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.

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?

Natural reason as a criterion of the true text

It is typically assumed that Greek readings take precedence over versional readings in a versional tradition, that in general, every opportunity is taken to correct the version within the availability of Greek texts and the skill to translate them. But in his commentary on the Old Latin text of Romans 5:14, Ambrosiaster does not follow the Greek reading simply because it is Greek, though he is well aware that it differs from his Old Latin text.

Ambrosiaster catches us by surprise in refusing to prefer Greek text forms as a matter of course. For Ambrosiaster, the fact that a reading is in Latin is not in itself reason to reject it as inferior. But how does he justify this preference for the reading of his translation over that of the original language? And what might this tell us about attitudes towards the Greek and Latin traditions in the West at the end of the fourth century?

The discussion begins with Ambrosiaster’s comment on the prevailing Greek reading of Romans 5:14 (with the negative particle):

“Some Greek manuscripts say that death reigned even in those who had not sinned in the way that Adam had.” (Comm. Rom 5:14) [1]

Ambrosiaster objects to the notion implied by the Greek text that death reigned over all human beings before Moses, whether or not they sinned in the same way as Adam, by turning away from the Creator (Rom 5:14). Ambrosiaster wants to insist that death did not reign over those who like Abraham, acknowledged the Creator before there was a written law that revealed the Creator.

To accomplish this, Ambrosiaster turns to the concept of “natural law,” which he has already noted in connection with the law of the Gentiles mentioned in Romans 2:14: [2]

“nature itself recognizes its Creator through its own capacity for discernment, not through the [Mosaic] law but rather through natural reason (per rationem naturae).” (Comm. Rom 2:14; CSEL, 81/1.75, translation mine) [3]

The significance of natural law for Ambrosiaster’s textual problem lies in its nature as an unwritten principle that precedes the written Law. If this natural law  undergirds the written scriptures, Ambrosiaster believes he can appeal to its corollary, natural reason, to arbitrate between texts of uncertain provenance. Under this assumption of the conformity of scripture to natural law, it is simply understood that the true text will conform to reason, as Ambrosiaster argues elsewhere: [4]

“[t]he Scripture wants … many things to be implied, so that the sense gathered from the words should never be contrary to the reason of religion (rationi religionis).” (Quaest. 26) [5]

So for Ambrosiaster “religious reason” points to the true text in the same way that natural law anticipates the written law. It comes as little surprise then that Ambrosiaster includes “reason” (ratio) as the first of three qualities of “the true text”:

“I consider this to be the true text, when reason, history, and authority are all preserved.” (Comm. in Rom 5:14.5a, see my working translation)

So what are the text-historical implications of Ambrosiaster’s “criterion” of reason?

First, we might point out that while presented as a “criterion,” in practice Ambrosiaster’s appeal to natural reason serves a plainly apologetic function, namely, to defend Old Latin readings against the overwhelming claim to priority of the Greek tradition. Still Ambrosiaster’s appeal to natural reason reveals something of the tension that gripped one particular user of the Old Latin text in attempting to reconcile the clear discontinuity between his preferred text form and the “source of truth” in the Greek tradition. We see him grasping for justification for his preference of the secondary text form even as it stands in outright conflict with the original-language source.

Secondly, if the tension we find in Ambrosiaster is at all indicative of the contemporary situation, we might look for other cases of interaction between the Greek and Latin traditions that suggest a similar conflict. Of course, one obvious case is the Greco-Latin bilingual Codex Bezae. In light of Ambrosiaster, it suddenly begins to matter a great deal who transcribed Codex Bezae and where their loyalties might have been. Were they interested in mere transmission of an ancient text? Were they sympathetic to Ambrosiaster’s views? Were they more engaged in the conflicts of the times? If Bezae’s producers were active in the period between 385 and 415, it is hard to see how they could have been unaware of the Vulgate. But if this is so, the mere selection an Old Latin text already betrays something of their interests.

Finally, the case of Ambrosiaster is rather unsettling to the view that Bezae’s Greek text represents the stable culmination of a tradition of Old Latin exemplars. While not to suggest any personal involvement on his part, in his own words Ambrosiaster fits the profile of an individual who might consider correcting a Greek manuscript on the basis of Old Latin readings. So we have evidence that the necessary motive is attested at the time of Bezae’s production. But regardless of our conclusions, we might agree that Ambrosiaster introduces a certain unforeseen volatility to questions pertaining to the interaction of the Greek and Old Latin traditions in the last decades of the fourth century.


[1] Ambrosiaster. Commentaries on Romans and 1–2 Corinthians (ed. and trans. G. L. Bray; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2009) 42, italics mine.

[2] On the role of natural law in Ambrosiaster’s thought, see S. Lunn-Rockliffe, Ambrosiaster’s Political Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007) 50–52. The concept of natural law has a rich tradition in Roman juridical theory and early Christian apologetics, though it is seldom mentioned as explicitly as it is by Ambrosiaster. See A. J. Carlyle, A history of mediaeval political theory in the West, vol. 1, (New York, 1909) 104–105.

[3] Note that in the first edition (α) of his Commentary on Romans (10:8), Ambrosiaster seems to equate the two, referring to “the natural law, called reason” (lege naturae loquendi ratione) (CSEL, 81/1.347).

[4] L. Perrone, “Echi della polemica pagana sulla Bibbia negli scritti esegetici fra IV e V secolo,” Annali di storia dell’esegesi 11 (1994) 161–185 at 175.

[5] Translation by M.-P. Bussières, “Ambrosiaster’s Method of Interpretation in the Questions on the Old and New Testament” in Interpreting the Bible and Aristotle in Late Antiquity (ed. Josef Lösl; J. W. Watt; Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2011) 49–65 at 53.

Could Bezae be a response to the Vulgate?

Bezae’s paleographically-assigned date of ca 400 — if accurate — naturally raises questions concerning the attitude of its producers towards Jerome’s Vulgate revision of the Old Latin gospels, completed slightly earlier in ca 384. Certainly, Bezae’s attestation of an Old Latin column suggests an air of conservatism in the milieu that gave it rise. At the same time, its peculiar bilingual profile — pairing an archaic Greek with a contemporary Latin text — suggests an interest in supporting the Old Latin column with a putative Greek Vorlage.

But how likely is it that Bezae’s producers knew of the Vulgate? And if they did, can we suggest anything about their attitude towards it?

The Vulgate’s rough reception is of course well-documented, as we gather in Augustine’s account of the ensuing chaos when the Vulgate was read in a nearby church:

“A certain bishop … having introduced in the church over which he presides the reading of your version, came upon a word in the book of the prophet Jonah, of which you [Jerome] have given a very different rendering from that which had been of old familiar to the senses and memory of all the worshippers, and had been chanted for so many generations in the church. Thereupon arose such a tumult in the congregation, especially among the Greeks, correcting what had been read, and denouncing the translation as false, that the bishop was compelled to ask the testimony of the Jewish residents.” (Epist. 71.5, NPNF 1.1, 327)

This resistance can be adduced also from Jerome’s side, as he responds to critics with characteristic vitriol:

“a report suddenly reached me that certain contemptible creatures were deliberately assailing me with the charge that I had endeavored to correct passages in the gospels, against the authority of the ancients and the opinion of the whole world.” (Epist. 27.1; NPNF 2.6, 44)

Then we have Ambrosiaster’s more cautious though potentially more devastating criticism, pointing to discrepancies in underlying Greek tradition on which the Vulgate is based:

“this is what they want to prescribe for us on the basis of the Greek codices, as though these same codices did not have discrepancies among themselves” (Comm. Rom 5:14, translation mine)

In fact, Ambrosiaster’s challenge attacks the Vulgate at the very point it claims to be strongest, namely, in its greater fidelity to the ancient text. Thus, Jerome argues:

“If … we are to glean the truth from a comparison of many [Latin copies], why not go back to the original Greek?” (Preface to the Four Gospels; NPNF 2.6, 488)

But what if Bezae’s producers, like Ambrosiaster, had wished to demonstrate the fidelity of their own Old Latin version? How might they support their claim? It is obvious they would first need a Greek text to point to in support of key Old Latin readings. Now it is evident that Bezae’s format, with an Old Latin column paired with a “slavishly” similar Greek column, would admirably serve such a purpose. [1]

In fact, certain of Bezae’s characteristics seem especially consistent with such an idea. For example, there is the tendency among Bezae’s early correctors to bring the Greek and Latin columns into even closer agreement, as D. C. Parker observes of Bezae’s earliest correcter (G):

“One of the purposes of his activities in Acts is to remove discrepancies between the columns.” [2]

In this respect, Bezae’s earliest corrections differ markedly from those found in other manuscripts, for example, in Codex Sinaiticus, which tend to agree with other known traditions. But internal consistency is clearly crucial in establishing literary dependence.

But whether or not we see Bezae’s text as potentially a response to the Vulgate, it is clear these were tumultuous times in the Latin church, with significant controversies and schisms the order of the day. One wonders whether this spirit of factionalism might be enough to account for the great effort and expense that evidently went into Bezae’s production at a time when its Old Latin column was already poised for obsolescence.


References

[1] B. Fischer, “Das Neue Testament in lateinischer Sprache: Der gegenwärtige Stand seiner Erforschung und seine Bedeutung für die griechische Textgeschichte” in Die Alten Übersetzungen des Neuen Testaments, Die Kirchenväterzitate und Lektionare (ed. K. Aland; ANTF, 5; Berlin: de Gruyter, 1972) 1-92 at 42.

[2] D. C. Parker, Codex Bezae: An early Christian manuscript and its text (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992) 128.

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.

Is Codex Bezae an antiquarian codex?

In framing an account of Bezae’s text, researchers often turn immediately to second-century sources. This is due to a variety of presumably archaic elements found in its text, such as parallels with second-century writers. Of course, in looking to the second century, it is first necessary to bypass fourth-century sources that are much closer to the context in which Bezae was produced.

But what if we situate Bezae’s archaic elements in light of the antiquarianism of its times, wherein antiquity was regarded as a kind of guarantee of legitimacy and even authority? Just as Clifford Ando notes “the surge in antiquarianism in the west in the early fifth century” with respect to the competing religious claims of pagans and Christians, both of whom framed their discourse in similarly antiquarian terms, I might suggest that a similar process could be at work in Bezae’s tradition. [1] If this is so, our fourth-century sources may be able to explain in large part the second-century elements we find in Bezae’s text, perhaps as an appeal to the legitimacy of its text form.

We might begin with Bezae’s well-known parallels to second-century Christian writers, which F. J. A. Hort interpreted at face value as a sure indicator of the antiquity of Bezae’s text form. So we read:

“the text of D presents a truer image of the form in which the Gospels and Acts were most widely read in the third and probably a great part of the second century than any other extant Greek MS” [2]

But is this conclusion absolutely necessary? We might consider Ambrosiaster, who argues an antiquarian case for the legitimacy of the the Old Latin text form, appealing to the citations of ancient authorities as a criterion of authenticity in a recent text:

“today you will find that the same text that is closely preserved by the Latin codices is cited precisely by the ancients, Tertullian, Victorinus and Cyprian.” (Comm. Rom 5:14, my translation, see original)

The implication here is that a text that agrees with the citations of these ancient authorities is proved to be authentic, while a text that diverges from these same authorities is corrupt and in need of correction.

So when we find Bezae in agreement with ancient writers, such as Irenaeus, we might interpret this in one of two ways. We may of course understand the agreement like Hort as indicating that Irenaeus used a text much like that of Bezae. But in light of Ambrosiaster’s criterion and fourth-century antiquarianism, we obviously cannot take this for granted. What if Bezae’s heavily-corrected text falls into a tradition that has been corrected according to ancient standards of authenticity? In such a case, Bezae would represent a fourth-century text that cites second-century writers, rather than (as is commonly assumed) the late representative of an ancient text form cited by second-century writers.


[1] Clifford Ando, “The Palladium and the Pentateuch: Towards a Sacred Topography of the Later Roman Empire,” Phoenix 55 (2001) 369–410 at 369. Note that an international conference on this topic, “Antiquarianism in Late Antiquity,” was held one week ago in Ghent, Belgium, May 19–21, 2016.

[2] B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort, The New Testament in the Original Greek. Introduction and Appendix (New York: 1882) 149.

Why is Irenaeus missing from Ambrosiaster’s list of textual authorities?

In his remarks in defense of the Old Latin version (Comm. Rom 5:14), Ambrosiaster names three third-century Latin writers — Tertullian (d. 215), Cyprian (d. 258), and Victorinus (d. 304) — whose scriptural citations offer in his view an authoritative basis for the “true” text (hoc autem verum arbitror). For Ambrosiaster, these writers are ancient enough to have escaped the corrupting influence of the great controversies of the fourth century.

But who might be missing from this list of authorities?

Of course, Ambrosiaster makes no claim to identify all of the writers whose citations he considers authoritative. Certainly, the inclusion of Tertullian is remarkable given his association with the Montanist heresy. Yet the omission of the schismatic Novatian makes perfect sense. Otherwise we see no conspicuous absences among named Latin writers of equivalent antiquity who can claim any significant body of citations, unless that is, we consider the Latin translation of Irenaeus’ Adversus haereses.

Indeed, given Irenaeus’ antiquity, reputation for orthodoxy, and evident qualifications as an authority on scriptural matters, it is noteworthy that Ambrosiaster does not seem to know of a Latin translation of Irenaeus. At the same time, between Commentarius in epistulas Paulinas and Quaestiones Veteris et Novi Testamenti, Ambrosiaster refers to Irenaeus eleven times, but to Tertullian only five times, Victorinus twice, and Cyprian just once (all are allusions). So it appears Ambrosiaster does consider Irenaeus an authority on other matters, yet he is silent on Irenaeus’ text.

Of course, a good explanation would be that when Ambrosiaster wrote (perhaps in the mid-380’s) Adversus haereses had not yet been translated into Latin. (We might consider that Gryson et al. date the translation to 380–395.) But given that the Latin translation of this important second-century work supplies such a rich source of early so-called “Western” readings, including many that are unattested in Greek (such as Mark 16:19 at Haer. 3.10.6, attesting part of the Markan long ending), the later date increases the likelihood that such readings may reflect fourth-century influences on the Latin translation rather than the initial Greek text.

[1] R. Gryson, B. Fischer, H. J. Frede; Répertoire général des auteurs ecclésiastiques latins de l’antiquité et du haut Moyen Âge (2007) 2:594.