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.



2 thoughts on “Was Bezae’s Latin text coequal with the Greek?

  1. Peter,
    As regards the Latin text in Bezae, how would you characterize it? Is there reason to believe that the Old Latin text that has been preserved does, in fact, at some level contain a primative text related to our earliest Greek witnesses? Or as the majority of what I have read indicates that the Old Latin is an accumulation of multiple unrelated Latin translations?
    I suppose my real question is, could you find a primitive layer in the Latin text of Bezae using the same method you are using on the Greek text and what would you expect to find?


    • Hi Tim,

      The Latin text of Bezae varies by book and has not been fully studied. In Mark, Bezae’s Latin text belongs to the so-called northern-Italian type with b ff2 i q r1 and belongs to the “European” tradition of the OL, but in Matthew and John it has more “African” elements. The most striking feature of Bezae’s Latin text in my opinion is that it does not appear as isolated from the rest of the Latin tradition as Bezae’s Greek text appears from the Greek tradition.

      Concerning the OL’s place in textual history, it’s important to make a distinction between Ambrosiaster’s pre-critical view that his favorite text was “without corruption,” which is certainly rhetorically- and polemically-motivated, though it seems he believed it too, and more recent critical opinion, where of course there is no consensus.

      As you mention, the OL tradition is highly mixed. As for a primitive Greek layer in the variant readings of the OL, I would consider this unlikely. The OL does seem to share a primitive Latin (African) base however.

      In terms of applying a layer extraction method to Bezae’s Latin column, I’d expect a result like the one mentioned in my post http://peterlorenz.me/2015/11/13/layers/. Most readings would divide between the mainstream and the two OL layers.


What do you think?