Codex Bezae and Latin-Trained Syriac Scribes

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

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

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

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

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

Syriac Traditions in a Greek Text that Borrows Latin Readings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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)


“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.