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.

How did a Latin text end up in the Egyptian wilderness?

In some recent posts, I have suggested that certain features of Bezae’s Greek text seem consistent with its assimilation of Old Latin readings. Of course, any theory of Latin assimilation requires a motive capable of justifying the retroversion of Latin readings into Greek. In Bezae’s case, one possible motive is the documented belief that the Greek tradition was more corrupt than the Old Latin version. But a still bigger problem is explaining how these assimilated readings might have appeared in other versions.

One remarkable twentieth-century discovery was the Acts text of Codex Glazier in the Middle Egyptian Coptic dialect, which unexpectedly followed the “long” text form of Bezae and other well-known “Western” witnesses, at times even uniquely agreeing with Bezae in readings that had previously been considered singular. [1]

To suggest then that Latin assimilation might in some way have contributed to the “long” text forms of Acts in Greek clearly requires an account as to how these forms might have appeared in Middle Egyptian texts. Of course, it is possible such an influence passed indirectly through the Greek tradition to the versions. But how necessary is this intermediate step?

We might begin by noting that the so-called “Western” text form is especially well-represented in the Old Latin text of Acts. To take a familiar example, the “baptismal confession” of the Ethiopian eunuch at Acts 8:37, found in Glazier, is well-attested by Latin writers, including Cyprian, Tertullian, Augustine, Pacian, and Ambrosiaster, and whatever its origin, is clearly representative of the Old Latin version as a whole, being attested in c dem e gig l m p ph r t w (Bezae is unfortunately lacunose from Acts 8:29-10:14). While it is also attested in various forms in a range of Greek minuscules, the sheer quantity of variant forms (TUT lists 22 unique forms in ten readings) makes it difficult to insist that the Greek form had to have been the earliest.

But even if we allow that such a reading might first have appeared in Latin, how are we to explain its occurrence in a remote Coptic dialect? What context can convincingly bring these two traditions together in a manner capable of allowing a transfer of readings between these otherwise disparate versions?

One distinct possibility involves the pro-Nicene faction of the fourth-century Arian controversy, whose leadership brought together figures from both the Latin West and Coptic Egypt. We might consider the case of Athanasius (presumably a Coptic speaker), who fled to the West in 339 and remained there for the duration of his second exile (339-346). In the West, he established ties with Pope Julius and the bishops in Italy (Apol. Const. 3), many of whom survived long enough to defend his cause in his later struggles (Hilary of Poitiers, Coll. Ant. Par. B.II.2).

In the opposite direction, both Lucifer of Cagliari in Sardinia and Eusebius of Vercelli in northern Italy were exiled by Constantius to the East (355-361) for refusing to condemn Athanasius at the Council of Milan (355). Both spent the latter portion of their respective exiles in the predominantly Coptic-speaking region of the Thebaid (Upper Egypt). It is interesting to note in this connection that the Old Latin gospel manuscript, Codex Vercellensis (a), is said to have been transcribed by Eusebius. [2] In fact, it seems not unlikely that both Lucifer and Eusebius carried Old Latin gospel texts to their places of exile.

In any case, Lucifer’s writings dating from his exile contain Old Latin citations. He seems to have sent one of these writings, the treatise De Athanasio, to Constantius in defense of Athanasius. If we accept as genuine two letters to Lucifer attributed to Athanasius, the latter requested a copy of the treatise: [3]

To our lord, and most beloved brother the Bishop and Confessor Lucifer. Athanasius greeting in the Lord. …

It has been reported to us that your holiness has written to Constantius Augustus; and we wonder more and more that dwelling as it were among scorpions you yet preserve freedom of spirit, in order, by advice or teaching or correction, to bring those in error to the light of truth. I ask then, and all confessors join me in asking, that you will be good enough to send us a copy; so that all may perceive, not by hearsay only but by letters, the valour of your spirit, and the confidence and firmness of your faith. Those who are with me salute your holiness … (Epist. 1, Ad Luciferum; NPNF 2.4, 561)

In his second letter to Lucifer, we hear of Athanasius’ reception of the treatise:

To the most glorious lord and deservedly much-desired fellow-Bishop Lucifer, Athanasius greeting in the Lord. …

We have received the books of your most wise and religious soul, in which we have seen the image of an Apostle, the confidence of a Prophet, the teaching of truth, the doctrine of true faith, the way of heaven, the glory of martyrdom, the triumphs against the Arian heresy, the unimpaired tradition of our Fathers, the right rule of the Church’s order. O truly Lucifer, who according to your name bring the light of truth …

Believe me, Lucifer, it is not you only who has uttered this, but the Holy Spirit with you. Whence comes so great a memory for the Scriptures? Whence an unimpaired sense and understanding of them? … Whence did you get such exhortations to the way of heaven … and such proofs against heretics, unless the Holy Spirit had been lodged in you? (Epist. 2, Ad Luciferum; NPNF 2.4, 562)

The relevant point here is that Lucifer’s De Athanasio contains well-known “Western” readings, including readings attested by the codices Bezae, Glazier, and just a few others. [4] For example, in Lucifer’s text of Acts 12:7 cited in De Athanasio, the angel “pricks” or “pierces” (νυξας) rather than “taps” (παταξας) Peter’s side, a reading attested only by Bezae, P127, Codex Gigas (gig), and (it seems) Codex Glazier (though the latter’s support is not listed in NA28). [5] Thus, Lucifer writes:

conpungens autem latus Petri (De Athanasio 2.14; CCSL 8, 99)

Which compares to the Old Latin text:

pungens autem latus Petri (d gig)

But this reading is also attested by Codex Glazier:

Acts 12,7 (underline, 80pc)[6]

(Note that H.-M. Schenke’s lexicon defines the verb joke as stechen, stoßen, which in the context suggests to prick, stab, pierce, or pokeDefinition [7])

Compared to Athanasius’ own “Alexandrian” citations, Lucifer’s vivid depiction of the angel “piercing” Peter’s side could not have been lost on readers of the treatise. If the Luciferian tract De confessione verae fidei (88) is credible on this point, Athanasius himself translated Lucifer’s books into Greek, which would have made the treatise accessible to anyone conversant in Greek. [8]

Considering Athanasius’ extravagant praise of Lucifer’s orthodoxy, it is not difficult to envision a certain interest in his unusual text form among those who encountered it. Yet whether or not Athanasius or the “confessors” with him noticed these unusual readings, we can at least affirm that the physical transfer of Old Latin readings to a context in which Coptic was the familiar language is apparently attested. While given the state of the evidence, we are unlikely to establish any definitive connection between the Old Latin and Coptic versions of Acts, if Athanasius did indeed receive a copy of Lucifer’s treatise, it seems neither can we entirely rule out such connections.


[1] E. J. Epp, “Coptic Manuscript G67 and the Role of Codex Bezae as a Western Witness in Acts” in Perspectives on New Testament Textual Criticism: Collected Essays, 1962–2004 (Leiden: Brill, 2005) 15-39.

[2] See E. Dekkers, “Les autographes des Peres latins” in Colligere fragmenta, Festschrift Alban Dold zum 70. Geburtstag…, hrsg. von Bonifatius Fischer u. Virgil Fiala (Beuron, 1952) 127-139.

[3] On the authenticity of Athanasius’ letters to Lucifer, see G. F. Diercks, ed., CCSL 8, xxvi and E. Dekkers, “Les traductions grecques des écrits patristiques latins,” Sacris Erudiri 5 (Brugge, 1953) 193-233 at 199.

[4] A. M. Coleman notes the close alignment of Lucifer’s “abundant quotations (more than one eighth of the Acts)” with gig. A. M. Coleman, The Biblical text of Lucifer of Cagliari: Acts (Welwyn, Herts., 1927) 1. See also, J. H. Petzer, “Texts and Text-Types in the Latin Version of Acts” in Philologia Sacra. Vol. 1 (ed. R. Gryson; Freiburg: Herder, 1993) 259–284 at 266.

[5] Probably, there was some uncertainty as to whether the distinction between the two readings could be unequivocally established in the Coptic.

[6] H.-M. Schenke (ed.), Apostelgeschichte 1,1-15,3 im mittelägyptischen Dialekt des Koptischen (Codex Glazier) (TU 137; Berlin, 1991) 180.

[7] Schenke, Apostelgeschichte, 229.

[8] Quos quidem libros, cum per omnia ex integro ageret, suspexit et Athanasius ut ueri uindicis atque in Graecum stilum transtulit, ne tantum boni Graeca lingua non haberet. M. Simonetti, ed.; CCSL 69, 381.