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Now You Can Read the Earliest-Known Latin Commentary on the Gospels in English

The commentary of Italian bishop Fortunatianus of Aquileia was lost for 1,500 years before it was rediscovered in 2012

(University of Birmingham)
smithsonian.com

The Christian Gospels are not light reading. Full of parables, allusions and difficult-to-interpret passages, religious scholars from the beginning have written commentaries that go along with the books, explaining and expanding on the texts. The earliest of these interpretations of the Latin version of the Gospels was written by Fortunatianus, who was bishop of Aquileia in the fourth century. But Fortunatianus' commentary was lost for 1500 years, only re-discovered in 2012. Now, his words have been translated English for the first time, reports The History Blog.

Hugh Houghton, of the University of Birmingham, who translated the manuscript, writes over at the Conversation that the ancient find came about because of the digital age. In 2002, the manuscript collection of the Cologne Cathedral Library was digitized and put online. Scholars generally ignored the 100-page Fortunatianus commentary as one of many similar works written during the reign of Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne in the eighth and ninth centuries. But in 2012, Lukas Dorfbauer of the University of Cologne realized that the commentary on this particular gospel seemed to be older than the manuscript itself. He was able to figure out that it was a copy of Fortunatianus long-lost commentary, which only survived in three small fragments. He also realized that the text of the Gospels themselves were different than the standard text codified by Saint Jerome.

Using the University of Birmingham’s extensive database of Biblical text, Dorfbauer and Houghton were able to trace the gospels to fourth-century Italy, putting it squarely in the time of Fortunatianus. A description of chapter heading written by Saint Jerome also helped the team confirm that the commentary was the lost book.

The work offers new insights into how the early Latin church interpreted the Bible. “Most of the works which survive from the earliest period of Latin Christianity are by later, more famous authors such as St. Jerome, St. Ambrose or St. Augustine and have attained the status of classics,” Houghton says in a press release. “To discover a work which predates these well-known writers is an extraordinary find.”

Olivia Rudgard at The Telegraph reports that the commentary reinforces the idea that Christians in the early days of the faith looked at the Gospels not as a history text but a series of stories and coded messages open to interpretation. “There’s been an assumption that it’s a literal record of truth - a lot of the early scholars got very worried about inconsistencies between Matthew and Luke, for example,” Houghton tells Rudgard. “But for people teaching the Bible in the fourth century, it's not the literal meaning which is important, it’s how it’s read allegorically.”

On the scholarly side, the commentary helps researchers understand how the character and meaning of the Gospels changed as they were translated into Latin from Greek and viewed by a wider audience in the Roman Empire. “This work is one of a series of missing links between the way in which the Gospels were understood in Greek Christianity to how the Gospels were understood in the Latin Church,” Houghton tells Becky Little at History.com.

In the commentary, Fortunatianus points out allegorical moments. For instance, Little reports that in a scene where Jesus rides into a village, he might write the village is a metaphor for the Church. Where ever the number 12 appears in the Gospels, Fortunatianus writes that it needs to be interpreted as a symbol of the 12 apostles. The number five is always a reference to the Torah, the first five books of the Bible.

This allegorical reading of the Bible was not uncommon or revolutionary in its day. Houghton tells Little the idea of reading the Bible literally did not gain currency until the Protestant reformation and the invention of the printing press in the 14th and 15th centuries, when reading of the Bible in common vernacular became possible and widespread. Emerging Protestant sects also placed the Bible at the center of their faith. Over time, certain denominations placed more and more credence in the holy nature of the book, eventually believing it was literal truth. That belief is most prevalent in the United States, where currently 24 percent of the population believes the Bible is the literal word of God, according to a Gallup poll conducted in May.

Whatever the case, Houghton wants those interested in the commentary to be able to read it and judge for themselves. That’s why he decided to produce his English translation, which is now available to download for free.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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