Lost Ancient Commentary on the Gospels Discovered After 1500 Years

Ancient manuscript

This could be filed under "Religion News" and "News of the Really Cool." According to the academic journal The Conversation, a Latin commentary on the Gospels dating back to the fourth century has been discovered. The commentary predates the Latin Vulgate, which is significant because it means that the included texts of Scripture also predate the Latin Vulgate. Written by Fortunatianus of Aquileia, an Italian Bishop, this ancient commentary gives researchers a treasure trove of new insights into the earliest Latin translations of the Gospels and, hence, the earliest forms of the Gospels themselves.

It was believed this document had been lost to posterity for over 1,500 years and "no copy was known to survive until Dr. Lukas Dorfbauer, a researcher from the University of Salzburg, identified Fortunatianus’ text in an anonymous manuscript copied around the year 800 and held in Cologne Cathedral Library," according to The Conversation.

For years, the manuscript held the interest of scholars because it contains a letter purporting to be from the High Priest Annas to Seneca. But the commentary as a whole had been misunderstood to be nothing more than one of the many books that were produced during the time of Charlemagne. Upon examining the commentary in 2012, however, Dr. Dorfbauer realized that although the edition was from the ninth century, the actual commentary was quite a bit older.

That Fortunatianus wrote a commentary on the Gospels has been known because St. Jerome mentioned it in his book Lives of Famous Men. "Later Christian authors, such as Rabanus Maurus and Claudius of Turin, searched for it in vain," the article continued. "As with so many works from antiquity, it seemed to have been lost, the remaining copies destroyed in a Vandal raid or eaten by mice in a dusty library."

Writing about the technology used in the process to verify the discovery, Hugh Houghton, one of the researchers on the team, explains, "Astonishingly, despite being copied four centuries after the last reference to his Gospel commentary, this manuscript seemed to preserve the original form of Fortunatianus’ groundbreaking work."

Houghton goes on to detail the importance of the discovery, saying:

[The commentary] is of considerable significance to our understanding of the development of Latin biblical interpretation, which went on to play such an important part in the development of Western thought and literature. In this substantial commentary, Fortunatianus is reliant on even earlier writings which formed the link between Greek and Latin Christianity.

This sheds new light on the way the Gospels were read and understood in the early Church, in particular the reading of the text known as “allegorical exegesis” in which elements in the stories are interpreted as symbols. So, for example, when Jesus climbs into a boat on the Sea of Galilee, Fortunatianus explains that the sea which is sometimes rough and dangerous stands for the world, while the boat corresponds to the Church in which Jesus is present and carries people to safety.

There are also moments of insight into the lives of fourth-century Italian Christians, as when the bishop uses a walnut as an image of the four Gospels or holds up a Roman coin as a symbol of the Trinity."

Plans are already being made to translate the commentary into English.