Could Bezae be a response to the Vulgate?

Bezae’s paleographically-assigned date of ca 400 — if accurate — naturally raises questions concerning the attitude of its producers towards Jerome’s Vulgate revision of the Old Latin gospels, completed slightly earlier in ca 384. Certainly, Bezae’s attestation of an Old Latin column suggests an air of conservatism in the milieu that gave it rise. At the same time, its peculiar bilingual profile — pairing an archaic Greek with a contemporary Latin text — suggests an interest in supporting the Old Latin column with a putative Greek Vorlage.

But how likely is it that Bezae’s producers knew of the Vulgate? And if they did, can we suggest anything about their attitude towards it?

The Vulgate’s rough reception is of course well-documented, as we gather in Augustine’s account of the ensuing chaos when the Vulgate was read in a nearby church:

“A certain bishop … having introduced in the church over which he presides the reading of your version, came upon a word in the book of the prophet Jonah, of which you [Jerome] have given a very different rendering from that which had been of old familiar to the senses and memory of all the worshippers, and had been chanted for so many generations in the church. Thereupon arose such a tumult in the congregation, especially among the Greeks, correcting what had been read, and denouncing the translation as false, that the bishop was compelled to ask the testimony of the Jewish residents.” (Epist. 71.5, NPNF 1.1, 327)

This resistance can be adduced also from Jerome’s side, as he responds to critics with characteristic vitriol:

“a report suddenly reached me that certain contemptible creatures were deliberately assailing me with the charge that I had endeavored to correct passages in the gospels, against the authority of the ancients and the opinion of the whole world.” (Epist. 27.1; NPNF 2.6, 44)

Then we have Ambrosiaster’s more cautious though potentially more devastating criticism, pointing to discrepancies in underlying Greek tradition on which the Vulgate is based:

“this is what they want to prescribe for us on the basis of the Greek codices, as though these same codices did not have discrepancies among themselves” (Comm. Rom 5:14, translation mine)

In fact, Ambrosiaster’s challenge attacks the Vulgate at the very point it claims to be strongest, namely, in its greater fidelity to the ancient text. Thus, Jerome argues:

“If … we are to glean the truth from a comparison of many [Latin copies], why not go back to the original Greek?” (Preface to the Four Gospels; NPNF 2.6, 488)

But what if Bezae’s producers, like Ambrosiaster, had wished to demonstrate the fidelity of their own Old Latin version? How might they support their claim? It is obvious they would first need a Greek text to point to in support of key Old Latin readings. Now it is evident that Bezae’s format, with an Old Latin column paired with a “slavishly” similar Greek column, would admirably serve such a purpose. [1]

In fact, certain of Bezae’s characteristics seem especially consistent with such an idea. For example, there is the tendency among Bezae’s early correctors to bring the Greek and Latin columns into even closer agreement, as D. C. Parker observes of Bezae’s earliest correcter (G):

“One of the purposes of his activities in Acts is to remove discrepancies between the columns.” [2]

In this respect, Bezae’s earliest corrections differ markedly from those found in other manuscripts, for example, in Codex Sinaiticus, which tend to agree with other known traditions. But internal consistency is clearly crucial in establishing literary dependence.

But whether or not we see Bezae’s text as potentially a response to the Vulgate, it is clear these were tumultuous times in the Latin church, with significant controversies and schisms the order of the day. One wonders whether this spirit of factionalism might be enough to account for the great effort and expense that evidently went into Bezae’s production at a time when its Old Latin column was already poised for obsolescence.


[1] B. Fischer, “Das Neue Testament in lateinischer Sprache: Der gegenwärtige Stand seiner Erforschung und seine Bedeutung für die griechische Textgeschichte” in Die Alten Übersetzungen des Neuen Testaments, Die Kirchenväterzitate und Lektionare (ed. K. Aland; ANTF, 5; Berlin: de Gruyter, 1972) 1-92 at 42.

[2] D. C. Parker, Codex Bezae: An early Christian manuscript and its text (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992) 128.

5 thoughts on “Could Bezae be a response to the Vulgate?

  1. Pete,
    Thanks for the stimulating thoughts. I wonder if we wouldn’t be well served to look at outside influences more often. Especially when we see significant changes in a particular manuscript or family.


  2. Tim,
    Certainly historical insight has much to contribute to text-critical research. For one, it helps set the parameters in developing a working hypothesis.

    Thanks for commenting!


  3. Pete,
    Have you seen Houghton’s “The Gospel According to Mark in Two Latin Mixed-Text Manuscripts?” While dealing primarily with Old Latin remnants in these Vulgate manuscripts, VL 9A and VL 11A, it seems much of what he says there gives credence to the idea expressed here. At least in the way that the propensity in general was to conform the OL to the Vulgate. Bezae’s Latin text would seem to be the exception if not a deliberate attempt to reject the Vulgate.


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