Notes on Translating Ambrosiaster's Corinthians 12-14

The Ambrosiaster Manuscript: Notes on the English Translation of I Corinthians Chapters 12-14

The purpose of this translation was to bring background and definition to the gift of tongues sequences in the Ambrosiaster writer(s) commentary on Corinthians.


Because most people are unfamiliar with the Ambrosiaster writings, a few notes are in order.

The text was originally written around 360 AD in Rome. The author is not known, though there have been many attempts to uncover a name but none entirely successful. At least in this brief foray, which explores three chapters of his works, he did not cite any Greek writers. He does elicit knowledge of Judaism, though from a distance. The influence of Latin Christianity with little influence from outside of his realm is evident. He was not attempting to create a literary work of genius, nor to intellectually persuade Christian leaders. It is not a combative piece nor an apologetic. It is a pastoral work that intends to instruct the flock.

The author’s insights on the tongues of Corinthians gives a window on an early Latin understanding of the Christian doctrine of tongues. His commentary also provides a link to the Jewish background of this rite.

The Goal of this Translation

The Ambrosiaster text has key passages that connect with Epiphanius’ description of the problems at Corinth. The references to the historical use of the gift of tongues by Ambrosiaster manuscript are brief but very important. The translation and interpretation of the text require understanding within the context of Ambrosiaster manuscript. Familiarity with the author(s) style and intentions, acknowledgment of the historical background to the text, and acceptable translation standards are essential. They are also requirementsfor the conclusion to stand under critical inquiry.

The initial translation posted on this website was over ten years ago—a time when my Latin skills were in the introductory stage. My translation policy back then was to leave anything not understood as word-for-word translations. There are places where this was evident in the first pass, but the second has far less.

The second revision has updated many errors. Some of the previous errors were representative of a novice translator and, at other times, not paying attention to minute details.

Since introducing the first copy, Gerald A. Bray has published, Commentaries on Romans and 1-2 Corinthians By Ambrosiaster. His insights, introduction, and translation set the standard. On the other hand, my work has a place. Bray’s translation is dynamic, while mine is static. If you match the chapters side-by-side, you will notice considerable differences.

My translation attempts to match word-for-word so that it appears choppy and difficult to read. If the reader carefully looks at the Latin text, it is closer to the original.

The difference is partially explained by the difficulty of the Latin. The Latin is not hard, but the text has its nuances. The author gives small snippets of thoughts with an abundance of participles. He especially loved the gerundive, which gives wide room for different translations. He assumes that the reader understands the background to his explanations, leaving us as readers, 1700 years later, wondering what those assumptions were. These factors allow for variation and flexibility in translations.

Gerald Bray’s work and translation on Ambrosiaster is considered a definitive work and ought to be consulted in any research work on the subject. My translation is done as a challenging hobby, not as a profession. The only exception is I Corinthians 14:19 because it is critical to the Christian doctrine of tongues.

The Manuscript from a Literary Perspective

The key to understanding the Ambrosiaster manuscript from 12:28 up to 14:30 was the polemic against personal ambition. One cannot achieve honor or merit before God by one’s status, achievements, or human success.

The work also stressed equality between the classes. It taught that all have the gifts of God. It had nothing to do with one’s social status. For example, I Corinthians 14:30:

(Vers. 30)  “That if it [any thing] would be a revelation to someone else who is sitting, the first is to be silent.”  That is, the highest one should grant the lowest, so that if he is capable, he can speak.1 Not that it is to be done reluctantly, because the gift can be given also to that person. While he appears to be inferior because he has not been allowed by those who are superior. For just as the whole cannot be parcelled out in one, even with superior ones, it cannot be for some, however much inferior [they are] that nothing is being imparted [to them], for no one is devoid [of some type of gift] in the grace of God.2

It is not intellectually deep nor a masterpiece of literary genius when compared to Augustine, Gregory Nazianzus, Thomas Aquinas, or the like. On many occasions, it simply re-phrases Paul’s writing in contemporary terms of that time with little historical, social or theological reflection.

Problems with Authorship and Dating

The Latin text has its origins in the fourth century, but the word usage and style seems to skip between different epochs. There are clues that this document had progressive additions and edits.

The text distinctly reflects Latin thought that is not from a Greek-influenced Neo-Platonic framework. The influence of Greek philosophy was typical and expected in fourth-century writings. Portions of grammatical style and word selection often suggest a later period. Parts are similar to that of Thomas Aquinas and not of the Venerable Bede or Augustine.

Gerald L. Bray in his Commentaries on Romans and 1-2 Corinthians By Ambrosiaster, touches greatly on this subject and concluded:

Ambrosiaster’s commentary can be broken down into two, or possibly three, principal recensions. Untangling these can be a delicate task, because in later centuries there was a good deal of cross-pollination, as monastic copyists incorporated elements from different recensions into their own text. It is possible that Ambrosiaster left his work in a semipolished state, which was then touched up for publication by literary executors who smoothed out some of its rough edges and filled in material that was either missing from the manuscript(s) they had or that was felt to be needed in order to make sense of what Ambrosiaster wrote. But it is also possible that Ambrosiaster produced the different versions himself, perhaps with a variety of audiences in mind. The style of the shortest recension is lapidary to the point of obscurity, and in some ways is more like a series of lecture notes than a finished commentary. It is often difficult or impossible to know what Ambrosiaster meant, and the second and third recensions were trying to explain the obscurities of the shortest text. Sometimes they are genuinely helpful and illuminate the commentary, but there are places when later hands digressed from Ambrosiaster’s thought pattern and added material that is either irrelevant or contradictory.3

From my perspective, this work is an evolutionary one. It begins in 360 or so AD with many redactions, especially the 11th or 12th century. The addition of Biblical verses put this version around the 14th.

For example, the writing in I Corinthians 14 makes an abrupt change. It starts with simplistic, get-to-the-point writing that is not so difficult to translate. When one reaches verse 30, it makes a shift. Translation difficulty increases.The approach shifts when translating his commentary on Corinthians after 14:30. It has a feel similar to a Thomas Aquinas writing. There were many parallels in style in form.

The text after 14:30 also appears to be fragmented. The train of thought seems to be interrupted and does not flow very well. This result is not so much a problem of my English translation but a direct result of what appears to be editorial snippets pieced together by Latin redactors.

Also, Bray’s comment on the Ambrosiaster text being a redacted one is an important note. The Ambrosiaster manuscript is not alone in this tradition. The Chronicon Paschale is a good example. A tradition where an original piece has been added over the centuries. The seventh century or so Chronicon is based on Jerome’s writings, which are heavily influenced by Eusebius, and Eusebius owes much of the work to Africanus.

In my mind, this does not cause any problems with the original manuscript’s accuracy or legitimacy. This work is an evolutionary document. It traces a line of thought throughout the centuries on the Christian faith, as outlined in the Book of Corinthians. What exists today is a bonafide manuscript at the endpoint in its evolution.

In the first iteration of this article, I stated that ancient Latin writers do not cite this work. This statement is incorrect. Bray states that Augustine was aware of this text and lists its influence on Latin authors.4

It was also previously asserted that this is a B-grade publication. This thought is also incorrect. It is a pastoral letter with no intention of being intellectual or academic. It is a shepherd serving his flock. The manuscript achieves a communal connection between a Church leader and his followers in moral, spiritual, and social virtues.

Bible Versions

Ambrosiaster is working from a different Bible than what has evolved into the Vulgate. Some may suggest it is the Old Latin or the Itala version. Traditionally, when I come across a Biblical citation in a Latin commentary, I merely input the Douay-Rheims English translation instead of manually translating Latin into English. However, there is a multitude of minor differences between this text and the Vulgate. It forced me to translate the Biblical texts entirely on almost every occasion.

Variant Latin Biblical texts are not uncommon to come across with Latin Patristic writers. No equivalent in Christian history reflects the broad spectrum of differences that the Latin Bible versions contain.

The goal of this translation is not to compare or analyze Ambrosiaster’s Bible references. It is merely to translate the text accurately. Any variance found from the Vulgate is found in the footnotes.

Some Translation Notes

The translation provided herein has gone through two stages of the translation process. The first one is the direct translation from Latin with some attention to English grammar and meaning. The second pass was to improve on the English meaning and grammar.

More time and energy could be spent on improving the flow in the English.There are some remaining problematic passages and may require improvement in the future.

It is still in a good stage for researchers to get a first look into the Ambrosiaster manuscript and decide whether to look into this text any further.

The use of the subjunctive is highly utilized. Some thoughts on the subjunctive in more detail can be found at the following article Latin and the Subjunctive.

The gerundive appears quite frequently in this text and required some thoughtful attention. The conclusion to this journey can be found on a previous essay The Mysterious Latin Gerundive.

The reader must note that the English translation for lingua throughout the document is translated as language, which is a synonym for tongue. If one was to insert the word tongue every time the word language appears, it changes the nuance and becomes a more mystical, undefined reality. However, this is not what the author(s) intended, so the translation remains as language. See the blog article: The Difference Between Language and Tongues for more details.


The nuances of anti-semitism and the role of women in this composition do not reflect my personal opinions. Nor is this translation meant to be a vehicle to promote such knowledge. The reader should always be aware that the ancient Christian writers were susceptible to the influences of their time, whether good or bad, just like anyone else, and one should read with a watchful eye.

This has not been reviewed or approved by an experienced or reputable authority. Use the translation at your own risk. Also, this translation can change without notice.

Translations and Latin Original

  1. ut si potest dicat
  2. Ambrosiaster. I Corinthians 14:30. My translation
  3. Commentaries on Romans and 1–2 Corinthians Pg. XVIff
  4. Commentaries on Romans and 1–2 Corinthians Pg. XXI

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