Latin tradition would inevitably have been safeguarded from corruption to a certain extent simply because it was less accessible and less attractive to heretics than the original Greek.

The implications of a standalone Latin tradition for Codex Bezae are clear enough considering the evident role of Latin traditions in its development as a bilingual codex. Might Bezae’s producers have thought like Ambrosiaster that the Old Latin version could in some sense stand on equal terms with recent Greek copies? Our natural tendency to view Bezae as just another Greek codex simply on the basis of its Greek column may then be misguided, so long as the possibility exists that its producers had rather intended to elevate the Latin column to an equal standing with the Greek.

[1] This exhortation is preserved only in the commentary’s first edition.