Why does Augustine urge correctors to consult Greek texts … if necessary?

In my previous post, I pointed to the disparity between the Latin and Greek traditions in their respective capacities to account economically for Bezae’s distinctive Latin parallels in the gospels. Since there is no evidence that much of Bezae’s Latin-affiliated variation ever existed in the Greek tradition, while strong parallels exist in Latin, it seems the simpler hypothesis would be that Bezae’s distinctive readings originated in the Latin tradition. Yet given that the Greek tradition is the ultimate source of the Latin version, surely we need good reason to conjecture that a Greek text form may be influenced by readings in the secondary Latin tradition.

One fundamental requirement is a historical context in which the natural flow of influence from Greek to Latin might be reversed, for example, where it was believed that the Latin tradition was more pure or reliable than the Greek. In such a context, we have a ready motive for the alteration of Greek texts to a Latin model.

As I have noted elsewhere, we do find such a belief expressed by Ambrosiaster (Com. Rom. 5.14), who argues that the contemporary Latin tradition is more pure than any contemporary Greek witnesses, which have passed through the hands of recent (Arian) heretics and controversialists, who are willing to change the text to win an argument. While Ambrosiaster is explicit that the ancient Greek tradition is ultimately authoritative, he believes it is simply no longer accessible, at least in Greek. He argues rather that the antiquity of the Latin tradition and its relative isolation from recent Arian dominance support its purity in relation to the contemporary Greek tradition. As for diversity within the Latin tradition, Ambrosiaster believes that the true text is found in the ancient Latin writers, such as Tertullian, Cyprian, and Victorinus, essentially in the so-called “African” tradition.

But Ambrosiaster is not our only evidence of partiality to the Latin tradition. In De doctrina christiana (396–397), Augustine urges his readers three times in one paragraph to correct Latin texts to the Greek version. He begins by insisting:

“to correct the Latin we must use the Greek versions.” (2.22; NPNF 1.2, 542)

So like Ambrosiaster, Augustine affirms the ultimate authority of the Greek tradition. But while Augustine does not insist that the Latin tradition is more pure than the Greek, it is apparent that some of his readers may take Ambrosiaster’s view. Why else would Augustine insist that Latin texts are to be corrected to the Greek unless there were some who were correcting Latin texts to other Latin texts? While it is possible that (rather than from conviction) some of these correctors simply did not know Greek well enough to use the Greek text, Augustine’s exhortation implies that at least some of these correctors were capable of using Greek, but still deferred to the Latin. For some of Augustine’s readers, the authority of the Greek tradition was apparently not taken for granted.

But there is a certain ambivalence to the Greek tradition on Augustine’s part as well. Referring to Old Testament translations, Augustine qualifies his exhortation with a conditional expression, urging correctors to appeal to Greek texts “if necessary” (si necesse fuerit):

“The Latin texts, therefore, of the Old Testament are, as I was about to say, to be corrected if necessary by the authority of the Greeks” (2.22; NPNF 1.2, 542, italics mine)1

Of course, Augustine may simply want to acknowledge that not every text requires correction. But is that not obvious? It seems the qualification expresses a deeper hesitation. Perhaps we have here a hint of ambivalence on Augustine’s part towards altering the Latin text. Augustine affirms the final authority of the Greek tradition in principle, but at the same time wants to limit correction to cases that are specifically necessary. Augustine refers to the New Testament with similar qualifications:

“again, if any perplexity arises from the diversities of the Latin texts, we must of course yield to the Greek, especially those that are found in the churches of greater learning and research.” (2.22; NPNF 1.2, 543, italics mine)2

With the conditional expression, “if any perplexity arises from the diversities of the Latin texts” (si quid in Latinis varietatibus titubat), Augustine suggests that perplexity does not necessarily result when encountering the diversity of the Latin tradition. But if such perplexity is avoidable, as Augustine suggests, there is then no need to yield to the Greek.

But how are Latin correctors to judge that a correction is necessary without consulting a Greek text? How are they to avoid perplexity when confronted with multiple Latin text forms?

In fact, Augustine has just affirmed the superiority of what he calls the “Italian” (Latin) translation:3

“among translations themselves the Italian (Itala) is to be preferred to the others, for it keeps closer to the words without prejudice to clearness of expression.” (2.22; NPNF 1.2, 542)

According to Augustine, this Italian translation is more literal (“keeps closer to the words”) and less prone to smoothing over potential difficulties (“without prejudice to clearness of expression”). While Ambrosiaster had only recently appealed to the authority of the “African” tradition on the basis of its presumed antiquity, Augustine appeals to the “Italian” translation on the basis of its apparent literalness.

So it appears there were some in the Latin West at the turn of the fifth century, Augustine included, who considered a particular Latin text form to be authoritative within the Latin tradition. We wonder then how a bilingual Latin corrector, convinced of the superiority of a particular Latin tradition, might have responded to a Greek text that diverged in a substantial way from this tradition? Would such a corrector necessarily yield to the Greek text as a representative of the larger Greek tradition? If this corrector believed his Latin version to be a superior representation of the initial Greek, it no longer seems so implausible that a Greek text might be corrected to a Latin text form, even in cases where the Latin text form in fact had little or no Greek support.


  1. Latini ergo, ut dicere coeperam, codices veteris testamenti, si necesse fuerit, Graecorum auctoritate emendandi sunt.
  2. Libros autem novi testamenti, si quid in Latinis varietatibus titubat, Graecis cedere oportere non dubium est.
  3. As Hugh Houghton observes, Augustine’s term Itala is best understood in a geographical sense, as referring to a text form from Italy. See H. A. G. Houghton, The Latin New Testament: A Guide to its Early History, Texts, and Manuscripts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016) 15.

What do you think?