Codex Bezae and Latin-Trained Syriac Scribes

Last week I presented a paper at the Eleventh Birmingham Colloquium on the Textual Criticism of the New Testament, as announced in my previous post. In the paper, I examined five classic objections to the theory that Codex Bezae’s Greek text form has appropriated text forms from the Latin version, concluding that none of these objections entirely succeeds in excluding the possibility that Bezae’s collection of distinctive Latin parallels might have arisen as readings in the Old Latin version.

In the discussion following my talk, a sixth objection was raised, namely, that parallels between the Old Latin and Old Syriac suggest that a common source lies behind them both, presumably resembling Bezae’s Greek text.

In my answer, I noted that Bezae’s text form is only distantly related to the Old Syriac, at least in Mark.1 In Mark, for example, Bezae’s text is more closely aligned with the text of Codex Vaticanus. So Bezae is not a good candidate to represent the source of the Old Syriac, at least in this gospel.

Moreover, in my paper, I pointed out that Bezae is unlikely to represent the source of the Old Latin version, which requires no Bezan source to explain its development. Its text forms, where they differ from Greek witnesses, likely arose through translation and inner-versional copying.

So if the Old Latin and Old Syriac require a common source, which is doubtful, a text like Bezae’s is probably not it.

Syriac Traditions in a Greek Text that Borrows Latin Readings

Nevertheless, Bezae’s text form does have a relationship with Syriac traditions, apparently dating to the time after Aphrahat (d. c. 345), as I argue in my essay on Codex Bezae’s Lukan Genealogy, which depends on a list of names found only in Aphrahat. In this case, it is clear that Bezae is not the source of the list in Syriac, because Bezae develops Aphrahat’s list of names, even introducing an erroneous name in the process. So Bezae’s contact with Syriac traditions likely occurred in the latter fourth century, after the time of Aphrahat.

But how are we to explain Syriac contact in a Greek manuscript, whose text form seems to borrow from the Latin version?

One explanation relates to contact between the Greek and Latin languages in the East, where Bezae was likely produced.2 There was little if any true bilingualism in the East at the time of Bezae’s production. The situation is best described as diglossia, the side-by-side coexistence of languages in separate domains, where the use of Latin was confined primarily to official contexts, namely, the military, the civil administration, and the law.3

If Bezae was produced in such a context, it is unlikely to have been prepared for a bilingual congregation. Even in centers of Roman culture in the East, such as Berytus, the churches were Greek speaking.4

It is likely then that the Latin version of Bezae’s Latin parallels and Latin column was approached as a written source, much like the Latin legal documents of the law school. Indeed, Bezae’s legal script supplies a valuable clue that its production took place at or near a legal center, such as Berytus, or among individuals who had received their training at such a legal center.5

John of Palestine: A Latin-Trained, Syriac-Speaking Scribe

In his account of the Christian community at Berytus in the latter fifth century, Zacharias of Mytilene describes a certain John of Palestine, a monk at the monastery of Saint Jude, just outside of Berytus, who

after training in the law, had consecrated himself to God in that church [of Jude], adopting the philosophical life-style … [and had] benefited many of those studying law in that city, … because of the (collection of) Christian books that he owned, which he shared and gave out.6

The fact that John had amassed a collection of books suggests that he was a scribe. After all, an individual ascetic would have had little other means by which to acquire books.

As a well-educated native of Palestine, we can assume that John was fluent in both Greek and Aramaic, while as a former law student, he would have been literate in both Greek and Latin. So in John of Palestine we find a Latin-trained, Syriac-speaking scribe.

Peter of Iberia’s Recruitment of Latin-Trained Monks in Palestine

Apparently, John was not alone among the Latin-trained monks of Syria and Palestine. In his account of Peter the Iberian, John Rufus describes Peter’s deliberate recruitment of law students to his monastic community:

When he [Peter] came to Beirut, he was recognized immediately by the young lawyers, his acquaintances from Palestine and from Alexandria … Some of them while he was still alive and some after his departure would reject the vanity of the world and run to him.7

Among Peter’s law recruits identified by Rufus (who was also trained at Berytus) were Theodore of Ascalon, Anastasios of Edessa, and Elisha of Lycia, all former students of the law school at Berytus. Rufus describes how Peter had received a vision instructing him specifically to recruit lawyers to his monastic community:

God wanted that there should be offered to him also from [among] the lawyers rational sacrifices and whole burnt offerings, able to carry his cross and follow him, like Basil and Gregory and John and Arsenius, and those who are like them in zeal.8

But every one of these recruits must have known Latin, because Roman law was promulgated in Latin, even in the East, down through the time of Justinian. So we cannot assume that Latin was wholly unfamiliar among the monks of Syria and Palestine. A Greek text such as Bezae’s, accompanied by a Latin column, would not have been entirely inaccessible in the Syriac world among those trained in law who inhabited its monastic communities.

Bezae’s Text and Miaphysite Monasticism in Syria, Palestine, and Egypt

Therefore, when we encounter errors in Bezae suggesting that its producers were not fully competent in literary Latin and Greek, a natural inference is that their native language was neither Greek nor Latin, but a third language, such as Syriac.9 Here we find a second clue as to Bezae’s origins, linking it potentially with the monastic communities of Syria and Palestine (and, ultimately, Egypt) among those trained in Roman law.

As the Chalcedonian settlement split apart the Eastern church, it is not difficult to imagine such a text ending up among the miaphysite communities of middle Egypt, where something like it appears in Codex Glazier, and still later in the Harklean marginal notes of Acts, produced outside of Alexandria by the Syrian miaphysite, Thomas of Mabug. So exchange between the monastic communities of Syria, Palestine, and Egypt supplies one explanation for the appearance of Bezan text forms in Syriac and Coptic. This more refined theory is at least as plausible as the usual theory that Bezae’s text form represents the original source behind both the Latin and Syriac versions.


  1. A. Martin, “Le palimpseste syriaque du Sinai et le codex de Bèze” in Codex Bezae: Studies from the Lunel Colloquium, June, 1994 (ed. D. C. Parker and C.-B. Amphoux; (Leiden: Brill, 1996) 248-254.
  2. J. N. Birdsall, “The geographical and cultural origin of the Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis” in Studien Zum Text Und Zur Ethik Des Neuen Testaments (ed. W. Schrage; Berlin: De Gruyter, 1986) 102-114 at 108-109; D. C. Parker, Codex Bezae: An early Christian manuscript and its text (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992) 28, 266.
  3. J.-L. Fournet, “The Multilingual Environment of Late Antique Egypt: Greek, Latin, Coptic, and Persian Documentation” in The Oxford Handbook of Papyrology (ed. R. Bagnall; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009) 420-430 at 424; J. N. Adams, Bilingualism and the Latin Language (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003) 754; F. Millar, A Greek Roman Empire: Power and Belief under Theodosius II (408-450) (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006) 2.
  4. Contrary to earlier (near) consensus opinion, the language of the law school was likely Greek as well. See F. Schulz, History of Roman Legal Science (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1953) 276; R. Cribiore, The School of Libanius in Late Antique Antioch (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007) 207-209.
  5. B. Bischoff, Latin palaeography: antiquity and the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990) 74. For good reason, Parker suggests Berytus as a potential provenance for Bezae’s production. See Parker, Bezae, 266-278.
  6. Zacharias of Mytilene, Vita Severi 126 (S. Brock, ed., 85).
  7. John Rufus, Vita Petri 152 (Horn and Phenix, eds., 225).
  8. John Rufus, Vita Petri 150 (Horn and Phenix, eds., 223).
  9. J. J. Wettstein described Bezae’s scribe as “skilled in calligraphy rather than in either the Greek or Latin language.” Prolegomena ad Novi Testamenti Graeci editionem (Amsterdam, 1751) 30.

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