Rome, Petrine primacy, and Bezae’s text

In a previous post, I noted the apparent interest of Bezae’s initial corrector, Corrector G, in passages that pertain to Peter and his role of authority among the apostles. I also suggested that this corrector, whose work is confined to Matthew and the first four chapters of Acts, may have focused on these two books, not because he grew tired of correcting in Matthew and hence skipped to Acts due to its unusual text, but rather because these two books contain the passages he was most interested in, namely, passages concerning the question of Petrine primacy.

Now as D. C. Parker has shown, Bezae’s distinctive text was not created by the scribe, who closely followed the text of his exemplar. [1] Yet the final form of Bezae’s text exhibits the same interest we find in Corrector G in passages relevant to Peter’s role, often with the effect of augmenting Peter’s role in the narrative. [2] But if the scribe did not introduce this feature, it seems we must consider whether Bezae’s exemplar also developed under the oversight of the initial corrector. Unless this interest in Peter is coincidental, we might infer, at least for Bezae, that its text of Acts could not have been produced much earlier than the manuscript itself. [3]

Of course, it is by no means impossible that there were other sets of circumstances in which Peter’s role might have been augmented. But when we consider the acute relevance of the question of Petrine authority following the Council of Constantinople in 381, at which Constantinople was promoted above the ancient sees of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem to a rank of second place only to Rome, the time frame immediately prior to Bezae’s production suddenly becomes highly interesting as a potential context for the development of a particular interest in Peter’s role.

In suggesting a context for this special interest in Peter, we might begin then with Canon 3 of the Council of Constantinople:

“The Bishop of Constantinople … shall have the prerogative of honour after the Bishop of Rome; because Constantinople is New Rome.” (NPNF 2.14, 178)

The impact of this canon can be assessed when we consider that sixty years later Rome was still protesting it, as Leo the Great remonstrates with Anatolius, Bishop of Constantinople:

“For your purpose [to invoke the primacy of Constantinople over the Eastern sees] is in no way whatever supported by the written assent of certain bishops [who convened at the Council of Constantinople] given, as you allege, 60 years ago, and never brought to the knowledge of the Apostolic See by your predecessors” (Leo the Great, Epistle 106.5; NPNF 2.12, 79)

Leo argues that Constantinople’s claim rests purely on its secular status as New Rome and hence is inferior to the apostolic claim of the other sees, which Leo seems to assume were all founded on the authority of Peter:

“Things secular stand on a different basis from things divine: and there can be no sure building save on that rock [i.e. Peter] which the LORD has laid for a foundation. … Let him [Anatolius] not disdain a city which is royal, though he cannot make it an Apostolic See” (Leo the Great, Epistle 104.3; NPNF 2.12, 75)

Of course, Leo is alluding to Peter’s connection, not only to Rome, but also to the three demoted sees. Now Peter’s connection with Antioch (formerly the third see) and Jerusalem (formerly the fourth) is established in the New Testament. But Leo also claims Peter as the founder of the See of Alexandria (formerly second) on the basis of Mark’s traditional discipleship under Peter:

“The See of Alexandria may not lose any of that dignity which it merited through S. Mark, the evangelist and disciple of the blessed Peter” (Leo the Great, Epistle 106.5; NPNF 2.12, 79)

In fact, Peter is the only apostle that all of the ancient sees could claim in common, a finding that Leo tries to exploit in his contention that Constantinople usurped the second rank from Alexandria.

So it is evident that Rome’s rivalry with Constantinople in the period after 381 offers a compelling setting for the pattern we find in Bezae’s text of Acts, which in various ways highlights Peter’s unique authority as founding apostle of the church in Acts. Of course, by the end of the fourth century, only a canonical text could have served as the basis for this unique appeal to Peter’s authority. This might explain why Bezae’s text of Acts is more recent than that of its gospels. It may also explain why the text of Acts receives disproportionate emphasis in general in the so-called “Western” text.

Now if this connection is warranted, the long text of Acts we find in Bezae (and possibly in other witnesses) might be seen as promoting the perspective, not only of Rome, but also of the demoted sees of Alexandria and Antioch, yet certainly not of Constantinople. It is remarkable then that the distribution of the so-called “Western” text follows the locations the ancient apostolic sees, in both East and West, while avoiding the area around Constantinople. Hence, both Syria and Egypt attest versional representatives of the so-called “Western” texts of Acts. Just as this long text existed in Latin in various forms for the benefit of the church in the West, so too did it exist in Greek for the benefit of the church in the East — and not only in Greek, but also in the Eastern versions, whether Coptic or Syriac.


[1] “It is not permissible to regard the text of D as coterminous with the
Codex Bezae.” D. C. Parker, Codex Bezae: An early Christian manuscript and its text (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992) 96. Note that Parker’s statement in the context of Bezae’s sense lines does not comment on the possibility that the D text might be coterminous with Bezae’s exemplar. Note also that Parker’s reconstruction allows Bezae’s exemplar of Acts to have been transcribed through the end of the fourth century (p. 281).

[2] J. Crehan, “Peter according to the D-Text of Acts,” Theological Studies 18 (1957) 596–603. See A. G. Brock, “Appeasement, Authority, and the Role of Women in the D-Text of Acts” in T. Nicklas and M. Tilly, The Book of Acts as Church History: Text, Textual Traditions and Ancient Interpretations (BZNW 120. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2003) 205-224 at 210-215 for others who have observed this variation of emphasis on Peter or have noted it in their citations.

[3] See Parker, Bezae, 118-119, who observes significantly that Bezae’s Acts tradition is more recent than that of its gospels.

How did a Latin text end up in the Egyptian wilderness?

In some recent posts, I have suggested that certain features of Bezae’s Greek text seem consistent with its assimilation of Old Latin readings. Of course, any theory of Latin assimilation requires a motive capable of justifying the retroversion of Latin readings into Greek. In Bezae’s case, one possible motive is the documented belief that the Greek tradition was more corrupt than the Old Latin version. But a still bigger problem is explaining how these assimilated readings might have appeared in other versions.

One remarkable twentieth-century discovery was the Acts text of Codex Glazier in the Middle Egyptian Coptic dialect, which unexpectedly followed the “long” text form of Bezae and other well-known “Western” witnesses, at times even uniquely agreeing with Bezae in readings that had previously been considered singular. [1]

To suggest then that Latin assimilation might in some way have contributed to the “long” text forms of Acts in Greek clearly requires an account as to how these forms might have appeared in Middle Egyptian texts. Of course, it is possible such an influence passed indirectly through the Greek tradition to the versions. But how necessary is this intermediate step?

We might begin by noting that the so-called “Western” text form is especially well-represented in the Old Latin text of Acts. To take a familiar example, the “baptismal confession” of the Ethiopian eunuch at Acts 8:37, found in Glazier, is well-attested by Latin writers, including Cyprian, Tertullian, Augustine, Pacian, and Ambrosiaster, and whatever its origin, is clearly representative of the Old Latin version as a whole, being attested in c dem e gig l m p ph r t w (Bezae is unfortunately lacunose from Acts 8:29-10:14). While it is also attested in various forms in a range of Greek minuscules, the sheer quantity of variant forms (TUT lists 22 unique forms in ten readings) makes it difficult to insist that the Greek form had to have been the earliest.

But even if we allow that such a reading might first have appeared in Latin, how are we to explain its occurrence in a remote Coptic dialect? What context can convincingly bring these two traditions together in a manner capable of allowing a transfer of readings between these otherwise disparate versions?

One distinct possibility involves the pro-Nicene faction of the fourth-century Arian controversy, whose leadership brought together figures from both the Latin West and Coptic Egypt. We might consider the case of Athanasius (presumably a Coptic speaker), who fled to the West in 339 and remained there for the duration of his second exile (339-346). In the West, he established ties with Pope Julius and the bishops in Italy (Apol. Const. 3), many of whom survived long enough to defend his cause in his later struggles (Hilary of Poitiers, Coll. Ant. Par. B.II.2).

In the opposite direction, both Lucifer of Cagliari in Sardinia and Eusebius of Vercelli in northern Italy were exiled by Constantius to the East (355-361) for refusing to condemn Athanasius at the Council of Milan (355). Both spent the latter portion of their respective exiles in the predominantly Coptic-speaking region of the Thebaid (Upper Egypt). It is interesting to note in this connection that the Old Latin gospel manuscript, Codex Vercellensis (a), is said to have been transcribed by Eusebius. [2] In fact, it seems not unlikely that both Lucifer and Eusebius carried Old Latin gospel texts to their places of exile.

In any case, Lucifer’s writings dating from his exile contain Old Latin citations. He seems to have sent one of these writings, the treatise De Athanasio, to Constantius in defense of Athanasius. If we accept as genuine two letters to Lucifer attributed to Athanasius, the latter requested a copy of the treatise: [3]

To our lord, and most beloved brother the Bishop and Confessor Lucifer. Athanasius greeting in the Lord. …

It has been reported to us that your holiness has written to Constantius Augustus; and we wonder more and more that dwelling as it were among scorpions you yet preserve freedom of spirit, in order, by advice or teaching or correction, to bring those in error to the light of truth. I ask then, and all confessors join me in asking, that you will be good enough to send us a copy; so that all may perceive, not by hearsay only but by letters, the valour of your spirit, and the confidence and firmness of your faith. Those who are with me salute your holiness … (Epist. 1, Ad Luciferum; NPNF 2.4, 561)

In his second letter to Lucifer, we hear of Athanasius’ reception of the treatise:

To the most glorious lord and deservedly much-desired fellow-Bishop Lucifer, Athanasius greeting in the Lord. …

We have received the books of your most wise and religious soul, in which we have seen the image of an Apostle, the confidence of a Prophet, the teaching of truth, the doctrine of true faith, the way of heaven, the glory of martyrdom, the triumphs against the Arian heresy, the unimpaired tradition of our Fathers, the right rule of the Church’s order. O truly Lucifer, who according to your name bring the light of truth …

Believe me, Lucifer, it is not you only who has uttered this, but the Holy Spirit with you. Whence comes so great a memory for the Scriptures? Whence an unimpaired sense and understanding of them? … Whence did you get such exhortations to the way of heaven … and such proofs against heretics, unless the Holy Spirit had been lodged in you? (Epist. 2, Ad Luciferum; NPNF 2.4, 562)

The relevant point here is that Lucifer’s De Athanasio contains well-known “Western” readings, including readings attested by the codices Bezae, Glazier, and just a few others. [4] For example, in Lucifer’s text of Acts 12:7 cited in De Athanasio, the angel “pricks” or “pierces” (νυξας) rather than “taps” (παταξας) Peter’s side, a reading attested only by Bezae, P127, Codex Gigas (gig), and (it seems) Codex Glazier (though the latter’s support is not listed in NA28). [5] Thus, Lucifer writes:

conpungens autem latus Petri (De Athanasio 2.14; CCSL 8, 99)

Which compares to the Old Latin text:

pungens autem latus Petri (d gig)

But this reading is also attested by Codex Glazier:

Acts 12,7 (underline, 80pc)[6]

(Note that H.-M. Schenke’s lexicon defines the verb joke as stechen, stoßen, which in the context suggests to prick, stab, pierce, or pokeDefinition [7])

Compared to Athanasius’ own “Alexandrian” citations, Lucifer’s vivid depiction of the angel “piercing” Peter’s side could not have been lost on readers of the treatise. If the Luciferian tract De confessione verae fidei (88) is credible on this point, Athanasius himself translated Lucifer’s books into Greek, which would have made the treatise accessible to anyone conversant in Greek. [8]

Considering Athanasius’ extravagant praise of Lucifer’s orthodoxy, it is not difficult to envision a certain interest in his unusual text form among those who encountered it. Yet whether or not Athanasius or the “confessors” with him noticed these unusual readings, we can at least affirm that the physical transfer of Old Latin readings to a context in which Coptic was the familiar language is apparently attested. While given the state of the evidence, we are unlikely to establish any definitive connection between the Old Latin and Coptic versions of Acts, if Athanasius did indeed receive a copy of Lucifer’s treatise, it seems neither can we entirely rule out such connections.


[1] E. J. Epp, “Coptic Manuscript G67 and the Role of Codex Bezae as a Western Witness in Acts” in Perspectives on New Testament Textual Criticism: Collected Essays, 1962–2004 (Leiden: Brill, 2005) 15-39.

[2] See E. Dekkers, “Les autographes des Peres latins” in Colligere fragmenta, Festschrift Alban Dold zum 70. Geburtstag…, hrsg. von Bonifatius Fischer u. Virgil Fiala (Beuron, 1952) 127-139.

[3] On the authenticity of Athanasius’ letters to Lucifer, see G. F. Diercks, ed., CCSL 8, xxvi and E. Dekkers, “Les traductions grecques des écrits patristiques latins,” Sacris Erudiri 5 (Brugge, 1953) 193-233 at 199.

[4] A. M. Coleman notes the close alignment of Lucifer’s “abundant quotations (more than one eighth of the Acts)” with gig. A. M. Coleman, The Biblical text of Lucifer of Cagliari: Acts (Welwyn, Herts., 1927) 1. See also, J. H. Petzer, “Texts and Text-Types in the Latin Version of Acts” in Philologia Sacra. Vol. 1 (ed. R. Gryson; Freiburg: Herder, 1993) 259–284 at 266.

[5] Probably, there was some uncertainty as to whether the distinction between the two readings could be unequivocally established in the Coptic.

[6] H.-M. Schenke (ed.), Apostelgeschichte 1,1-15,3 im mittelägyptischen Dialekt des Koptischen (Codex Glazier) (TU 137; Berlin, 1991) 180.

[7] Schenke, Apostelgeschichte, 229.

[8] Quos quidem libros, cum per omnia ex integro ageret, suspexit et Athanasius ut ueri uindicis atque in Graecum stilum transtulit, ne tantum boni Graeca lingua non haberet. M. Simonetti, ed.; CCSL 69, 381.

Has Aramaic influence on Codex Bezae been disproved?

In two recent posts, I have considered theories of the origins of Codex Bezae’s Greek text based on assimilation to one or more strains of the Old Latin version. But in his Textual Commentary, B. M. Metzger also lists several theories of Semitic influence, including those of F. H. Chase, J. Wellhausen, C. C. Torrey, A. J. Wensinck, and M. Black. [1]

One intriguing theory is that of C. C. Torrey, who argued that Bezae developed from a retroversion of an Aramaic Targum of the gospels. Torrey writes:

“There is very good reason to believe that an especially able and complete (also occasionally expanded) retroversion into Aramaic, an ‘original’ gospel very widely celebrated in its time (early second century?) and therefore translated into Greek with constant employment (from memory?) of the wording of the standard Greek text of that day, was the origin of our Codex Bezae and the ‘Western’ text.” [2]

Torrey’s theory is appealing for a number of reasons. For example:

  1. If we accept that Bezae’s features imply a Semitic influence, then a historical context among Aramaic-speaking Jewish Christians supplies a compelling motive for an initial translation that might explain some of Bezae’s variation.
  2. The expansive character of Bezae’s text is consistent with the interpretive and storytelling elements we expect to find in a Targum. [3]
  3. The existence of gospel materials in Aramaic is supported by the documentary evidence of later writers.
  4. The existence of written Targums is not without precedent in the time frame proposed by Torrey. [4]

Now it is often thought that J. D. Yoder’s study, “The Language of the Greek Variants of Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis,” effectively excluded the possibility of distinctive Semitic influence on Bezae’s text. [5] By evaluating Bezae’s readings both for and against three broad categories of Semitic forms, Yoder found that the number of Semitic forms present in Bezae but lacking in Westcott and Hort (= WH) was generally offset by the number present in WH but lacking in Bezae, leading him to conclude that Bezae’s Semitisms are no more representative of its text than of the larger tradition.

But Yoder’s experimental design does not rule out a significant class of theories of Semitic influence in Bezae. Specifically, it does not rule out any theory (such as Torrey’s Targum theory) that involves initial translation into a Semitic language followed by retroversion into Greek.

Why is this the case? It is simply that any Semitisms that might have existed in the initial Greek Vorlage would have been subsumed into the text of the Aramaic translation. When the text was re-translated into Greek, these original Semitisms would now have become indistinguishable from the surrounding text. In the process, the Greek retroversion would likely acquire new Semitisms or new varieties of the original Semitisms. But unless copied from an existing Greek codex, we would not expect the original Semitisms to be restored with any consistency to their former places. In fact, the expected result if Torrey’s theory were true is remarkably close to Yoder’s actual result.

So what does this mean for Torrey’s theory?

It is important to realize that Yoder’s test does not disprove Torrey’s theory or any similar theory involving rewriting the Greek text from an intermediate Semitic stage. Yet neither is it a demonstration of such a theory.

Like nearly all theories that propose the early development of a “Western” text form, a weakness of the Targum theory is its reliance on gaps in our knowledge of the earliest period of Christianity. Yet while perhaps not altogether compelling, the Targum theory highlights a potentially significant aspect of the evidence that we cannot simply dismiss, namely, the presence of certain apparent Semitic influences in Bezae’s text that are not in the mainstream text.

If Yoder intended to show that Bezae’s apparent Semitic elements need not be considered in reconstructions of its textual history simply because they do not occur in other manuscripts, this objective was not achieved. So long as distinctive elements are found in Bezae but not in the remaining tradition, they must be accounted for in any comprehensive theory of its text.

[1] B. M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (2nd ed.; Stuttgart, 1994) 231-232.

[2] C. C. Torrey, The Four Gospels: A New Translation (New York, 1933) 282.

[3] Metzger’s comment that “such an hypothesis … offers no help in explaining how the Bezan text of Acts became nearly one-tenth longer” (p. 232) is difficult to understand. In fact, the Targum theory should be able to account for significant expansions to the text.

[4] We might consider, for example, the Targum of Job from Qumran.

[5] J. D. Yoder, “The Language of the Greek Variants of Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis,” Ph.D. dissertation, Princeton Theological Seminary, 1958. See also, J. D. Yoder, “Semitisms in Codex Bezae,” Journal of Biblical Literature 78 (1959) 317–321.

Why assimilation theories of Bezae’s Greek text are compelling

In an earlier post, How to validate a theory of Bezae’s text, I suggested a fourfold classification of the nine theories of the so-called “Western” text enumerated by B. M. Metzger in his Textual Commentary. [1] The four categories are:

  1. Multiple editions
  2. An initial “Western” text
  3. A secondary “Western” text
  4. Assimilation to either the Latin or Syriac versions

(Of course, reference to the “Western” text is somewhat problematic given the existence of multiple “long texts” of Acts. Therefore I will consider these theories from the point of view of the single extant text of Codex Bezae.)

It is evident that the first three classes of theories focus on the timing of the development of the “Western” tradition with respect to the mainstream tradition — whether it came before, after, or roughly contemporaneously with the mainstream. Theories of assimilation also presume that the “Western” text is secondary, but go further in attributing the development of this text form to a specific source of influence, namely, a desire to conform the Greek text to a more familiar versional text.

Now the consensus is not favorable to theories that Bezae’s Greek text reflects systematic assimilation to a version, in particular, to the Latin version. As Metzger plainly observes:

“The theory finds little or no support among present-day scholars.” [2]

It seems though that most theorists since the eighteenth century have considered the question primarily in terms of the interaction of Bezae’s columns, where it has been shown that assimilation to the Latin column cannot explain the development of the present Greek column. Framed in these terms Latin assimilation is easy to dismiss.

But as I have argued in “Has Latin influence on Bezae’s Greek text been disproved?” and “Against reason? Bezae’s Greek text and the possibility of Latin influence,” interaction between the columns is just one aspect of the question of Latin influence. A second, more fundamental aspect is whether Bezae’s Greek text has been corrected to one or more Old Latin exemplars besides its Latin column.

Once this bigger picture is considered, the theory of assimilation to the Old Latin begins to offer what other theories for the most part lack, namely, a specific, documented historical context and, more importantly, a compelling motive for the effort and expense of producing a Greek text form that so often mirrors the Old Latin version. This motive was simply the belief among certain of the participants that the Old Latin version was less corrupt than the Greek. Thus, in his Commentary on Romans 5:14, we find Ambrosiaster arguing that the text form found in his Old Latin manuscript, lacking the negative particle, is in fact the correct reading, while the Greek manuscripts that have the particle are corrupt.

Nevertheless, it has often been considered next to impossible that the ancient producers of a Greek text would borrow from a Latin version. H. Marsh argues:

“I have myself collated the two first chapters of St. Mark … and have found that in most of the readings, in which the Codex Bezae differs from all the Greek manuscripts, it agrees with some one of those Latin versions. But shall we therefore conclude that those readings were actually borrowed from a Latin version, and translated into Greek? It is at least as possible that they might have had their origin in the Greek as in the Latin, and this very possibility is sufficient to defeat the whole of Wetstein’s hypothesis [that Bezae borrows Old Latin readings].” [3]

Marsh concludes:

“there is no reason whatsoever for ascribing any reading of a Greek manuscript to the influence of the Latin, unless it can be proved that it could not have taken its rise in the Greek, and that it might easily have originated in the Latin” [4]

Although Marsh acknowledges the abundant evidence and correctly infers what the evidence seems to imply, he simply assumes that no one would ever want to correct a Greek MS to a Latin MS. Perhaps more tellingly, he speaks of readings being borrowed and translated or having an origin as though these events took place in a vacuum. Of course, what is missing from Marsh’s account is any attempt to recover the perspective of the human participants or even to acknowledge that human actors exist.

Yet going back to Ambrosiaster’s argument, it is obvious that a corrected Greek MS without μη would show not a trace of having been inspired by the Latin reading. The absence of the particle really leaves no definitive argument as to why it might be lacking. Certainly, Latin influence is not the most compelling explanation for a missing particle. So by Marsh’s rule we have no reason to suspect Latin influence. Yet we have a documented case of an unambiguous motive to drop this very Greek particle in accordance with the Old Latin variant. The motive of course is that the Old Latin version was regarded as preserving the true text, but the Greek was seen as corrupt.

But can there be any more compelling motive for the correction of a Greek MS than the belief that it was simply wrong?

It turns out then that the compelling aspect of assimilation theories is the human aspect and, in particular, the practically limitless human capacity to insist that what is familiar must be correct. Clearly, human participants are dangerous to text-critical theories based on pure reason. Once they are allowed into the picture, assimilation theories that were once judged impossible by the standards of criticism are suddenly not so improbable and in the proper context even compelling.

[1] B. M. Metzger, Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (2d ed.; Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994) 223-232.

[2] Metzger, Textual Commentary, 231.

[3] H. Marsh, “Notes” in J. D. Michaelis, Introduction to the New Testament (trans. H. Marsh; 1802) 2/2:680-681.

[4] Marsh, “Notes,” 2/2:683. J. S. Semler likewise considers it “against reason” that a Greek MS would be corrected to a Latin copy. J. S. Semler, Apparatus ad liberalem Novi Testamenti interpretationem (1767) 44.

Was Helvidius an embarrassment to Bezae’s producers?

Ambrosiaster was not the only Latin writer in the latter fourth century to contend against the Greek tradition. In his treatise On the Perpetual Virginity of Blessed Mary: Against Helvidius, Jerome faults Helvidius for contending that the Greek manuscripts are corrupt:

“you with marvellous effrontery contend that the reading of the Greek manuscripts is corrupt, although it is that which nearly all the Greek writers have left us in their books, and not only so, but several of the Latin writers have taken the words the same way” (Helv. 8; NPNF 2.6, 338)

Jerome later continues the accusation:

“Seeing that you have been foolish enough to persuade yourself that the Greek manuscripts are corrupt, you will perhaps plead the diversity of readings” (Helv. 16 (18); NPNF 2.6, 343)

But which verse and variant does Jerome have in mind?

Luke 2:33 in the contest over Mary’s perpetual virginity

In chapter 8 of Against Helvidius, Jerome argues against Helvidius that Joseph and Mary remained celibate after the birth of Jesus, noting that Joseph had been persuaded to do this after witnessing the miracles that attended Jesus’ birth. As proof Jerome cites Luke 2:33 before immediately digressing to discuss the textual variant:

“His father and mother were marvelling at the things which were spoken concerning Him.” (Luke 2:33) And yet you with marvellous effrontery contend that the reading of the Greek manuscripts is corrupt …

But what variant does Jerome have in mind? Luke 2:33 is known for one significant variant (“Joseph” for “his father”):

Joseph and his mother were marvelling at the things which were spoken concerning Him.”

Because Jerome cites the form “his father and mother,” it seems Helvidius must have cited the variant, “Joseph and his mother.” The latter has been attributed to an impulse to protect the virginal conception, as observed by B. M. Metzger:

“In order to safeguard the doctrine of the virgin birth [sic] of Jesus, ὁ πατήρ was replaced by Ἰωσήφ in a variety of witnesses …” [1]

Of course, Helvidius did not oppose Mary’s conceiving as a virgin, but rather the notion that she maintained her virginity for life (i.e. perpetually). Why then would he care that the reading was “Joseph” rather than “his father”?

The reason becomes fully apparent only in chapter 16 (18 [NPNF]). Here Jerome addresses one of Helvidius’ main arguments, namely, his appeal to the New Testament references to the brothers and sisters of Jesus as evidence that Mary did not remain a virgin:

“It is clear that our Lord’s brethren bore the name in the same way that Joseph was called his father [i.e. not literally]” (Helv. 16 (18); NPNF 2.6, 343)

Jerome contends that terms such as “brother,” “sister,” and “father” are not literal but refer to members of the extended family, appealing to the Roman conception of paternitas, in Jerome’s own words, “many generations spreading from one root” (ex una radice multa generis turba diffunditur) (Helv. 14 (16); PL 23, 0197, my trans.). [2] So just as Joseph is not Jesus’ literal father, so the “brothers and sisters” mentioned in the New Testament are not literal brothers and sisters, but perhaps cousins.

According to Jerome, Helvidius prefers the reading “Joseph” over “his father” because his argument requires that the familial terms “brother and sister” imply a blood relation. This forces him into the difficulty of explaining why literal terms apply to the siblings but not to Joseph who is called “father,” but the difficulty is sidestepped by identifying Joseph by name:

“The Evangelist himself relates that His father [‘Joseph’ v.l.] and His mother were marvelling at the things which were spoken concerning Him, and there are similar passages which we have already quoted in which Joseph and Mary are called his parents. Seeing that you have been foolish enough to persuade yourself that the Greek manuscripts are corrupt, you will perhaps plead the diversity of readings.” (Helv. 16 (18); NPNF 2.6, 343)

So given Jerome’s charge, it is clear Helvidius had argued that the Greek tradition was corrupt in Luke 2:33, but the Latin was not. If this is so, we have another instance of a Latin writer — besides the anonymous Ambrosiaster (Comm. Rom 5:14) — who defends the Old Latin version ostensibly under the conviction that it preserved the old reading, where the Greek text had been corrupted. [3]

The Textual Evidence

Considering the textual evidence, it is clear that with the sole two exceptions of Codex Bezae (d) and Evangelium Gatianum (gat), the Old Latin gospels support Helvidius with iosef/ioseph: a aur b β c d e f ff2 l q r1. But the Latin column of Codex Bezae, like the Greek, sides with א B L W 1 131 700 1241 1582* and the versions Ss Sh mg Cs Cb (mss.) Gg (I.II) OS.

Here we have evidence that Bezae’s bilingual text is not entirely related to the Old Latin version. In the present case, it is clear that Bezae’s Greek column attests the reading of its Greek exemplar. But how do we explain the Latin column? Every indication suggests that Helvidius attests the predominant Old Latin reading, so it appears there are (at least) two possible explanations for Bezae’s Latin reading:

On the one hand, it is possible that D reflects the exemplar of an old layer of the Latin tradition preserved in d, that predates the introduction of the variant reading ioseph in the rest of the Old Latin version. But if D’s reading were truly the oldest Latin reading, it is striking that no other Latin witness follows this reading except the relatively late Gatianum. We might have expected at least one of the African-influenced MSS (c and e) or the early European MS (a) to have kept the old reading or at least to show signs of disturbance.

On the other hand, the alignment of the main Old Latin traditions and the isolation of d may indicate that its reading pater eius is fairly recent. It may even reflect a deliberate reaction to the Old Latin reading and selection of the Greek reading based on specific interests and concerns of Bezae’s producers. But what might these have been?

Bezae’s adoption of the Greek reading

Although Helvidius was never formally condemned, in subsequent decades, those with similar views did not fare so well, such as Jovinian, who was condemned by a Roman synod in 393. To the astute observer in the Latin West it would have been clear that any association with questionable proof texts of a proponent of low Mariology posed a certain liability. Indeed, we have reason to believe that Helvidius’ writings were initially well-known, because Jerome begrudgingly acknowledges the extent of the “scandal” they had instigated (Helv. 1). At the end of the fifth century, Gennadius still remembers Helvidius’ writings:

Helvidius … wrote, indeed, with zeal for religion but not according to knowledge, a book, polished neither in language nor in reasoning, a work in which he so attempted to twist the meaning of the Holy Scriptures to his own perversity, as to venture to assert on their testimony that Joseph and Mary, after the nativity of our Lord, had children who were called brothers of the Lord. In reply to his perverseness Jerome, published a book against him, well filled with scripture proofs (Vir. ill. 33; NPNF 2.3, 391-392)

But if d alone rejects an otherwise solid Old Latin reading that is nevertheless definitely attested as a key proof text of a writer who “attempted to twist the meaning of the Holy Scriptures to his own perversity” using a well-known variant of Luke 2:33, it seems not unlikely that this reflects a sense of caution in distancing Bezae’s text from potentially sensitive associations.

When we consider Bezae’s other well-known tendencies in the context of the latter fourth century (see this post for some examples), they tend to be consistent with a conservative, ecclesiastical, and even Roman perspective (e.g. promoting Peter, favorable to Roman officials) that reflects contemporary concerns of church order (e.g. the autonomy of female lay ascetics), discipline (e.g. Christian “Judaizing”), and doctrine (e.g. the consubstantiality of the Holy Spirit). If Bezae’s text developed in an ecclesiastical setting, as suggested by its initial corrector (G), we should expect a real hypersensitivity to heretical opinions and a self-conscious effort to distance the text from any party suspected of heresy. If this analysis is correct, the Greek reading was followed in Luke 2:33 because the Old Latin had strayed in a potentially dangerous direction.

What might this imply about Bezae?

If Bezae’s Latin reading in Luke 2:33 is not an old reading, but a recent correction to the Greek column, this might suggest that in its bilingual tradition, the Latin column was constructed with reference to the Greek column. (Of course the latter may have come about in a variety of ways, including the selective correction a Greek base to one or more Old Latin copies.) When the Greek reading was selected in Luke 2:33, the Latin column was translated and updated to reflect this reading, creating the (correct) impression that the Greek reading is the exemplar of the Latin.

It is possible to see now how a “layered” effect might have been achieved in Bezae’s Greek text through a process of selective correction of a Greek base to a reconstruction of one or more Old Latin versions. In such a model, the Greek layers reveal characteristics of the initial Greek exemplar of Bezae’s bilingual tradition, while the layers aligned with the versions reflect the well-known “free” characteristics. This two-layered model accounts for cases, as in Luke 2:33, where Bezae’s Latin column follows the Greek column in preference to the Old Latin version, while also allowing for the general resemblance of both columns to the Old Latin version.

Ironically, Helvidius’ sponsorship of the Old Latin reading in Luke 2:33 may have led to its ultimate rejection from a tradition otherwise well-inclined to preserve Latin readings. In another case, a writer who promoted Old Latin readings did not leave his name to posterity. But perhaps he knew that if he had, we would not have his writings at all.

[1] B. M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (2nd ed.; Stuttgart, 1994) 111. Presumably Metzger is not referring literally to a virgin birth (virginitas in partu), but to the virginal conception.

[2] He suggests they are most likely children of Mary’s sister (first cousins) (Helv. 14 [= NPNF 16]), but it seems this in-law relationship does not quite fit the paternitas scheme.

[3] This raises the question as to the identity of Ambrosiaster and Helvidius with the same individual, which as far as I know has not been proposed. This identification would face a few problems. First, Jerome refers to Helvidius disparagingly by name, but prefers to allude to Ambrosiaster indirectly without naming him. Second, it is generally thought that Helvidius was a lay person (see Helv. 1), but it seems Ambrosiaster a presbyter.