An Inquiry into the Integrity of the Greek Vulgate – Part 3

In Frederick Nolan, Preservationist Textual Criticism, Textual Criticism by Chris ThomasLeave a Comment


(The complete book found here)

Section II.a.


BY an analysis of the texts of different manuscripts, we may be enabled to distribute them into different classes according to the coincidences of their peculiar readings. But we are thus afforded no means of determining which of those various readings existed in the sacred text, as dictated by the inspired writers. The difficulty which originates from hence naturally suggested the expediency of an appeal to the writings of the early divines, and to the versions of the primitive ages, in order to ascertain upon their authority, the probable state of the text at an early period. For this purpose a choice has been made of Origen, and an affinity traced between his quotations and the readings of a peculiar class of manuscripts; which readings, as confirmed by the concurrence of the eastern and western versions, were supposed to possess sufficient evidence in this united testimony, of their having formed a part of the original text of Scripture.

The objections to this method of investigating the genuine text of Scripture, have been stated at large in the last section. It was then my object to trace the coincidences on which this mode of classification is founded to a comparatively recent source; and to refer them to the first edition of the sacred text revised by Eusebius and published under the auspices of the Emperor Constantine.

The peculiar objections lying against an appeal to the testimony of Origen were then generally specified. Nor can an appeal be admitted to that of any of the Christian fathers, unless on particular occasions, where they deliver an explicit testimony and expressly refer to the text of Scripture. Their collective testimony. though highly calculated to establish the doctrinal integrity of the sacred text, is wholly inadequate to determine its literal purity. This is an assumption from which no one will find it secure to dissent who is acquainted with their general mode of quotation. But if any person is still skeptical on this point, let him review the state of the text as preserved in their quotations as it has been extracted from their works by Dr. Mills and is inserted in his elaborate Prolegomena. And if he yet fails of conviction let him examine the peculiar readings of Origen and Chrysostom, whom of all the ancients are most entitled to attention, as their testimony has been collected by M. Matthaei in the notes of his Greek Testament. The fact is, they were so constantly exercised in the Scriptures, which they had nearly committed to memory, that they quote not by reference, but from recollection. However scrupulously, of course, they adhere to the sense of the text, they frequently desert its letter. As they constantly quote by accommodation and in explanation, as they frequently complete their expositions by connecting different parts of Scripture which do not succeed in the order of the context; they necessarily deviate from its exact phraseology. These and other justifiable liberties which they have taken with the sacred text, as having been occupied in explaining its sense, not in preserving its readings, consequently render their testimony, unless in very peculiar passages, of little further use, than, as I have already stated, to establish its doctrinal integrity.

Deprived of the testimony of the primitive divines, our last appeal lies to the early translations. But few of these are of sufficient authority to entitle them to any attention in deciding the matter at issue. With the exception of the old Italic version, they are destitute of the external evidence which arises from the testimony of those early divines who might have appealed to them in their theological writings. Nor are the probabilities of the case much in favor of their antiquity. The Macedonian conquests had rendered the original language of the New Testament so general throughout the east, that the absolute necessity of a Syriack and Coptic version was not immediately experienced in the countries where those languages were spoken. And if we except those versions, there are none which can support any pretensions to a remote antiquity. The Ethiopic possesses the fairest claims, but if we must admit it to have been more than corrected from the Greek, it must have been made at a comparatively recent period, as appears from the time at which Christianity was established in Ethiopia. With respect to the Syriack and Coptic, which have those strong presumptions against their antiquity, that have been already suggested; the antiquity of the latter is confessedly worse than suspicious, as it is accommodated with the sections and canons of Eusebius. The pretensions of the Syriack are scarcely less equivocal. As it is composed in different styles, and was thus possibly made at different periods, the probabilities are that the more ancient part of the version was retouched when the translation was completed. The bare probability of this circumstance, corroborated by the lack of positive evidence in favor of the antiquity of this version, destroys its authority as a testimony to which we may appeal in determining the genuine text of Scripture.

The little satisfaction which is to be derived on this subject from the Syriack and Coptic versions, has entitled the Sahidic to a proportionable degree of respect. In support of the remote antiquity of this version, which is written in that peculiar dialect of the Coptic which is spoken in Upper Egypt, a work has been cited, in which it is principally preserved; and which, as supposed to be written by the heretic Valentinus, who flourished in the second century, necessarily supports its pretensions to at least an equal antiquity .

To the species of evidence on which this work is thus recommended to us as ancient, I have much to object. The foundation on which the conclusion in favor of its antiquity is built, is in the first place weakened if not destroyed, by the doubtfulness of the fact that any work of the kind has been really ascribed by Tertullian to Valentinus. And this objection is considerably strengthened by the further consideration that many works under similar titles have been ascribed to his disciples. The circumstance of this work being written in Sahidic, which was the vulgar language of the Thebais, seems to conclude not a little against the origin which it is ascribed, in being referred to Valentinus. This heretic, who was a person of no ordinary qualifications, could not be ignorant of Greek, which was in his age the learned language of Egypt, as he adopted most of his peculiar tenets from the mythology of Hesiod and the philosophy of Plato. It is in the last degree improbable that Tertullian could have understood him had he written in any other language; and wholly inconceivable that he should omit all mention of so extraordinary a circumstance as his. having read Valentinus in his vernacular tongue. Admitting all that can be claimed for this work, that it was really composed by the early heretic to whom it is ascribed, it is thus only probable that it is but a translation from the Greek and of course, for any thing we can decide, one of a very recent period. In this form it is as probable as the contrary, that it incorporates in its text a version of the New Testament which has been made in the fourth century instead of the second. The fact, however, is that the internal evidence of the work before us seems very sufficient to refute the notion of its having been written by the heretic Valentinus, if we are to believe the testimony of Tertullian, on whose authority it is assigned to him. The passages of scripture introduced into this work are often misquoted in order to favor the Gnostic tenets, but we are assured that those contained in the works of Valentinus were faithfully cited, though perversely interpreted to support his heretical doctrines. We must therefore conclude, not merely from the external evidence, which is at best equivocal, but from the internal, which seems to establish all that I labor to prove, that the work imputed to Valentinus has been ascribed to him on inconclusive grounds.

The Sahidic version quoted in the book of Wisdom, may consequently, for any thing which this argument concludes, be as well ascribed to the fourth century as to the second. And many weighty reasons may be, I conceive, urged to prove that the former was the period which produced this translation; several learned and pious persons having been at that time exiled in the Thebais, who could have found no better mode of employing their leisure than in procuring the Scriptures to be translated for the purpose of enabling them to diffuse Christianity more generally among the natives, with whose vulgar tongue they were unacquainted. And this supposition is not a little strengthened by the consideration that they were apparently the persons who brought into Europe the Cambridge, and other manuscripts of the same description, which resemble the oldest manuscripts of the Sahidic version, not merely in their form, as attended with a translation, but in their peculiar readings and the character in which they are written. The general prevalence of the Greek language, I again repeat, renders it highly improbable that this version should be ascribed to a much higher period. And the version itself, as abounding with Greek terms, contains a demonstrative proof of the fact by proving the general prevalence of that language in the Thebais. It was the former circumstance which seemingly determined the inspired writers in the choice which they made of that language as the medium through which the sacred canon was to be published. To this circumstance we are to attribute the republication of the Jewish Scriptures in Greek under the Ptolemies; and we consequently find, in the apostolical age, that the Greek translation had nearly superseded the oriental original.

The matter under discussion is thus reduced within a narrow compass. Deprived of the assistance of the primitive divines, and of the oriental versions, in ascertaining the original text of Scripture, our last dependence is rested on the old Italic translation. Here, however, it may be as securely as naturally placed. The Scripture was not less committed to the keeping of the Latin than of the Greek church, as the witnesses of its authenticity, and the guardians of its purity; and the knowledge of the languages spoken by those churches, was nearly commensurate with the Roman and Macedonian conquests. The former church possessed a translation, which, as generally quoted by the Latin fathers previously to the council of Nice, was consequently, made previously to any alterations which the original might have undergone under Constantine. This translation has been celebrated for its literal fidelity, and we have this security of its having long continued unaltered, that the Latins were not sufficiently instructed in the language of the original, to undertake the correction of the translation. So very rare was the humble qualification of reading Greek, that we have every reason to believe, it was possessed by few of the Latins, Tertullian excepted, until the age of Constantine; when the councils convened against the Arians, opened that intercourse between the eastern and western churches, which familiarized the latter with the original language of the sacred canon. After that period, Hilary, Lucifer, and Eusebius of Verceli arose, who are represented as possessed of learning sufficient to revise the old Italic translation.. St. Jerome was of a later period, who undertook that thorough revision of the text which has produced the present Vulgate: yet even in the same age, St. Augustine appears to have been but moderately versed in the Greek language.

In proceeding to estimate the testimony which the Latin translation bears to the state of the Greek text, it is necessary to premise, that this translation exhibits three varieties-As corrected by St. Jerome at the desire of Pope Damasus, and presented in the Vulgate; as corrected by Eusebius of Verceli, at the desire of Pope Julius, and preserved in the codex Vercellensis; and as existing previously to the corrections of both, and preserved as I conceive, in the Codex Brixianus. The first of these three editions of the Italic translation is too well known to need any description; both the last are contained in beautiful manuscripts, preserved at Verceli, and at Brescia, in Italy. The curious and expensive manner in which at least the latter of these manuscripts is executed, as written on purple vellum in silver characters, would of itself contain no inconclusive proof of its great antiquity; such having been the form in which the most esteemed works were executed in the times of Eusebius, Chrysostom, and Jerome. The former is ascribed, by immemorial tradition, to Eusebius Vercellensis, the friend of Pope Julius and St. Athanasius, and, as supposed to have been written with his own hand, is deposited among the relics, which are preserved with a degree of superstitious reverence, in the author’s church at Verceli in Piedmont. By these three editions of the translation, we might naturally expect to acquire some insight into the varieties of the original. And this expectation is fully justified on experiment. The latter, not less than the former, is capable of being distributed into three kinds; each of which possesses an extraordinary coincidence with one of a correspondent kind, in the translation. In a word, the Greek manuscripts are capable of being divided into three principal classes, one of which agrees with the Italic translation contained in the Brescia manuscript; another with that contained in the Verceli manuscript; and a third with that contained in the Vulgate.

In ascertaining the particular Greek manuscripts which, as possessing this coincidence with the Latin, may be taken as the exemplars of each class, we have few difficulties to encounter. The affinity existing between the Vatican manuscript and the Vulgate is so striking, as to have induced Dr. Bentley, and M. Wetstein to class them together. And I proceed to offer some proof, that the affinity of the Harleian and Moscow manuscript, with the Brescia manuscript; and that of the Codex Cantabrigiensis with the Verceli manuscript, is not less striking and extraordinary. So that the Harleian and Moscow manuscript, the Cambridge manuscript, and the Vatican manuscript, (as respectively coinciding with the Brescia manuscript, the Verceli manuscript, and the Vulgate) may be taken as exemplars of the three principal classes into which the Greek manuscripts may be distributed.

The subjoined specimen, taken from the first chapter of the Sermon on the Mount, will furnish a tolerably just idea of the nature and closeness of this coincidence. I shall prefix the readings of the Received Text, and authorized English version, in order to evince their coincidence with that text, to which the preference appears to be due, on account of its conformity to the Italic translation contained in the Brescia manuscript.

This short specimen will sufficiently evince the affinity which the Greek and Latin manuscripts bear to each other, throughout the different classes, into which they may be divided. It will also illustrate the dissimilarity which those classes exhibit among themselves, in either language, regarded separately. In order to evince the affinity which in other respects they possess among themselves, it will be necessary to view a connected portion of the sacred text, in the original and the translation. For this purpose I shall subjoin the opening of the same chapter from whence the fore cited various readings have been extracted, including that part of the Sermon on the Mount which contains the beatitudes.

A few general observations will suffice on the subject of those different classes of manuscripts in the Greek and Latin, as preliminary to further deductions. That the manuscripts in both languages possess the same text, though evidently of different classes, must be evident on the most casual inspection; they respectively possess that identity in the choice of terms and arrangement of the language, which is irreconcilable with the notion of their having descended from different archetypes. And though these classes, in either language; vary among themselves, yet, as the translation follows the varieties of the original, the Greek and Latin consequently afford each other mutual confirmation. The different classes of text in the Greek and Latin translation, as thus coinciding, may be regarded as the conspiring testimony, of those Churches which were appointed the witnesses and keepers of Holy Writ, to the existence of three species of text in the original and the translation.

On this conclusion we may however found another deduction relative to the antiquity of this testimony. As the existence of a translation necessarily implies the priority of the original from which it was formed; this testimony may be directly referred to the close of the fourth century. The Vulgate must be clearly referred to that period, as it was then formed by St. Jerome, in its bare existence of course the correspondent antiquity of the Greek text with which it agrees, is directly established. This version is, however, obviously less ancient than that of the Verceli or Brescia manuscript; as they are of the old Italic translation, while it properly constitutes the new. In the existence of the ancient version, the antiquity of the original texts with which it corresponds is consequently established. The three classes of text which correspond with the Vulgate and Old Italic Version, trust be consequently referred to a period not less remote than the close of the fourth century.

In attaining the testimony of the Greek and Latin Churches, at a period thus ancient, we have acquired some solid ground to proceed upon. But this testimony is of still greater importance, as it affords a foundation on which we may rest the testimony of St. Jerome, who flourished at that period. To his authority the highest respect is due, not merely on account of his having then lived, and formed one of the versions of the Latin church, but his great reputation in biblical criticism. His testimony, while it confirms the foregoing deductions, made from the internal evidence of the Greek and Latin manuscripts, affords a clue which will guide us through this obscure and intricate subject. He bears witness to the existence of three editions of the sacred text, in his own age, which he refers to Egypt, Palestine, and Constantinople. This testimony is the rather deserving of attention, as it confirms, in an extraordinary manner, the previous assumption relative to the existence of three classes of text: and, as on the same broad distinction of the country where they are found, the Greek manuscripts have been distinguished, by modern critics into three different classes, two of which are referred to Egypt and Constantinople.

The result of the investigation to which this view of the subject leads, will, I trust, end in deductions not less important than certain. It will, I am fond enough to hope, prove beyond all reasonable ground of objection, that the three classes of text, which are discoverable in the Greek manuscripts, are nearly identical with the three editions, which existed in the age of St. Jerome: with which they are identified by their coincidence with the Latin translation, which existed in the age of that Christian father.

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