Recently, the media have been reporting a genuinely important textual find that is significant for the critical study of the Bible. Unfortunately, the reporting of this story is a classic demonstration of what happens when journalists try to find something exciting and controversial to say about a sober academic report – no matter how ridiculous those claims happen to be.
The story concerns a pioneering Latin commentary on the Gospels by the mid-fourth century bishop Fortunatianus of Aquileia. Although the text had an excellent reputation in its time, it was lost until the present day, when it was rediscovered in a ninth century manuscript. What initially appeared to be a commentary from around 800 turned out to be the much more venerable and significant work from around 350. Through the excellent scholarship of Dr. Hugh Houghton, a translation is now easily available online. This was a scholarly coup of the first order.
So if you are a desperate journalist, how do you make this interesting or attractive to a popular audience that, generally, is unlikely to exclaim “Oh my Lord, they have found the long lost commentary of Fortunatianus!”
“Surely not the one Jerome referenced in De Viris Illustribus?”
“The very same.”
“I never thought I would live to see the day!”
So what do you do? If you are the British Daily Telegraph, you run a tendentious and thoroughly inaccurate story entitled “ ‘Don’t take the Bible literally’ says scholar who brought to light earliest Latin analysis of the Gospels.” That can then be recycled internationally under headlines such as “Discovery Shows Early Christians Didn’t Always Take the Bible Literally.”
I am reluctant to quote too much of what is purportedly credited to Houghton himself, as I know how easily remarks are taken out of context, but according to the Telegraph report, what we should take away from the find is that early Christians read the Bible symbolically and allegorically:
[Houghton] said that the Bible had to be “understood in the context that the authors were working in.” The approach differs from the trend of biblical literalism adopted by modern evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, which interprets the Bible as the literal word of God which is not open to interpretation. This has been the basis for beliefs such as the idea that the earth is 6,000 years old and that it was created in seven days. Modern archaeologists have also used the Bible to search for evidence about the life of Jesus, with mixed success.
I’m trying, none too successfully, to avoid heavy sarcasm here, but the journalistic framing is outrageous. Note, I am not blaming Houghton. I believe he made the sensible remark about understanding authorial context, but not anything that comes afterwards in this farrago. I am certain sure he did not proclaim “Don’t take the Bible literally!”
In passing, note the suggestion that any and all statements in the Bible are equally inaccurate historically, whether we are referring to a six day creation or any statements that purport to tell us about the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth. It’s all allegorical!
What anyone who ever studied church history knows is that early Christians read the Bible at multiple levels, including a historical and scientific level, but also the allegorical frame. That is familiar from works like the Epistle of Barnabas, from Origen, and a few thousand other texts. In such writings, any Biblical reference to wood can probably be read to imply the Cross, while water is always baptism, or else the blood of Christ. That was one level. At other levels, you also found in the Bible literal historical statements, as well as statements of doctrine or morality intended to be binding on later generations. You can then argue about exactly how credible the history is, but there is no doubt that some authors at least were making claims they believed to represent objective truth.
The amazingly novel discovery in this news story is thus that some fourth century Christians read the Bible in allegorical ways. No, that is not going to shake the foundations of faith. Or indeed, surprise anyone with any knowledge whatever of the subject.
The Telegraph should be ashamed.