Is Codex Bezae’s text deceptively ancient?

Dating from the mid-380’s, not long before Codex Bezae’s paleographically-assigned date of ca 400, Ambrosiaster’s thinly-veiled attack on the Vulgate in his Commentary on Romans (chapter 5, verse 14) must be considered highly-relevant to the problem of Bezae’s origins as a bilingual codex, due especially to its concern with the interaction between the Greek and Latin traditions (see my working translation). Ambrosiaster criticizes the Vulgate for its dependence on divergent Greek texts whose pedigree cannot be verified, while at the same time, arguing for the genuineness of the Old Latin version whose reliability (he claims) can be verified with reference to the citations of ancient writers, such as Tertullian, Cyprian, and Victorinus (all three of whom are named explicitly).

Of course, Ambrosiaster could not have been unaware of discrepancies between Latin texts. His concern then must be on the latter point that a text is only as reliable as the authorities that certify its authenticity. Ambrosiaster apparently believes that he can distinguish between corrupted texts and the ancient text on the basis of their respective agreement with the citations of a select pool of authoritative writers. The implication here is that corrupt texts can be corrected on the basis of the appropriate selection of citations.

Now if Ambrosiaster’s method were applied to an actual document, the result would be a text with a series of quite deliberate parallels to the citations of a selection of old writers, embedded within a text that otherwise reflects the period of its production. Taken at face value, such a text might appear very ancient indeed, which is of course the intention. It might even appear as though the ancient writers cited in the text had themselves depended on this later text form.

While we know that stabilization of the Old Latin version was at the time a desideratum, the question is whether Ambrosiaster’s approach would ever have been sufficiently representative to have been applied in practice. But if such a scenario is plausible, the implications for Codex Bezae are momentous. When Bezae parallels a citation of Irenaeus, we can no longer be sure whether it is Irenaeus who used an early text form resembling Bezae’s text or whether Bezae’s producers considered Irenaeus a suitable authority for the correction of their text.

While we must remain ever aware of the limitations of our sources, the uncanny yet somewhat selective appearance in Bezae’s text of parallels with early writers appears at least consistent with Ambrosiaster’s criterion of authenticity (as it were), a connection that seems intriguing enough to pursue for potential insights into possible contexts for Bezae’s origins.

Top 10 Closest Greek MSS to Bezae in Acts

The Gruppierung nach Übereinstimmungsquoten table found in each of the four Text und Textwert (= TUT) volumes on the gospels offers a good high-level sense of the closest textual relationships in the Greek tradition. Unfortunately, this useful table is not present in the TUT volume of Acts. Recently, I have written a Python script to parse the Verzeichnende Beschreibung data and compute Gruppierung data for Acts (see below).

[Note: The list below has been revised in a more recent post.]

Here are the top 10 closest Greek MSS to Bezae in Acts based on the generated Gruppierung data (NA28 readings in plaintext, special readings in bold, work shown here):

GA Non-Majority % Total % Teststellen
1853 66.7% (6/9) 37.5% (27/72) 4 18.4 46 57 62 72.4
XII Athos acts paul
1646 66.7% (4/6) 36.1% (26/72) 21 26 61 72.4
1172 Athos gospels acts paul
1610 66.7% (4/6) 33.3% (20/60) 18.4 46 57 62
1463 Athens acts paul
1893 62.5% (5/8) 33.9% (20/59) 23 42.4 46 57 74
XII Jerusalem acts paul revelation
2201 60.0% (3/5) 32.8% (19/58) 23 46 57
XV Elassona gospels acts paul revelation
623 60.0% (6/10) 32.1% (17/53) 23 26 42.4 46 57 62
1037 Vatican acts paul
619 58.3% (7/12) 30.9% (17/55) 23 26 42.4 46 57 61 74
X Florence acts paul
913 57.1% (4/7) 35.4% (23/65) 18.4 46 57 62
XIV London acts paul
1162 57.1% (8/14) 34.7% (25/72) 18.4 23 26 42.4 46 57 61 74
XI Patmos acts paul
436 55.6% (5/9) 34.7% (25/72) 18.4 42.4 46 57 62
XI/XII Vatican acts paul

I am following the same method used in the gospels (e.g. see John vol. 1, pp. 50-53; Luke vol 1., p. 25; Mark vol. 1, p. 44 in order of helpfulness, note Matthew has same description as Luke) with a few modifications:

  1. Due to Bezae’s free character, basing agreements on exact matches tends to exaggerate Bezae’s distinctiveness with the result that it may appear more isolated. (see Epp, “Textual Clusters,” 2013) To mitigate this effect, I am including TUT‘s “variant” agreements (denoted as capital letters) as matches (unlike the TUT calculations which exclude these). For example, at Teststelle (= TS) 8 (Acts 2:31) I am counting Bezae’s “singular” variant 2B (ενκαταλειφθη) as an agreement with the initial-text reading 2 (εγκατελειφθη), though this TS is not included in the Haupliste. The result is that in my calculations Bezae has 13 agreements with the initial text (including two additional TSS 2 and 57), rather than the 11 listed in the Hauptliste (4, 8, 21, 23, 26, 46, 58, 61, 62, 74, 75).
  2. Also unlike the TUT Acts volume, I am not counting Bezae’s five 1/2 readings (10, 35, 52, 55, 76) or its 1/2 variant (1/2L) as initial-text readings.
  3. Note that as in the Hauptliste, special readings do not include singular readings. For Bezae there are nine non-singular, special readings (‘15.4’, ‘18.4’, ‘25.3’, ‘42.4’, ‘44.4’, ‘49.4’, ‘68.3’, ‘71.3’, ‘72.4’)

Why does Jerome not cite the Vulgate of the Pericope adulterae?

Jerome’s remarks on the story of the adulterous woman in his tract Against the Pelagians (415) are sometimes cited as evidence for its existence at the time of his revision of the gospels in 384. In an earlier post though, I pointed out that Against the Pelagians was written some thirty years after the Vulgate gospels and hence probably cannot be considered evidence for the state of the text in the early 380’s, at the time of Jerome’s Vulgate project.

The question remains of course whether Jerome was looking back to this earlier time. In light of this possibility, it is noteworthy that Jerome does not cite the Vulgate text in his remarks to the Pelagians. Consider:

Against the Pelagians (CCSL 80) Vulgate (R. Weber)
At Iesus inclinus digito scribebat in terra (v. 6)

Qui sine peccato est uestrum, primus mittat super eam lapidem (v. 7)

Vbi sunt? Nemo te condemnauit? Quae ait: Nullus, Domine. Responditque ei Iesus: neque ego te condemno. Vade, et amodo noli peccare. (vv. 10-11)

Iesus autem inclinans se deorsum digito scribebat in terra (v. 6)

qui sine peccato est vestrum primus in illam lapidem mittat (v. 7)

ubi sunt nemo te condemnavit quae dixit nemo Domine dixit autem Iesus nec ego te condemnabo vade et amplius iam noli peccare (vv. 10-11)

Clearly Jerome’s three citations of the pericope adulterae in Adversus Pelagianos attest some significant discrepancies in comparison with the Vulgate. The differences in vv. 10-11 seem hardest to explain. After all, it seems odd that Jerome would default to a different form of the woman’s two-word response, “No one, Lord,” or the memorable pronouncement, “Neither do I condemn you,” even if he were paraphrasing or citing from memory.

Jerome and the Pericope adulterae

Jerome’s remarks on the story of the adulterous woman in Adversus Pelagianos (415) are sometimes taken as a virtual textual commentary on his Old Latin revision completed more than three decades earlier (384):

In Euangelio secundum Iohannem in multis et Graecis et Latinis codicibus inuenitur de adultera muliere, quae accusata est apud Dominum. (Jerome, Adversus Pelagianos 2.17)

The story of the adulterous woman who was accused before the Lord is found in many Greek and many Latin manuscripts of the gospel of John. (Jerome, Against the Pelagians 2.17, my translation)

From these remarks, it is sometimes assumed that at the time he revised the text of John in the early 380’s, Jerome already had at his disposal many Greek and many Latin manuscripts both with and without the pericope adulterae (= PA). But this assumption overlooks a gap of over thirty years between Jerome’s dispute with the Pelagians in 415 and his Vulgate revision of the gospels in 384. In short, it is questionable that Jerome’s remarks in Adversus Pelagianos can be cited (as they often are) as evidence that the PA was represented in many Greek and many Latin copies of John before its appearance in the Vulgate.

But even in 415, it is not easy to rule out a degree of exaggeration on Jerome’s part. Certainly, given the polemical context, Jerome has every reason to present the Greek evidence in the most favorable light. After all, his argument from the Greek meaning of αναμαρτητος (v. 7) as “without sin” rests somewhat precariously (it would seem) on the existence of Greek copies. But if Greek copies had been easy to find, why mention their number or (for that matter) bring up the problem at all? It seems that by calling in the Latin evidence, Jerome anticipates an  objection concerning the scarcity of Greek copies, which suggests that in 415 there were still very few Greek copies of John with the PA, but apparently plenty of Latin copies.

Stepping back a bit, there is a disconcerting aspect to Jerome’s appeal to the Latin tradition given his own contribution to the dissemination of the PA in Latin. By all appearances, the Vulgate contributed immensely to the story’s popularity. We must wonder at the sudden explosion of interest in the PA in the Latin tradition after its first appearance in the Vulgate. (Consider, for example, Ambrose’s reference in Epistle 68 from 385-387, Rufinus’ apparent reinterpretation of Papias through the PA from 401-402, and Augustine’s two references from after 399. The other allusions in Latin seem to follow this pattern as well.)

On the other hand, it is odd that besides Jerome’s citation of a single Greek word, the only Greek evidence occurs in a manuscript that also contains a Latin column (Codex Bezae), while additional allusions to the PA continue in Latin writers for several centuries before the first surviving reference in a Greek writer. Even in the fifth century then, we still struggle to find the pericope standing as an independent Greek tradition at its canonical position in the Vulgate, leading us to wonder what Greek evidence Jerome might have found in the early 380’s outside of extra-biblical traditions. Why does Jerome’s mentor Didymus still know a very different form of PA (for all its impressive similarity)? Why is he still unwilling or unable to identify which gospel it came from?

Of course, this may all be a coincidence. But it leaves open a number of unanswered questions concerning Jerome’s involvement in establishing the PA in its “canonical” position between John 7:52 and 8:12.

The Pericope Adulterae and Protoevangelium of James

In a 1997 essay, W. L. Petersen argued for a literary connection between the Pericope adulterae (= PA) and the Protoevangelium of James on the basis of the common phrase “neither do I condemn you” (ουδε εγω σε [κατακρινω]). [1] While in the PA Jesus utters these words to the accused woman (John 8:11), in the Protoevangelium the high priest pronounces them over Mary and Joseph, declaring them innocent of the charge that Mary’s virginity has been compromised.

Petersen assumed that the Protoevangelium must depend on an earlier form of the PA tradition without so much as mentioning the possibility that the PA, if it were a late tradition, might in fact depend on the Protoevangelium. As we might expect, Petersen’s essay is typically cited in discussions of the PA as a second-century tradition. But if we regard the PA in its fullest form as a fourth-century development, there is no reason the dependency must go in this direction. In fact, if we regard this saying as one of the final features of the PA, the only possible connection (if we accept a connection) is from the PA to the Protoevangelium. But if such a connection is plausible, we have a potentially valuable clue as to the interests of the fourth-century compilers of the PA in the antidicomarianite and related controversies concerning the virginity of Mary.


[1] ΟΥΔΕ ΕΓΩ ΣΕ [ΚΑΤΑ]ΚΡΙΝΩ, John 8:11, The Protevangilum Iacobi, and the History of the Pericope adulteraein Sayings of Jesus: Canonical and Non-canonical (ed. W. L. Petersen, J. S. Vos, and Henk J. de Jonge; Leiden: Brill, 1997), 191-221.

Fulbright Awarded for Research on Codex Bezae

I am pleased to announce that I have been awarded a Fulbright Scholarship for my proposed research on Codex Bezae to be performed at the Institut für Neutestamentlische Textforschung in Münster, Germany starting in October. The thrust of the research is developing a method to partition Bezae’s readings by layer, but the demonstration will be in the analysis that follows. A proof-of-concept of the method has already been published in Lorenz (2015). The project will be supervised as a Ph.D. dissertation by INTF Director Prof. Dr. Holger Strutwolf with the support of colleagues at the Institute and the Institute’s vast resources for textual research.

Please see the attached press release.

Major Late Textual Changes in Codex Bezae?

On April 14, Prof. Larry Hurtado published a notice on his blog about a new book on the Pericope Adulterae (= PA): The Pericope of the Adulteress in Contemporary Research, eds. David Alan Black and Jacob N. Cerone (London:  Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016). In the notice, Prof. Hurtado questions a common assumption in the field of NT textual criticism that the vast majority of significant changes to the NT text were introduced during a “wild” period of uncontrolled textual development in the second and third centuries, after which a period of stability reigned beginning in the fourth century.

Why am I Excited about this Question?

First of all, I am delighted that the question is being asked. Several areas of my research on Codex Bezae and the so-called “Western” text explore evidence of systematic changes to the text of the gospels and Acts in the latter part of the fourth century. These topics, particularly as they relate to the phenomenon of layering in Bezae’s text (Holmes, 1996), are addressed here on my blog and in my small but growing list of publications and papers.

(Note that Prof. Hurtado’s own contribution to the book explores these questions in further detail, though I have not seen it as of this post. Therefore my remarks here are based on the question raised in the blog post.)

The Challenge

The question Prof. Hurtado raises (as two questions) is as follows:

Is it possible that the common view of the transmission-history of NT writings (however intuitively it appeals) is wrong, or at least seriously defective? More specifically, were there factors and dynamics in the later period that facilitated the inclusion and wide acceptance of these sizeable variants?

The question of major textual change in the later period (i.e. the fourth century and beyond) is the crux of the challenge to the common view, which in general assumes that all major variations were introduced by the end of the third century, after which the text reached a point of essential stability. But if the PA appears in its fully-developed form (or forms) only in the fourth century as the evidence seems to suggest, we are led to inquire as to whether the notion of a stable fourth-century text must be abandoned. On the other hand, recognizing the diversity within the tradition, perhaps we can accommodate major change in certain parts of the tradition, while acknowledging a degree of control in others.

The Place of Codex Bezae

Whatever we believe about its history, it is clear Codex Bezae represents one of the extremes of diversity in the tradition. But the unique place of Bezae’s tradition points to one area where we can further nuance the question. Bezae’s highly divergent text reminds us that we can expect different parts of the tradition to be more closed or open to change than others. We cannot expect the tradition of Codex Vaticanus to be as accepting of change as the early Byzantine tradition of John Chrysostom. At the same time, we are not as surprised to find major variations in the Old Latin tradition as we are in the Latin Vulgate (which makes the PA’s appearance in the latter all the more remarkable). In fact, if we suppose that the full form of the PA first appeared in Bezae’s tradition, it is difficult to see how this opinion alone would challenge the common view that essential stability was achieved in the fourth century. Bezae’s exception while perhaps typical of its own tradition, would merit a mere footnote in relation to the rest of the tradition.

Major Late Textual Change in Bezae’s Tradition?

It is probably no accident then that the PA occurs first in a manuscript like Codex Bezae, a witness well-known for its high number of apparently singular and sub-singular readings. With regard to similar character and size, Bezae’s singular readings present us with other substantial changes, such as Jesus’ encounter with the Sabbath worker (Luke 6:5) or the harmonization of Luke’s genealogy to Matthew. While Bezae’s singular and sub-singular readings are often assumed to date to the second century, this is obviously a pure guess. After all, how can we be sure if the readings are otherwise unattested? While we cannot of course assume that all such apparently singular readings belong to Bezae’s copyist or even the copyist’s immediate tradition, this possibility is not at all implausible (Holmes, 2003).

It turns out then that this potential ‘upper’ layer of singular and sub-singular readings in Bezae could just as plausibly offer us a unique window not to the second century, but to the events surrounding Bezae’s production in ca 400! In fact, if we take Bezae’s various suggested tendencies in Acts, it turns out they consistently fit a context at the end of the fourth century as well as, if not better than a second-century context.

  • Bezae’s anti-Judaic tendency is certainly consistent with a second-century context as suggested, for example, by Justin’s rhetoric in the Dialogue with Trypho. But Justin’s display of anti-Judaism pales next to Ambrose’s attempts to lobby the emperor to withhold financing for the restoration of Jewish property destroyed by Christians!
  • Bezae’s favorable portrayal of Roman soldiers and officials, while puzzling in a second-century context, makes better sense at the end of the fourth century with a Christianized Rome.
  • Regarding Bezae’s interest in the Holy Spirit, it is telling to observe that Bezae’s paleographical date of ca 400 comes within twenty years of the Second Ecumenical Council (381), which clarified the place of the Holy Spirit in the Trinity.
  • Like the anti-Judaic tendency, Bezae’s so-called ‘anti-feminist’ tendency is generally consistent with a second-century context. But the readings themselves align particularly well with the conservative anti-ascetic movement at the end of the fourth century, represented by the likes of Jovinian and Ambrosiaster, who argued that women possess the imago Dei only through a man.
  • Bezae’s enhancement of Peter’s role at the expense of Paul is consistent with an increasing assertiveness of the papacy in political and ecclesiastical affairs at the end of the fourth century. But it is even more consistent with an anti-ascetic tendency, which would naturally look to Peter’s precedent, as the first of the married apostles, to that of Paul, the celibate apostle.

It turns out that most of the above tendencies can be seen in light of fourth-century controversies, perhaps suggesting a common impulse for at least some of the significant and seemingly late changes we find in Bezae. It stands to reason that a key source of pressure on the fourth-century text must have been the unbroken succession of theological controversies in which beatifications and anathemas were won and lost over the effective use of proof texts. While the Christianization of Rome no doubt encouraged standardization of the text, we might surmise that it also raised the stakes on which texts became standard. This leads us to wonder whether Bezae might not represent a rather unexpected sort of ‘controlled’ text in which stability and control do not necessarily align.