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?

Did a Manichaean tract inspire Bezae’s Lukan genealogy?

In an earlier post, I noted that the synoptic genealogies of Jesus were not necessarily perceived as being in tension before the third century. Celsus, for example, seems to have taken for granted that the genealogies belonged to Joseph and Mary respectively, while Tatian objected not to the discrepancies between the genealogies but rather to their mention of David.1

Yet by the end of the fourth century, the perceived incompatibility of the Matthean and Lukan genealogies as competing accounts of Joseph’s lineage had most certainly come to be regarded as a significant problem requiring resolution.2 So we find writers such as Ambrosiaster (c. 366-384) building an apologetic case for the integrity of the two genealogies. In his Quaestiones veteris et novi testamenti, Ambrosiaster devotes no fewer than six of his 127 questions to the genealogy of Jesus.3

Questio 56 on the Old Testament addresses conflicts between the Matthean and Lukan genealogy:

“Why is it that in Matthew the father of Joseph is written ‘Jacob’ and in Luke ‘Heli’?” (trans. mine)4

While in Questio 85, Ambrosiaster queries:

“Since it is clear that from David to the Babylonian exile there were seventeen generations, why does the evangelist say fourteen, passing over Ahaziah, who after Jehoram is son of Jehoshaphat and Joash son of Ahaziah and Amaziah son of Joash?” (trans. mine)

Of course, Ambrosiaster offers his own explanations for each question. But it is significant that Bezae’s genealogy also resolves these same questions by harmonization. It is clear from this that Bezae’s Lukan genealogy fits naturally in the same late fourth-century context that ultimately produced the manuscript.

Still we might wonder why Bezae’s producers were willing to take such drastic measures in erasing so much of Luke’s text. At eighty words of the mainstream text, the section replaced in Bezae amounts to one of the longest deliberate excisions of material in the New Testament.5 Bezae’s variant makes even the longest of F. J. A. Hort’s so-called “Western non-interpolations” look like small change indeed! But was the problem of the genealogy really such a burden to the religious life of the community in which Bezae’s text was produced?

One clue may lie in Augustine’s response to the Manichaean bishop, Faustus of Milevis, in Contra Faustum Manichaeum (401/402), a work allegedly motivated by the questions of Augustine’s congregation concerning Faustus’ tract against Christianity.6 According to Augustine, Faustus names the discrepancies between the synoptic genealogies as the main obstacle preventing him from accepting the “catholic” view of the incarnation. As he reputedly observes:

“the discrepancy in the genealogies of Luke and Matthew stumbled me, as I knew not which to follow … This is my reason for not believing in the birth of Christ. Remove this difficulty, if you can, by harmonizing the accounts, and I am ready to yield.” (Faust., 3.1; NPNF 1.4, 159)

So according to his opponent, Augustine, Faustus not only prescribes what to do (i.e. “remove this difficulty”), but how to accomplish it (“by harmonizing the accounts”)! Faustus appears to suggest the very solution we find implemented in Bezae!

We should be skeptical, of course, that a leader of Faustus’ stature in the Manichaean church could be swayed from his convictions by merely scrubbing a dozen or so lines! If in fact Faustus really made the claim cited by Augustine, it was doubtless intended rhetorically, though evidently it was taken at face value by some of his Christian readers. But this is precisely the point.

Evidently there was a perception among certain Christians that if only the discrepancies between the genealogies could be resolved, influential Manichaeans like Faustus could be refuted and the Manichaean church at large won to the orthodox faith! We can envision then a real incentive to harmonize the genealogies, much as we find in Bezae’s Luke. But how likely is it that Bezae arose the context of a struggle with Manichaeism?

In fact, if Bezae’s genealogy derives from the same tradition as that of Aphraates, which seems not unlikely (see post), it had appeared already in a context striving against Manichaeism. Earlier in his Demonstrations, Aphraates takes aim at followers of Mani, accusing them of practicing Babylonian arts:

“But even the children of darkness, the impious followers of Mani, lurk in the darkness in the manner of serpents, serving the Chaldean arts and teachings of Babylon.” (Dem. 3.9, translation mine)

But this struggle was not confined to the East. From a Roman context strongly sympathetic to the Old Latin version, Ambrosiaster singles out followers of Mani for special reprobation in his remarks on 2 Timothy 3:6:

Although all sorts of heretics make their way into houses and capture women [regarding 2 Tim 3:6] by tricks and clever words … nevertheless, the description fits the Manichaeans more than others. Nobody else is as troublesome, as deceptive or as harmful as they are, for it is clear that they worship one thing but profess another, and that they act one way inside but preach something quite different outside. They defend holiness yet live wicked lives, something which their law supports. They praise mercy even though they act unjustly toward one another. They claim that the world must be rejected but always go about well dressed. They preach publicly that they insist on fasting, although they are all bloated, even if they wear make-up (which makes them look sickly) in order to deceive people. Therefore the apostle was prophesying about them more than anyone else. … The Emperor Diocletian referred to the Manichaeans in one of his laws, calling them a sordid and impure heresy which had recently emerged from Persia. (Com. 2 Tim. 3:16, translation by Gerald L. Bray, p. 463) 7

Of course, we have already seen that Ambrosiaster takes a special apologetic interest in the synoptic genealogies. As I have suggested in another post, we also find Ambrosiaster working in a context that in many ways seems to resemble that of Bezae’s producers.

Now this is consistent with what we have already come to suspect regarding Bezae’s remarkable harmonization of the Lukan genealogy, namely, that it is simply unnecessary to posit a second-century date for this variant. Faustus’ putative challenge and the concerns of contemporary writers both reveal that the problem of the genealogies was still an open question in the larger church at the end of the fourth century. But if this is so, we have at the time Bezae’s text apparently attained its final form, that is, in the latter fourth century, all of the ingredients necessary to account for a relatively recent revision of the Lukan genealogy.