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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)


Written by mikemagee

4 September, 2017 at 3:27 pm

BBC Documentary: What Darwin Didn’t Know

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An excellent BBC programme with Professor Armand Leroi explaining evolution. Professionally presented and widely recommended.

Written by mikemagee

10 July, 2012 at 9:39 pm

The God Debates, a New Team Blog on WordPress

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A Goddess of Pure Goodness and Innocence

Hugo Gatsby, the leader of a new team blog, the God debates, on, says his aim is to provide high quality discussion on important questions, drawing on a panel of eleven others. So far, there is not much there but he and his team have been diligently posting on other relevant blogs including this one to create interest, and they have succeeded. In return I made a couple of comments on the discussion on their page called Recommendations, unfortunately but predictably, being taken over by the tedious ignorance of the creationists. Hugo will have to curtail this dreary, mindless fundamentalism if he is to achieve the “Genuinely Intelligent Discussion on Theological Questions” his subhead promises.

These are the two relevant points I made…

Good and Evil

We all are serving someone or something—a good question to reflect upon would be—who or what are you following and what defines your purpose? Every person acts in their own best interest… there are “Good” and non-destructive ways to act in your own self interest and the interest of others and there “Evil” and destructive ways to act in your own self interest and the interest of others… choose wisely my friends.

Comment at The God Debates

We are all serving two things ultimately. Our own interests, and other people’s interests. If all of us choose to serve only our own interests then society must collapse because society is a way for people to serve each other. We would revert to being solitary animals, mutually antagonistic, scared, timid, primitive.

By serving other people’s interests we are helping to preserve society, and by so doing we are helping ourselves, the point of society being mutual aid, and therefore being served by carers and sharers, receiving the empathy and security of our fellows, cooperation, help, companionship, and so on in the complex of practical assistance and emotions called love. What is “good” preserves this benevolent system, and what is “evil” harms it.

The choice is the entirety of morality, and requires no supernatural being, merely the response of society, approval or disapproval, praise, admiration and reward for doing good, and disgust, condemnation and punishment for being wicked.

Traditional religion provided these responses, but modern society uses democratic means of selecting its representatives, so that supermen are not needed. One therefore has no need to choose between belief in a god or not, because it is irrelevant provided that everyone accepts that religion is a private matter.

Arguably, religion always has been a set of myths to exemplify the practical choice we have and to encourage the choice of the Good. The Persian religion, from which much of Judaism and Christianity comes, came down to choosing to follow the good god, Ahuramazda, or the bad god, Ahriman, in the course of one’s life, expressed as choosing the Truth or the Lie. All the rest is a metaphorical or allegorical illustration of our choice.


A-theist… “no god” or “without god”. Curious way to describe one’s self. Defined by opposition to something or someone you say doesn’t exist anyway. Why all the fuss over those who do believe? If there is no god, then why not let others believe what they want and leave them be? Why the “compulsion” to not only define yourself by what you don’t believe, but also convince others not to either? Sounds too much like “proselytizing” to convert people to the “non-religion” religion. Could it be that Atheism is actually a religion of no religion?

Comment at The God Debates

Surely you have noticed that atheism is a word used by theists, not one chosen by the atheists themselves. The proper distinction is between skeptic and believer. Skeptics require tried and tested evidence for them to believe, but believers make belief itself without the need of adequate evidence a virtue–faith! It is obvious that faith is no virtue but a scam when you realize that an equal faith could have you believing in fairies and goblins, alien abduction, Dionysus, Cthulhu, Dagon and so on. Indeed, the Hebrew god is quite likely to be their version of Dagon!

Lastly, the atheists have no love of trying to persuade believers of the errors of their ways, but do so because they are acutely aware of what the believers cannot seem to notice, the horrible consequences of religion in the world. Religions overwhelmingly want to be right and show it by making everyone accept their set of dogmata. It is hard to comprehend that people are so blind that they are completely unaware of their own faults, while blaming anyone else they can. The self righteousness induced by religion is among its worst features.

Killing Darwin to Accommodate Cow Country Christians

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The evangelical cow country messiahs since the nineteenth century say: “If you meet Charles Darwin in your travels, kill him”.

Pace the ninth century Buddhist master, Lin Chi, for cow country Christians, it is more important to eliminate their challengers as Devils than it is to face up to them as humans, notwithstanding the Ten Commandments. The reason is that they know they have no answer for them, so it is far better to eliminate them! Darwin proposed a theory of evolution, and because Christians are better at eliminating people than their ideas, they have ever since called it Darwinism—so for 150 years Charles Darwin has been the chief Christian Devil. Sadly for the evangelical messiahs, the theory of evolution has been so successful that Darwin no longer stands alone, defended by a solitary bulldog—he has innumerable bulldogs, or Devils as those with the ghastly antennae call them.

Carl Safina, a MacArthur fellow, and adjunct professor at Stony Brook University, writes in The New York Times:

Equating evolution with Charles Darwin ignores 150 years of discoveries, including…

  • Gregor Mendel’s patterns of heredity—which gave Darwin’s idea of natural selection a mechanism, genetics, by which it could work
  • the discovery of DNA—which gave genetics a mechanism and lets us see evolutionary lineages
  • developmental biology—which gives DNA a mechanism
  • studies documenting evolution in nature—which converted the hypothetical to observable fact
  • evolution’s role in medicine and disease—bringing immediate relevance to the topic.
Carl Safina

Which is to mention the most obvious additions and improvements made to the theory. So “Darwinism” as a word for the theory of evolution is so misleading it is no longer correct. The theory of evolution is not the guess of one man as the cow country messiahs pretend, and nor is it one theory, but it is a series of related hypotheses, each of which has been thoroughly tested and not found wanting. The theory of evolution encompasses all these ideas and ones not mentioned, so that it stands on several legs, all of which are solid and sound.

Almost everything we understand about evolution came after Darwin, not from him. He knew nothing of heredity or genetics, both crucial to evolution.

Carl Safina

Gregor Mendel, an Austrian monk, discovered that in pea plants inheritance of individual traits followed patterns. His religious superiors tried to “kill” Mendel, burning his papers posthumously in 1884. But Mendel’s “genetics” complemented Darwin’s natural selection and exlained how it worked yielding the “modern synthesis” in the 1920s. James Watson and Francis Crick using Rosalind Franklin’s X-ray diffraction data obtained in Maurice Wilkins’ laboratory, then made a huge advance by proposing the correct structure of DNA, the molecule that shows how variation and inheritance happen.

Safina decided all this constituted a good enough set of reasons for us to do the evangelical holy joes’ job for them:

Making a master teacher into a sacred fetish misses the essence of his teaching. So let us now kill Darwin.

Charles Darwin didn’t invent a belief system. He had an idea, not an ideology. The idea spawned a discipline, not disciples. He spent 20 plus years amassing and assessing the evidence and implications of similar, yet differing, creatures separated in time (fossils) or in space (islands). That’s science.

Carl Safina

Darwin got an amazing amount right considering he did his work without knowing any of this, and before even microbes had been discovered, and medical men still had no idea what caused disease, when ships still had sails, when railways were a novelty, and long before the Wright brothers had defied gravity to fly the first aeroplane, before even Neanderthal man had been found and named, and even before the South had seceded from the Union, let alone that Lee had surrendered to Grant at the Appomattox Courthouse.

Indeed it was before the cow country messiahs even had a cow country!

Quiet, Reflective, Christian Thinking on Science and Religion

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The Rev Brenda Freije, Pastor for discipleship and formation, North United Methodist Church, Indianapolis

Science and Religion: Word Frequency 1800-Present

As a United Methodist pastor, I am part of a Christian tradition that looks to Scripture, church tradition, critical thinking and relevant experience to reflect on God and make decisions about life in relationship to our Scriptures. Within this framework, there is plenty of room for science, including the science of evolution. What can be measured and tested and studied through scientific methods informs my theology, and my theology informs how I understand the results of that scientific method. I am not an expert on other faith traditions, but I imagine that many of them could make similar claims.

The Scriptures are ancient writings crafted over centuries. The truths they contain are timeless and require attention and study to appreciate. One needs to be careful not to read the ancient writings as if reading a twentyfirst century newspaper article. The story of God is not so easily contained or summarized.

Problems arise when one confuses religion and science and tries to read the Bible as if it were a precise recounting of history. The two creation stories in Genesis at the very beginning of the Bible, which tell very different stories about how the world was formed, should be enough to give one pause. There is tremendous wisdom and sound advice in the Scriptures, and I believe the teachings in the Bible, if honestly followed, will be a source of joy, peace, love and life not only for the follower but also for the follower’s community.

Science and religion ask different questions and apply different methods of study. This doesn’t make them incompatible. It does make them distinct. Claims about God as the creator of life are claims of faith. Claims that there is no divine power behind the created order are claims of a different kind of faith. It is the role of parents and our communities of faith to teach about these claims and to help our children think critically about the science they are learning.


Written by mikemagee

11 February, 2012 at 10:48 pm

The Story of the Evidence for Darwin’s Theory of Evolution

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According to polling data, most Americans doubt that evolution is true, and many biology courses and textbooks dwell on the mechanisms of evolution—natural selection, genetic drift, and gene flow—but see no reason to repeat the evidence for. How do we know that species change?

In a slim volume, The Evidence for Evolution, University of Chicago (2011), University of Utah anthropologist, Alan R Rogers, fills in pieces that were missing from Darwin’s argument. He aims to answer persistent and inaccurate arguments against evolution with scientific evidence that was not available in Charles Darwin’s day.

Rogers points out that Darwin didn’t know about genetics, continental drift or the age of the Earth. He had never seen a species change. He had no idea whether it was even possible for a species to divide into two. He knew of no transitional fossils and of almost no human fossils. Rogers says:

[Later] evidence might have gone the other way. It might have refuted Darwin’s theory, but instead we have 150 years of evidence all of which supports his theory. My book tells the story of these discoveries.

Rogers has been teaching courses on evolution since the 1980s. Mostly, he didn’t say much about the evidence that evolution actually happens, feeling the issue was settled scientifically more than a century ago, and anyone interested could read the original books like The Origin of Species. The emphasis for today’s students was on what was still not properly known and what had been newly discovered. Classes and textbooks emphasize the aspects of evolution that are being actively researched. Rogers changed his approach in 2006 after he read a poll reporting that only about half of Americans believe humans evolved:

It occurred to me after reading this poll that it didn’t make much sense to teach students about the intricacies of evolution if they don’t believe that evolution happens in the first place. So, I decided that my introductory classes henceforth were going to have a week or two on the evidence for evolution, and I started looking for a text.

Rogers determined to write an “easy to read” book that gave modern support for evolution, without it being either too advanced or taking too much for granted:

I’m trying to convince skeptics that evolution really happened. If they’re skeptics, then as soon as I get to the point where I say, “trust me”, they’re going to say “no. The reason I’m skeptical is because I don’t trust you”.

Rogers hopes The Evidence for Evolution will encourage readers to think critically. He thinks it will be valuable to evolution skeptics as well as those already convinced. Evolutionists should be prepared to offer evidence when challenged, and even people familiar with biology will have something to learn. Despite spending 30 years studying evolution, Rogers still found material that was new to him.

All scientists are skeptics if they’re any good, but they’re not stubborn about it. In science, you have to be able to change your mind when confronted with evidence. It seems to me that learning that skill is important, not only for scientists, but for everybody. It makes us better citizens.

With The Evidence for Evolution, Alan R Rogers provides a straightforward text that gives the evidence for evolution. He gives the creationists’ arguments and offers the best evidence to counter them. He covers changes within species, which are much easier to see and believe, to much larger ones, such as from fish to amphibians, or from land mammals to whales. For each case, he explains evidence illustrating the changes, including fossils, DNA, and radioactive isotopes. His comprehensive treatment stresses recent advances in knowledge but also shows how we can be sure.

Alan Rogers addresses the political controversy over the theory of evolution—there’s no longer any scientific controversy—in the best scientific spirit—with evidence and logic. For anyone with an open mind, a curiosity about the natural world, and a desire to see controversies settled with evidence rather than rhetoric, this is an invaluable contribution and a fascinating read.

Steven Pinker, Harvard University

Written by mikemagee

8 June, 2011 at 10:33 pm

The Warfare of Science and Religion Today—Brian Cox

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Brian Cox by Vincent Connare

Brian Cox, the celebrity particle physicist and professor at The University of Manchester, says at Science and Religion Today that he’s fighting maniacs not religion. Brian is the former rock star astronomer who presents science and astronomy features on TV.

There is a lot of goodwill toward scientists among the religious communities in this country. I met the dean of Guildford Cathedral when I was an atheist on a panel and we… became good friends. I also recently got invited to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s house because he liked “Wonders of the Solar System”. Rowan Williams is a very thoughtful man. If you want to move society forward in a more rational direction, religious leaders can be useful because they share that view.

Brian Cox admits he considers it quite acceptable to be anti-Creationism—his anti-maniac—but being “anti-religion is not helpful”. Maniacs ignore all the scientific evidence that the world was created more than four billion years ago, and choose to believe—on no more evidence than that someone told them the bible is the word of God—that it says the world was made only 6,000 years ago. It is all right to say such a one is an idiot, or is insane, but trying to wage an atheistic war against all religion is an effort that ought not to be made.

One imagines that there must be more to justify Cox’s position, but this blog does not give it, so it appears there as a rather poor argument. Maybe the battle need not always be fought whenever a scientist meets a cleric, but it is only a polite suspension of battle orders for social reasons. Brian has met a couple of pleasant clergymen who are not as strident as the Discovery Institute at plugging Genesis, so we ought to abandon essential scientific principles in future contact with such nice old codgers. Old fashioned Church of England clergymen still consider nice to be part of their job description. Anglicans used to be generally nice, they were famously tolerant, but now the Evangelicals have taken over!

Brian Cox is skipping differences that cannot be reconciled between science and religion as world outlooks:

  • Religion requires gullible people to be able to sell nonsense. Science requires skeptical people to question everything.
  • Science honestly deals with the material world of observable phenomena, and the consequences of it. Religion is no different, but dishonestly pretends to deal with a fancied supernatural world, and invisible things.
  • Science only considers acceptable what has been repeatedly tested and confirmed. Religion tells tall stories such as that of the eternal life after death, as if they were absolute truth, though no clergyman knows these stories to be true. Again, it is dishonesty.

Had Brian tried engaging his clerical chums in a serious discussion of metaphysics, epistemology and ontology, he must inevitably have ended up exasperated. They can no longer admit that much of the allegedly ancient parts of the bible—Christians seem to believe the bible is God’s timeline, like a divine diary—is mythical, and indeed has been shown to be substantially the same as even older myths from other Ancient Near Eastern countries like Babylonia. Their members, already getting thin on the ground and increasingly fundamentalist and intolerant force them to spout the inerrant line, or try to hedge their bets so as not to offend one side or other of the battle within Anglican ranks.

Brian Cox should take care whom he trusts. Many an innocent traveler has walked along a lonely road with someone they did not know, and woken up sore, cold and walletless. The footpad might not be the present Archbishop of Canterbury or Bishop of Guildford, but to think that men who put their own trust in a figment, and opportunistically will take the most convenient line to keep their congregations rather than correcting their false ideas, will not metaphorically mug you is pure naïveté.

Written by mikemagee

4 April, 2011 at 9:27 pm