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.)

How old are the Old Latin gospels?

In the second edition of his Introduction and Appendix (1896), B. F. Westcott (1825-1901) suggested a novel criterion to assess so-called external evidence, namely, that the convergence of the Old Latin manuscript 1 (k) with the recently-discovered Sinaitic Syriac palimpsest (sys) could signal a text form of greater antiquity than the combined witness of Codices Vaticanus and Sinaiticus:

“The discovery of the Sinaitic MS of the Old Syriac raises the question whether the combination of the oldest types of the Syriac and Latin texts can outweigh the combination of the primary Greek texts. A careful examination of the passages in which syr.sin and k are arrayed against אB would point to the conclusion.”1

Christened a “methodological formula” by A. Vööbus and, rather dramatically, a “deathbed confession” by W. L. Petersen, Westcott’s “criterion” gained some acceptance, judging from the range of scholars who cited it.2 Yet we wonder whether — with F. J. A. Hort (1828-1892) no longer in the picture as a voice of restraint — Westcott’s remarks reflect a degree of sensationalism following Agnes Lewis’s recent discovery of the Sinaitic Syriac palimpsest in 1892.

No doubt a certain mystique surrounds the early versions. This aura of antiquity can be felt in their weighty titles, Vetus Latina and Vetus Syra. It is only enhanced by the abundance of free text forms they attest, thought to evoke the earliest stages of the New Testament text. Indeed, the Latin and Syriac versions are cited in support of a variety of seemingly ancient traditions, from the pericope adulterae to reports of a light or fire on the Jordan to a range of other traditions. Of course, since the attesting manuscripts tend to be much later than the period of interest, it is routinely noted that the dates of manuscripts matter less than the dates of the texts they contain, which of course may be several centuries older.

But how certain can we be that these particular texts as found in the Old Latin and Old Syriac gospels are very much older than their manuscripts? How reliable is the impression of age of their text forms? Can they somehow transport us behind the Greek tradition?

Examining the evidence, it is difficult to see how. Bobbiensis’s text likely dates to a generation or so before Cyprian, perhaps to the 230’s, as Tertullian betrays no knowledge of it.3 The Sinaitic Syriac text is difficult to date, but while perhaps influenced by earlier material seems itself not much earlier than the fourth century — not much earlier indeed than the Greek witnesses it is said possibly to preempt.4 And turning to the manuscripts themselves, we find in the case of the Old Latin that they date mainly to the fifth century:5

MS/Nr Name Contents Date Place
e 2 Palatinus Gospels V Italy
b 4 Veronensis Gospels Late V Italy
d 5 Bezae Cantabrigiensis Gospels,Acts c. 400 Berytus
ff2 8 Corbiensis Gospels V Italy
h 12 Claromontanus Matthew Late V Italy
n 16 Sangallense Gospels V Italy
i 17 Vindobonensis Luke,Mark Late V Italy
t 19 Bernense Mark Late V Italy (?)

Now at the end of the fourth century, the diversity of the Old Latin tradition is mentioned by more than one writer. Jerome writes in the 380’s:

“the Latin manuscripts of the Scriptures are proved to be faulty by the variations which all of them exhibit.”6

And again:

“We must confess that as we have it in our language it is marked by discrepancies, and now that the stream is distributed into different channels we must go back to the fountainhead [i.e. the Greek].”7

Writing about a decade later in 397, Augustine makes a similar observation, also conceding the priority of the Greek:

“As to the books of the New Testament, again, if any perplexity arises from the diversities of the Latin texts, we must of course yield to the Greek.”8

Augustine tries hard to cast these divergent translations in a positive light:

“the great number of the translators proves a very great assistance, if they are examined and discussed with a careful comparison of their texts.”9

But while Jerome was apparently content to make his own revisions (at least in the gospels), Augustine urges anyone with the requisite skills to correct texts:

“For those who are anxious to know, the Scriptures ought in the first place to use their skill in the correction of the texts, so that the uncorrected ones should give way to the corrected.”10

So as the fourth century drew to a close, we find a context in which various correctors are at work on the Old Latin texts, attempting to correct them to a Greek model.

Yet while Augustine and Jerome could at least agree that Latin texts should be corrected to the Greek, their opinion was by no means the consensus view. Ambrosiaster argues the contrarian position that it is rather the Old Latin that preserves the most ancient available text form, because, as he argues, it agrees with the earliest Christian writers in the Latin tradition:

“it is well-known that very long ago native Latin speakers translated the text we now have from ancient Greek codices, which the innocence of former times has safeguarded and now certifies to us without corruption. … For the text retained today in the Latin codices is found the same in the ancients, Tertullian, Victorinus, and Cyprian.”11

The picture emerges then of a tradition still in flux at the turn of the fifth century, whose text had lost the confidence of its readers, who at the same time sought to affirm its value through their corrections. But with no common criteria for “correcting” the text, the instability of the tradition as a whole could only have been increasing at this time. Given that most of our best witnesses to this tradition date from after this period of instability, we are left wondering how we are to distinguish between ancient traditions and recent corrections. But if this is so, how can these traditions offer us any useful glimpse behind the Greek text?

Has Aramaic influence on Codex Bezae been disproved?

In two recent posts, I have considered theories of the origins of Codex Bezae’s Greek text based on assimilation to one or more strains of the Old Latin version. But in his Textual Commentary, B. M. Metzger also lists several theories of Semitic influence, including those of F. H. Chase, J. Wellhausen, C. C. Torrey, A. J. Wensinck, and M. Black. [1]

One intriguing theory is that of C. C. Torrey, who argued that Bezae developed from a retroversion of an Aramaic Targum of the gospels. Torrey writes:

“There is very good reason to believe that an especially able and complete (also occasionally expanded) retroversion into Aramaic, an ‘original’ gospel very widely celebrated in its time (early second century?) and therefore translated into Greek with constant employment (from memory?) of the wording of the standard Greek text of that day, was the origin of our Codex Bezae and the ‘Western’ text.” [2]

Torrey’s theory is appealing for a number of reasons. For example:

  1. If we accept that Bezae’s features imply a Semitic influence, then a historical context among Aramaic-speaking Jewish Christians supplies a compelling motive for an initial translation that might explain some of Bezae’s variation.
  2. The expansive character of Bezae’s text is consistent with the interpretive and storytelling elements we expect to find in a Targum. [3]
  3. The existence of gospel materials in Aramaic is supported by the documentary evidence of later writers.
  4. The existence of written Targums is not without precedent in the time frame proposed by Torrey. [4]

Now it is often thought that J. D. Yoder’s study, “The Language of the Greek Variants of Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis,” effectively excluded the possibility of distinctive Semitic influence on Bezae’s text. [5] By evaluating Bezae’s readings both for and against three broad categories of Semitic forms, Yoder found that the number of Semitic forms present in Bezae but lacking in Westcott and Hort (= WH) was generally offset by the number present in WH but lacking in Bezae, leading him to conclude that Bezae’s Semitisms are no more representative of its text than of the larger tradition.

But Yoder’s experimental design does not rule out a significant class of theories of Semitic influence in Bezae. Specifically, it does not rule out any theory (such as Torrey’s Targum theory) that involves initial translation into a Semitic language followed by retroversion into Greek.

Why is this the case? It is simply that any Semitisms that might have existed in the initial Greek Vorlage would have been subsumed into the text of the Aramaic translation. When the text was re-translated into Greek, these original Semitisms would now have become indistinguishable from the surrounding text. In the process, the Greek retroversion would likely acquire new Semitisms or new varieties of the original Semitisms. But unless copied from an existing Greek codex, we would not expect the original Semitisms to be restored with any consistency to their former places. In fact, the expected result if Torrey’s theory were true is remarkably close to Yoder’s actual result.

So what does this mean for Torrey’s theory?

It is important to realize that Yoder’s test does not disprove Torrey’s theory or any similar theory involving rewriting the Greek text from an intermediate Semitic stage. Yet neither is it a demonstration of such a theory.

Like nearly all theories that propose the early development of a “Western” text form, a weakness of the Targum theory is its reliance on gaps in our knowledge of the earliest period of Christianity. Yet while perhaps not altogether compelling, the Targum theory highlights a potentially significant aspect of the evidence that we cannot simply dismiss, namely, the presence of certain apparent Semitic influences in Bezae’s text that are not in the mainstream text.

If Yoder intended to show that Bezae’s apparent Semitic elements need not be considered in reconstructions of its textual history simply because they do not occur in other manuscripts, this objective was not achieved. So long as distinctive elements are found in Bezae but not in the remaining tradition, they must be accounted for in any comprehensive theory of its text.


[1] B. M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (2nd ed.; Stuttgart, 1994) 231-232.

[2] C. C. Torrey, The Four Gospels: A New Translation (New York, 1933) 282.

[3] Metzger’s comment that “such an hypothesis … offers no help in explaining how the Bezan text of Acts became nearly one-tenth longer” (p. 232) is difficult to understand. In fact, the Targum theory should be able to account for significant expansions to the text.

[4] We might consider, for example, the Targum of Job from Qumran.

[5] J. D. Yoder, “The Language of the Greek Variants of Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis,” Ph.D. dissertation, Princeton Theological Seminary, 1958. See also, J. D. Yoder, “Semitisms in Codex Bezae,” Journal of Biblical Literature 78 (1959) 317–321.

Why assimilation theories of Bezae’s Greek text are compelling

In an earlier post, How to validate a theory of Bezae’s text, I suggested a fourfold classification of the nine theories of the so-called “Western” text enumerated by B. M. Metzger in his Textual Commentary. [1] The four categories are:

  1. Multiple editions
  2. An initial “Western” text
  3. A secondary “Western” text
  4. Assimilation to either the Latin or Syriac versions

(Of course, reference to the “Western” text is somewhat problematic given the existence of multiple “long texts” of Acts. Therefore I will consider these theories from the point of view of the single extant text of Codex Bezae.)

It is evident that the first three classes of theories focus on the timing of the development of the “Western” tradition with respect to the mainstream tradition — whether it came before, after, or roughly contemporaneously with the mainstream. Theories of assimilation also presume that the “Western” text is secondary, but go further in attributing the development of this text form to a specific source of influence, namely, a desire to conform the Greek text to a more familiar versional text.

Now the consensus is not favorable to theories that Bezae’s Greek text reflects systematic assimilation to a version, in particular, to the Latin version. As Metzger plainly observes:

“The theory finds little or no support among present-day scholars.” [2]

It seems though that most theorists since the eighteenth century have considered the question primarily in terms of the interaction of Bezae’s columns, where it has been shown that assimilation to the Latin column cannot explain the development of the present Greek column. Framed in these terms Latin assimilation is easy to dismiss.

But as I have argued in “Has Latin influence on Bezae’s Greek text been disproved?” and “Against reason? Bezae’s Greek text and the possibility of Latin influence,” interaction between the columns is just one aspect of the question of Latin influence. A second, more fundamental aspect is whether Bezae’s Greek text has been corrected to one or more Old Latin exemplars besides its Latin column.

Once this bigger picture is considered, the theory of assimilation to the Old Latin begins to offer what other theories for the most part lack, namely, a specific, documented historical context and, more importantly, a compelling motive for the effort and expense of producing a Greek text form that so often mirrors the Old Latin version. This motive was simply the belief among certain of the participants that the Old Latin version was less corrupt than the Greek. Thus, in his Commentary on Romans 5:14, we find Ambrosiaster arguing that the text form found in his Old Latin manuscript, lacking the negative particle, is in fact the correct reading, while the Greek manuscripts that have the particle are corrupt.

Nevertheless, it has often been considered next to impossible that the ancient producers of a Greek text would borrow from a Latin version. H. Marsh argues:

“I have myself collated the two first chapters of St. Mark … and have found that in most of the readings, in which the Codex Bezae differs from all the Greek manuscripts, it agrees with some one of those Latin versions. But shall we therefore conclude that those readings were actually borrowed from a Latin version, and translated into Greek? It is at least as possible that they might have had their origin in the Greek as in the Latin, and this very possibility is sufficient to defeat the whole of Wetstein’s hypothesis [that Bezae borrows Old Latin readings].” [3]

Marsh concludes:

“there is no reason whatsoever for ascribing any reading of a Greek manuscript to the influence of the Latin, unless it can be proved that it could not have taken its rise in the Greek, and that it might easily have originated in the Latin” [4]

Although Marsh acknowledges the abundant evidence and correctly infers what the evidence seems to imply, he simply assumes that no one would ever want to correct a Greek MS to a Latin MS. Perhaps more tellingly, he speaks of readings being borrowed and translated or having an origin as though these events took place in a vacuum. Of course, what is missing from Marsh’s account is any attempt to recover the perspective of the human participants or even to acknowledge that human actors exist.

Yet going back to Ambrosiaster’s argument, it is obvious that a corrected Greek MS without μη would show not a trace of having been inspired by the Latin reading. The absence of the particle really leaves no definitive argument as to why it might be lacking. Certainly, Latin influence is not the most compelling explanation for a missing particle. So by Marsh’s rule we have no reason to suspect Latin influence. Yet we have a documented case of an unambiguous motive to drop this very Greek particle in accordance with the Old Latin variant. The motive of course is that the Old Latin version was regarded as preserving the true text, but the Greek was seen as corrupt.

But can there be any more compelling motive for the correction of a Greek MS than the belief that it was simply wrong?

It turns out then that the compelling aspect of assimilation theories is the human aspect and, in particular, the practically limitless human capacity to insist that what is familiar must be correct. Clearly, human participants are dangerous to text-critical theories based on pure reason. Once they are allowed into the picture, assimilation theories that were once judged impossible by the standards of criticism are suddenly not so improbable and in the proper context even compelling.


[1] B. M. Metzger, Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (2d ed.; Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994) 223-232.

[2] Metzger, Textual Commentary, 231.

[3] H. Marsh, “Notes” in J. D. Michaelis, Introduction to the New Testament (trans. H. Marsh; 1802) 2/2:680-681.

[4] Marsh, “Notes,” 2/2:683. J. S. Semler likewise considers it “against reason” that a Greek MS would be corrected to a Latin copy. J. S. Semler, Apparatus ad liberalem Novi Testamenti interpretationem (1767) 44.

Has Latin influence on Bezae’s Greek text been disproved?

In a recent post, I noted that theories of Latin influence on Bezae’s Greek text were the norm before J. S. Semler argued that Bezae’s Greek had not been influenced by a Latin version (1767). Following Semler, both J. D. Michaelis and H. Marsh seem especially eager to disprove J. J. Wettstein’s hypothesis that D had been corrected to a Latin version.

J. D. Michaelis assembles readings that in his view “rescue the copyist from the charge of having corrupted the Greek from the Latin,” noting two categories of such readings, namely, those in which the Greek and Latin columns differ and those in which the Latin column has been altered from the Greek. [1] It is clear though that Michaelis’ evidence can only address the limited case in which the copyist of Bezae or its exemplar has been influenced by the Latin column during transcription.

For a case in which the Greek and Latin columns differ, Michaelis cites Mark 11:12, where D was at one time the only Greek witness known to have the singular participle (note that Legg lists Γ with + αυτον):

εξελθοντα απο βηθανιας

Yet d has the plural:

cum exissent (d with a i)

But while it is clear that d could not have influenced D, Michaelis points out that D has support for its singular participle in the Old Latin version, namely from Codex Veronensis:

cum exisset (b with c ff2 q r1)

So far from excluding the possibility that D might have been influenced by the Old Latin versions, Michaelis has unwittingly added support for Wettstein’s hypothesis! This reading suggests that, agreements aside, D has contact with a variant in the Latin tradition that is otherwise largely unknown in the Greek tradition.

Then for a case in which the Latin column has been altered from the Greek, Michaelis cites Acts 10:6, noting that the Latin version “in general” adds hic dicet tibi quid te oporteat facere, while d and e follow their Greek columns by omitting this phrase.

But there are some problems with the evidence.

First, the extra phrase is far from the general Latin reading. The other two Old Latin MSS extant in Acts 10:6 gig and p* both agree with d and e as well as much of the Vulgate tradition, while the addition is supported by pc and another part of the Vulgate tradition.

Second, Michaelis (laboring before Kipling’s edition of Bezae) observes that “the spurious addition ετος λαλησει σοι τι σε δει ποιειν is rejected from the Greek text of those two manuscripts [D and E].” But Bezae preserves here only the Latin side of Acts 10:6, the leaf is missing from the facing Greek. So although the point is moot anyway, we cannot actually know what D read. Yet Michaelis’ confidently-affirmed evidence continues to keep alive the notion that large-scale Latin influence is impossible in D. [2]

We might sum up Michaelis’ contribution in two points:

First, he seems to have influenced the way the question of Latinization was conceived, that is, primarily in transcriptional terms, while leaving unaddressed the larger possibility of systematic correction to a Latin version. In fact, transcriptional data cannot inform us on this question because it reaches no farther back than D’s exemplar. Nor can so-called “Latinisms” help, because in most cases there would have been no trace but the Latin reading itself.

Second, Michaelis and his successors seem to have assumed that he decisively answered Wettstein. But as we have seen, he does not address the same problem.

Clearly then Michaelis did not disprove the possibility that Bezae’s Greek text might have been influenced by a Latin version. The question must be regarded as still open. We simply cannot assume that Bezae’s most distinctive elements represent a pure Greek tradition.


[1] J. D. Michaelis, Introduction to the New Testament (trans. H. Marsh; 1802) 2/1:230. These examples are cited by D. C. Parker, Codex Bezae: An early Christian manuscript and its text (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992) 185.

[2] Parker follows Michaelis, observing “Ac 10.6, where d e follow D E in omitting the phrase hic dicet tibi quid te oportet facere which is found in the rest of the Latin tradition,” concluding that Michaelis “showed that the theory of Latinization was not able to solve the problem of the D text” (p. 185). But as we have seen, D is lacunose in Acts 10:6 and E d e are supported by the Old Latin and much of the Vulgate.

Is the “Western” text really “Eastern”?

It is no secret that the so-called “Western” text, as represented by the distinctive readings of its witnesses,* is not at all confined to the West, but rather may be found across a range of geographical and versional contexts, from the Old Syriac and Coptic versions to various Greek traditions associated with Eastern writers, for example, with Origen or Basil of Caesarea.

G. Zuntz put it well:

“The term ‘Western Text’ is a misnomer — everybody knows that. This characteristic form of the Sacred Text, first discovered in Codex Bezae and the Old Latin, is found in Eastern witnesses as well.” [1]

B. Aland and K. Aland observe with some hyperbole:

“The origin of the ‘Western’ text lies anywhere but in the direction its name would suggest.” [2]

But if the “Western” text is “Western” only in its Latin representatives, what are we to think about its origins? Must they lie in the East — whether in Greek or in Syriac?

In fact, if we follow Zuntz, the “Western” text consists of two layers, both with Eastern origins:

  1. First, there is a base layer containing “remnants of the original text,” which being a Greek tradition, presumably derives from the East.
  2. Then, there is a secondary layer representing “the product of retranslation, from the Syriac, of an ecclesiastical adaptation, namely, the lectionary-text of the oldest Church of Edessa,” which of course, being Edessene, must have arisen in the East as well. [3]

According to Zuntz then, the “Western” text form is essentially an “eastern” text form whose most distinctive, secondary elements derive from Syria.

Certainly, there are elements of the “Western” text that seem to demand an Eastern background. At the same time though, it is difficult to overlook the close association of some of the most distinctively “Western” readings with the Old Latin version. Yet since there is no secure evidence of a Latin version before the early third century, to propose a developed “Western” text in the second century all but requires us to place its origins in the East.

But if we postpone the time frame when the elements of the mature “Western” text form came together to the second half of the fourth century, we are now no longer constrained to an Eastern provenance. In fact, with its reputation for Nicene orthodoxy, the West had certain advantages as a promulgator of influence — and perhaps even of textual influence — to the East from the Synod of Alexandria (362) onward, especially from the perspective of the pro-Nicene party.

Thus we find Basil of Caesarea in Cappadocia [!] turning to Rome for assistance in resolving the Antiochian schism:

“to move some of the Italians to undertake a voyage by sea to visit us.” (Epist. 68; NPNF 2.8, 164)

And:

“It has seemed to me to be desirable to send a letter to the bishop of Rome, begging him to examine our condition, and since there are difficulties in the way of representatives being sent from the West by a general synodical decree, to advise him to exercise his own personal authority in the matter by choosing suitable persons to sustain the labours of a journey … to correct the unruly among us here; able to speak with proper reserve and appropriateness, and thoroughly well acquainted with all that has been effected after Ariminum to undo the violent measures adopted there.” (Epist. 69.1; NPNF 2.8, 166)

But should we expect these worthy representatives from the West to have left their gospels in Italy? Would they have stopped at correcting the “unruly” to also correct unruly texts? Would they have spoken with proper “appropriateness” but not appropriately cite from their own orthodox readings?

Of course, we can only speculate as to the potential impact such contact might have had. Yet we may observe one thing with greater confidence, namely, that by the 370’s there was a flow of influence from West to East that was both initiated and received by sympathetic Easterners. In such a context, we can plausibly imagine Latin readings being imported to the region surrounding Antioch and the great library at Caesarea, where it seems witnesses such as Sinaiticus and Bezae might at one point have resided.


References and Notes

* I added the phrase “as represented by the distinctive readings of its witnesses” in response to James Snapp, Jr.’s insightful comment below.

[1] Günther Zuntz, “The Western Text of the Acts of the Apostles” in Opuscula Selecta; Classica, Hellenistica Christiana (Manchester: University Press, 1972) 189–215 at 189.

[2] K. Aland and B. Aland, The Text of the New Testament: An Introduction to the Critical Editions and to the Theory and Practice of Modern Textual Criticism (2d ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987) 67.

[3] Zuntz, “Western Text,” 189-190.

Against reason? Bezae’s Greek text and the possibility of Latin influence

Any close examination of Bezae’s Greek text reveals its unmistakable affinity with the Old Latin version. What prevents us then from considering its text form as a possible revision to an Old Latin model? In fact, variations on this idea of Latin influence were the norm until 1767, when, reversing his former position, J. S. Semler expressed his disapproval of such theories as contrary to reason and precedent:

“concerning Greek codices being influenced and altered to the Latin … [this] is neither according to reason nor precedent, which can be easily proved” [1]

In his notes on J. D. Michaelis’s Introduction, H. Marsh concurs:

“there is no reason whatsoever for ascribing any reading of a Greek manuscript to the influence of the Latin …” [2]

Such was the legacy of Semler, Michaelis, Marsh, and others, that we find F. J. A. Hort equally dismissive of what he called:

“a whimsical theory of the last century, which, ignoring all Non-Latin Western documentary evidence except the handful of extant bilingual uncials, maintained that the Western Greek text owed its peculiarities to translation from the Latin.” [3]

But is it really contrary to reason that a Greek text might be influenced by or even corrected to a Latin version? It seems the only constraint worth considering is whether the participants who produced this text form had reason to prefer Latin readings over Greek.

Jerome versus Ambrosiaster

At the time of Bezae’s production in ca 400, the Old Latin version was clearly well-established in the Latin-speaking church, while the Greek tradition was sometimes viewed with suspicion — especially as an impetus of change to the familiar Old Latin version. Why else would Jerome take such pains to defend his revision to Greek exemplars? And why else would he challenge his opponents to produce a single Latin exemplar from the many divergent copies — no doubt assuming they could never do it? Jerome writes:

“if we are to pin our faith to the Latin texts, it is for our opponents to tell us which; for there are almost as many forms of texts as there are copies.” (Prologue to the Four Gospels)

Surprisingly though, we find one of these opponents, the elusive Ambrosiaster, apparently contemplating Jerome’s challenge, for he suggests three criteria — reason, history, and authority — by which to identify “the true text,” not in the Greek tradition, but in the Old Latin version:

“I consider this to be the true text, when reason, history, and authority are all preserved. For the text that is retained today in the Latin codices is found to be the same in the ancients, Tertullian, Victorinus and Cyprian.” (Comm. Rom 5:14, see my working translation of the entire passage)

When we consider Ambrosiaster, it no longer appears so “whimsical” to imagine Latin versions influencing Greek texts in a properly conducive context.

Ambrosiaster on the Relative Integrity of the Latin Tradition

We might begin with Ambrosiaster’s rather dismal view of (at least) the recent Greek tradition:

“the Greek codices … have discrepancies among themselves, which provoke a spirit of controversy … [such that] those who can prevail by no other means in a dispute take matters into their own hands, changing the words.” (Comm. Rom 5:14)

While there is nothing novel about such claims as the stock-and-trade of heresiological discourse, we should bear in mind here that Ambrosiaster is not directing his accusation at heretics, but presumably at orthodox controversialists, whose tendentious alterations threatened to overwhelm “the true text.”

Considered in this light, Ambrosiaster’s appeal to the integrity of the Latin version is hardly surprisingly:

“it is well-known that very long ago native Latin speakers translated the text we now have from ancient Greek codices” (Comm. Rom 5:14)

Yet his acknowledgment of the “ancient Greek codices” suggests that he regards the initial Greek text as the ultimate authority, though he seems to doubt whether this text is still accessible in the Greek manuscripts of his own time. On the other hand, he seems to think that the Old Latin version might supply access to this ancient text, since in his view, the Greek text available to these translators would have been closer to “the true text” than any recent Greek text.

Of course, for this argument to work Ambrosiaster must somehow show that the Old Latin version is less corrupt than extant Greek texts, a severe difficulty to say the least. After all, how is it possible that after the same period of copying the Old Latin version would be any less corrupt in relation to the ancient Greek text than contemporary Greek codices?

Attempting to address this question, Ambrosiaster makes the rather bold claim that:

“the innocence of former times has safeguarded [this original Latin version] and now certifies [it] to us without corruption.” (Comm. Rom 5:14)

We have to wonder whether Ambrosiaster sincerely believes in this supposed innocence of former times. Perhaps he is simply seeking a rhetorical advantage. Given though that he has already considered criteria to identify “the true text,” it seems he really does believe it. But how?

A possible clue lies in his concern about internecine controversy and its alleged corrupting effect on the Greek text. It may be that he sees this “innocence of former times” in terms of a relatively stable text form that stands in antithesis to the corrupted forms spawned by recent controversies. Perhaps also he sees in this antithesis a distinction between the comparative quiet of the Latin West with its still incipient theological self-awareness and the incessant controversy of the Greek East with its significantly more advanced and varied theological traditions.

The Relative Innocence of the Latin Tradition from Corrupting Controversy

It seems this contrast between East and West offers a promising explanation of the kind of innocence Ambrosiaster claims for the Old Latin version, namely, that it had escaped the corrupting influence of theological controversy as a consequence of its development in the theological backwater of the Latin West. Canon 1 of the Council of Constantinople (381) draws attention to a list of anathematized heresies, which largely affected the Greek East:

every heresy shall be anathematized, particularly that of the Eunomians or [Anomœans, the Arians or] Eudoxians, and that of the Semi-Arians or Pneumatomachi, and that of the Sabellians, and that of the Marcellians, and that of the Photinians, and that of the Apollinarians. (NPNF 2.14, 172)

In fact, the relative “innocence” of the Latin West was apparently taken for granted by contemporary observers in both East and West. Consider Sozomen’s narrative of the post-Nicene period:

“The Church throughout the whole of the West in its entirety regulated itself by the doctrines of the Fathers, and kept aloof from all contentions and hair-splitting about dogma. As to the Eastern Church, … [t]here were some … who were fond of wrangling and battled against the term ‘consubstantial'” (Eccl. Hist. 3.13, NPNF 2.2, p. 291; PL 67.1065-1068).

The “innocence” of the West is still captured in the decades following Ambrosiaster’s dispute with Jerome in a letter from Pope Anastasius to John of Jerusalem (401), in which the former professes his total ignorance, not only of Origen’s writings or their contents, but even of Origen himself:

“As for Origen, whose writings he [Rufinus] has translated into our language, I have neither formerly known, nor do I now seek to know either who he was or what expression he may have given to his thought.” (NPNF 2.3, p. 433; PL 21.629)

Of course, Origen’s speculative theology would have been emblematic of the theological adventurousness of the East.

At the same time, the controversies of the East were carried to Ambrosiaster’s doorstep in Rome in the 370’s, as rival Nicene parties to the Antiochian schism sent repeated envoys to Rome in attempts to bolster their respective claims to the episcopal office. Ambrosiaster would have witnessed firsthand Basil of Caesarea’s persistent correspondence attempting to involve Rome and the bishops of Italy and Gaul in resolving the schism on behalf of Meletius, while the proponents of Paulinus equally persistently subverted his efforts. [4]

Nor could Ambrosiaster have been ignorant of Basil’s depictions of chaos:

“Nearly all the East … from Illyricum to Egypt is being agitated. … The old heresy, sown by Arius … has now boldly and unblushingly reappeared. … [I]n every district the champions of right doctrine have been exiled from their Churches … and the control of affairs has been handed over to men who are leading captive the souls of the simpler [ones].” (Epist. 70, NPNF 2.8, p. 166; PG 32.433-434)

And again:

“It is not only one Church which is in peril, nor yet two or three which have fallen … The mischief of this heresy spreads almost from the borders of Illyricum to the Thebaid. Its bad seeds were first sown by the infamous Arius … souls are drenched in ignorance, because adulterators of the word imitate the truth. … [Yet] in addition to the open attack of the heretics, the Churches are reduced to utter helplessness by the war raging among those who are supposed to be orthodox.” (Epist. 92.1-2, NPNF 2.8, p. 178; PG 32.477-480)

Clearly then, Ambrosiaster’s interest in controversy as a source of variation is no coincidence. At the same time, his opinion of the innocence of the Latin tradition now becomes somewhat understandable — perhaps even reasonable.

What does this mean for Bezan research?

It seems then that we must acknowledge a real possibility that Bezae’s Greek tradition has been molded to one or more strands of the Old Latin version — though not its own Latin column — perhaps as recently as the decades immediately prior to Bezae’s production. Ambrosiaster’s apparent response to Jerome would then suggest one framework in which the correction of a Greek text to a Latin model is not only possible, but also has a clear motive, namely, to preserve gospel traditions in either language that were thought to have been lost in recent Greek manuscripts. Ambrosiaster’s acceptance of the ancient Greek codices as the ultimate authority supplies a viable raison d’être for a corrected Greek text that seeks to reconstruct the ancient Greek Vorlage used by the Old Latin translators.

Of course, in the final analysis, we must carefully distinguish between what our critical knowledge tells us, namely, that such a reconstruction is unlikely to have been achieved in this manner, and the motivation of the participants to make the attempt. Of course, we have no inkling as to whether such a project — if there was such a project — would have been judged a success even by the participants. It seems it could not have been successful, which would of course have left Bezae as a lasting legacy of a bold, creative, yet fundamentally misguided attempt to restore the initial Greek text from an Old Version.


[1] de codicibus graecis ad latinos informatis et mutatis … nec rationibus … nec exemplis luculentis adhuc effectum estApparatus ad liberalem Novi Testamenti interpretationem (1767) 44, my translation.

[2] H. Marsh, “Notes” in J. D. Michaelis, Introduction to the New Testament (trans. H. Marsh; 1802) 2/2:683.

[3] B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort, The New Testament in the Original Greek, Introduction (1882) 120.

[4] M. A. Norton, “Prosopography of Pope Damasus,” Folia 4 (1950), 13–31; 5 (1951), 30–55; 6 (1952), 16–39. Volumes 5 and 6 lay out many of the sources.