Thursday, August 26, 2021

Calvin’s Conjectures


Warning: This is a long post in which I trace out my research method and show the steps I try to take to find answers.


John Calvin, probably.
Several months ago, I was reading F.F. Bruce’s chapter “Textual Problems in the Epistle to the Hebrews,” published in David Alan Black, ed., “Scribes and Scripture: New Testament Essays in Honor of J. Harold Greenlee.” In Bruce’s discussion of Heb. 11:37, Bruce opts for the P46 reading, which does have some scant attestation from minuscule witnesses, and Bruce calls in Zuntz (Text of the Epistles, p. 47) for support.  Not making any judgments on Bruce’s arguments, what intrigued me was Bruce’s next sentence: “So already Erasmus and Calvin.”

Those 5 short words sent me down a long rabbit trail.

What seemed to be implied here was that Calvin followed Erasmus in adopting a reading that was—as far as either of them were concerned—completely without known manuscript support. I checked the notes in the Amsterdam Database of New Testament Conjectural Emendation and there is a note on this conjecture that “…Erasmus could have known some Greek attestation, but his opinion seems independent from it.”

Of course, that doesn't necessarily prove that Erasmus had no manuscripts, but Jan Krans and co. know their stuff, and I am happy to defer to their judgment on Erasmus. That still leaves Calvin, however. On p. 184 of Johnson’s 1963 translation of Calvin’s commentary on Hebrews and 1–2 Peter (which Calvin published in 1549, according to T.H.L. Parker’s Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries), Calvin says:

Regardless of what we may say about Erasmus, it seems here that Calvin understood that the text was corrupted at some point in the transmission process, and that Erasmus’ explanation for what happened was correct.

From there, I was interested to see if there were any other times Calvin accepted or proposed a conjectural emendation: the notion that the text he has in his day was corrupt and that he suggested a correct reading even if there was no manuscript support for it.

When we search the Amsterdam Database, we find 13 hits for John Calvin, though two of them are sort of the same one (see below). Admittedly, that’s not much. [[At this point it’s good to give a brief explanation of the Amsterdam Database: When you search for an author, you’ll see a list of every time that author is included. This list is not a list of every time they have been the first to propose an emendation, nor is it a list of emendations they adopt—the “Author” in the list is the first to propose, and then clicking on the conjecture itself will show all the subsequent authors who commented on it, and whether they accept it, reject it or simply discuss it.]] Calvin is only the first to propose 5 of these 13 conjectures, but since 13 is not a huge number, I might as well list and discuss them all here.

Calvin’s conjectures

The date in parentheses is the publication date for Calvin’s discussion as I understand it, but it’s a little tricky. The translations I used (the series edited by D.W. and T.F. Torrance) were made from Tholuck’s edition (1834), which seems to be something of a re-print of the Amsterdam edition (1667), which is presumably made from the final editions of Calvin’s commentaries. I admit that’s a presumption on my part, and the date does matter because Calvin does seem to have shifted around 1548 from using Colinaeus’ 1534 edition as his working text to an Erasmus or Stephanus edition, as I discuss a bit more at the end of the post. In some cases I give an image of the text as additional proof that I’m not making stuff up. I haven’t been exhaustive with it though. My main purpose is to provide enough information for someone to be able to confirm what I’m saying, and at the most basic level, the Scriptural reference alone should be enough to do that.

Matthew 1:12 (1555)

To me, this is the most significant conjecture. Epiphanius is the originator of the conjecture, and it is he to whom Calvin appeals. Calvin’s words (acc. to Morrison’s translation of his commentary on Matt., Mark, Luke vol. 1, p. 60 [all citations of Calvin on the Synoptics are taken from this 3-vol. set]; bold mine; italics original):

It is more true that as [Matthew] wished to compile a list of fourteen kings, he was not over-particular in making his selection, for he thought it enough to set the outline of the genealogy before his readers’ eyes up to the end of the kingdom. That we only read of thirteen has probably happened through the fault or error of copyists. Epiphanius, in his first book Against Heresies, adduces the reason that as the name of Jeconiah was given twice, unlearned hands dared to cross it out in the second section as superfluous. He explains that this should not have been done, as Jehoiakim, father of king Jehoiachin shared the name Jeconiah with his son (Jer. 27.20; II Kings 24.6 and 15). Robertus Stephanus cites a Greek codex where the name Jehoiakim is inserted.

Stephanus cites his MS ιδ (minuscule 120).

Stephanus’s 3rd ed. (1550). Source

Calvin doesn’t actually decide whether the correct text is the insertion of Jehoiakim as in Stephanus’ margin (=120) or if the original text is simply lost here. It’s still amazing to me that Calvin (in 1555) even considers it a possibility that the original text was lost and would need to be restored by conjecture.

Matthew 27:9 (1555)

Here, Calvin proposes that the reading “Jeremiah the prophet” is corrupt, and that Matthew would have originally written Zechariah (vol. 3, p. 177):

Matt. 27-9- Then was fulfilled that, etc. How the name of Jeremiah crept in I cannot confess to know nor do I make much of it: obviously Jeremiah’s name is put in error for Zechariah (13.7). Nothing of this sort is said of Jeremiah, or anything like it.

Here, Stephanus (3rd ed.) gives no manuscript support for the reading Jeremiah:

Source: same as above

Again, surprisingly, we have Calvin in 1555 writing that the text is corrupt but proposing a solution.

Luke 1:73 (1555)

Calvin appears to be the first person to suggest this conjecture, but I am not sure that it should count as a conjecture. Calvin writes (vol. 1, p. 47):

Luke 1.73 The oath which he sware. There is no preposition in the Greek, but this common usage of the language is well known, where a noun in the accusative case is put without a governing word, leaving the preposition, by which it is governed, to be understood.

Is Calvin really conjecturing that the original text of Luke was κατὰ ὄρκον or is he just interpreting the text and observing that the original text without κατά still implied κατά? I am not completely convinced that this should count as Calvin proposing that the original text had been lost because it could be interpreted as him arguing otherwise. Would that we always allow a statement to be interpreted as it could be and not simply whatever interpretation helps our case the best.

John 18:1 (1555)

From T.H.L. Parker's translation of Calvin's commentary on John 11:21, 1 John (p. 153):

Over the brook Kidron. In the Greek an article is prefixed to Kidron as if the brook took its name from the cedars; but this has probably crept in by error.

Likewise, Stephanus offers no manuscript support for the omission of τοῦ:

Admittedly, it’s only a single 3-letter word, but to Calvin, it made a difference in interpretation, and even three-letter words that make differences in interpretation can be important (*ahem* 2 Peter 3:10 in the ECM). Here again is 1555-Calvin proposing that the Greek text he was working from was corrupt at one point.

Acts 7:14 (1552)

The issue here is whether Jacob went to Egypt with 75 people (almost all Greek manuscripts and editions, as in the LXX of Gen. 46:27) or 70 (as in the Hebrew of Gen. 46:27). [[As an aside, F. F. Bruce in his NICNT commentary on Acts offers one way that these seemingly contradictory numbers are not, in fact contradictory.]] The ECM only lists minuscule 2344 as lacking πέντε. Calvin actually discusses this issue a good deal. According to Fraser/McDonald’s translation of Calvin’s commentary on Acts 1–13 (of which, incidentally, Tyndale House’s copy once belonged to F. F. Bruce!) (pp. 181–182):

[After a remark about the “discrepancy” between numbers in the LXX arose due to “an error on the part of copyists”] “But this was not such an important matter that Luke should have confused the Gentiles over it, when they were used to the Greek reading. And it is possible that he himself did write down the true number, but somebody erroneously changed it from that verse of Moses. For we know that the New Testament was handled by those who were ignorant of Hebrew, but were thoroughly conversant with Greek. Therefore, to make the words of Stephen agree with the verse in Moses’ account, it is probable that that wrong number in the Greek version of Genesis was transferred to this place also. If anyone is to persist in disputing about this, let us allow him a superiority of wisdom. Let us remember that it is not for nothing that Paul forbids us to be troubled and curious about genealogies (Titus 3.9).”

This one is a bit shocking to me, because Calvin almost seems to be toying with the idea that Luke intentionally made an ‘error’ in the composition of Acts. That’s probably not likely given things Calvin said elsewhere, but if someone wanted to take this quote out of context and try to prove that Calvin was claiming errors in the Bible, it might certainly look that way. In any case, what Calvin does clearly seem to be affirming is that is it possible that the Greek text(s) of his day was(/were) in error and should read “70” with the Hebrew, not “75” as with the LXX, and that “75” in the Greek text was due to copyists who didn’t know Hebrew but did know the LXX and conformed an original “70” to “75” to match the LXX. Still, Calvin says we should not be bothered by such things.

Acts 7:16 (one conjecture, and another conjecture) (1552)

The Amsterdam Database cites Beza in 1556 as the originator of these conjectures but mention that Calvin’s remarks four years earlier show that Calvin was “a precursor.”  In short, Calvin says that the text is corrupt and that the “verse must be amended” (p. 182) but does not suggest how.

But when he goes on to say that they were buried in the sepulchre which Abraham had bought from the sons of Hamor, it is obvious that an error has been made in the name Abraham. For Abraham bought a double cave, to bury his wife, from Ephraim the Hittite (Gen. 23.9), but Joseph was buried elsewhere, namely in the field which his father Jacob had bought from the sons of Hamor for a hundred lambs. This verse must be amended accordingly.
It looks like Calvin resorts to conjecture as a way to avoid a possible contradiction in the text [[again, Bruce provides a way of interpreting the text that does not necessarily result in a contradiction or error]]. Which sows more seeds of doubt though: the possibility that Stephen made an error in what he reported (another option that maintains inerrancy of the Scriptures might be Luke inerrantly recording Stephen’s errant words. FYI I am not an Acts scholar, and I’m not making a case for any particular interpretations here) or suggesting that the original text is lost to corruption? I think the thing Calvin and I would agree on is that the original text, whatever it is (and we could disagree with the ‘whatever it is’), does not have a mistake here.

[As an aside, since I was in the neighborhood, I checked to see what Calvin said about Acts 8:37, and he does comment on the verse without mentioning any support for its absence.]

Hebrews 11:37 (1549)

I’ve already discussed this one, so I’ll skip it.

James 4:2 (1551)

For Calvin’s text, we’re back to vol. 3 of Morrison’s translation of the commentary on the Synoptics, which contains commentary on James and Jude.

This is a conjecture, which, according to the Amsterdam Database, was first proposed by Erasmus in his 1516 Annotationes and adopted as his text in his 1519 edition. Colinaeus also adopted it in his 1534 edition (which we know Calvin used particularly before 1548). The Amsterdam Database mentions that later editions of the Greek text did revert back to Erasmus’s earlier non-conjectural reading, but Erasmus’s Latin translation continued to translate the conjecture. Andrew Brown notes in ASD VI-4 (p. 373) that “The adoption of φονεῖτε in his 1519 edition of the Greek text, and of inuidetis (‘you envy’) in the 1519–1535 editions of his Latin version, hence appears to rest on conjecture rather than on the evidence of Greek mss.”

“While some texts read φονεύετε (ye kill) I have no doubt that we are to read φθονείτε (ye are envious), as I have rendered it. The word ‘kill’ has no relevance to the context.” (p. 296).

James 4:6 (1551)

This is another instance that goes back to Erasmus’s 1519 edition. Calvin’s commentary skips from “He giveth more grace” in James 4:6 to the beginning of James 4:7, leaving out commentary on “Wherefore the Scripture saith, God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace to the humble.” The ECM cites K020 P025 81 180 431 459 1842 2774 as lacking these words, and Brown (ASD VI-4, p. 375) mentions that they are also absent in 2815, which is what Erasmus used to justify his editions lacking these words (though they are present in later Greek editions). Calvin writes (p. 299):

“Many texts contain an intervening sentence: Wherefore it saith, God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace to the humble. As other manuscripts do not have it, Erasmus suspects that it was a marginal note of some student, which later crept into the text. This may well be, though it would not be out of accord with the trend of his argument. We can easily clear up a difficulty some have found, suggesting that a citation is made as from Scripture, which can only be traced to Peter. I would con­jecture that this was something of a proverbial expression, then com­mon among the Jews. And its content is just what we find in Ps. 18.28 [v. 27, RV]: ‘For thou wilt save the humble people, O Lord, but the haughty eyes thou wilt bring down.’ There are many other passages.”

I think the conjecture here isn’t the reading but how it may have originated. Calvin affirms Erasmus’ decision that these words are not original, even if he does reject Erasmus’ reasoning for how they came into the text. Again, it’s noteworthy here that in 1551, Calvin was suggesting that the Greek text (presumably, Stephanus) contained words that were not original and needed to be removed (as in Erasmus).

James 5:20 (1551)

Calvin writes (p. 318):

“Let him know. I wonder whether the original was not γινώσκετε —‘know ye’ [RV mg]? In either case the sense will be the same.”

It seems odd that there isn’t any real purpose to this conjecture: Calvin admits that the meaning would be the same as in the text, but he still wonders if the text he has received is correct, or if James had originally written a second-person verb instead of a third-person verb.

2 Peter 1:20 (1556)

At this point, I’m getting tired (there’s a lot of info here). There is some question about whether this is Beza or Calvin. According to the Amsterdam database, it’s often attributed to Calvin, but it was really Beza first from whom Calvin got it—there isn’t a note about this in the 1551 edition of Calvin’s commentary. The question is whether the original text is ἐπηλύσεως or ἐπιλύσεως (as in the Greek editions). Calvin writes (p. 343 of Johnson’s 1963 translation I cited at the top):

“There are two possible interpretations of the words, one if you read, as some do, ἐπηλύσεως, that is, ‘approach’ or ‘attack’, but I have preferred to read ἐπιλύσεως, which means ‘interpretation’.”

1 John 2:14 (1551)

Again, Calvin suggests that his text was corrupt (p. 253 of Parker’s translated cited above):

But it might be that John himself inserted for amplification the sentence about young men, for he adds that they were strong, which he had not said before, and the scribes unthinkingly decided to fill in the number.

Final Thoughts

T.H.L. Parker has shown that Calvin did in one period of his life use Colinaeus’ 1534 edition of the Greek New Testament as his working text. However, after 1548, Calvin seems to have shifted to using an edition of Erasmus or Stephanus as his working text. I don’t dispute that. What I wanted to show here is that even when using Erasmus or Stephanus as his working text (presumably, if the translations I used were made from the final editions of his commentaries), Calvin did not simply assume their readings in every case. He still published discussions in his commentaries in which he discussed textual variants and at times even suggested that the text he was using was corrupt and needed to be corrected.

And we must still mention what Calvin wrote in Institutes 1.6.3 (from the McNeill and Battles ed., vol. 1, p. 72), “Suppose we ponder how slippery is the fall of the human mind into forgetfulness of God, how great the tendency to every kind of error, how great the lust to fashion constantly new and artificial religions. Then we may perceive how necessary was such written proof of the heavenly doctrine, that it should neither perish through forgetfulness nor vanish through error nor be corrupted by the audacity of men.” It seems there that Calvin is affirming that Scripture cannot be “corrupted by the audacity of men”, but will anyone accuse Calvin of having such audacity to propose corrections to the text of Scripture he received? I’m no Calvin scholar, but I don’t see any necessary contradictions there—Calvin knows that what God’s word is, nobody can ever change. However, manuscripts and editions aren’t perfect, and Calvin knows this, so he makes a case for what the perfect text is when he sees a reason to suspect it isn’t what’s in the edition he’s using.

It would be unfair though to say that Calvin thought God’s Word was unattainable on the basis of the discussions I’ve mentioned here. I think he thought we do really have real access to God’s Word—why else would he offer a conjecture about what it is if he thought it was beyond what we could get to? (I can’t take credit for that point but at the moment I don’t remember who I heard it from/read it from.) For Calvin, it seems, there were occasionally times when the printed editions weren’t perfect, and identifying what the perfect original reading was required a bit of study instead of simply receiving the reading printed in the edition he had.

Perhaps someone can publish a list of all the instances in which Calvin discussed textual variants in his published work (though I would love to know if there are any unpublished letters, etc. in which he discusses variants) so that we can have a broad basis for determining Calvin’s approach to textual criticism, not just the entries in the Amsterdam Database.


  1. Thanks Elijah, that was interesting.

    1. My older translation of Calvin (1993 Barker by Owen) as in edition states
      "By saying that they were tempted, he seems to have spoken what was superfluous; and I doubt not but that the likeness of the words, ἐπρίσθησαν and ἐπειρὰσθησαν, was the reason that the word was added by some unskillful transcriber, and thus crept into the text, as also Erasmus has conjectured." So now we have Translational differences in commentaries from Latin to English.

  2. D.C. Parker and Dr. Jeff Riddle have also published on Calvin's use of different editions at various points in his career:

    Parker, D.C. "Calvin's Biblical Text" in Manuscripts Texts Theology: Collected Papers 1977-2007. ANTF 40. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2009.
    Riddle, J.T. "John Calvin and Text Criticism" Puritan Reformed Journal 9, 2 (2017): 128–146

  3. Thank you Elijah. It is nice to see our Amsterdam Database as a starting point for further research. Just one remark on the Database: some records are marked with an “M,” which stands for “Misunderstood”; that means that in our view the case is not a conjectural emendation (or editorial alternative), but that some scholar once thought it was (and of course that because of the reception history the case is important enough to be listed in the Database). This applies to Luke 1:73 in your discussion, where the misunderstanding is due to van der Beke Callenfels, who seems to have misread Bowyer’s collection.

  4. Thanks for this, very stimulating. I’ve actually written a little something on Heb 11.37 and came across this very reference.

  5. Could it be that Calvin, having access to much less mss evidence than we have today, had less confidence in the text before him than someone today possessing only the NA28?

    Is the frequency of conjectural emendation a function of time (a proxy for the state of the art of textual criticism)?

    1. I think we could measure confidence in a particular edition of the NT, like the NA28 in various ways.

      It seems to me that Calvin's confidence in the main text presented in the NT editions available to him was probably much higher than most NT scholars today are about the main text above the line in the NA28. But at the same time, these modern scholars probably typically have higher confidence that, when they do opt against a reading in the main text, the correct reading is still to be found there in the variants printed in the apparatus, than what Calvin could have had about attestation of variant readings in those rare instances when he opted to diverge from the main readings printed in his available editions.

  6. Calvin about an "indoctus lector" of Hebrews 9,1. See p. 57, n.3, and p. 61/62 of

    1. Elijah, Already Wetstein about Calvin's (and other protestant's) textcritical observations:

  7. Thanks for this Elijah, very interesting! I find it fascinating that he had no problem wrestling with variations and conjectural emendations while holding to a very high view of scripture. Many of us today can learn from this attitude.

    1. Timothy,
      Are you suggesting that with the overwhelming number of manuscripts available today we should also be open to CE because Calvin who had access to a limited number of manuscripts on a few occasions seems to have been open to CE?

    2. Thanks Timothy. No I am not suggesting that. Only that we should learn from his attitude that, even though the historical record of the textual transmission of the New Testament may not always be certain, it shouldn't affect a (our) high view of scripture.