A recent discovery which has attracted some press is reaffirming what many of us already knew: that the Bible should not be read literally.
The discovery and translation of the earliest known Latin commentary on the Christian Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John (Mark is not included) has given new insight on the reliance of early church leaders on allegorical readings of the Bible. The 4th century Catholic Bishop Fortunatianus wrote the commentary, which predates St. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible. That makes this discovery an important bridge between the original Greek versions of the gospels, and the later Latin versions accepted by the Catholic Church.
The text had been lost for 1,200 years in the Cologne Cathedral Library until Lukas Dorfbauer, from the University of Salzburg found it. Dr. Hugh Houghton from Birmingham University later translated the text and has published it online.
In discussing the allegorical interpretation Fortunatianus favored, Houghton gives an example of a passage where Jesus enters a village, and the village stands for the church. Fortunatianus also writes that the number 12 always refers to the disciples and the number five always refers to the Pentateuch, the books of Jewish law.
Houghton goes on to say that, “An exclusive focus on literal interpretation is a modern phenomenon, because that’s not the way ancient Christians read the Bible.” When the printing press was invented in the mid-15th century, copies of the Bible were able to be printed identically. This, Houghton 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.”
As Houghton says, early Christians often read their Bible allegorically. And despite the way that some media outlets are spinning the discovery of this lost text, we have known this for quite some time. Even before Christianity arrived on the scene there were ancient Jewish writers, like the ones who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, who engaged in an ancient form of scriptural interpretation known as the Pesharim. The Pesharim were commentaries by Jews attempting to divine deeper meanings from the scriptures that were not apparent from a literal reading, sometimes by reading different scriptures and seeing hidden connections between them. Their commentaries were heavily dependent on not reading the old scriptures literally.
We also have writings from other early Christians besides Fortunatianus who read the scriptures allegorically. Origen of Alexandria wrote quite a bit on the topic. He relied on what he called a “spiritual understanding” of the gospels. Origen thought that anyone who failed to understand the Bible allegorically had a “veil” over their heart.
So while this is certainly an exciting find for Biblical historians and it sheds a lot more light on the early development of the Bible tradition, the revelation that we should not read the Bible literally comes as no surprise to many of us. Now if only we could convince the Evangelicals…