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The Fortunatianus Biblical commentary

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The oldest Latin commentary on the Bible shows it was read allegorically not as literal history

»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 text 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 AD commentary, was the earliest Latin translation of the Gospels. It’s now available in English.

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.

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 “on Pride and Folly” 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 (there’s 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 Fortunatianus’s 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 “a pearl without price”. Pope Damasus I commissioned Jerome to update the “Old Latin” (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 “authentic” 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 Birmingham’s Institute for Institute for Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing (ITSEE), and is available online for free from De Gruyter press.

• 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.

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. [The Church held the Jews to be responsible for the death of God!] Houghton said:

• “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.”

It’s not that Fortunatianus thinks that the Bible cannot be read literally, it’s just that he is much more interested in its 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.

For example, when writing about the (in modern contexts) highly controversial Creation stories of Genesis 1-3, Origen says this:

• “For 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.”

• In other words, Origen doesn’t think that the Genesis stories are literally true.

He doesn’t 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 isn’t a response to science, it’s an authentic and traditional 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:
“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.”

• What writers like Fortunatinus and Origen show is not just that you don’t have to read the Bible literally all the time, but that for most of the Christian Era nobody thought that you should.«

(The Daily Beast, Candida Moss, lightly edited)

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Written by mikemagee

4 September, 2017 at 3:27 pm

The Myth of an Afterlife: The Case against Life After Death

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Heaven may not be what you imagine

Because every one of us will die, most of us would like to know what—if anything—awaits us afterward, not to mention the fate of lost loved ones. Given the nearly universal vested interest we personally have in deciding this question in favor of an afterlife, it is no surprise that the vast majority of books on the topic affirm the reality of life after death without a backward glance. But the evidence of our senses and the ever-gaining strength of scientific evidence strongly suggest otherwise. Until recently emotion and emotional processing have been largely neglected by experimental psychology and neuroscience more generally. Emotion has adaptive and biological value for humans and other animals, and substantial psychological and neuroscientific evidence suggests that each emotion is localized in specific neural structures, and so souls or spirits are not needed to explain emotions or emotional processing held to be distinctive of a soul.

In The Myth of an Afterlife: The Case against Life after Death, Michael Martin and Keith Augustine collect a series of contributions that redress this imbalance in the literature by providing a strong, comprehensive, and up-to-date casebook of the chief arguments against an afterlife all in one place. Divided into four separate sections, this essay collection opens with a broad overview of the issues, as contributors consider the strongest available evidence as to whether or not we survive death—in particular the biological basis of all mental states and their grounding in brain activity that ceases to function at death. Next contributors consider a host of conceptual and empirical difficulties that face the various ways of “surviving” death—from bodiless minds to bodily resurrection to any form of posthumous survival. Then essayists turn to internal inconsistencies between traditional theological conceptions of an afterlife—Heaven, Hell, karmic rebirth—and widely held ethical principles central to the belief systems undergirding those notions. In the last section, authors offer critical evaluations of the main types of evidence for an afterlife.

Fully interdisciplinary, The Myth of an Afterlife: The Case against Life after Death brings together a variety of fields of research to make that case, including cognitive neuroscience, philosophy of mind, personal identity, philosophy of religion, moral philosophy, psychical research, and anomalistic psychology. As the definitive casebook of arguments against life after death, this collection is required reading for any instructor, researcher, and student in philosophy, religious studies, and theology. It is sure to raise provocative issues new to readers, regardless of background, from those who believe fervently in the reality of an afterlife to those who do not or are undecided on the matter.

The Myth of an Afterlife: The Case against Life After Death, Keith Augustine & Michael Martin (eds), Rowman & Littlefield (2015)

Written by mikemagee

13 April, 2015 at 2:01 pm

Is God Necessary for Moral Behaviour?

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Bonobo Consolation

Are we moral because we believe in God, or do we believe in God because we are moral?

Frans de Waal argues in his latest book that the answer is clearly the latter. The seeds for moral behavior preceded the emergence of our species by millions of years, and the need to codify that behavior so that all would have a clear blueprint for morality led to the creation of religion, he argues.

Most religious leaders would argue it’s the other way around: Our sense of what’s moral came from God, and without God there would be no morality.

More…

Written by mikemagee

22 April, 2013 at 12:11 am

Why are Christians so Ignorant of when Human Life Begins?

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First Breath

Christians are sorely mistaken about when human life begins, yet the bible tells believers in several places when a fœtus becomes a living being. It is not at the moment of conception as the pro-lifers have insisted for the last thirty years…, though not before!

The bible does not support the idea that God makes a human being at conception. Conception is when a living sperm from a male penetrates a living ovum in a woman forming a living fœtus, but it is wrong to think that, from then on, the fœtus is a living human being. The bible says a fœtus must draw a breath to become a living person with a soul.

It is clear. God formed the first man in Genesis 2:7, but Adam was not a living being until he had taken a breath. God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and it was then that the man became the living being” whom God named Adam.

There is nothing in the bible to indicate that a fœtus is considered to be anything other than living tissue and, according to scripture, it does not become a living being until after it has taken a breath. Thus Job 33:4, says:

The spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life.

Plainly, life is conferred not by the union of a sperm and an egg, but God’s breath. No one can be alive until they have gasped God’s breath—taken a breath. How does God revive the dead bones in Ezekiel? It cannot have anything to do with conception. Not at all, Ezekiel 37:5-6 states:

Thus says the Lord God to these bones, Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.

It is absolutely clear that God instils life into dead matter by His breath. Exodus 21:22 adds that if a man causes a woman to have a miscarriage, he shall be fined, but, if the woman dies then he will be put to death. The death of a fœtus is not equal to the death of an adult woman because the punishment for the abortion is merely a fine, whereas the death of the living woman was its equal—death! The bible does not class the death of the unborn infant as a capital offense.

The bible does not equate destroying a living fœtus with killing a living human being, even though we know the fœtus has the potential of becoming a human being. One can not kill something that has not been born and not yet taken a breath because it simply was not considered alive. Equally, a stillborn child could not be considered to be a living human being either. Of course, a mother will feel the loss because a fertilized egg has the potential of being born and therefore of becoming a living being. But sadly, not all of them do! Indeed, every living sperm has the potential of becoming a human being, although not one in a million will make it. The rest die, but it is absurd for a mother to grieve over all the potential children she could not have.

The Christian has to accept that God has provided for around a third of all pregnancies to be terminated by a spontaneous abortion during the first three months of pregnancy, and that some more will be terminated even after the first three months. Like it or not, God does not regard the loss of a fœtus any differently from the loss of a placenta or a foreskin, both of which were living tissues which grew from conception.

On the other hand, God made it plain that murder of a living being, one which had breathed a breath of air, was wrong. It was wrong to sacrifice one’s infant son, like Isaac. The Commandments say it is wrong to murder, and a judicial murder is justified only in particular circumstances that are far from common, and indeed Christ’s plain instruction is that such judgements should be left to God.

US Christians particularly get terribly exercised about abortion but have a psychotic inclination to condemn adults all too freely to often cruel deaths. They take a line diametrically opposed to the teachings of the bible, particularly the teachings of Christ, whose unmistakable message was one of love of others. Needless to say, murdering people is not loving them, though US Christians cannot see anything wrong in it.

In contrast, tissue that has no soul, until God breathes life into it, according to the bible, is defended as if it were Christ himself facing crucifixion anew. They really ought to discard their wicked pastors who teach them what suits them rather than Christian morals, and start to read the bible, especially, as Christians the New Testament, for themselves. Aborting a fœtus is not pleasant or optional, but it is not an equal sin to killing a living, breathing human being.

Written by mikemagee

3 November, 2012 at 1:20 am

Hindus/Moslems Have Less Pre- and Extramarital Sex than Christians/Jews

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Christian/Jewish and Hindu/Moslem Attitudes Towards Sex: Which is Stricter?

A new study, co-authored by Amy Adamczyk, associate professor of sociology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and Brittany Hayes, a doctoral candidate, analyzed data on premarital and extramarital sexual behaviors in over 30 developing countries around the world. It was inspired by Amy Adamczyk’s earlier work where she observed the differences in HIV/AIDS infection rates between predominantly Christian and Moslem nations in which Moslems had lower infection rates than Christians. Differences in sexual behaviors may help explain why Moslems tend to have lower prevalence rates of HIV/AIDS than residents of other countries. Adamczyk said:

One of the most surprising findings was that religious affiliations have a real influence on people’s sexual behaviors. Specifically, Moslem and Hindus are significantly less likely to report having had premarital sex than Christians and Jews. One of the novelties of our study is the analysis of behaviors rather than attitudes. While a lot of research attention has been given to understanding differences between the major world religions in adherents’ attitudes, much less attention has been given to understanding differences based on behaviors.

Moslems’ lower likelihood of premarital and extramarital sex is related to their commitment to, and community support for, strict religious tenets that permit sex only within marriage. But Islamic cultures influenced the sexual behaviors of all residents, even people who were not Moslems. Religion tends to have a more powerful effect than restrictions on women’s movement in many Moslem countries.

Written by mikemagee

27 October, 2012 at 8:27 pm

Poorer Voters Concerned with Economics not Religion until they Get a Bit Better Off

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Voter Turnout by Income

Analysis of voter presidential choice from two large surveys of voter choice and personal characteristics—from family income to race, gender and religious identity—allowed sociology professor, Thomas Hirschl, and statistics professor, James Booth, to identify the degree of polarization and its source in the population.

Hirschl said that upper income white Protestants, who believe the Bible is the literal word of God, have more than doubled their odds of voting Republican—from 2.7 GOP voters for every one Democratic voter in this group in 1980, to 6.1 for every one in 2008. Conversely, secularly minded, upper income white Protestants reversed their partisan preference, from 1.9 to 1 in favor of the Republican Party in 1980, to 2.2 to 1 in favor of the Democratics in 2008. A similar but nut less pronounced split happened among upper income white Catholics, albeit evident only in households that had a total income greater than $75,000 (2009) per year. Hirschl added:

There was no comparable trend among lower income white Protestants or Catholics. African-Americans remained loyal Democratic voters throughout the 28 year study period, regardless of their religious identity.

Rich and Poor States Voting

This study of three decades of voter choice has shown that the influence of religion on voter choice among upper income white Protestants and Catholics intensified in the years between the elections of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and Barack Obama in 2008. It suggests that religious identity strongly motivates upper income white voters, but not African-Americans or lower income whites. Poor people are less concerned with religion and politics that the richer middle classes, remaining more loyal to the Democratic party as the party of economic reform.

The trouble is that the graphs shown here suggest that when poor people get even quite marginally better off they think they are rich, and a fair proportion of them start to vote, though they might not have before, and start to vote Republican. It ought not to require any great intelligence to see that very many so called “middle class” voters are actually poor, and fool no one but themselves by pretending they are on a par with Mitt Romney. The GOP has no inclination to wake them up while they are dreaming the American Dream.

Written by mikemagee

26 October, 2012 at 4:37 pm

No Relationship Between the Level of Sacrificial Behaviour and Religiosity

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Sacrificing to God Game

Physorg.com reports that Professor Paul Frijters and World Bank economist Juan Baron, economists at the University of Queensland (UQ) and the World Bank in Washington found a pervading and persistent “default belief” among believers and nonbelievers in bargaining with the unknown, and it was greater in times of uncertainty. Professor Frijters said:

There seems to be a default belief that people can bargain with the unknown, and they need a lot of evidence to the contrary before it fades away. Much like some cultures dance for their gods in order to get rain, Western participants will spend money on problems even when that expenditure has no demonstrable effect. Even when witnessing hundreds of occasions where it made no difference, they keep sacrificing large portions of their income to the perceived source of the problem. Only if they personally experience dozens of disappointments will they slowly stop sacrificing.

Professor Frijters said the study was an important stepping stone towards a general theory of human behaviour that will be revealed in a book due later this year called An Economic Theory of Greed, Love, Groups, and Networks, to be published by Cambridge University Press.

In it, 500 participants played a game in which the price for the goods they “produced” was determined by a source of uncertainty called Theoi. Although the price was set completely at random for each of 20 rounds, the participants had the option of contributing some of their produced goods to Theoi. At the start, the average participant donated half of all production towards Theoi, even when there was no relationship between the level of sacrifice and the market price. Professor Frijters said:

Even after 20 rounds, the average participant still donated a quarter of all production. There were no participants who didn’t donate anything for all 20 rounds, and there were very few who didn’t donate anything the last 10 rounds. The wish to sacrifice was very strong. In an experiment where the level of sacrifice was set initially at 10 per cent, nearly all participants changed the level to much higher. Aggregate sacrifices were over 30 per cent of all takings in the main experiments, and only slightly lower if we didn’t use a human name for the uncertainty in price (like Theoi) or if we allowed participants to see what others experienced. Sacrifices only really dropped when the level of uncertainty was lower.

General findings were:

  • there was no relationship between the level of sacrificial behaviour and whether participants belonged to a recognised religion
  • engineering students donated more than economics students
  • participants who were selfish towards others were also less likely to sacrifice to Theoi.

The authors conclude that “any important source of uncertainty” will witness the development of a religion around it in which people sacrifice towards its perceived source.

While this is only a summary by an online agency of the paper, if it is at all accurate, the findings are terrible. The authors totally lack any scientific credibility on this evidence. Their choice of the word Theoi (Gods) suggests they had already a conclusion in their minds when they chose that as the name of this mysterious agent.

It seems the subjects’ knowledge of the mechanics of the game was simply that they could donate some of their money to Theoi (“a sacrifice”) before it decided upon their winnings. To be told that is to imply that the “sacrifice” might influence the outcome. It is therefore quite natural to any inquisitive human being to conduct a series of experiments to determine what the optimum “sacrifice” is. For most people it would simply be a matter of “suck it and see”, and in only 20 tries there is little chance for anything more sophisticated, anything approaching a scientific method. So, on the information provided in the summary, Professor Frijters and Juan Baron have presupposed an outcome—everyone believes in a supernatural agent, so must be at heart religious—and have not even been clever enough to disguise it, by using words like gods and sacrifice that give away their thinking. The subjects, whether atheists or believers are simply trying to get a clue about what strategy will give the best rewards in the game. The superimposition of gods and sacrifice are simply in the minds of the experimenter. One would hazard a guess that they are themselves religious believers!

Written by mikemagee

4 September, 2012 at 12:42 am