Dr Hugh Houghton, of the University of Birmingham, after an Austrian colleague read about an anonymous manuscript in Cologne Cathedral Library, digitised by the University of Salzburg in 2012, in a local newspaper and told him about it.
The work thought to have been copied out by a scholar in around 800, more than 400 years after the original was written, was an untranslated document which predates better-known writings by famous scholars including St Jerome, St Ambrose and St Augustine.
The biblical scholar, from the university’s institute for textual scholarship and electronic editing, has now produced an English translation of the text, published alongside the Latin this week.
“Fortunatianus, an African by birth, bishop of Aquileia when Constantius was emperor, wrote a commentary on the Gospels with ordered headings in a terse and rustic style. He is considered detestable because when Liberius, bishop of Rome, went into exile for the faith, he was the first to harass him, to break him and to force him to sign up to heresy.” (ed. note: Liberius was pope during the turbulence caused by the rise of Arianism)
Doubt is also cast on Jerome’s historical accuracy by the positive terms in which Liberius himself mentions Fortunatianus in a letter to Eusebius, bishop of Vercelli from 340 to 371:
“I have also sent letters to Fortunatianus, our brother and fellow bishop, whom I know does not fear human persons and has greater consideration for the future rewards, so that he too may see fit to be vigilant with you even now, for his personal integrity and for the faith which he knows he has kept even with the risks of the present life.”
“In case you think that my request is modest, you are being asked for a pearl from the Gospel, the words of the Lord which are sacred words, silver from the earth which has been tested by fire and refined seven times, namely the commentary of Fortunatianus, and, for knowledge of the persecutors, the history by Aurelius Victor as well as the letters of Novatian.”
“I admit that I read … also the works by the Latin writers Hilary, Victorinus and Fortunatianus, from which, even if only a little were taken, something worthy of memory would be written down.”
Apart from Jerome, Fortunatianus’ work seems to have been read mostly in the region where it originated: Rufinus of Aquileia apparently knew it, and Chromatius of Aquileia is heavily dependent on the work of his predecessor, both in his Commentary on Matthew and some of his sermons, although he does not refer to Fortunatianus by name. After this, Fortunatianus’ commentary seems to have fallen largely into oblivion. Although the work was used by a couple of writers of the late antique and early medieval periods, it is only in certain Carolingian commentators that Fortunatianus is again mentioned by name. Both Claudius of Turin († ca. 828), in the dedicatory epistle to his Commentary on Matthew, and Hrabanus Maurus († 856) are dependent on Jerome’s commentary. The latter makes two references in the preface of his Commentary on Matthew: the first reproduces the list of Latin and Greek sources given in Jerome’s commentary, while the second places Fortunatianus alongside a different range of Latin authors:
“Therefore, having gathered from various sources the most notable and worthy writers on Holy Writ, I undertook to examine carefully what they said and what they observed in the words of St Matthew in their works: I mean Cyprian and Eusebius, Hilary, Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, Fulgentius, Victorinus, Fortunatianus, Orosius, Leo, Gregory Nazianzen, Pope Gregory of Rome, John Chrysostom and the other Fathers, whose names are written in the book of life.”
“As for the rest, I should like our contemporaries to consider the number and quality of the expositors of this work belonging to the eloquence of the Greeks; then they may realise which documents Latin poverty is lacking, because hardly any comments from earlier writers have come into our hands. Even though Fortunatianus and Victorinus are said to have published works on Matthew, we have not yet been able to find them.”
Lost for 1,500 years, the fourth-century commentary by African-born Italian bishop Fortunatianus of Aquileia interprets the Gospels as a series of allegories instead of a literal history.
Dr Hugh Houghton, of the University of Birmingham, who translated the work, said it was an approach which modern Christians could learn from.
“There’s been an assumption that it’s a literal record of truth – a lot of the early scholars got very worried about inconsistencies between Matthew and Luke, for example.
“But 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.
Often we pointed to the fact that certain biblical texts should be read not to be taken literal, but as seen to be allegorical or as a text presented to the people in a manner they could easy remember it and tell it to others.
“In contemporary Biblical scholarship a lot of the gospels are written with symbolism in mind.
“They are not setting out to be literal accounts but they are set out to be symbolic.”
Dr Hugh Houghton said that the Bible had to be
“understood in the context that the authors were working in.”