Presenting on Bezae’s Scribal Habits at the ISBL Conference in Berlin

Due to the demands of writing my dissertation, it has been far too long since I last posted.1 In the coming weeks, I plan another post providing (as far as I am permitted) a general sense of my work in this area.

This week I will be presenting at the International SBL conference in Berlin. A huge benefit of living in Germany is that the trip is a mere hop on the Bahn.

At the conference, I will present on an important aspect of Bezae’s text that I have explored little to date, namely, the issue of scribal habits. It turns out that bilingual codices and (in particular) Bezae present various unique challenges in proceeding with Colwell’s method of deducing scribal habits from apparent singular readings.

J. R. Royse already mentions the problem of Bezae’s numerous readings that are singular only in Greek, but well-attested in the versions and early Christian writers:

“a list of ‘singulars’ of D that failed to consider the Old Latin (and perhaps other versional material) would be quite misleading, since the list would include readings of D that are evidently part of a much older tradition.”2

But there are other issues and questions.

For example, how do we even define a singular reading in a bilingual codex? Is a reading that appears in both columns of Bezae but nowhere else actually singular?

We find such a case in Mark 1:13, where both columns state, not that “the spirit,” but that “the Holy Spirit,” sent Jesus out into the desert, a reading found in no other Greek or versional witness.3

My suggestion is that such readings should not be considered singular for the purpose of scribal habits. In such cases, the scribe prepared two separate transcriptions of the reading in different languages — so clearly it is no accident. The question is whether the scribe inserted such readings in both columns during transcription, a habit that would require translation each time to maintain balance between the columns (an evident concern in Bezae’s tradition). It seems more likely to me that the scribe copied such readings from the exemplar.

Another problem is readings that appear nowhere else in any tradition, but which seem too substantial to credit to a scribe acting alone. For example, Bezae’s so-called Sabbath worker pericope at Luke 6:5 is found in no other witness or early Christian writer. But at twenty-eight words, it is difficult to conceive of this significant change to the gospel narrative in terms of the habits of a scribe.

Then there is the problem of the scribe working in two languages. In Bezae’s case, the scribe, while perhaps not a native Latin speaker, is nevertheless more comfortable in Latin than in Greek. As David Parker observes:

“the scribe was a Latin speaker – he wrote the Latin as he would hear it, but the Greek as he saw it.”4

One result of this discrepancy is that we can expect different habits in Bezae’s two columns. For example, we should interpret orthographical singularities differently depending on the column in which they occur. While on the Greek side, they are more likely to reflect ignorance or unfamiliarity, on the Latin side, they are more likely to reflect habitual preferences. Ultimately then we have two sets of scribal habits that we must combine into a single picture of the scribe.

From an initial examination of Bezae’s singular readings, my sense is that the greater part of significant singulars in Bezae derive from its traditions rather than its scribe. One reason for this has to do with the practical constraints imposed by the bilingual format on its two matching texts. The presence of two texts offers a constant control against various common types of error, with each column providing a reference against which to check the accuracy of the other column. For example, in the case of scribal leaps, it is immediately apparent when the number of lines does not match in the facing column. In this way, the bilingual structure provides a kind of “safety apparatus” around the text.

I look forward to a great discussion.


  1. I want to thank Timothy Joseph for (gently) reminding me how long it has been!
  2. James R. Royse, Scribal Habits in Early Greek New Testament Papyri (Leiden: Brill, 2008) 71-72.
  3. Based on transcriptions at the VMR site.
  4. D. C. Parker, Codex Bezae: An early Christian manuscript and its text (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992) 108.

What do you think?