Why assimilation theories of Bezae’s Greek text are compelling

In an earlier post, How to validate a theory of Bezae’s text, I suggested a fourfold classification of the nine theories of the so-called “Western” text enumerated by B. M. Metzger in his Textual Commentary. [1] The four categories are:

  1. Multiple editions
  2. An initial “Western” text
  3. A secondary “Western” text
  4. Assimilation to either the Latin or Syriac versions

(Of course, reference to the “Western” text is somewhat problematic given the existence of multiple “long texts” of Acts. Therefore I will consider these theories from the point of view of the single extant text of Codex Bezae.)

It is evident that the first three classes of theories focus on the timing of the development of the “Western” tradition with respect to the mainstream tradition — whether it came before, after, or roughly contemporaneously with the mainstream. Theories of assimilation also presume that the “Western” text is secondary, but go further in attributing the development of this text form to a specific source of influence, namely, a desire to conform the Greek text to a more familiar versional text.

Now the consensus is not favorable to theories that Bezae’s Greek text reflects systematic assimilation to a version, in particular, to the Latin version. As Metzger plainly observes:

“The theory finds little or no support among present-day scholars.” [2]

It seems though that most theorists since the eighteenth century have considered the question primarily in terms of the interaction of Bezae’s columns, where it has been shown that assimilation to the Latin column cannot explain the development of the present Greek column. Framed in these terms Latin assimilation is easy to dismiss.

But as I have argued in “Has Latin influence on Bezae’s Greek text been disproved?” and “Against reason? Bezae’s Greek text and the possibility of Latin influence,” interaction between the columns is just one aspect of the question of Latin influence. A second, more fundamental aspect is whether Bezae’s Greek text has been corrected to one or more Old Latin exemplars besides its Latin column.

Once this bigger picture is considered, the theory of assimilation to the Old Latin begins to offer what other theories for the most part lack, namely, a specific, documented historical context and, more importantly, a compelling motive for the effort and expense of producing a Greek text form that so often mirrors the Old Latin version. This motive was simply the belief among certain of the participants that the Old Latin version was less corrupt than the Greek. Thus, in his Commentary on Romans 5:14, we find Ambrosiaster arguing that the text form found in his Old Latin manuscript, lacking the negative particle, is in fact the correct reading, while the Greek manuscripts that have the particle are corrupt.

Nevertheless, it has often been considered next to impossible that the ancient producers of a Greek text would borrow from a Latin version. H. Marsh argues:

“I have myself collated the two first chapters of St. Mark … and have found that in most of the readings, in which the Codex Bezae differs from all the Greek manuscripts, it agrees with some one of those Latin versions. But shall we therefore conclude that those readings were actually borrowed from a Latin version, and translated into Greek? It is at least as possible that they might have had their origin in the Greek as in the Latin, and this very possibility is sufficient to defeat the whole of Wetstein’s hypothesis [that Bezae borrows Old Latin readings].” [3]

Marsh concludes:

“there is no reason whatsoever for ascribing any reading of a Greek manuscript to the influence of the Latin, unless it can be proved that it could not have taken its rise in the Greek, and that it might easily have originated in the Latin” [4]

Although Marsh acknowledges the abundant evidence and correctly infers what the evidence seems to imply, he simply assumes that no one would ever want to correct a Greek MS to a Latin MS. Perhaps more tellingly, he speaks of readings being borrowed and translated or having an origin as though these events took place in a vacuum. Of course, what is missing from Marsh’s account is any attempt to recover the perspective of the human participants or even to acknowledge that human actors exist.

Yet going back to Ambrosiaster’s argument, it is obvious that a corrected Greek MS without μη would show not a trace of having been inspired by the Latin reading. The absence of the particle really leaves no definitive argument as to why it might be lacking. Certainly, Latin influence is not the most compelling explanation for a missing particle. So by Marsh’s rule we have no reason to suspect Latin influence. Yet we have a documented case of an unambiguous motive to drop this very Greek particle in accordance with the Old Latin variant. The motive of course is that the Old Latin version was regarded as preserving the true text, but the Greek was seen as corrupt.

But can there be any more compelling motive for the correction of a Greek MS than the belief that it was simply wrong?

It turns out then that the compelling aspect of assimilation theories is the human aspect and, in particular, the practically limitless human capacity to insist that what is familiar must be correct. Clearly, human participants are dangerous to text-critical theories based on pure reason. Once they are allowed into the picture, assimilation theories that were once judged impossible by the standards of criticism are suddenly not so improbable and in the proper context even compelling.


[1] B. M. Metzger, Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (2d ed.; Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994) 223-232.

[2] Metzger, Textual Commentary, 231.

[3] H. Marsh, “Notes” in J. D. Michaelis, Introduction to the New Testament (trans. H. Marsh; 1802) 2/2:680-681.

[4] Marsh, “Notes,” 2/2:683. J. S. Semler likewise considers it “against reason” that a Greek MS would be corrected to a Latin copy. J. S. Semler, Apparatus ad liberalem Novi Testamenti interpretationem (1767) 44.

Was Helvidius an embarrassment to Bezae’s producers?

Ambrosiaster was not the only Latin writer in the latter fourth century to contend against the Greek tradition. In his treatise On the Perpetual Virginity of Blessed Mary: Against Helvidius, Jerome faults Helvidius for contending that the Greek manuscripts are corrupt:

“you with marvellous effrontery contend that the reading of the Greek manuscripts is corrupt, although it is that which nearly all the Greek writers have left us in their books, and not only so, but several of the Latin writers have taken the words the same way” (Helv. 8; NPNF 2.6, 338)

Jerome later continues the accusation:

“Seeing that you have been foolish enough to persuade yourself that the Greek manuscripts are corrupt, you will perhaps plead the diversity of readings” (Helv. 16 (18); NPNF 2.6, 343)

But which verse and variant does Jerome have in mind?

Luke 2:33 in the contest over Mary’s perpetual virginity

In chapter 8 of Against Helvidius, Jerome argues against Helvidius that Joseph and Mary remained celibate after the birth of Jesus, noting that Joseph had been persuaded to do this after witnessing the miracles that attended Jesus’ birth. As proof Jerome cites Luke 2:33 before immediately digressing to discuss the textual variant:

“His father and mother were marvelling at the things which were spoken concerning Him.” (Luke 2:33) And yet you with marvellous effrontery contend that the reading of the Greek manuscripts is corrupt …

But what variant does Jerome have in mind? Luke 2:33 is known for one significant variant (“Joseph” for “his father”):

Joseph and his mother were marvelling at the things which were spoken concerning Him.”

Because Jerome cites the form “his father and mother,” it seems Helvidius must have cited the variant, “Joseph and his mother.” The latter has been attributed to an impulse to protect the virginal conception, as observed by B. M. Metzger:

“In order to safeguard the doctrine of the virgin birth [sic] of Jesus, ὁ πατήρ was replaced by Ἰωσήφ in a variety of witnesses …” [1]

Of course, Helvidius did not oppose Mary’s conceiving as a virgin, but rather the notion that she maintained her virginity for life (i.e. perpetually). Why then would he care that the reading was “Joseph” rather than “his father”?

The reason becomes fully apparent only in chapter 16 (18 [NPNF]). Here Jerome addresses one of Helvidius’ main arguments, namely, his appeal to the New Testament references to the brothers and sisters of Jesus as evidence that Mary did not remain a virgin:

“It is clear that our Lord’s brethren bore the name in the same way that Joseph was called his father [i.e. not literally]” (Helv. 16 (18); NPNF 2.6, 343)

Jerome contends that terms such as “brother,” “sister,” and “father” are not literal but refer to members of the extended family, appealing to the Roman conception of paternitas, in Jerome’s own words, “many generations spreading from one root” (ex una radice multa generis turba diffunditur) (Helv. 14 (16); PL 23, 0197, my trans.). [2] So just as Joseph is not Jesus’ literal father, so the “brothers and sisters” mentioned in the New Testament are not literal brothers and sisters, but perhaps cousins.

According to Jerome, Helvidius prefers the reading “Joseph” over “his father” because his argument requires that the familial terms “brother and sister” imply a blood relation. This forces him into the difficulty of explaining why literal terms apply to the siblings but not to Joseph who is called “father,” but the difficulty is sidestepped by identifying Joseph by name:

“The Evangelist himself relates that His father [‘Joseph’ v.l.] and His mother were marvelling at the things which were spoken concerning Him, and there are similar passages which we have already quoted in which Joseph and Mary are called his parents. Seeing that you have been foolish enough to persuade yourself that the Greek manuscripts are corrupt, you will perhaps plead the diversity of readings.” (Helv. 16 (18); NPNF 2.6, 343)

So given Jerome’s charge, it is clear Helvidius had argued that the Greek tradition was corrupt in Luke 2:33, but the Latin was not. If this is so, we have another instance of a Latin writer — besides the anonymous Ambrosiaster (Comm. Rom 5:14) — who defends the Old Latin version ostensibly under the conviction that it preserved the old reading, where the Greek text had been corrupted. [3]

The Textual Evidence

Considering the textual evidence, it is clear that with the sole two exceptions of Codex Bezae (d) and Evangelium Gatianum (gat), the Old Latin gospels support Helvidius with iosef/ioseph: a aur b β c d e f ff2 l q r1. But the Latin column of Codex Bezae, like the Greek, sides with א B L W 1 131 700 1241 1582* and the versions Ss Sh mg Cs Cb (mss.) Gg (I.II) OS.

Here we have evidence that Bezae’s bilingual text is not entirely related to the Old Latin version. In the present case, it is clear that Bezae’s Greek column attests the reading of its Greek exemplar. But how do we explain the Latin column? Every indication suggests that Helvidius attests the predominant Old Latin reading, so it appears there are (at least) two possible explanations for Bezae’s Latin reading:

On the one hand, it is possible that D reflects the exemplar of an old layer of the Latin tradition preserved in d, that predates the introduction of the variant reading ioseph in the rest of the Old Latin version. But if D’s reading were truly the oldest Latin reading, it is striking that no other Latin witness follows this reading except the relatively late Gatianum. We might have expected at least one of the African-influenced MSS (c and e) or the early European MS (a) to have kept the old reading or at least to show signs of disturbance.

On the other hand, the alignment of the main Old Latin traditions and the isolation of d may indicate that its reading pater eius is fairly recent. It may even reflect a deliberate reaction to the Old Latin reading and selection of the Greek reading based on specific interests and concerns of Bezae’s producers. But what might these have been?

Bezae’s adoption of the Greek reading

Although Helvidius was never formally condemned, in subsequent decades, those with similar views did not fare so well, such as Jovinian, who was condemned by a Roman synod in 393. To the astute observer in the Latin West it would have been clear that any association with questionable proof texts of a proponent of low Mariology posed a certain liability. Indeed, we have reason to believe that Helvidius’ writings were initially well-known, because Jerome begrudgingly acknowledges the extent of the “scandal” they had instigated (Helv. 1). At the end of the fifth century, Gennadius still remembers Helvidius’ writings:

Helvidius … wrote, indeed, with zeal for religion but not according to knowledge, a book, polished neither in language nor in reasoning, a work in which he so attempted to twist the meaning of the Holy Scriptures to his own perversity, as to venture to assert on their testimony that Joseph and Mary, after the nativity of our Lord, had children who were called brothers of the Lord. In reply to his perverseness Jerome, published a book against him, well filled with scripture proofs (Vir. ill. 33; NPNF 2.3, 391-392)

But if d alone rejects an otherwise solid Old Latin reading that is nevertheless definitely attested as a key proof text of a writer who “attempted to twist the meaning of the Holy Scriptures to his own perversity” using a well-known variant of Luke 2:33, it seems not unlikely that this reflects a sense of caution in distancing Bezae’s text from potentially sensitive associations.

When we consider Bezae’s other well-known tendencies in the context of the latter fourth century (see this post for some examples), they tend to be consistent with a conservative, ecclesiastical, and even Roman perspective (e.g. promoting Peter, favorable to Roman officials) that reflects contemporary concerns of church order (e.g. the autonomy of female lay ascetics), discipline (e.g. Christian “Judaizing”), and doctrine (e.g. the consubstantiality of the Holy Spirit). If Bezae’s text developed in an ecclesiastical setting, as suggested by its initial corrector (G), we should expect a real hypersensitivity to heretical opinions and a self-conscious effort to distance the text from any party suspected of heresy. If this analysis is correct, the Greek reading was followed in Luke 2:33 because the Old Latin had strayed in a potentially dangerous direction.

What might this imply about Bezae?

If Bezae’s Latin reading in Luke 2:33 is not an old reading, but a recent correction to the Greek column, this might suggest that in its bilingual tradition, the Latin column was constructed with reference to the Greek column. (Of course the latter may have come about in a variety of ways, including the selective correction a Greek base to one or more Old Latin copies.) When the Greek reading was selected in Luke 2:33, the Latin column was translated and updated to reflect this reading, creating the (correct) impression that the Greek reading is the exemplar of the Latin.

It is possible to see now how a “layered” effect might have been achieved in Bezae’s Greek text through a process of selective correction of a Greek base to a reconstruction of one or more Old Latin versions. In such a model, the Greek layers reveal characteristics of the initial Greek exemplar of Bezae’s bilingual tradition, while the layers aligned with the versions reflect the well-known “free” characteristics. This two-layered model accounts for cases, as in Luke 2:33, where Bezae’s Latin column follows the Greek column in preference to the Old Latin version, while also allowing for the general resemblance of both columns to the Old Latin version.

Ironically, Helvidius’ sponsorship of the Old Latin reading in Luke 2:33 may have led to its ultimate rejection from a tradition otherwise well-inclined to preserve Latin readings. In another case, a writer who promoted Old Latin readings did not leave his name to posterity. But perhaps he knew that if he had, we would not have his writings at all.


[1] B. M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (2nd ed.; Stuttgart, 1994) 111. Presumably Metzger is not referring literally to a virgin birth (virginitas in partu), but to the virginal conception.

[2] He suggests they are most likely children of Mary’s sister (first cousins) (Helv. 14 [= NPNF 16]), but it seems this in-law relationship does not quite fit the paternitas scheme.

[3] This raises the question as to the identity of Ambrosiaster and Helvidius with the same individual, which as far as I know has not been proposed. This identification would face a few problems. First, Jerome refers to Helvidius disparagingly by name, but prefers to allude to Ambrosiaster indirectly without naming him. Second, it is generally thought that Helvidius was a lay person (see Helv. 1), but it seems Ambrosiaster a presbyter.

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.

Has Latin influence on Bezae’s Greek text been disproved?

In a recent post, I noted that theories of Latin influence on Bezae’s Greek text were the norm before J. S. Semler argued that Bezae’s Greek had not been influenced by a Latin version (1767). Following Semler, both J. D. Michaelis and H. Marsh seem especially eager to disprove J. J. Wettstein’s hypothesis that D had been corrected to a Latin version.

J. D. Michaelis assembles readings that in his view “rescue the copyist from the charge of having corrupted the Greek from the Latin,” noting two categories of such readings, namely, those in which the Greek and Latin columns differ and those in which the Latin column has been altered from the Greek. [1] It is clear though that Michaelis’ evidence can only address the limited case in which the copyist of Bezae or its exemplar has been influenced by the Latin column during transcription.

For a case in which the Greek and Latin columns differ, Michaelis cites Mark 11:12, where D was at one time the only Greek witness known to have the singular participle (note that Legg lists Γ with + αυτον):

εξελθοντα απο βηθανιας

Yet d has the plural:

cum exissent (d with a i)

But while it is clear that d could not have influenced D, Michaelis points out that D has support for its singular participle in the Old Latin version, namely from Codex Veronensis:

cum exisset (b with c ff2 q r1)

So far from excluding the possibility that D might have been influenced by the Old Latin versions, Michaelis has unwittingly added support for Wettstein’s hypothesis! This reading suggests that, agreements aside, D has contact with a variant in the Latin tradition that is otherwise largely unknown in the Greek tradition.

Then for a case in which the Latin column has been altered from the Greek, Michaelis cites Acts 10:6, noting that the Latin version “in general” adds hic dicet tibi quid te oporteat facere, while d and e follow their Greek columns by omitting this phrase.

But there are some problems with the evidence.

First, the extra phrase is far from the general Latin reading. The other two Old Latin MSS extant in Acts 10:6 gig and p* both agree with d and e as well as much of the Vulgate tradition, while the addition is supported by pc and another part of the Vulgate tradition.

Second, Michaelis (laboring before Kipling’s edition of Bezae) observes that “the spurious addition ετος λαλησει σοι τι σε δει ποιειν is rejected from the Greek text of those two manuscripts [D and E].” But Bezae preserves here only the Latin side of Acts 10:6, the leaf is missing from the facing Greek. So although the point is moot anyway, we cannot actually know what D read. Yet Michaelis’ confidently-affirmed evidence continues to keep alive the notion that large-scale Latin influence is impossible in D. [2]

We might sum up Michaelis’ contribution in two points:

First, he seems to have influenced the way the question of Latinization was conceived, that is, primarily in transcriptional terms, while leaving unaddressed the larger possibility of systematic correction to a Latin version. In fact, transcriptional data cannot inform us on this question because it reaches no farther back than D’s exemplar. Nor can so-called “Latinisms” help, because in most cases there would have been no trace but the Latin reading itself.

Second, Michaelis and his successors seem to have assumed that he decisively answered Wettstein. But as we have seen, he does not address the same problem.

Clearly then Michaelis did not disprove the possibility that Bezae’s Greek text might have been influenced by a Latin version. The question must be regarded as still open. We simply cannot assume that Bezae’s most distinctive elements represent a pure Greek tradition.


[1] J. D. Michaelis, Introduction to the New Testament (trans. H. Marsh; 1802) 2/1:230. These examples are cited by D. C. Parker, Codex Bezae: An early Christian manuscript and its text (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992) 185.

[2] Parker follows Michaelis, observing “Ac 10.6, where d e follow D E in omitting the phrase hic dicet tibi quid te oportet facere which is found in the rest of the Latin tradition,” concluding that Michaelis “showed that the theory of Latinization was not able to solve the problem of the D text” (p. 185). But as we have seen, D is lacunose in Acts 10:6 and E d e are supported by the Old Latin and much of the Vulgate.

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.

How to validate a theory of Bezae’s text

Theories on the origin of Bezae’s text are not in short supply. After surveying no less than nine theories on the origins and development of the “Western” text, B. M. Metzger remarked, “one is impressed by the wide diversity of hypotheses and the lack of any generally accepted explanation.” [1]

Consolidating these nine theories into four related groups, we have:

  1. Bezae’s text (of Acts) is attributable to different editions (of Acts), theories 1-4
  2. Bezae’s text reflects the editorial and/or evolutionary development of a free text after the mid-second century, theories 5-6
  3. Bezae’s text is representative of the earliest-attainable text form from before the mid-second century, theory 7
  4. Bezae’s text is assimilated to one of the old versions, either Latin or Syriac, theories 8-9

What is striking (and perhaps revealing) about these groups of theories is their mutual incompatibility. Obviously, Bezae’s text form is either earlier, later, or roughly contemporaneous to the mainstream alternative. But it can only be one of these! Likewise Bezae’s distinctive tradition is either initially Greek or initially Latin/Syriac. But again, it is unlikely to be both.

Yet faced with these main theories and their numerous variations, how are we to decide between them? How do we test a theory of Bezae’s text?

It seems worthwhile at the outset to acknowledge the historical nature of the inquiry. Any theory of Bezae’s origins makes historical claims that bind smaller observations to a larger framework, forcing us to draw connections outside the text itself and outside the textual tradition to the period literature. A textual theory consists of more than noting agreements between witnesses.

A good test discourages theories that are merely plausible, while drawing few connections beyond the text itself. At the same time, a good test encourages comprehensiveness in accounting for the full range of observed features in both text and manuscript. A theory is more likely to be accurate — and useful — if it is comprehensive in its integration of the data under the proposed framework. While critics will inevitably differ on matters of interpretation, it seems they should agree that the key evidence is addressed.

It is inevitable that some periods are better documented than others. Yet we should expect the evidence to be well-integrated with its proposed historical background to the level of detail permitted by the sources. At the same time, the theory’s claims should be corroborated by a range of independent sources and diverse lines of evidence. A robust theory will absorb new evidence and accommodate or even suggest new lines of inquiry.

But it is evident that many of the proposed theories of Bezae’s text do not meet these criteria. For example, multiple-edition theories are incomplete from the outset because they only address the evidence of Acts, while overlooking the four gospels. But if it is thought that the gospels do not belong to the same tradition as Acts, this must be defended. An account must be given of the gospels not merely of Acts.

We might also consider theories of Bezan priority. While such theories claim a historical framework within the limitations of second-century evidence, they have difficulty explaining the local genealogical evidence suggesting that many Bezan readings are derivative. This weakness in turn raises suspicions regarding the limitations of the historical data. It now appears that the theory survives on gaps in our knowledge.

Clearly then, we are not lacking in the supply of theories of Bezae’s text. Yet we must wonder whether the multiplicity of theories disguises a fact that none yet tells the whole story.


[1] Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (2d ed.; Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994) 233.

Bezae’s elusive Sabbath worker episode and fourth-century anti-Judaizing canons

Bezae’s point of view on the Sabbath is difficult to pin down despite its apparent interest in Sabbath-related passages. This is certainly true of one of Bezae’s more enigmatic variations, depicting Jesus’ encounter with a man working on the Sabbath in Luke 6:5:

“On the same day seeing a certain worker on the Sabbath, he [Jesus] said to him, ‘Man, if you know what you are doing (οιδας τι ποιεις), you are blessed. But if you do not know, you are accursed (επικαταρατος) and a transgressor of the law!'” [1]

Despite wide diversity of opinion concerning potential initial contexts for this saying, interpreters have consistently placed it in the second century or earlier. [2] Of course, this putative saying of Jesus stands out not only in condoning work on the Sabbath, but moreover encouraging it, offering blessing to the man who works on the Sabbath while knowing what he does, yet abruptly pronouncing a curse if he does not know what he does.

In fact, both halves of the pericope are startling in different ways. Yet both halves offer clues suggesting that in its final form the saying belongs in the fourth century, echoing decisions on church order made concerning Christian observance of the Sabbath versus the Lord’s day. It is well-known that by the mid-fourth century, the Lord’s day had been set aside as a day of rest for those who were able to do so (Codex Justin. 3.12.3), while at the same time, resting on the Sabbath was increasingly viewed as “Judaizing” and heretical. The only sure way to avoid the charge of heresy was to work on the Sabbath.

Consider Canon 29 from the Council of Laodicea (ca 363):

“Christians are not to Judaize and rest on the Sabbath. Rather they are to work on this day and honor the Lord’s day, during which they may rest as Christians. But if they are found to be Judaizers, let them stand accursed from Christ (ἔστωσαν ἀνάθεμα παρά Χριστῷ).” [3]

The formal parallels with the Sabbath worker saying stand out at once, but especially the explicit affirmation of work on the Sabbath. Also noteworthy of course are the anathemas, though given (ostensibly) for different reasons. In any case, the form of the saying in Bezae parallels that of the prescription of Canon 29 at Laodicea in a manner that suggests that work on the Sabbath was a matter that set Christians apart from “Judaizing” heretics. In fact, the juridical nature of the saying is noted by E. Bammel, who, while not considering the fourth century as a possible context, nevertheless observes:

“The form of the saying is not without relevance. It gives knowledge its place within a framework which contains elements of juridical argumentation, prescription and liability to penalty.” [4]

But if we suppose such a context, what are we to make of the Sabbath worker’s knowledge in Bezae’s saying? In this light we might consider how the fourth-century redactor of Ignatius’ Epistle to the Magnesians urges Christians to keep a spiritual Sabbath as they perform physical labor on the Sabbath:

“let every one of you keep the Sabbath after a spiritual manner, rejoicing in meditation on the law, not in relaxation of the body” (Magn. 9; ANF. 1)

Of course, this makes Sabbath observance a kind of knowledge peculiar to Christians, who otherwise do not keep the literal Sabbath. In a sense then this knowledge defines a true Christian versus an unbelieving heretic. In a manner that is almost typical of the fourth century, it is this profession of doctrine that ultimately determines one’s status — whether blessed or damned.

While Jewish-Christianity was of course a factor in the first and second centuries, it continued to draw notice throughout the fourth century. Speaking of the contemporary Nazoraeans, Epiphanius describes how they are “still fettered by the law — circumcision, the Sabbath, and the rest,” before declaring them “under a curse” (υπο καταραν) (Pan. 29.7.5,8.1). [3] But his subsequent indictment that they are not of one mind with Christians (χριστιανοις δε μη ομογνωμονουντες) (Pan. 19.7.5), is most telling in suggesting that doctrinal differences concerning Sabbath observance may in fact supply a plausible context for Bezae’s otherwise puzzling reference to the Sabbath worker’s knowledge as what saves or curses his efforts.

So what then is the Sabbath worker to know about his work on the Sabbath? Apparently, he is to know that his physical labors do not detract from the spiritual significance of the Sabbath as the day of rest.


References

[1] Translations mine unless indicated.

[2] See E. Bammel, “The Cambridge Pericope. The Addition to Luke 6.4 in Codex Bezae,” New Testament Studies 32 (1986) 404–426 at 405.

[3] C. J. Hefele, ed., Histoire des conciles, 1/2.1015.

[4] Translation by F. Williams (1987), 117, 118.