Ambrosiaster and the Producers of Codex Bezae

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.