Friday, January 19, 2018

The Commentary of Fortunatianus

Some of our readers may already be aware of the recent publication in the “creative commons” of Fortunatianus’s (c. 300 – c. 360) long-lost Gospel commentary translated in English. This same commentator was the bishop of Aquileia during the Arian crisis, and influenced St. Jerome’s own scripture commentaries. He is also accused by Jerome of having pressured P. Liberius to concede to the heretics, although Jerome appears to be the only source of this accusation. (Fortunatianus himself calls Arianism a heresy when he writes on the first chapter of St. John’s Gospel [2925].)

In any case, the commentary remains an important historic text. The bishop’s exegesis is densely allegorical, as were many patristic commentaries. He identifies the four Evangelists with the four heavenly creatures of the Apocalypse, but in keeping with other early writers he identifies Mark as the Eagle and John as Lion:
Mark, observing the rule of prophecy, starts as follows: As is it written in Isaiah the prophet: Behold, I send my angel before your face. The Gospel according to Mark is therefore the face of an eagle, which is the likeness of the Holy Spirit. The prophets, when filled with this, prophesied continually. [10]
Fortunatianus’s references to the Gospel texts in Latin are quite different from Jerome’s later Vulgate, and even inconsistently rendered. He writes of an early and apparently very unpopular tradition that the Virgin Mary was martyred:
We believe that, in accordance with the prophecy of Simeon, she was put to death by the sword, because he said to her: And a sword will pass through your own soul. [355]
He is also a witness to the patristic tradition of St. Joseph’s first marriage:
For the reason that James and Jude are called the brothers of the Lord is undoubtedly not because they were born of Mary, but they were sons of Joseph from another wife. They were called the brothers of the Lord by normal custom because of Joseph, since he was from the same tribe, or Mary, since she was called the wife of Joseph. [360]
The talent and training for allegorical preaching is mostly lost in our time, and it is sometimes shocking to see the connections early commentators make within the Holy Writ. For instance, the mention of foxes and their dens in the eighth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel brings to mind Christ’s description of Herod as a fox and also the story of Samson burning the fields of his enemies with foxes:
Jesus said to him: Foxes have their holes. He calls heretical people foxes, just as he said of Herod, who was a Sadducee: Go, tell that fox: Leave it alone, I cast out demons. Foxes, he says, have their holes: for foxes, in order to feed, hide themselves in the deep earth, buried away in their holes. False people, heretics, who have earthly works and make dark and shady little gatherings for themselves, are similar to foxes. For Samson, too, having captured some foxes, tied firebrands, meaning torches, to their tails and set fire to their entire harvests and vineyards[...] showed because the tail is the outermost part of the body. Having taken a torch, it sets fire to the crops and vineyards, plainly through wicked preaching. [1140]
Gregory the Great’s magisterial commentary on the book of Job would run along similar lines of allegory and animal symbolism. One is hard-pressed to find anything similar in the last few centuries, arguably because of St. Thomas’s insistence on the primacy of the literal meaning.

For the modern reader, the Commentary of Fortunatianus will be more edifying when used as an occasional reference than as a systematic work of exegesis. His writing is dense and often alien to our sensibilities. It is what one friend of mine calls “holographically interesting,” in that each small part of it seems to contain an entire world. Our forebears had faith that could see the mountain in the grain of sand. In every action and word, the God-Man enfolded many teachings, prophecies, and explanations of things past. Preachers take note!


  1. Rev. Ethelred Taunton's exegetical commentary on the entire Little Office of the BVM, verse by verse, published in 1903, has the same quality to it. E.g. "de torrente in via vivet" in Ps 109, is interpreted among other things as symbolic of the Incarnation, when Our Lord drinks of the torrent of our humanity passing through history.

  2. Modern historical criticism, or at least its agnostic 20th century form, has made the defenders of Sacred Scripture justifiably quick to affirm its historicity, which has perhaps made us lose sight of the fact that Scripture can be and is true on many levels: historical, allegoric, typological, and prophetic.

  3. J.,
    Greetings! Regarding the assertion that allegorical interpretations became rare "arguably because of St. Thomas’s insistence on the primacy of the literal meaning": do you mean that the literal meaning of the words is not primary, in the sense of the first thing in the intellect? Or do you mean that St. Thomas held that other meanings were less important because not primary?

    I admit I'm at a loss as to where to search out St. Thomas's teaching on the secondary importance of the allegorical or other non-literal interpretations of Scripture. His best-known explanation, in the Summa (I, q. 1, a. 10), seems to place the literal sense in the lowest (though still honored) rank.

    I have to agree with The Rad Trad's implication that Higher Criticism has reduced so much of biblical commentary to wrangling over concrete, literal meanings: "Did the Temple exist? Did David exist?" and the like.

    1. Thomas may well be correct about the primacy of the literal meaning, but when reading patristic commentaries one cannot easily think that most of them were more concerned about the literal than the spiritual senses.

      I am not sure about Thomas placing the literal sense in the lowest rank: "For all the senses are founded on one — the literal — from which alone can any argument be drawn, and not from those intended in allegory.... Nothing necessary to faith is contained under the spiritual sense which is not elsewhere put forward by the Scripture in its literal sense." I think Thomas sees all the other senses as flowing from and dependent upon the literal sense. How would this not make the literal greater than all the other senses combined?

    2. J.,
      Quoad nos the literal sense is the most important, namely because it informs our intellect directly and is necessary for the intellect to be informed, secondarily, by a spiritual sense. However, in se the spiritual sense is higher because it concerns the fulfillment of prophecy in Christ, the flowering of grace in glory, and so forth, rather than the mere foreshadowing or promise of these things.

      For anyone reading who might be unfamiliar with St. Thomas's use of "literal" and "spiritual" senses of Scripture: the literal is the fact, history, or image directly conveyed either in the Old Testament in reference to the New; in the New in reference to Christ; or in either Testament in reference to the life of grace (morale sense) or the life of the world to come (anagogic sense). Keeping those in mind, it's easier to understand why St. Thomas (and others) state that whatever is expounded in a spiritual sense of Scripture is expounded elsewhere in the literal sense.