Ambrosiaster and the Producers of Codex Bezae

Whether or not we regard the greater part of Codex Bezae’s text form as an ancient second-century text form, it is beyond dispute that the text as we now have it in its final form — scribal peculiarities and all — is, strictly speaking, a product of the early fifth-century context in which the manuscript was produced in ca. 400.

Though we might debate whether the substance and shape of that text is of the highest antiquity or something more recent, we are forced to acknowledge that the text itself, like the manuscript that transmits it, is an artifact of a particular context in which the words, as written, flowed from the pen of the scribe.

A natural first question then is what motivated Bezae’s producers to produce this specific text form at this specific time, given the range of competing text forms available at the turn of the fifth century. Was the goal to preserve an antiquarian curiosity for the benefit of subsequent generations? Or was there some other more strategic objective?

One way to consider this question is to inquire as to which known participants or contexts at the turn of the fifth century might have regarded a text form of the kind found in Codex Bezae with such exceptional interest as to prepare it for transcription at great cost in time and resources. Certainly, a community with some stake in both the Greek and Latin traditions would be a minimal expectation.

In an article that has just recently become available, “Ambrosiaster’s Three Criteria of the True Text and a Possible Fourth-Century Background for Bezae’s Bilingual Tradition,” I examine one such participant, the pseudonymous Latin writer known as Ambrosiaster, who was active in Rome from the 360’s through the 380’s CE.1 The intriguing thing about Ambrosiaster is that he seems to have thought about the Greek and Latin versions in a manner that is suggested also by the presentation of the Greek and Latin columns in Bezae’s bilingual tradition.

In the article, I draw several parallels between Ambrosiaster’s attitude regarding the Greek and Latin versions and the presentation of these versions in Codex Bezae. For example:

  1. Ambrosiaster’s appeal to extrinsic factors, such as reason, history, and authority, as the final arbiters of competing text forms, rather than necessarily the letter of the Greek text, supplies a consistent rationale for the free approach to the Greek tradition we encounter in Bezae’s own text form.
  2. Ambrosiaster’s defense of the Old Latin version as more authoritative than the Greek text of his day assumes that the contemporary Latin version could stand on equal footing with an appropriate archaic — or, indeed, archaizing — Greek text form, as implied by the presentation of Bezae’s Greek and Latin columns.
  3. Ambrosiaster’s critique of the Vulgate would have been well-served by the presentation of mutually corroborating Greek and Latin columns, such as we find in Bezae’s bilingual tradition, in which the Greek column might be taken as a putative Vorlage of the Old Latin text form found in the opposite column.

While we can assume no necessary direct relationship between Ambrosiaster and Bezae’s producers, the compatibility of their perspectives should caution us about assigning Bezae’s text form too readily to the very earliest centuries of Christianity or too hastily dismissing the possibility that Latin readings might in some ways have shaped its final Greek text form.