Why does Augustine urge correctors to consult Greek texts … if necessary?

In my previous post, I pointed to the disparity between the Latin and Greek traditions in their respective capacities to account economically for Bezae’s distinctive Latin parallels in the gospels. Since there is no evidence that much of Bezae’s Latin-affiliated variation ever existed in the Greek tradition, while strong parallels exist in Latin, it seems the simpler hypothesis would be that Bezae’s distinctive readings originated in the Latin tradition. Yet given that the Greek tradition is the ultimate source of the Latin version, surely we need good reason to conjecture that a Greek text form may be influenced by readings in the secondary Latin tradition.

One fundamental requirement is a historical context in which the natural flow of influence from Greek to Latin might be reversed, for example, where it was believed that the Latin tradition was more pure or reliable than the Greek. In such a context, we have a ready motive for the alteration of Greek texts to a Latin model.

As I have noted elsewhere, we do find such a belief expressed by Ambrosiaster (Com. Rom. 5.14), who argues that the contemporary Latin tradition is more pure than any contemporary Greek witnesses, which have passed through the hands of recent (Arian) heretics and controversialists, who are willing to change the text to win an argument. While Ambrosiaster is explicit that the ancient Greek tradition is ultimately authoritative, he believes it is simply no longer accessible, at least in Greek. He argues rather that the antiquity of the Latin tradition and its relative isolation from recent Arian dominance support its purity in relation to the contemporary Greek tradition. As for diversity within the Latin tradition, Ambrosiaster believes that the true text is found in the ancient Latin writers, such as Tertullian, Cyprian, and Victorinus, essentially in the so-called “African” tradition.

But Ambrosiaster is not our only evidence of partiality to the Latin tradition. In De doctrina christiana (396–397), Augustine urges his readers three times in one paragraph to correct Latin texts to the Greek version. He begins by insisting:

“to correct the Latin we must use the Greek versions.” (2.22; NPNF 1.2, 542)

So like Ambrosiaster, Augustine affirms the ultimate authority of the Greek tradition. But while Augustine does not insist that the Latin tradition is more pure than the Greek, it is apparent that some of his readers may take Ambrosiaster’s view. Why else would Augustine insist that Latin texts are to be corrected to the Greek unless there were some who were correcting Latin texts to other Latin texts? While it is possible that (rather than from conviction) some of these correctors simply did not know Greek well enough to use the Greek text, Augustine’s exhortation implies that at least some of these correctors were capable of using Greek, but still deferred to the Latin. For some of Augustine’s readers, the authority of the Greek tradition was apparently not taken for granted.

But there is a certain ambivalence to the Greek tradition on Augustine’s part as well. Referring to Old Testament translations, Augustine qualifies his exhortation with a conditional expression, urging correctors to appeal to Greek texts “if necessary” (si necesse fuerit):

“The Latin texts, therefore, of the Old Testament are, as I was about to say, to be corrected if necessary by the authority of the Greeks” (2.22; NPNF 1.2, 542, italics mine)1

Of course, Augustine may simply want to acknowledge that not every text requires correction. But is that not obvious? It seems the qualification expresses a deeper hesitation. Perhaps we have here a hint of ambivalence on Augustine’s part towards altering the Latin text. Augustine affirms the final authority of the Greek tradition in principle, but at the same time wants to limit correction to cases that are specifically necessary. Augustine refers to the New Testament with similar qualifications:

“again, if any perplexity arises from the diversities of the Latin texts, we must of course yield to the Greek, especially those that are found in the churches of greater learning and research.” (2.22; NPNF 1.2, 543, italics mine)2

With the conditional expression, “if any perplexity arises from the diversities of the Latin texts” (si quid in Latinis varietatibus titubat), Augustine suggests that perplexity does not necessarily result when encountering the diversity of the Latin tradition. But if such perplexity is avoidable, as Augustine suggests, there is then no need to yield to the Greek.

But how are Latin correctors to judge that a correction is necessary without consulting a Greek text? How are they to avoid perplexity when confronted with multiple Latin text forms?

In fact, Augustine has just affirmed the superiority of what he calls the “Italian” (Latin) translation:3

“among translations themselves the Italian (Itala) is to be preferred to the others, for it keeps closer to the words without prejudice to clearness of expression.” (2.22; NPNF 1.2, 542)

According to Augustine, this Italian translation is more literal (“keeps closer to the words”) and less prone to smoothing over potential difficulties (“without prejudice to clearness of expression”). While Ambrosiaster had only recently appealed to the authority of the “African” tradition on the basis of its presumed antiquity, Augustine appeals to the “Italian” translation on the basis of its apparent literalness.

So it appears there were some in the Latin West at the turn of the fifth century, Augustine included, who considered a particular Latin text form to be authoritative within the Latin tradition. We wonder then how a bilingual Latin corrector, convinced of the superiority of a particular Latin tradition, might have responded to a Greek text that diverged in a substantial way from this tradition? Would such a corrector necessarily yield to the Greek text as a representative of the larger Greek tradition? If this corrector believed his Latin version to be a superior representation of the initial Greek, it no longer seems so implausible that a Greek text might be corrected to a Latin text form, even in cases where the Latin text form in fact had little or no Greek support.

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.)

How old are the Old Latin gospels?

In the second edition of his Introduction and Appendix (1896), B. F. Westcott (1825-1901) suggested a novel criterion to assess so-called external evidence, namely, that the convergence of the Old Latin manuscript 1 (k) with the recently-discovered Sinaitic Syriac palimpsest (sys) could signal a text form of greater antiquity than the combined witness of Codices Vaticanus and Sinaiticus:

“The discovery of the Sinaitic MS of the Old Syriac raises the question whether the combination of the oldest types of the Syriac and Latin texts can outweigh the combination of the primary Greek texts. A careful examination of the passages in which syr.sin and k are arrayed against אB would point to the conclusion.”1

Christened a “methodological formula” by A. Vööbus and, rather dramatically, a “deathbed confession” by W. L. Petersen, Westcott’s “criterion” gained some acceptance, judging from the range of scholars who cited it.2 Yet we wonder whether — with F. J. A. Hort (1828-1892) no longer in the picture as a voice of restraint — Westcott’s remarks reflect a degree of sensationalism following Agnes Lewis’s recent discovery of the Sinaitic Syriac palimpsest in 1892.

No doubt a certain mystique surrounds the early versions. This aura of antiquity can be felt in their weighty titles, Vetus Latina and Vetus Syra. It is only enhanced by the abundance of free text forms they attest, thought to evoke the earliest stages of the New Testament text. Indeed, the Latin and Syriac versions are cited in support of a variety of seemingly ancient traditions, from the pericope adulterae to reports of a light or fire on the Jordan to a range of other traditions. Of course, since the attesting manuscripts tend to be much later than the period of interest, it is routinely noted that the dates of manuscripts matter less than the dates of the texts they contain, which of course may be several centuries older.

But how certain can we be that these particular texts as found in the Old Latin and Old Syriac gospels are very much older than their manuscripts? How reliable is the impression of age of their text forms? Can they somehow transport us behind the Greek tradition?

Examining the evidence, it is difficult to see how. Bobbiensis’s text likely dates to a generation or so before Cyprian, perhaps to the 230’s, as Tertullian betrays no knowledge of it.3 The Sinaitic Syriac text is difficult to date, but while perhaps influenced by earlier material seems itself not much earlier than the fourth century — not much earlier indeed than the Greek witnesses it is said possibly to preempt.4 And turning to the manuscripts themselves, we find in the case of the Old Latin that they date mainly to the fifth century:5

MS/Nr Name Contents Date Place
e 2 Palatinus Gospels V Italy
b 4 Veronensis Gospels Late V Italy
d 5 Bezae Cantabrigiensis Gospels,Acts c. 400 Berytus
ff2 8 Corbiensis Gospels V Italy
h 12 Claromontanus Matthew Late V Italy
n 16 Sangallense Gospels V Italy
i 17 Vindobonensis Luke,Mark Late V Italy
t 19 Bernense Mark Late V Italy (?)

Now at the end of the fourth century, the diversity of the Old Latin tradition is mentioned by more than one writer. Jerome writes in the 380’s:

“the Latin manuscripts of the Scriptures are proved to be faulty by the variations which all of them exhibit.”6

And again:

“We must confess that as we have it in our language it is marked by discrepancies, and now that the stream is distributed into different channels we must go back to the fountainhead [i.e. the Greek].”7

Writing about a decade later in 397, Augustine makes a similar observation, also conceding the priority of the Greek:

“As to the books of the New Testament, again, if any perplexity arises from the diversities of the Latin texts, we must of course yield to the Greek.”8

Augustine tries hard to cast these divergent translations in a positive light:

“the great number of the translators proves a very great assistance, if they are examined and discussed with a careful comparison of their texts.”9

But while Jerome was apparently content to make his own revisions (at least in the gospels), Augustine urges anyone with the requisite skills to correct texts:

“For those who are anxious to know, the Scriptures ought in the first place to use their skill in the correction of the texts, so that the uncorrected ones should give way to the corrected.”10

So as the fourth century drew to a close, we find a context in which various correctors are at work on the Old Latin texts, attempting to correct them to a Greek model.

Yet while Augustine and Jerome could at least agree that Latin texts should be corrected to the Greek, their opinion was by no means the consensus view. Ambrosiaster argues the contrarian position that it is rather the Old Latin that preserves the most ancient available text form, because, as he argues, it agrees with the earliest Christian writers in the Latin tradition:

“it is well-known that very long ago native Latin speakers translated the text we now have from ancient Greek codices, which the innocence of former times has safeguarded and now certifies to us without corruption. … For the text retained today in the Latin codices is found the same in the ancients, Tertullian, Victorinus, and Cyprian.”11

The picture emerges then of a tradition still in flux at the turn of the fifth century, whose text had lost the confidence of its readers, who at the same time sought to affirm its value through their corrections. But with no common criteria for “correcting” the text, the instability of the tradition as a whole could only have been increasing at this time. Given that most of our best witnesses to this tradition date from after this period of instability, we are left wondering how we are to distinguish between ancient traditions and recent corrections. But if this is so, how can these traditions offer us any useful glimpse behind the Greek text?

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.

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.