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.

Presenting at the Eleventh Birmingham Colloquium: The Latin Version and Codex Bezae’s Greek Text

This week I will be presenting a paper at the Eleventh Birmingham Colloquium on the Textual Criticism of the New Testament, where the theme of the colloquium is the versions and other indirect textual evidence for the New Testament. My paper looks at the history of scholarship on the theory that Latin readings have significantly influenced Bezae’s Greek text in its final form. The title of the paper is “Has Pervasive Influence of the Old Latin Version on Codex Bezae’s Greek Text Form Been Disproved? An Examination of Some Key Objections to the Theory of Latin Influence on Bezae’s Greek Text.”

Of course, the prevailing theory concerning Bezae’s distinctive parallels with the Latin version is that these readings are native Greek text forms that have been faithfully conveyed in Latin by translators of the Old Latin version. This view was expressed by J. S. Semler in his Apparatus ad liberalem Novi Testamenti interpretationem (1767), where he observes that “the Latin copies were originally translated from the same Greek codices from which many Greek copies of a different kind [such as Codex Bezae] were transcribed.” 1

But as I have noted in a few other posts (see Why assimilation theories of Bezae’s Greek text are compelling, Can Greek manuscripts account for Bezae’s variation?, Has Latin influence on Bezae’s Greek text been disproved?, and Latinization in Codex Bezae?), this view was not the first modern opinion on the matter of the distinctive Latin parallels in Bezae’s Greek text form. For the first two centuries following Bezae’s rediscovery during the Reformation, the predominant view was that these readings were borrowed from the Latin version, a view held by J. Mill and J. J. Wettstein among others.

This earlier view was challenged, not only by Semler, but also by J. D. Michaelis, J. J. Griesbach, H. Marsh, and D. D. Schultz, who laid the groundwork for the current consensus in a series of objections to the notion that parallels with the Latin version found in Bezae’s Greek column might have arisen as renderings in the Latin version.2 These objections include:

  • The prevailing direction of assimilation between Bezae’s columns is from the Greek to the Latin rather than the Latin to the Greek (Michaelis and Schultz)
  • Sufficient diversity exists within the Greek tradition to account for Bezae’s Latin parallels without appeal to the Latin version (Semler and Griesbach)
  • A Bezan text is likely to lie at the source of the Latin version (Semler and Griesbach)
  • The notion that an original language text, such as Bezae’s Greek column, might have appropriated renderings from a secondary version is contrary to reason (Semler and Marsh)

My paper argues that none of these objections upon which the present theory relies and by which it distinguishes itself from the earlier opinion entirely succeeds in excluding the possibility that Bezae’s significant collection of distinctive Latin parallels might have arisen through the influence of readings in the Old Latin version, though not necessarily its own Latin column.

The abstract follows:

Before the mid-eighteenth century, it was generally assumed by figures such as Erasmus, R. Simon, H. Grotius, F. Lucas Brugensis, W. H. Estius, J. Mill, J. A. Bengel, and J. J. Wettstein among others, that Codex Bezae’s Greek text form, where it parallels the Latin version — often with little or no additional Greek support — has been influenced by readings of the Latin version. Such an inference is understandable given Bezae’s Greek-Latin format and frequent divergence from the rest of the Greek tradition in agreement with one or more witnesses of the Old Latin version. But in his Apparatus ad liberalem Novi Testamenti interpretationem, published in 1767, J. S. Semler challenged this earlier assumption, arguing that the theory of Latin influence on Bezae’s Greek text form was, not only contrary to reason, but also unnecessary. Semler argued that there was sufficient diversity within the Greek tradition to account for Bezae’s Latin parallels without appeal to the Latin version as their source, suggesting that, rather than reflecting Latin influence, a text like Bezae’s lay at the source of the Latin version. Taking up Semler’s critique, J. D. Michaelis strove “to rescue the [Bezan] copyist from the charge” of Latinizing a Greek text, while D. D. Schultz assembled instances in which Bezae’s Latin column appears to depend on errors in the Greek column, believing that he had thereby settled the question.3 H. Marsh summed up the sentiments of many when he remarked that “[i]t is surely more reasonable to suppose, that a translation would be altered from an original, than an original from a translation.”4 Since Semler, the notion that Latin readings may have influenced Bezae’s Greek text form has generally been dismissed, with F. J. A. Hort calling it “a whimsical theory of the last century.”5 More recently, B. M. Metzger summarized the state of the question, observing that “the theory finds little or no support among present-day scholars.”6

In this paper, I propose to reexamine some of the key objections to the theory that Bezae’s Greek text form has been widely influenced by the Old Latin version, arguing that none of the traditional objections entirely succeeds in excluding the possibility that Bezae’s substantial collection of peculiar Latin parallels might have arisen through the influence of readings in the Old Latin version, but not necessarily its own Latin column. I will observe that much of the discussion in the literature has conflated two distinct problems: while critics have tended to view the problem in terms of the direct translation of Bezae’s own Latin column, the theory’s early proponents understood the problem more broadly in terms of the selective influence of the wider Latin version. Yet demonstrations purporting to disprove the entire theory have typically addressed only the former problem. Meanwhile, the question of plausibility has been framed too quickly in terms of modern critical and editorial biases, which strongly prioritize the Greek text as original, while neglecting to consider historical contexts that might have preferred Latin over Greek readings. Clearly though, the question can be addressed satisfactorily only in light of ancient opinion. In light of this apparent failure of the traditional objections, I will conclude by suggesting that the pervasive dependence of Bezae’s Greek text form on the Old Latin version remains very much an open question.

Can Greek manuscripts account for Bezae’s variation?

Bezae’s distinctive parallels with the Latin tradition are well known in the gospels. The so-called “Western non-interpolations” are among the better known examples. In Luke 22:19-20, for example, Bezae sides with VL(3 8 10 17) against all other Greek witnesses. Of course, Bezae is the earliest Greek manuscript to attest two of the more spectacular gospel variations, both well-represented in the Old Latin tradition, the pericope adulterae with VL(2 6 8 15 14) and the Markan long ending with VL(6 8 10 13 15 16). Bezae also stands alone with the Latin in some notable shorter variants, such as the angry Jesus reading in Mark 1:41 with VL(3 8 14) and the variant cry of dereliction in Mark 15:34 with VL(1 6 17). In these and many other places, Bezae stands out as the only (or earliest) Greek manuscript to attest distinctive Latin readings.

Now it is generally assumed that Bezae represents the source tradition of these peculiar Latin readings. But every parallel has two possible directions. The Greek-source hypothesis is not the only possibility.

Before J. S. Semler (1725–1791), Bezae’s Latin parallels were routinely ascribed to Latin influence. For example, Semler’s mentor J. J. Wettstein (1693–1754) argued that Bezae’s Greek text had been systematically adapted to readings from at least two Latin traditions. Commenting on the scribe’s introduction of divergent text forms from the Latin, Wettstein writes:

“very often he made the Greek according to either the Latin or Italian version.” 1

Noteworthy is Wettstein’s explicit attribution of Bezae’s peculiarities to deliberate conformity of the Greek text to multiple Latin traditions. Significantly, Wettstein makes no claim that Bezae’s distinctive variations derive from its own Latin column, but rather from the broader Latin tradition, a point that has often been missed by subsequent critics. 2

Semler eventually reversed his opinion from that of Wettstein, arguing that sufficient diversity existed within the Greek tradition to account for Bezae’s variation:

“It is a dubious assertion that the Greek codices have been influenced and altered to the Latin. … We discover this by just looking at the codices written in Greek throughout the various Greek provinces. Noteworthy variations were already in place in the third, fourth, and fifth centuries.” 3

According to Semler, it is easier to suppose that Bezae’s Greek text came from a divergent tradition that lies behind the various Latin translations. Noting the number and variety of Greek witnesses discovered in his time, Semler argues that the diversity (magna varietas) of the Greek tradition is sufficient to account for the readings found in Bezae:

“Erasmus, R. Simon, Mill, Bengel, Wettstein, and nearly all other critics of this mass of Greek codices, which already more recently we have become acquainted with, designated the great multitude Latinized, that is, conformed to the Latin text because they agree with the Vulgate or a certain Latin translation. But we reject this with a single decisive observation, namely, that the Latin copies were originally translated from the same Greek codices from which many Greek copies of a different kind [i.e. Bezae’s] were transcribed. Among the Greek codices there was already at that time great variety, for a great many Latin translations already existed at the time of Jerome and Augustine derived from these Greek codices. Therefore, it certainly did not happen that these Greek books could ever have been altered to those Latin copies with which they already agreed.” 4

So in Semler’s view, there is no need to appeal to Latin codices to account for readings found in Bezae.

But can the diversity of the Greek tradition by itself account for Bezae’s distinctive Latin parallels? It is now clear that even the full Greek tradition leaves us short in accounting for Bezae’s unusual text form. As evident from results published in Text und Textwert, Bezae remains with an abundance of singular Greek readings even when we consider the entire surviving Greek tradition.

Here are the percentages of singular readings in Bezae by book according to Text und Textwert:

Book Witnesses Teststellen Singular Readings % Singular Readings
Matthew 1757 53 6 11.32%
Mark 1754 192 36 18.75%
Luke 1756 53 8 15.09%
John 1763 126 13 10.32%
Acts 607 72 31 43.06%

Clearly the diversity of the Greek tradition cannot by itself account for the full scope of Bezae’s distinctive variation, ranging from ten percent in John to over forty percent in Acts against over 1500 witnesses to each gospel and over six hundred witnesses in Acts. Is it plausible that so many readings generated in the first few centuries were subsequently lost to the Greek tradition from which they presumably derived, only to resurface in translation? Until a satisfactory answer is given, it seems premature to rule out any plausible alternative.

On the other hand, is it not more plausible to ascribe this surplus of variation to readings that we know already existed, even in another version? 5 Perhaps these variations arose in translation or entirely within the Latin tradition. Surely some Latin translators active at the time of Jerome and Augustine were capable of translating select passages into Greek. It seems all we require is a motive.

(On possible motives for Latin assimilation, see here and here.)

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.

Latinization in Codex Bezae?

When we suggest that Bezae’s Greek text may be “Latinized,” what precisely do we mean? It seems the question has been viewed in two ways.

On the one hand, Latinization in Bezae has been viewed in terms of the interaction of the columns. This seems to have been the view of J. Mill (1707) of which D. C. Parker observes:

“the Greek text [in Mill’s view] … had been consistently altered to agree with the Latin column, thus losing any claim to significance as an ancient Greek witness.” (Codex Bezae 184)

In a similar way, J. D. Michaelis (1788) cites passages in which:

“[t]he Greek text varies … from the Latin version, with which it is accompanied … [and hence we are able] to rescue the copyist from the charge of having corrupted the Greek from the Latin” (trans. Marsh, Introduction to the New Testament 2/1:230).

Certainly, the evidence of the columns discourages any notion that Bezae’s Latin column has consistently influenced the Greek text as a significant force in its development. This can be seen in places where the Latin reproduces errors in the Greek, e.g. in gentes eius (“its nations”) in the Latin of Acts 21.21 which reproduces the erroneous εθνεσι αυτου (“its nations”) for εθεσι αυτου (“its customs”) in the Greek.

But there is another way we can look at Latinization in Bezae. It is possible to see Latinization in Bezae’s Greek text, not in terms of its own Latin column, but in light of the broader Old Latin tradition. This is how H. Marsh describes Wettstein’s view:

“the writer of the Codex Bezae departed from the readings of the Greek manuscript, or manuscripts, from which he copied, and introduced in their stead, from some Latin version, readings which were warranted by the authority of no Greek manuscript.” (Introduction 2/2:680)

The distinction between these two views seems not to have been fully appreciated. While evidence from Bezae as a codex can be mustered to disprove dependence between the columns, proving or disproving dependence on other Old Latin texts is not so straightforward. In fact, we cannot claim that Latin influence has been ruled out for Bezae’s Greek text solely on the basis of the comparison of its columns. In this light, Marsh’s canon comes across as unhelpfully dogmatic:

“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.” (Introduction 2/2:683)

It is questionable though whether Latin influence can ever be “proved” under such a canon. But are we to conclude then that Latin influence has never occurred? This seems at the very least doubtful in a bilingual tradition as thoroughly Latin as that of Codex Bezae.