New Interpretation of Gospels 09.03.17 12:00 AM ET
In October 2012, Dr. Lukas Dorfbauer, a researcher at the University of Salzburg, was examining the manuscripts of the Cologne Cathedral Library. He was looking at an anonymous manuscript and realized that this ancient manuscript contained the earliest Latin commentary on the Gospels. Dorfbauer was not the first scholar to examine the manuscript, but he was the first to realize its significance: here, as part of the 100-page fourth century c.e. commentary, was the earliest Latin translation of the Gospels. And now, itâs available in English, and the implications are enormous.
The author of the commentary was Fortunatianus of Aquileia, a fourth-century North African who later became a northern Italian bishop. Scholars had known about the commentary from references to it in other ancient works, but until Dorfbauer identified the Cologne manuscript it had been lost for more than 1,500 years.
Ironically, when scholars had looked at this turn-of-the-ninth century manuscript in the past they had been much more interested in a forged letter âon Pride and Follyâ that claimed to be from the Jewish High Priest Annas to the famous Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca. To be sure, forged letters between Seneca and Christian religious figures are fascinating (thereâs a set of letters between the Apostle Paul and Seneca, as well), but they are of little consequence next to the earliest extant Latin translation of the Bible.
The rediscovery of Fortunatianusâ commentary is itself of enormous significance. He was so highly regarded by his successors that a number of ninth-century theologians had looked for his commentary and come up empty-handed. What makes this particular discovery truly astonishing is that the text of the Gospels that it uses is different from the next-oldest known Latin translation of the Bible.
Up until now the oldest complete Latin version of the Gospels was the Vulgate, a late-fourth-century translation attributed to the priest and theologian Jerome. Jerome, incidentally, was a great admirer of Bishop Fortunatianus, describing his commentary as âa pearl without price.â Â Pope Damasus I commissioned Jerome to update the âOld Latinâ (Vetus Latina) version of the Gospels used by the Roman Church. Jerome went one better, compiling a translation of the entire Bible. The influence of the Vulgate is enormous; over a thousand years later, at the Council of Trent, the Roman Catholic Church would affirm that it was the âauthenticâ Bible.
But now we have more evidence of something older. The English translation of the text was prepared by Dr. Hugh Houghton, Deputy Director of the University of Birminghamâs Institute for Institute for Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing (ITSEE), and is available online for free from De Gruyter press.
Whatâs most revealing about the commentary is the manner in which its author interprets his source text. Rather than treating the Gospels as literal history, Fortunatianus view these stories them as a series of allegories. For example, when Jesus enters a village, Fortunatianus might see the village as a cipher for the church. Other âfiguresâ of the Church include boats, sheep, and hens. Other instances of this kind of reading involve numbers: the number twelve is always a reference to the twelve disciples; the number five is a symbol of the five books of the Pentateuch, or Jewish law; and the number ninety-nine (an imperfect version of 100) is a symbol of evil and the Jews (I take no responsibility for his anti-Judaism).
Houghton said, âFor people teaching the Bible in the fourth century, it’s not the literal meaning which is important, it’s how it’s read allegorically.â Itâs not that Fortunatianus thinks that the Bible cannot be read literally, itâs just that he is much more interested in its symbolic meaning. While he sometimes uses the verbs âto figureâ or âprefigureâ to explain his interpretation, he mostly describes the passages as âshowingâ or âindicatingâ a particular allegorical truth.
Whatâs especially striking about this new discovery is that Fortunatianus is commenting on the content of the Gospels, the central component of the Christian message. This seems strange to modern readers because so much modern religious Biblical interpretation, especially among conservative Christians, assumes that Bible should be read literally. Houghton notes that literal interpretation did not become de rigueur until the mid-15th century, when the invention of the printing press brought precise uniformity and conformity to the Biblical text. Prior to this point no two manuscripts of the Bible were identical to one another, and literal reading of the text was just one (and not even necessarily the most important) interpretive method.
Of course, allegorical readings of the Bible pre-date Fortunatianus. One of the most celebrated ancient interpreters of scripture, the third-century theologian Origen of Alexandria (who is a likely source for Fortunatianus), argued that the Bible could be interpreted literally (what he calls the âletterâ) and spiritually (allegorical interpretation). He actually distinguished three kinds of interpretation that he mapped on to the parts of the human body: âthe flesh,â âthe soul,â and âthe spirit.â Origenâs three senses of scripture have been profoundly influential and led him to offer some startlingly modern interpretations.
For example, when writing about the (in modern contexts) highly controversial Creation stories of Genesis 1-3, Origen says this: âFor who that has understanding will suppose that the first day, and second and third day, and the evening and the morning existed without a sun, and moon, and stars? And that the first day was, as it were, also without a sky? . . . . And if God is said to walk in paradise in the evening, and Adam is to hide himself under a tree, I do not suppose that anyone doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries, the history having taken place in appearance and not literally.â In other words, Origen doesnât think that the Genesis stories are literally true. He doesnât write this as a response to scientific discovery, but he also does not think that the stories are bankrupted as a result. Instead, he thinks, like many others, that these stories are meant to be interpreted allegorically. Allegory isnât a response to science, itâs an authentic and historically grounded way of reading and writing texts.
For most people invested in the religious authority of the Bible none of this will be too shocking. After all, as Houghton himself points out, reading the Bible as allegory can actually solve some of the difficulties that readers encounter when they read the New Testament: âThere’s been an assumption that it’s a literal record of truth â a lot of the early scholars got very worried about inconsistencies between Matthew and Luke.â What writers like Fortunatinus and Origen show is not just that you donât have to read the Bible literally all the time, but that for most of the Christian Era nobody thought that you should.
My Comments upon this Article reflect the Teachings of Dr. Bart D Ehrman, Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who wroteÂ and gave the lectures on “The Great Courses” called “How Jesus Became God.”Â Dr Ehrman points out that there were other Gospels that did not make it into the Canon when the New Testament was compiled, one of which is now know as “Q” and may have been the basis for three of the four Gospels we currently have.Â
He goes on to point out that the one we call “Mark” is the oldest and was probably dictated by Peter, approximately 50-60 c.e., to a scribe named John Mark who may or may not have been the young man in the Garden of Gethsemane who escaped capture when Jesus was arrested. The authors of Luke and Matthew used “Mark” as a source for their Gospels, Luke about 60-70 c.e. and Matthew in the era 80-100 c.e.Â John appears to be written last, closer to 90-100 c.e. (c.e. or Common Era has taken the place of AD)
From another source “Crossroads” (http://www.bc.edu/schools/stm/crossroads/resources/birthofjesus/intro/the_dating_of_thegospels.html) comes the following:
“Most researchers place the date of Jesusâ death at Passover time around the year 30.
The earliest New Testament books, the letters written by Paul, were composed in the decade of the 50s.
In the mid-60s, James, Peter, and Paul are all killed. Peter and Paul likely perished during the persecution of the church in Rome by Nero. The deaths of these important church leaders likely encouraged the writing down of narratives about Jesus.
In the year 70, Roman armies destroyed Jerusalem and its Temple, effectively ending a Jewish revolt against the Empire that had begun four years earlier.
Although some scholars disagree, the vast majority of researchers believe that Mark was the first Gospel to be written, sometime around the year 70.
This scholarly consensus holds that the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke were composed, independently of one another, sometime in the 80s or 90s. Both used a written form of the Gospel of Mark as source material for their own narratives. In addition, because both Matthew and Luke contain a large amount of material in common that is not found in Mark, most researchers hold that both Evangelists also had a collection of Jesusâ sayings that they incorporated into their works. This saying source is known as âQâ and was likely assembled in the 40s or 50s. This understanding of the origins of the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke explains why they are similar yet different from one another. The arrangement is called âThe Two-Source Hypothesisâ because Matthew and Luke are seen to have two written sources, Mark and Q.
The Gospel of John emerges from an independent literary tradition that is not directly connected to the Synoptic tradition. This explains the major differences between John and the Synoptics. The Johannine narrative is indebted to oral and possibly written traditions that were transmitted from earlier decades.”
I found this article and the subsequent article to be very interesting in the idea of the Gospels being “Allegory” and not “Gospel Historically.”
What do you think?Â I invite everyone to stop into the Main Chat later today (9/3/2017) and in the coming weeks to discuss the ideas expressed.