English translation of Fortunatianus of Aquileia’s Commentary on the Gospels is online at De Gruyter!

Back in 2014, I learned that the lost 4th century Latin commentary on the Gospels by Fortunatianus of Aquileia had been rediscovered by Lukas J. Dorfbauer!  This was very wonderful news, and I wrote about it here.  The exegesis follows the allegorical model common in Alexandria, rather than the more literalist format of Antioch.

A couple of weeks ago, I heard the good news that an English translation had been made by Hugh Houghton, and was being published by De Gruyter.  This was good news, as the first translation of any ancient text is.  However I assumed that this would only be accessible to researchers, and looking at the website did nothing to make me think otherwise.

But today I happened to see a tweet from the De Gruyter twitter account that the translation was available “open access”.  Back I went to the site.  And, after a mighty struggle, I found … that it is indeed available for download!

The trick, guys, is to look for the link on the left to “Content”, and click that.  It then gives you a list of the sections of the book, each with a PDF.

Download it!  Now!!

This is really excellent news, and we must all be grateful to Dr H., and also to De Gruyter for making this accessible to ordinary mortals.

The publisher’s PR men have been pushing the book to major newspapers, and accounts have appeared online from them.  I think that it is right for me to say something about these.

It would be very easy to look down on some of the press coverage.  The old saying is that there is no such thing as bad publicity (although in the age of Trump this theory is being tested severely, as is the trust of the public in the mainstream media).  If people get the wrong idea, at least they get some idea.  Does it matter if people who will never read a book get a mistaken idea?  Probably not.

Some of the press reports have adopted a very stale “sensationalist” line: “This new discovery by [insert name here] rocks the foundations, yes, the foundations of Christianity!!!  Just like the last one we reported singularly failed to do!!!  But this time it’s real!!!”.   I must confess that this type of reporting – always false – simply irritates the heck out me.  It positively smells of the 1890s.

In this case the line is “This discovery proves the early Christians did not understand the bible literally, unlike those Christian scum of today”.  The first such report that I saw was in the Daily Telegraph, by a certain Olivia Rudgard, online here.  The heading screamed “‘Don’t take the Bible literally’ says scholar who brought to light earliest Latin analysis of the Gospels”; but the rather confused article does not substantiate this claim, and the journalist plainly knew little about early Christian exegesis.  One feels sorry for Dr Houghton, who doubtless did his best.  By “taking the bible literally”, the newspaper means “believe any of it”; which has nothing to do with the subject, but is how the ordinary reader will understand it.  Other reports of the same sort appear in other newspapers.

A certain amount of spite must be involved in all this.  The Telegraph would hardly report any early Islamic discovery in these terms, after all.  But in the main it’s just a tired journalistic trope, for which Dr. H. is in no way responsible.  A sensible response by Peter D. Williams appears here.

How should we respond to misrepresentations of this kind?  I think there are a number of pitfalls to avoid.

What all of us want to see is the new discovery enter the mainstream, and get read.  The most likely non-scholarly readers for a commentary on the gospels are the Christians.  This is why the attempt to position the discovery, in the minds of the general public, as anti-Christian, is really rather poisonous.  It poisons the well.  It puts off readers.  Almost nobody reads anti-Christian literature.  No Christian wastes time on the “stunning discoveries” of liberal theologians.

So I think it is important to say that this discovery is not anti-Christian, and does NOT prove that the early Christians did not take the bible literally (i.e., believe it).  The early Christians believed that the bible was the inspired word of God, just as modern Christians do.  They understood it in various ways, just as we do today.  They took it just as literally as we do, and for the same reasons.  But they also sought “inner meanings”.  We do not lack people seeking to do the same today, as anyone who has listened to attempts to explain the prophecies in the book of Daniel will know.

In the early church there was the idea that the bible could be understood as a story with an allegorical meaning.  This idea is associated with the great name of Origen especially, and continued to be influential throughout antiquity.  Whether correct or not, it could give some interesting insights into biblical passages.

For those who feel doubtful, we should remember that Origen’s own sermons on Ezekiel could be preached today, with minor modifications.  There is not really such a great gap between these early Christians and ourselves.

So do read Fortunatianus.  His interpretation is a commentary.  It may be right or wrong; but it is not maliciously wrong.

And … thanks to De Gruyter for making it available online.  And especial thanks to Hugh Houghton for undertaking the not inconsiderable task of making the first translation of an ancient text.  Well done, both of you!

UPDATE: I misspelled the guy’s name!  FortunAtianus, not FortunANtianus.  Apologies!

Hugh Houghton on New Testament catenas

The late antique and medieval commentaries on scripture took the form of chains of quotations from ancient writers, including much lost early Christian commentary.  These are known today as the catena (=chain) commentaries, and their study is a rather specialised one.

Thankfully it is receiving some real attention today.  Hugh Houghton writes to say that a volume of papers edited by himself on the subject is now online. This contains a great number of papers that will interest most of us.

It begins with “An Introduction to Greek New Testament Commentaries with a Preliminary Checklist of New Testament Catena Manuscripts”!  Of course we’re discussing ancient Greek New Testament commentaries here.  This paper alone will be of use to many.

The volume is H.A. Houghton, Commentaries, Catenae and Biblical Tradition: Papers from the Ninth Birmingham Colloquium on the Textual Criticism of the New Testament, in association with the COMPAUL project. Gorgias Press (2016)

Those who remember my volume of Eusebius, Gospel Problems and Solutions, may know that it included Coptic fragments of the work.  Dr H’s volume includes an interesting paper, “An Overview of Research on Bohairic Catena Manuscripts on the Gospels” by Matthias Schulz – something that I would have killed to read back in 2011.

Of deep interest to many will be C. M. Kreinecker’s paper on Rufinus’ translation of Origen’s commentary on Romans.  It’s always interesting to wonder how accurate Rufinus is, considering that he is the only version of much of Origen, and also remembering a load of accusations by Jerome.  The rediscovery of the original Greek of the Commentary on Romans means that this particular work can now be investigated; and this paper examines the Latin biblical text involved.

Fortunately the work is online.  Dr H. writes:

The new Gorgias online repository is now available at https://www.gorgiaspress.com/gorgias-open-repository

 The book on catenae can be downloaded at: https://www.gorgiaspress.com/Content/files/GorgiasOpen/978-1-4632-0576-8.pdf

This is excellent news.  Add it to your library now.

Dr H. also added a note to my post on the lost – and now found! – gospel commentary of Fortunatianus, to advise that he is producing an English translation which will be available with the text in 2017.  But, better yet, the translation will be available online.  Which means, of course, that we can all read it.

It is really a great pleasure to see useful scholarship being made available to the whole world like this.  Well done, everyone involved, and especially Dr Houghton.

Postscript: I also see that Dr H.’s own website has a bunch of his papers which, inevitably, are also of wide interest.  Recommended.

Fortunatianus of Aquileia and his lost gospel commentary

From Quasten’s Patrology 4, p.572:

According to Jerome (De vir. into 97), Fortunatianus, an African was bishop of Aquileia in the mid-fourth century at the time of the Emperor Constantius. and Pope Liberius. He died, it seems, shortly before 368. Fortunatianus was at first a strong defender of Nicene orthodoxy and received Athanasius as a guest at Aquileia after the Synod of Serdica of 343. However, at the time of the council at Milan in 355, he succumbed to the threats of Constantius and signed the condemnation of Athanasius. He subsequently proved instrumental in persuading the exiled Pope Liberius to sign the Arian creed of Sirmium of 357.

There remain only three fragments of Fortunatianus’ commentary on the Gospels, which Jerome describes as a “margaritam de evangelio” (Ep. 10, 3) and which he read in preparation for his own commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (praef: PL 26, 20C).

Editions: Cf. CPL 104. — A. Wilmart, B. Bischoff, CCL 9(1957)365-370. — PLS I, 239, 217.
Studies: L. Duchesne, Libere et Fortunatien: MAH 28(1908)31-78 (cf. P. Glorieux, Hilaire et Libere: MSR 1[1944]7-34). – J. Lemarie, Italie. Aquilee: DSp 7(1971 )2161.

This is the entire entry for this obscure 4th century bishop and his now lost “pearl on the gospel”.

Why do I give this?

Today I discovered the CSEL site at the university of Salzburg, and the following page contained these interesting remarks.

An anonymous commentary on the Gospels in MS Köln, Erzbischöfliche Diözesan- und Dombibl. 17 (s. IX1/3) has now been identified by Lukas J. Dorfbauer as the work of bishop Fortunatianus of Aquileia.

It was thought that this commentary, of which only three fragments were known, had already been lost in its entirety by Carolingian times.

Thus, Fortunatianus’ work becomes the apparently oldest commentary on the Gospels written in the Latin West which is still extant; it amplifies our knowledge of ancient Christianity and its literature in many respects.

A critical edition of the text – in fact, the “editio princeps” – is currently in preparation for the CSEL. For now, please cf.

  • L. J. Dorfbauer,  Der Evangelienkommentar des Bischofs Fortunatian von Aquileia (Mitte 4. Jh.). Ein Neufund auf dem Gebiet der patristischen Literatur, Wiener Studien 126 (2013), 177-198).
  • Ders., Der Codex Köln, Erzbischöfliche Diözesan- und Dombibl. 17. Ein Beitrag zur Überlieferung des Evangelienkommentars des Bischofs Fortunatian von Aquileia, to be published in: Mittelalterliche Handschriften der Kölner Dombibliothek. Fünftes Symposion November 2012 (estimated for 2014).

A full digital reproduction of the manuscript in question can be found online via the homepage of Codices Electronici Ecclesiae Coloniensis: http://www.ceec.uni-koeln.de/

Well done, the CSEL, for giving the link to the online manuscript, rather than meanly concealing it.  It means that the text is accessible, if not in critical form.

It is always a delight to see something rescued from the losses of antiquity.  Congratulations Dr. Dorfbauer and the CSEL.  You have done something well worth doing.

I wonder if anyone will translate it into English?