Did a Manichaean tract inspire Bezae’s Lukan genealogy?

In an earlier post, I noted that the synoptic genealogies of Jesus were not necessarily perceived as being in tension before the third century. Celsus, for example, seems to have taken for granted that the genealogies belonged to Joseph and Mary respectively, while Tatian objected not to the discrepancies between the genealogies but rather to their mention of David.1

Yet by the end of the fourth century, the perceived incompatibility of the Matthean and Lukan genealogies as competing accounts of Joseph’s lineage had most certainly come to be regarded as a significant problem requiring resolution.2 So we find writers such as Ambrosiaster (c. 366-384) building an apologetic case for the integrity of the two genealogies. In his Quaestiones veteris et novi testamenti, Ambrosiaster devotes no fewer than six of his 127 questions to the genealogy of Jesus.3

Questio 56 on the Old Testament addresses conflicts between the Matthean and Lukan genealogy:

“Why is it that in Matthew the father of Joseph is written ‘Jacob’ and in Luke ‘Heli’?” (trans. mine)4

While in Questio 85, Ambrosiaster queries:

“Since it is clear that from David to the Babylonian exile there were seventeen generations, why does the evangelist say fourteen, passing over Ahaziah, who after Jehoram is son of Jehoshaphat and Joash son of Ahaziah and Amaziah son of Joash?” (trans. mine)

Of course, Ambrosiaster offers his own explanations for each question. But it is significant that Bezae’s genealogy also resolves these same questions by harmonization. It is clear from this that Bezae’s Lukan genealogy fits naturally in the same late fourth-century context that ultimately produced the manuscript.

Still we might wonder why Bezae’s producers were willing to take such drastic measures in erasing so much of Luke’s text. At eighty words of the mainstream text, the section replaced in Bezae amounts to one of the longest deliberate excisions of material in the New Testament.5 Bezae’s variant makes even the longest of F. J. A. Hort’s so-called “Western non-interpolations” look like small change indeed! But was the problem of the genealogy really such a burden to the religious life of the community in which Bezae’s text was produced?

One clue may lie in Augustine’s response to the Manichaean bishop, Faustus of Milevis, in Contra Faustum Manichaeum (401/402), a work allegedly motivated by the questions of Augustine’s congregation concerning Faustus’ tract against Christianity.6 According to Augustine, Faustus names the discrepancies between the synoptic genealogies as the main obstacle preventing him from accepting the “catholic” view of the incarnation. As he reputedly observes:

“the discrepancy in the genealogies of Luke and Matthew stumbled me, as I knew not which to follow … This is my reason for not believing in the birth of Christ. Remove this difficulty, if you can, by harmonizing the accounts, and I am ready to yield.” (Faust., 3.1; NPNF 1.4, 159)

So according to his opponent, Augustine, Faustus not only prescribes what to do (i.e. “remove this difficulty”), but how to accomplish it (“by harmonizing the accounts”)! Faustus appears to suggest the very solution we find implemented in Bezae!

We should be skeptical, of course, that a leader of Faustus’ stature in the Manichaean church could be swayed from his convictions by merely scrubbing a dozen or so lines! If in fact Faustus really made the claim cited by Augustine, it was doubtless intended rhetorically, though evidently it was taken at face value by some of his Christian readers. But this is precisely the point.

Evidently there was a perception among certain Christians that if only the discrepancies between the genealogies could be resolved, influential Manichaeans like Faustus could be refuted and the Manichaean church at large won to the orthodox faith! We can envision then a real incentive to harmonize the genealogies, much as we find in Bezae’s Luke. But how likely is it that Bezae arose the context of a struggle with Manichaeism?

In fact, if Bezae’s genealogy derives from the same tradition as that of Aphraates, which seems not unlikely (see post), it had appeared already in a context striving against Manichaeism. Earlier in his Demonstrations, Aphraates takes aim at followers of Mani, accusing them of practicing Babylonian arts:

“But even the children of darkness, the impious followers of Mani, lurk in the darkness in the manner of serpents, serving the Chaldean arts and teachings of Babylon.” (Dem. 3.9, translation mine)

But this struggle was not confined to the East. From a Roman context strongly sympathetic to the Old Latin version, Ambrosiaster singles out followers of Mani for special reprobation in his remarks on 2 Timothy 3:6:

Although all sorts of heretics make their way into houses and capture women [regarding 2 Tim 3:6] by tricks and clever words … nevertheless, the description fits the Manichaeans more than others. Nobody else is as troublesome, as deceptive or as harmful as they are, for it is clear that they worship one thing but profess another, and that they act one way inside but preach something quite different outside. They defend holiness yet live wicked lives, something which their law supports. They praise mercy even though they act unjustly toward one another. They claim that the world must be rejected but always go about well dressed. They preach publicly that they insist on fasting, although they are all bloated, even if they wear make-up (which makes them look sickly) in order to deceive people. Therefore the apostle was prophesying about them more than anyone else. … The Emperor Diocletian referred to the Manichaeans in one of his laws, calling them a sordid and impure heresy which had recently emerged from Persia. (Com. 2 Tim. 3:16, translation by Gerald L. Bray, p. 463) 7

Of course, we have already seen that Ambrosiaster takes a special apologetic interest in the synoptic genealogies. As I have suggested in another post, we also find Ambrosiaster working in a context that in many ways seems to resemble that of Bezae’s producers.

Now this is consistent with what we have already come to suspect regarding Bezae’s remarkable harmonization of the Lukan genealogy, namely, that it is simply unnecessary to posit a second-century date for this variant. Faustus’ putative challenge and the concerns of contemporary writers both reveal that the problem of the genealogies was still an open question in the larger church at the end of the fourth century. But if this is so, we have at the time Bezae’s text apparently attained its final form, that is, in the latter fourth century, all of the ingredients necessary to account for a relatively recent revision of the Lukan genealogy.

Footnotes

  1. For the former, see Origen, Contra Celsum 2.32; for the latter, see Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Haereticarum fabularum compendium 1.20
  2. We should bear in mind, of course, that both gospel accounts attribute their lineages to Joseph (Matt 1:16; Luke 3:23).
  3. Quaestiones veteris testamenti 56, 85, and 86 and Quaestiones novi testamenti 5, 6, and 7
  4. In the tradition of Julius Africanus and Eusebius of Caesarea, Ambrosiaster appeals to the custom of Levirate marriage to account for the discrepancy.
  5. Its rank depends on which “minuses” we regard as “omissions.” While strictly a “substitution,” the net result is loss of the replaced material.
  6. Augustine refers to Faustus as a bishop in Confessions 5.2.3.
  7. Ambrosiaster, Commentaries on Galatians-Philemon (trans. Gerald Lewis Bray; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2009).

2 thoughts on “Did a Manichaean tract inspire Bezae’s Lukan genealogy?

  1. Pete,
    The setting of the historical context is being recognized by many as vital to understanding much about Christianity and its manuscripts, particularly, variants within them. The dating of Bezae being tied to its historical context, at least for me, seems more and more likely. Thanks for the long, hard work.
    Tim

    • Hi Tim,
      I try hard to leave the door open to an early date for Bezae’s text, but it becomes more difficult when late fourth-century evidence often fits Bezae’s characteristics so well. Thanks for recognizing the work that goes into this!
      Pete

What do you think?