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The Mysteries of Codex Bezae
By J.R. Ensey

One of the notable uncial manuscripts of the New Testament containing the Gospels and Acts is the Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis, so named since it once resided in the hands of Theodore Beza, successor to John Calvin in Geneva. In 1581 Beza gifted it to Cambridge University where it is on display today. Almost everyone who writes about biblical texts or textual criticism is familiar to some extent with the fifth major uncial in the line of New Testament manuscripts. Its official designation on the list of manuscripts is Dea or 05. (The superscripted e and a signify that the manuscript contains the Gospels, Acts and some portion of the General Epistles.)

It is notable because it is old, dated by most scholars to the fifth or sixth century. It is important due to its age and text-type. It is the primary representative of the Western family of text-types. Bezae is also the oldest bi-lingual manuscript of the Bible, with the Greek text on the left hand page and Latin on the facing page. The mysteries of this codex surround the unknown scribe who penned the copy on vellum (he must have been a knowledgeable theologian, particularly fluent in Latin), and its place of origin. Best guesses place it as being created in Southern France or Italy, although some suggest the Mideast, possibly Beirut. A thousand years later it surfaced in the hands of Beza in the sixteenth century. Beza himself looked with suspicion upon his manuscript, and therefore the document was little used by those who developed the Greek text or the English versions.

Questions niggle at the minds of those who study the provenance of such documents. How did it reach this Swiss reformer? Where had it been stored for a millennium? Due to certain records and an analysis of the inks and writing style, there is strong evidence that it had been part of the monastic library in Lyon, France. The obvious repairs suggest that they were done at that location.

Perhaps the biggest mystery regards the actual text of the document. Why is it so different from earlier uncials? Almost a dozen scribes had tried to correct it over the centuries. Which exemplar(s) did they use to do so? The style is unlike that of any other manuscript. If it is so different, why is it considered worthy of study as a New Testament text?

Idiosyncrasies of the Text

As stated, Bezae is a diglot, meaning it has two renderings—one in Greek and one in Latin—on facing pages rather than side-by-side in columns. The Latin version may have been a copy of an exemplar employed by Jerome in the development of the Vulgate. It has only the Four Gospels, the Book of Acts, and a small portion of III John. The Gospels are arranged with Matthew first, followed by John, Luke and Mark, in that order. Many pages reveal damage and multiple missing sections frustrate those who study it. Particularly disappointing is that the latter portion of Matthew 28 is missing. Some textual critics speculate that the manuscript may have originally contained all of the Gospels, Revelation, I, II & III John and Acts—in that order.

Although not as old, Bezae was widely known to scribes and translators long before the Codices of Vaticanus and Sinaiticus became available to paleographers. It was cited as a source in Stephanus’ Greek text of 1550, a major edition of the Textus Receptus. It must have been considered significant since it was taken through the Alps to be a part of the documents at the Council of Trent in 1546. Religious wars in France were the probable cause of it being given into the hands of Theodore Beza at Geneva for safekeeping. Beza presented the manuscript to Cambridge University in 1581. This is how it obtained the second part of its formal name, Cantabrigiensis.

When the Anglo-American committee which produced the new Greek text underlying the English Revised Version of 1881 was organized in 1871, F.H.A. Scrivener was one of the members. He took a special interest in Bezae, making a transcription and detailing the corrections and annotations. However, it had become obvious that it had irreconcilable problems. The Latin side was not a direct translation of the Greek side. The Greek shows signs of extensive editing with marginal notes being inserted into the text itself. The Greek has been corrected to conform to the Latin in a number of places. Many emendations create wonder about how they got there what was their purpose.

Other Distinctions of the Codex

The Latin portion of the text is the type known to many of the church fathers in the third and fourth centuries. Of particular interest is that Bezae demonstrates the scribal use of parallelisms, or the harmonization of stories and events in the Gospels. It is also well known as the first known manuscript to include the story of the woman taken in adultery. It is also the oldest manuscript to contain the long ending of Mark 16. Some of the last pages of Mark are missing, so all that remains is the Greek text of verses 9-15. Verses 16-20 were added in the ninth century.

Bezae has many interpolations and omissions. They appear in all of the Gospels. A number of omissions may be found in Luke 24 alone. For instance, only this manuscript contains these words following Luke 6:4: “On the same day, seeing one working on the Sabbath day, he said unto him, Man, if thou knowest what thou doest, blessed art thou; but if thou knowest not, thou art accursed and a transgressor of the law.” In Acts 12:10 only Bezae adds these words: “and they descended the twelve steps…” In Luke 23:53 additional information appears that has Joseph of Arimathea, after laying the body of Jesus in his rock-hewn tomb, “put before the tomb a [great] stone which twenty men could scarcely roll.” A long insertion after Matthew 20:28 seems to be an expanded paraphrase of Luke 14:9-12. In John 5:39 Jesus says of the Scriptures that they “bear witness” (marturousai) of Him, but the scribe composing this manuscript wrote “they sin” (hamartanousai) about him.

In Acts alone, the manuscript contains 600 additions to the text that are not commonly found in other Greek MSS, making that book about one tenth longer than the generally accepted text. Humorously, in Acts 19:9 Paul is said to have preached daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus “from eleven o’clock to four.” That bit of information should comfort our current parishioners. Bezae also omitted from the list of prohibitions determined by the Council in Acts 15, “and from things strangled.” At the close it added a negative form of the Golden Rule.

It is said that its rhetorical text tends to rephrase sentences, making them grammatically, rather than logically, correct. As a result, the Greek text is considered to be an unreliable witness but an important witness where it agrees with other early MSS because of its age. Another distinction is that it uses an inverted form of Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus in Luke.

Of the five primary uncial manuscripts now accepted as authority for the purity of the text of the New Testament, only the Codex Bezae was available when the King James Version was produced. The papyri, representing the oldest texts of Scripture would not begin to be found until 300 years later. It is said that the 1611 translators may have known fewer than twenty-five late MSS of the New Testament.

What Bezae Reveals

This unique manuscript is brought into discussions on biblical texts to underscore the age of some readings, but to also point out the need for scholarly, objective textual criticism. Not every line of every manuscript can be taken at face value to be authentic and original. It must be put into context with others so the various aspects of criticism can be brought to bear.

Every ancient manuscript of the Bible has a place at the table where textual analysts pore over what is written. Every aspect of the document is considered—approximate age, origin, the language, the media (ink/quill/paper), and its alignment with other manuscripts. Experts will determine in what ways it is similar to other authentic MSS or distinctive, whether it is produced as a copy of a biblical manuscript or merely someone’s composition. It is incredible how far technology and the science of textual criticism have advanced.

The mysteries of Codex Bezae linger. It is said that this manuscript has probably been dissected and examined more closely than any other because of the many places where the Greek differs from the Latin, or where both differ from other witnesses. There is no unanimity of opinion regarding the many problems the manuscript raises.

It is my desire that the reader will be motivated to do his own study and research, not only on this codex but many other biblical manuscripts. It is a sure way to learn to appreciate the Word of God and the divine means through which it has come to us.


Kurt and Barbara Aland, The Text of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987).
Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration (Oxford: University Press, 1968).
F. F. Bruce, The Books and the Parchments (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming Revell, 1963).
Paul D. Wegner, The Journey From Texts to Translations (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1999).
Jack P. Lewis, The English Bible From KJV to NIV (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1981).
Neil R. Lightfoot, How We Got the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988).
Fred G. Bratton, A History of the Bible (Boston: Beacon Press, 1959).
David Ewart, A General Introduction to the Bible (Zondervan Publishing House, 1983).

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