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Sunday, September 03, 2017

Interpreting the Bible Just Got More Complicated



"... 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 view these stories them 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 twelve is always a reference to the twelve disciples; the number five is a symbol of the five books of the Pentateuch, or Jewish law; and the number ninety-nine (an imperfect version of 100) is a symbol of evil and the Jews (I take no responsibility for his anti-Judaism).

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...."

Interpreting the Bible Just Got More Complicated

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