A working theory of Bezae’s text

The aim of this post is to outline a working theory of Bezae’s text in the gospels and Acts, starting with five well-known features of Bezae’s text:1

  1. Isolation from the Greek mainstream
  2. Old Latin parallels
  3. Parallels with ancient writers
  4. East-West exchange of readings
  5. Major variation in Acts

Isolation from the Greek mainstream

Bezae’s Greek text is composed of three primary layers assembled at the end of the fourth century (c. 385), each layer representing a distinct source of mixture:2

  1. A Greek base, perhaps connected to the library at Caesarea
  2. A selective retroversion of Latin readings from various Old Latin source traditions
  3. An upper “scribal” layer (not actually by Bezae’s scribe)3

Bezae’s mixture of layers obscures its individual component traditions and hides its mainstream relationships: A significant side effect of layering is that Bezae’s text as a whole appears isolated from the mainstream tradition.4 But if we partition Bezae’s readings into natural layers, these individual layers can be related to the mainstream tradition.5 So when Old Latin and “singular” readings are set aside, Bezae has a very mainstream Greek text, with parallels to Family 1, Origen, and other texts associated with Caesarea.

Final layer combination dating to c. 385: Bezae’s three immediate layers were brought together at the end of the fourth century (c. 385) based on the following considerations:

  1. Bezae’s text must post-date the late, so-called “European” or “northern Italian” form of the Old Latin tradition (350–380) to which it is partially assimilated.6 Bezae’s close relationship with this late form of the Old Latin is most apparent in Mark.7
  2. Bezae’s upper layer exhibits a well-documented interest in enhancing Peter’s role in Acts.8 This same interest is found in Bezae’s Corrector G (see post), suggesting that Bezae’s upper layer was produced at the same time as the manuscript and exemplar, that is, close to its initial correction.9
  3. Documented tendencies detected in Bezae’s upper “scribal” layer, especially the augmentation of Peter, fit a late fourth-century context (see post).
    1. Pro-Petrine tendencies – driven by the promotion of Constantinople to second rank among apostolic sees at the Council of Constantinople (381) (see post).
    2. Anti-ascetic tendencies – a response to Jerome (380’s) or possibly Jovinian (390s)
    3. Anti-Judaic tendencies – motivated by church orders segregating Christians and Jews, reflecting marginalization of Jews in imperial code (see post)
    4. Other tendencies – all documented tendencies fit a context of c. 385
  4. The assumption that the Vulgate revision of the gospels provided some impetus for Bezae’s project as a means to legitimate the Old Latin version (384-385) (see post)
  5. Rome’s mediation in the Antiochian schism as a background for shared readings in the Latin and Syriac traditions as well as between Bezae and other “Western”-influenced Greek MSS (378-397).10

Bezae’s Greek base with Caesarean connections: Bezae’s Greek base had an independent history before being appropriated by Bezae’s producers in the final two decades of the fourth century.11 Several studies suggest that Bezae’s Greek base has connections with Caesarea in Palestine as a possible provenance.12

Bezae’s Latin column a composite of Old Latin texts: Bezae’s Latin column reflects a hybridization of Latin texts, “African” and “European,” according to the traditional nomenclature, which accounts for its independence within the Latin tradition.13

Old Latin parallels

Latin assimilation a major process in Bezan Greek text: Bezae’s distinctive parallels with the Old Latin version result from assimilation to the Latin version through a process of selective retroversion (on assimilation theories, see my survey of Bezan theories).14

Bezae’s Greek text a partial retroversion of various Latin versions: Bezae’s Greek column reflects a process of selective assimilation to one or more strands of the Old Latin version. The Greek column may not be derived directly from the Latin column (at least as written), though it shares the same readings.15 A proposed process is as follows:

  1. Multiple Latin versions were combined to create an archetypical Latin column
  2. Latin column archetype translated into Greek and used to correct a Greek base text
  3. Resulting Greek and Latin columns mutually corrected to agree, obscuring the dependence of the Greek column on the archetypical Latin column.

Parallels with ancient writers

Ancient parallels in Bezae are direct or indirect echoes of second- or third-century writers: Bezae’s parallels with ancient writers reached its text through one of two routes:

  1. Incorporation of parallels already in the Old Latin version indirectly through assimilation to this version (see post).
  2. Deliberate archaizing of Bezae’s text form to agree with authoritative ancient writers, such as Tertullian, Cyprian, Victorinus, and Irenaeus.16

The implication is that no second-century writer had access to a so-called “Western” or pre-“Western” text. Readings shared by Bezae with ancient writers and the Old Latin tradition were likely assimilated into Bezae’s text through the Old Latin tradition. Particularly vivid parallels with ancient writers and parallels not shared with the Old Latin tradition may have resulted from deliberate archaizing of the fourth-century text.17

East-West exchange of readings

Western mediation in the Antiochian schism (378-397) a plausible background for Bezae’s text: The exchange of readings responsible for Bezae’s Latin and Syriac parallels and possibly also its parallels with Codex Sinaiticus (א) in John 1–8 and with P127 in Acts occurred towards the end of the fourth century in the aftermath of the Arian controversy, when the East faced a struggle to rebuild its institutions (on East-West exchange, see post). The Antiochian Schism (362-397) provides a plausible backdrop for the introduction of Old Latin readings from West to East by representatives of Rome during the period of mediation (378-397), though important work may have occurred in Caesarea in Palestine.18 Basil of Caesarea (d. 379) explicitly sought Rome’s involvement in mediating the Antiochian schism between rival orthodox parties (Epistles 70, 92). In the subsequent period, numerous delegations were sent in both directions between Rome and Antioch, providing a promising setting for the exchange of texts.19

Major variation in Acts

Bezae’s Acts text establishes an apostolic precedent for recognition of Petrine primacy: Significant rewriting in canonical Acts is a side effect of this book’s importance for establishing apostolic precedent in general and especially recognition of Petrine primacy, in late fourth-century debates. The issue of Petrine primacy was particularly relevant in the case of Rome’s intervention in the politics of an ancient see, such as Antioch, and its rivalry with Constantinople after the Council of 381.

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.