Discovery Shows Early Christians Didn’t Always Take the Bible Literally

Discovery Shows Early Christians Didn’t Always Take the Bible Literally

Before the printing press, Christians were more flexible with how they interpreted the Bible.

Scholars have long known that early Christians didn’t always take everything in the Bible literally. But the recent discovery and translation of the earliest known Latin commentary on the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John (not Mark) has shed new light on the subject.

The text, written by a Catholic bishop named Fortunatianus, dates back to mid-fourth century Italy. According to Hugh Houghton, who translated the commentary into English and published a free version online, Fortunatianus’ text illuminates the variety of ways that early Christians interpreted the Bible.

“This work is one of a series of missing links between the way in which the Gospels were understood in Greek Christianity to how the Gospels were understood in the Latin Church,” says Houghton, who is a professor of New Testament textual scholarship at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom. Turns out, it’d “been sitting in a library for almost 1,200 years.”

What Houghton thinks is really interesting about the text is that Fortunatianus isn’t discounting literal interpretations of the Bible, he’s just focusing on allegorical interpretations instead.

For example, in a passage where Jesus enters a village, Houghton says Fortunatianus might write that the “village stands for the church,” meaning that lessons about the church can be drawn from the story. Fortunatianus also writes that the number 12 is always “a reference to the disciples,” and that the number five “is always a reference to the books of the Jewish law.”

Fortunatianus’ text translated by Houghton. (Credit: Cologne Cathedral Library)

Such a flexible reading of the Gospels wasn’t unusual in the pre-printing press period, when Biblical manuscripts and translations were more varied.

“An exclusive focus on literal interpretation is a modern phenomenon, because that’s not the way ancient Christians read the Bible,” he says. The mid-15th century invention of the printing press made copies much more identical. This, he says, “inspired a sense of the exactness of the printed form of the Bible, which was alien to the first 1,500 years of Christianity.”

Scholars had known about the existence of Fortunatianus’ “lost” commentary from ancient sources. But the text was only recently “found” at Germany’s Cologne Cathedral Library by Lukas J. Dorfbauer, a scholar at the University of Salzburg, Austria.

“Numerous people would’ve looked at it by then, but only [Dorfbauer] had the background knowledge to recognize this was what it is,” he says. “It’s a substantial work and it’s sort of extraordinary to rediscover something which is this old, and this big.”

Rejected Books of the Bible and What Happened to Them (TV-PG; 9:46)

When Houghton published his translation, the British press quickly picked up news, with the Telegraph proclaiming in one headline: “Don’t take the Bible literally.” However, Houghton says that’s not exactly the message people should take from the text.

The commentary does not illustrate that a literal interpretation of the Bible is incorrect, he says. Rather, it demonstrates that “the literal meaning is only one of a number of layers.”


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