Can Greek manuscripts account for Bezae’s variation?

Bezae’s distinctive parallels with the Latin tradition are well known in the gospels. The so-called “Western non-interpolations” are among the better known examples. In Luke 22:19-20, for example, Bezae sides with VL(3 8 10 17) against all other Greek witnesses. Of course, Bezae is the earliest Greek manuscript to attest two of the more spectacular gospel variations, both well-represented in the Old Latin tradition, the pericope adulterae with VL(2 6 8 15 14) and the Markan long ending with VL(6 8 10 13 15 16). Bezae also stands alone with the Latin in some notable shorter variants, such as the angry Jesus reading in Mark 1:41 with VL(3 8 14) and the variant cry of dereliction in Mark 15:34 with VL(1 6 17). In these and many other places, Bezae stands out as the only (or earliest) Greek manuscript to attest distinctive Latin readings.

Now it is generally assumed that Bezae represents the source tradition of these peculiar Latin readings. But every parallel has two possible directions. The Greek-source hypothesis is not the only possibility.

Before J. S. Semler (1725–1791), Bezae’s Latin parallels were routinely ascribed to Latin influence. For example, Semler’s mentor J. J. Wettstein (1693–1754) argued that Bezae’s Greek text had been systematically adapted to readings from at least two Latin traditions. Commenting on the scribe’s introduction of divergent text forms from the Latin, Wettstein writes:

“very often he made the Greek according to either the Latin or Italian version.” 1

Noteworthy is Wettstein’s explicit attribution of Bezae’s peculiarities to deliberate conformity of the Greek text to multiple Latin traditions. Significantly, Wettstein makes no claim that Bezae’s distinctive variations derive from its own Latin column, but rather from the broader Latin tradition, a point that has often been missed by subsequent critics. 2

Semler eventually reversed his opinion from that of Wettstein, arguing that sufficient diversity existed within the Greek tradition to account for Bezae’s variation:

“It is a dubious assertion that the Greek codices have been influenced and altered to the Latin. … We discover this by just looking at the codices written in Greek throughout the various Greek provinces. Noteworthy variations were already in place in the third, fourth, and fifth centuries.” 3

According to Semler, it is easier to suppose that Bezae’s Greek text came from a divergent tradition that lies behind the various Latin translations. Noting the number and variety of Greek witnesses discovered in his time, Semler argues that the diversity (magna varietas) of the Greek tradition is sufficient to account for the readings found in Bezae:

“Erasmus, R. Simon, Mill, Bengel, Wettstein, and nearly all other critics of this mass of Greek codices, which already more recently we have become acquainted with, designated the great multitude Latinized, that is, conformed to the Latin text because they agree with the Vulgate or a certain Latin translation. But we reject this with a single decisive observation, namely, that the Latin copies were originally translated from the same Greek codices from which many Greek copies of a different kind [i.e. Bezae’s] were transcribed. Among the Greek codices there was already at that time great variety, for a great many Latin translations already existed at the time of Jerome and Augustine derived from these Greek codices. Therefore, it certainly did not happen that these Greek books could ever have been altered to those Latin copies with which they already agreed.” 4

So in Semler’s view, there is no need to appeal to Latin codices to account for readings found in Bezae.

But can the diversity of the Greek tradition by itself account for Bezae’s distinctive Latin parallels? It is now clear that even the full Greek tradition leaves us short in accounting for Bezae’s unusual text form. As evident from results published in Text und Textwert, Bezae remains with an abundance of singular Greek readings even when we consider the entire surviving Greek tradition.

Here are the percentages of singular readings in Bezae by book according to Text und Textwert:

Book Witnesses Teststellen Singular Readings % Singular Readings
Matthew 1757 53 6 11.32%
Mark 1754 192 36 18.75%
Luke 1756 53 8 15.09%
John 1763 126 13 10.32%
Acts 607 72 31 43.06%

Clearly the diversity of the Greek tradition cannot by itself account for the full scope of Bezae’s distinctive variation, ranging from ten percent in John to over forty percent in Acts against over 1500 witnesses to each gospel and over six hundred witnesses in Acts. Is it plausible that so many readings generated in the first few centuries were subsequently lost to the Greek tradition from which they presumably derived, only to resurface in translation? Until a satisfactory answer is given, it seems premature to rule out any plausible alternative.

On the other hand, is it not more plausible to ascribe this surplus of variation to readings that we know already existed, even in another version? 5 Perhaps these variations arose in translation or entirely within the Latin tradition. Surely some Latin translators active at the time of Jerome and Augustine were capable of translating select passages into Greek. It seems all we require is a motive.

(On possible motives for Latin assimilation, see here and here.)