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!