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.

What do you think?