Sorry okes, referencing the Bible as literal history is just not going cut any longer.
In 2012, Dr. Lukas Dorfbauer, a researcher at the University of Salzburg, discovered an anonymous manuscript at the Cologne Cathedral Library which contained the earliest Latin commentary on the Gospels, explains The Daily Beast:
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.
That’s a lot of years – and the rediscovery has had enormous significance:
[Fortunatianus] 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.
Now, thanks to Dr. Hugh Houghton, deputy director of the University of Birmingham’s Institute for Institute for Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing (ITSEE), we have an English translation of the text.
You can find it here.
Here’s what The Daily Beast learnt from it:
What’s 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 viewed these stories as a series of allegories.
[allegory: a story, poem, or picture that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one.]
For example, when Jesus enters a village, Fortunatianus might see the village as a cipher for the church. Other “figures” of the church include boats, sheep, and hens.
Other instances of this kind of reading involve numbers: The number 12 is always a reference to the 12 disciples; the number five is a symbol of the five books of the Pentateuch, or Jewish law; and the number 99 (an imperfect version of 100) is a symbol of evil and the Jews (I take no responsibility for his anti-Judaism).
As a result, Houghton noted:
“For people teaching the Bible in the fourth century, it’s not the literal meaning which is important, it’s how it’s read allegorically.”
Fortunatianus was very interested in the Bible’s symbolic meaning. While he sometimes uses the verbs “to figure” or “prefigure” to explain his interpretation, he mostly describes the passages as “showing” or “indicating” a particular allegorical truth:
What’s 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 “letter”) and spiritually (allegorical interpretation).
He actually distinguished three kinds of interpretation that he mapped on to the parts of the human body: “the flesh,” “the soul,” and “the spirit.” Origen’s three senses of scripture have been profoundly influential and led him to offer some startlingly modern interpretations.
As Houghton points out, reading the Bible as an allegory can help iron out some inconsistencies, such as those between Matthew and Luke.
Although a mere suggestion, nobody thought you should read it as the truth for most of the Christian era anyway.
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