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)

And:

“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.

Major Late Textual Changes in Codex Bezae?

On April 14, Prof. Larry Hurtado published a notice on his blog about a new book on the Pericope Adulterae (= PA): The Pericope of the Adulteress in Contemporary Research, eds. David Alan Black and Jacob N. Cerone (London:  Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016). In the notice, Prof. Hurtado questions a common assumption in the field of NT textual criticism that the vast majority of significant changes to the NT text were introduced during a “wild” period of uncontrolled textual development in the second and third centuries, after which a period of stability reigned beginning in the fourth century.

Why am I Excited about this Question?

First of all, I am delighted that the question is being asked. Several areas of my research on Codex Bezae and the so-called “Western” text explore evidence of systematic changes to the text of the gospels and Acts in the latter part of the fourth century. These topics, particularly as they relate to the phenomenon of layering in Bezae’s text (Holmes, 1996), are addressed here on my blog and in my small but growing list of publications and papers.

(Note that Prof. Hurtado’s own contribution to the book explores these questions in further detail, though I have not seen it as of this post. Therefore my remarks here are based on the question raised in the blog post.)

The Challenge

The question Prof. Hurtado raises (as two questions) is as follows:

Is it possible that the common view of the transmission-history of NT writings (however intuitively it appeals) is wrong, or at least seriously defective? More specifically, were there factors and dynamics in the later period that facilitated the inclusion and wide acceptance of these sizeable variants?

The question of major textual change in the later period (i.e. the fourth century and beyond) is the crux of the challenge to the common view, which in general assumes that all major variations were introduced by the end of the third century, after which the text reached a point of essential stability. But if the PA appears in its fully-developed form (or forms) only in the fourth century as the evidence seems to suggest, we are led to inquire as to whether the notion of a stable fourth-century text must be abandoned. On the other hand, recognizing the diversity within the tradition, perhaps we can accommodate major change in certain parts of the tradition, while acknowledging a degree of control in others.

The Place of Codex Bezae

Whatever we believe about its history, it is clear Codex Bezae represents one of the extremes of diversity in the tradition. But the unique place of Bezae’s tradition points to one area where we can further nuance the question. Bezae’s highly divergent text reminds us that we can expect different parts of the tradition to be more closed or open to change than others. We cannot expect the tradition of Codex Vaticanus to be as accepting of change as the early Byzantine tradition of John Chrysostom. At the same time, we are not as surprised to find major variations in the Old Latin tradition as we are in the Latin Vulgate (which makes the PA’s appearance in the latter all the more remarkable). In fact, if we suppose that the full form of the PA first appeared in Bezae’s tradition, it is difficult to see how this opinion alone would challenge the common view that essential stability was achieved in the fourth century. Bezae’s exception while perhaps typical of its own tradition, would merit a mere footnote in relation to the rest of the tradition.

Major Late Textual Change in Bezae’s Tradition?

It is probably no accident then that the PA occurs first in a manuscript like Codex Bezae, a witness well-known for its high number of apparently singular and sub-singular readings. With regard to similar character and size, Bezae’s singular readings present us with other substantial changes, such as Jesus’ encounter with the Sabbath worker (Luke 6:5) or the harmonization of Luke’s genealogy to Matthew. While Bezae’s singular and sub-singular readings are often assumed to date to the second century, this is obviously a pure guess. After all, how can we be sure if the readings are otherwise unattested? While we cannot of course assume that all such apparently singular readings belong to Bezae’s copyist or even the copyist’s immediate tradition, this possibility is not at all implausible (Holmes, 2003).

It turns out then that this potential ‘upper’ layer of singular and sub-singular readings in Bezae could just as plausibly offer us a unique window not to the second century, but to the events surrounding Bezae’s production in ca 400! In fact, if we take Bezae’s various suggested tendencies in Acts, it turns out they consistently fit a context at the end of the fourth century as well as, if not better than a second-century context.

  • Bezae’s anti-Judaic tendency is certainly consistent with a second-century context as suggested, for example, by Justin’s rhetoric in the Dialogue with Trypho. But Justin’s display of anti-Judaism pales next to Ambrose’s attempts to lobby the emperor to withhold financing for the restoration of Jewish property destroyed by Christians!
  • Bezae’s favorable portrayal of Roman soldiers and officials, while puzzling in a second-century context, makes better sense at the end of the fourth century with a Christianized Rome.
  • Regarding Bezae’s interest in the Holy Spirit, it is telling to observe that Bezae’s paleographical date of ca 400 comes within twenty years of the Second Ecumenical Council (381), which clarified the place of the Holy Spirit in the Trinity.
  • Like the anti-Judaic tendency, Bezae’s so-called ‘anti-feminist’ tendency is generally consistent with a second-century context. But the readings themselves align particularly well with the conservative anti-ascetic movement at the end of the fourth century, represented by the likes of Jovinian and Ambrosiaster, who argued that women possess the imago Dei only through a man.
  • Bezae’s enhancement of Peter’s role at the expense of Paul is consistent with an increasing assertiveness of the papacy in political and ecclesiastical affairs at the end of the fourth century. But it is even more consistent with an anti-ascetic tendency, which would naturally look to Peter’s precedent, as the first of the married apostles, to that of Paul, the celibate apostle.

It turns out that most of the above tendencies can be seen in light of fourth-century controversies, perhaps suggesting a common impulse for at least some of the significant and seemingly late changes we find in Bezae. It stands to reason that a key source of pressure on the fourth-century text must have been the unbroken succession of theological controversies in which beatifications and anathemas were won and lost over the effective use of proof texts. While the Christianization of Rome no doubt encouraged standardization of the text, we might surmise that it also raised the stakes on which texts became standard. This leads us to wonder whether Bezae might not represent a rather unexpected sort of ‘controlled’ text in which stability and control do not necessarily align.