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.)


  1. sed multo saepius deflexit idem, quoties ex Latinis sive Versione Itala fecit Graeca. Wettstein, Prolegomena (1751) 32. (translation mine)
  2. For example, J. D. Michaelis and H. Marsh, who believe they have disproved Latin influence on Bezae’s Greek text by citing the influence of Bezae’s Greek column on its Latin column.
  3. Anceps illa quaestio, de codicibus graecis ad latinos informatis et mutatis.Illud facile invenimus, in graecorum scriptorum codicibus, per varias graecos prouincias, insignes varietates lectionum fuisse, iam a seculo 3. 4 et 5to. J. S. Semler, Apparatus ad liberalem Novi Testamenti interpretationem (1767) 44–45. (translation mine)
  4. Erasmus, R. Simon, Millius, Bengelius, Wetstenius, aliique omnes fere critici ex isto graecorum codicum numero, quos iam propius cognouimus, multos designant, latinizantes, seu ad latinum textum refictos; quia conueniant eum vulgata, aut latina quadam translatione. Sed nos vel una ista obseruatione satis sententiae eius vim repellimus; latina exemplaria fuisse olim ex eodem graeco codice translata, e quo multa alia graeca exempla fuerunt descripta. Cum autem graecorum codicum iam olim fuerit magna varietas: latinae etiam plures numero translationes iam Hieronymi et Augustini tempore exstiterunt ex illis graecis derivatae; cum quibus latinis si iam quidam graeci libri conueniunt, profecto hoc non ideo fit, quod sint graeci hi libri ad ista latina exempla semper mutati. Semler, Apparatus, 45 (italics mine). Of course, there is a methodological problem in attempting to extrapolate the diversity of the Greek tradition through the multiplicity of Latin witnesses extant at the time of Jerome and Augustine. These Latin witnesses are likely to be copies within the Latin tradition of the same initial translation rather than independent pointers to a lost Greek tradition.
  5. On Bezae’s parallels with early Christian writers, see this post.

2 thoughts on “Can Greek manuscripts account for Bezae’s variation?

  1. Peter,
    First, good to see you posting again!
    Second, if we assume that the variations are a result of translations, which based on the data, seems more likely to me and we give Bezae a fifth Century date, how does this affect your dating of the Old Latin if at all. At a quick glance, it seems that as long as the OL existed prior to 5th Century, which I think most agree, then how much before is inconsequential in this case.


    • Thanks, Tim! Good to hear from you as well.

      The dating of the Old Latin version itself is not directly affected (as you note), since we’re regarding it as a potential source of influence on the Greek tradition. Nevertheless, a high degree of activity within the Latin tradition does seem to make it more plausible that its influence could spill over into other traditions, especially if those working within the tradition were operating under the conviction that its readings were somehow better than those of the Greek tradition. In fact, the conditions seem to be right towards the end of the fourth century, when we find a general opinion in the prevailing “orthodox” circles that the Greek-speaking church had been corrupted by a half-century of homoiousian dominance, which the West had more successfully avoided. At the same time we also see signs of activity (both translational and editorial) within the Latin tradition and a growing assertiveness of the Roman See. Of course, whether or not this opened the door for Latin readings to make it out of the tradition is a separate question, but one that I think should not be too readily dismissed.

What do you think?