Is the “Western” text really “Eastern”?

It is no secret that the so-called “Western” text, as represented by the distinctive readings of its witnesses,* is not at all confined to the West, but rather may be found across a range of geographical and versional contexts, from the Old Syriac and Coptic versions to various Greek traditions associated with Eastern writers, for example, with Origen or Basil of Caesarea.

G. Zuntz put it well:

“The term ‘Western Text’ is a misnomer — everybody knows that. This characteristic form of the Sacred Text, first discovered in Codex Bezae and the Old Latin, is found in Eastern witnesses as well.” [1]

B. Aland and K. Aland observe with some hyperbole:

“The origin of the ‘Western’ text lies anywhere but in the direction its name would suggest.” [2]

But if the “Western” text is “Western” only in its Latin representatives, what are we to think about its origins? Must they lie in the East — whether in Greek or in Syriac?

In fact, if we follow Zuntz, the “Western” text consists of two layers, both with Eastern origins:

  1. First, there is a base layer containing “remnants of the original text,” which being a Greek tradition, presumably derives from the East.
  2. Then, there is a secondary layer representing “the product of retranslation, from the Syriac, of an ecclesiastical adaptation, namely, the lectionary-text of the oldest Church of Edessa,” which of course, being Edessene, must have arisen in the East as well. [3]

According to Zuntz then, the “Western” text form is essentially an “eastern” text form whose most distinctive, secondary elements derive from Syria.

Certainly, there are elements of the “Western” text that seem to demand an Eastern background. At the same time though, it is difficult to overlook the close association of some of the most distinctively “Western” readings with the Old Latin version. Yet since there is no secure evidence of a Latin version before the early third century, to propose a developed “Western” text in the second century all but requires us to place its origins in the East.

But if we postpone the time frame when the elements of the mature “Western” text form came together to the second half of the fourth century, we are now no longer constrained to an Eastern provenance. In fact, with its reputation for Nicene orthodoxy, the West had certain advantages as a promulgator of influence — and perhaps even of textual influence — to the East from the Synod of Alexandria (362) onward, especially from the perspective of the pro-Nicene party.

Thus we find Basil of Caesarea in Cappadocia [!] turning to Rome for assistance in resolving the Antiochian schism:

“to move some of the Italians to undertake a voyage by sea to visit us.” (Epist. 68; NPNF 2.8, 164)


“It has seemed to me to be desirable to send a letter to the bishop of Rome, begging him to examine our condition, and since there are difficulties in the way of representatives being sent from the West by a general synodical decree, to advise him to exercise his own personal authority in the matter by choosing suitable persons to sustain the labours of a journey … to correct the unruly among us here; able to speak with proper reserve and appropriateness, and thoroughly well acquainted with all that has been effected after Ariminum to undo the violent measures adopted there.” (Epist. 69.1; NPNF 2.8, 166)

But should we expect these worthy representatives from the West to have left their gospels in Italy? Would they have stopped at correcting the “unruly” to also correct unruly texts? Would they have spoken with proper “appropriateness” but not appropriately cite from their own orthodox readings?

Of course, we can only speculate as to the potential impact such contact might have had. Yet we may observe one thing with greater confidence, namely, that by the 370’s there was a flow of influence from West to East that was both initiated and received by sympathetic Easterners. In such a context, we can plausibly imagine Latin readings being imported to the region surrounding Antioch and the great library at Caesarea, where it seems witnesses such as Sinaiticus and Bezae might at one point have resided.

References and Notes

* I added the phrase “as represented by the distinctive readings of its witnesses” in response to James Snapp, Jr.’s insightful comment below.

[1] Günther Zuntz, “The Western Text of the Acts of the Apostles” in Opuscula Selecta; Classica, Hellenistica Christiana (Manchester: University Press, 1972) 189–215 at 189.

[2] K. Aland and B. Aland, The Text of the New Testament: An Introduction to the Critical Editions and to the Theory and Practice of Modern Textual Criticism (2d ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987) 67.

[3] Zuntz, “Western Text,” 189-190.

Against reason? Bezae’s Greek text and the possibility of Latin influence

Any close examination of Bezae’s Greek text reveals its unmistakable affinity with the Old Latin version. What prevents us then from considering its text form as a possible revision to an Old Latin model? In fact, variations on this idea of Latin influence were the norm until 1767, when, reversing his former position, J. S. Semler expressed his disapproval of such theories as contrary to reason and precedent:

“concerning Greek codices being influenced and altered to the Latin … [this] is neither according to reason nor precedent, which can be easily proved” [1]

In his notes on J. D. Michaelis’s Introduction, H. Marsh concurs:

“there is no reason whatsoever for ascribing any reading of a Greek manuscript to the influence of the Latin …” [2]

Such was the legacy of Semler, Michaelis, Marsh, and others, that we find F. J. A. Hort equally dismissive of what he called:

“a whimsical theory of the last century, which, ignoring all Non-Latin Western documentary evidence except the handful of extant bilingual uncials, maintained that the Western Greek text owed its peculiarities to translation from the Latin.” [3]

But is it really contrary to reason that a Greek text might be influenced by or even corrected to a Latin version? It seems the only constraint worth considering is whether the participants who produced this text form had reason to prefer Latin readings over Greek.

Jerome versus Ambrosiaster

At the time of Bezae’s production in ca 400, the Old Latin version was clearly well-established in the Latin-speaking church, while the Greek tradition was sometimes viewed with suspicion — especially as an impetus of change to the familiar Old Latin version. Why else would Jerome take such pains to defend his revision to Greek exemplars? And why else would he challenge his opponents to produce a single Latin exemplar from the many divergent copies — no doubt assuming they could never do it? Jerome writes:

“if we are to pin our faith to the Latin texts, it is for our opponents to tell us which; for there are almost as many forms of texts as there are copies.” (Prologue to the Four Gospels)

Surprisingly though, we find one of these opponents, the elusive Ambrosiaster, apparently contemplating Jerome’s challenge, for he suggests three criteria — reason, history, and authority — by which to identify “the true text,” not in the Greek tradition, but in the Old Latin version:

“I consider this to be the true text, when reason, history, and authority are all preserved. For the text that is retained today in the Latin codices is found to be the same in the ancients, Tertullian, Victorinus and Cyprian.” (Comm. Rom 5:14, see my working translation of the entire passage)

When we consider Ambrosiaster, it no longer appears so “whimsical” to imagine Latin versions influencing Greek texts in a properly conducive context.

Ambrosiaster on the Relative Integrity of the Latin Tradition

We might begin with Ambrosiaster’s rather dismal view of (at least) the recent Greek tradition:

“the Greek codices … have discrepancies among themselves, which provoke a spirit of controversy … [such that] those who can prevail by no other means in a dispute take matters into their own hands, changing the words.” (Comm. Rom 5:14)

While there is nothing novel about such claims as the stock-and-trade of heresiological discourse, we should bear in mind here that Ambrosiaster is not directing his accusation at heretics, but presumably at orthodox controversialists, whose tendentious alterations threatened to overwhelm “the true text.”

Considered in this light, Ambrosiaster’s appeal to the integrity of the Latin version is hardly surprisingly:

“it is well-known that very long ago native Latin speakers translated the text we now have from ancient Greek codices” (Comm. Rom 5:14)

Yet his acknowledgment of the “ancient Greek codices” suggests that he regards the initial Greek text as the ultimate authority, though he seems to doubt whether this text is still accessible in the Greek manuscripts of his own time. On the other hand, he seems to think that the Old Latin version might supply access to this ancient text, since in his view, the Greek text available to these translators would have been closer to “the true text” than any recent Greek text.

Of course, for this argument to work Ambrosiaster must somehow show that the Old Latin version is less corrupt than extant Greek texts, a severe difficulty to say the least. After all, how is it possible that after the same period of copying the Old Latin version would be any less corrupt in relation to the ancient Greek text than contemporary Greek codices?

Attempting to address this question, Ambrosiaster makes the rather bold claim that:

“the innocence of former times has safeguarded [this original Latin version] and now certifies [it] to us without corruption.” (Comm. Rom 5:14)

We have to wonder whether Ambrosiaster sincerely believes in this supposed innocence of former times. Perhaps he is simply seeking a rhetorical advantage. Given though that he has already considered criteria to identify “the true text,” it seems he really does believe it. But how?

A possible clue lies in his concern about internecine controversy and its alleged corrupting effect on the Greek text. It may be that he sees this “innocence of former times” in terms of a relatively stable text form that stands in antithesis to the corrupted forms spawned by recent controversies. Perhaps also he sees in this antithesis a distinction between the comparative quiet of the Latin West with its still incipient theological self-awareness and the incessant controversy of the Greek East with its significantly more advanced and varied theological traditions.

The Relative Innocence of the Latin Tradition from Corrupting Controversy

It seems this contrast between East and West offers a promising explanation of the kind of innocence Ambrosiaster claims for the Old Latin version, namely, that it had escaped the corrupting influence of theological controversy as a consequence of its development in the theological backwater of the Latin West. Canon 1 of the Council of Constantinople (381) draws attention to a list of anathematized heresies, which largely affected the Greek East:

every heresy shall be anathematized, particularly that of the Eunomians or [Anomœans, the Arians or] Eudoxians, and that of the Semi-Arians or Pneumatomachi, and that of the Sabellians, and that of the Marcellians, and that of the Photinians, and that of the Apollinarians. (NPNF 2.14, 172)

In fact, the relative “innocence” of the Latin West was apparently taken for granted by contemporary observers in both East and West. Consider Sozomen’s narrative of the post-Nicene period:

“The Church throughout the whole of the West in its entirety regulated itself by the doctrines of the Fathers, and kept aloof from all contentions and hair-splitting about dogma. As to the Eastern Church, … [t]here were some … who were fond of wrangling and battled against the term ‘consubstantial'” (Eccl. Hist. 3.13, NPNF 2.2, p. 291; PL 67.1065-1068).

The “innocence” of the West is still captured in the decades following Ambrosiaster’s dispute with Jerome in a letter from Pope Anastasius to John of Jerusalem (401), in which the former professes his total ignorance, not only of Origen’s writings or their contents, but even of Origen himself:

“As for Origen, whose writings he [Rufinus] has translated into our language, I have neither formerly known, nor do I now seek to know either who he was or what expression he may have given to his thought.” (NPNF 2.3, p. 433; PL 21.629)

Of course, Origen’s speculative theology would have been emblematic of the theological adventurousness of the East.

At the same time, the controversies of the East were carried to Ambrosiaster’s doorstep in Rome in the 370’s, as rival Nicene parties to the Antiochian schism sent repeated envoys to Rome in attempts to bolster their respective claims to the episcopal office. Ambrosiaster would have witnessed firsthand Basil of Caesarea’s persistent correspondence attempting to involve Rome and the bishops of Italy and Gaul in resolving the schism on behalf of Meletius, while the proponents of Paulinus equally persistently subverted his efforts. [4]

Nor could Ambrosiaster have been ignorant of Basil’s depictions of chaos:

“Nearly all the East … from Illyricum to Egypt is being agitated. … The old heresy, sown by Arius … has now boldly and unblushingly reappeared. … [I]n every district the champions of right doctrine have been exiled from their Churches … and the control of affairs has been handed over to men who are leading captive the souls of the simpler [ones].” (Epist. 70, NPNF 2.8, p. 166; PG 32.433-434)

And again:

“It is not only one Church which is in peril, nor yet two or three which have fallen … The mischief of this heresy spreads almost from the borders of Illyricum to the Thebaid. Its bad seeds were first sown by the infamous Arius … souls are drenched in ignorance, because adulterators of the word imitate the truth. … [Yet] in addition to the open attack of the heretics, the Churches are reduced to utter helplessness by the war raging among those who are supposed to be orthodox.” (Epist. 92.1-2, NPNF 2.8, p. 178; PG 32.477-480)

Clearly then, Ambrosiaster’s interest in controversy as a source of variation is no coincidence. At the same time, his opinion of the innocence of the Latin tradition now becomes somewhat understandable — perhaps even reasonable.

What does this mean for Bezan research?

It seems then that we must acknowledge a real possibility that Bezae’s Greek tradition has been molded to one or more strands of the Old Latin version — though not its own Latin column — perhaps as recently as the decades immediately prior to Bezae’s production. Ambrosiaster’s apparent response to Jerome would then suggest one framework in which the correction of a Greek text to a Latin model is not only possible, but also has a clear motive, namely, to preserve gospel traditions in either language that were thought to have been lost in recent Greek manuscripts. Ambrosiaster’s acceptance of the ancient Greek codices as the ultimate authority supplies a viable raison d’être for a corrected Greek text that seeks to reconstruct the ancient Greek Vorlage used by the Old Latin translators.

Of course, in the final analysis, we must carefully distinguish between what our critical knowledge tells us, namely, that such a reconstruction is unlikely to have been achieved in this manner, and the motivation of the participants to make the attempt. Of course, we have no inkling as to whether such a project — if there was such a project — would have been judged a success even by the participants. It seems it could not have been successful, which would of course have left Bezae as a lasting legacy of a bold, creative, yet fundamentally misguided attempt to restore the initial Greek text from an Old Version.

[1] de codicibus graecis ad latinos informatis et mutatis … nec rationibus … nec exemplis luculentis adhuc effectum estApparatus ad liberalem Novi Testamenti interpretationem (1767) 44, my translation.

[2] H. Marsh, “Notes” in J. D. Michaelis, Introduction to the New Testament (trans. H. Marsh; 1802) 2/2:683.

[3] B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort, The New Testament in the Original Greek, Introduction (1882) 120.

[4] M. A. Norton, “Prosopography of Pope Damasus,” Folia 4 (1950), 13–31; 5 (1951), 30–55; 6 (1952), 16–39. Volumes 5 and 6 lay out many of the sources.

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.

Was Bezae’s Latin text coequal with the Greek?

In an earlier post, I discussed Ambrosiaster’s critique of the Greek tradition for its many discrepancies, which he attributes to “a spirit of controversy” introduced by “heretics and schismatics” (see translation). But in turning to the Old Latin version, Ambrosiaster makes an unexpected claim, implying that the latter has somehow escaped a similar level of corruption.

“it is well-known that very long ago native Latin speakers (Latinos) translated the text we now have from ancient Greek codices.  Let us not keep silent … because our codices take their origin from ancient Greek copies, which the innocence (simplicitas) of former times certifies to us without corruption (incorruptos)” (Comm. Rom. 5:14, edition α)

How is Ambrosiaster able to justify this extraordinary claim? Is it empty rhetoric? Or might there be a peculiar logic behind its seeming absurdity?

In fact, Ambrosiaster’s exhortation to speak up against critics of the Old Latin version suggests he is utterly sincere. [1] Noting perhaps surprisingly that the translators were “native Latin speakers” — when we might expect skill in Greek rather than Latin to be emphasized — Ambrosiaster seems eager to show that the Latin tradition is in no way deficient in its power to convey the original meaning simply because it is in Latin. Of course, by commending the original Greek codices and the original Latin translation for their antiquity, he situates them in time (it is thought) before the major corruptions. In a sense, Ambrosiaster is suggesting that the Old Latin version is self-sufficient with respect to the recent Greek tradition.

But what is this naïveté concerning the “innocence of the times”? Is Ambrosiaster simply romanticizing about a bygone era?

Not necessarily. Early in his argument Ambrosiaster notes the deleterious effect of theological controversy on the stability of the text, suggesting that this “innocence of the times” refers to a kind of innocence that avoided certain theological developments in the Greek tradition. With the Origenist controversy already looming on the horizon, Ambrosiaster may even be alluding to the theological speculation associated specifically with Origen. In any case, as a theological backwater, the Latin tradition would inevitably have been safeguarded from corruption to a certain extent simply because it was less accessible and less attractive to heretics than the original Greek.

The implications of a standalone Latin tradition for Codex Bezae are clear enough considering the evident role of Latin traditions in its development as a bilingual codex. Might Bezae’s producers have thought like Ambrosiaster that the Old Latin version could in some sense stand on equal terms with recent Greek copies? Our natural tendency to view Bezae as just another Greek codex simply on the basis of its Greek column may then be misguided, so long as the possibility exists that its producers had rather intended to elevate the Latin column to an equal standing with the Greek.

[1] This exhortation is preserved only in the commentary’s first edition.