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Rediscovered 4th Century Latin Gospel commentary sheds new light on early Church

25 August 2017


Fair copy: the illuminated first page of the commentary

Fair copy: the illuminated first page of the commentary

SCHOLARS have been give a new insight into Bible translation and Christian teaching in the patristic period after the rediscovery of a fourth-century Italian bishop’s commentary on the Gospels.

The manuscript is an eighth-century copy of a document in Latin by Fortunatianus of Aquileia, who discusses St Matthew’s Gospel and some passages from Luke and John. It predates the Vulgate, and provides new evidence about the earliest form of the Gospels in Latin. Experts knew of its existence through references to it in other ancient works, but no copy was known to survive until Dr Lukas Dorfbauer, a researcher at the University of Salzburg, in Austria, identified the commentary in an anonymous manuscript held in Cologne Cathedral Library.

Now Dr Hugh Houghton, of the University of Birmingham’s Institute for Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing, has worked with him to produce an English translation in conjunction with the first ever edition of the Latin text, which was published online this week.

Dr Houghton said: “Although it was discovered in 2012, the text is in a very bad state, and it has taken Lukas four years to produce something that makes sense. It is a passage-by-passage explanation of the Gospel, putting together the way he would explain it in his sermons to his church.

“It is amazing to rediscover something like this, and biblical scholars are very interested. It is the earliest Latin commentary on the Gospels we know about. There are lots of differences from the Vulgate, but most tend to be differences of wording rather than sense. The facts haven’t changed; it’s just the way they are expressed.”

COLOGNE CATHEDRAL LIBRARYEdition ready: text of the commentary

Dr Houghton said that the commentary followed the fourth-century tradition of interpreting the Gospels as allegories. “So, for example, Fortunatianus says that whenever there is the number five, it is the Books of the Law, or 12 stands for the Apostles. A walnut is a symbol of the Gospels because when you break it there are four segments. He wants to read symbolism into everything. Thus, when Jesus is on the sea, the sea is the world and the boat stands for the Church; it’s a sort of decoding of the text.

“We already know about allegory: St Paul practises allegory in the letter to the Galatians; but Fortunatianus almost goes to extremes — when he talks about Jesus’s denial and the cock crowing, and he says Jesus is the cock. I have never come across any Christian writer who did that.

“He even uses allegory in discussing ecclesiastical organisation, saying that when ‘I’ is mentioned, it is the bishop; hands mean the presbyters; and the feet are the deacons.

There is also an awful lot of anti-Judaism, but I think that is a standard for the time, How many Jews did he actually know in fourth-century Italy? I suspect he has taken that on board from his earlier sources — but that is an aspect of Christian history which the modern Church does well not to follow.”

The Latin text and English translation can be downloaded at: www.degruyter.com/viewbooktoc/product/469498

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