Fourth-century Gospel commentary rediscovered

The Church Times reports on the rediscovery of a commentary on the Gospels, written by Fortunatianus of Aquileia, a bishop in the fourth century – the rediscovered manuscript is an eighth-century copy of his writings.

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.

Dorfbauer has spent four years on the manuscript, which was not in good condition. The text is a “passage-by-passage explanation of the Gospel, putting together the way he would explain it in his sermons to his church.” Particularly interesting is its following 4th-century traditions of interpreting the Gospels as allegory:

“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.”

Photo credit: Cologne Cathedral Library/Church Times

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