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Earliest known Latin commentary on the Gospels published in English for the first time

St Jerome by Caravaggio (Wikimedia Commons)

The earliest known Latin commentary on the Gospels was published in English this week, after a university researcher traced a manuscript’s content back to St Jerome’s writings in the fourth century.

The biblical commentary, by Italian bishop Fortunatianus of Aquileia, was widely thought to have been lost or destroyed, but scholars knew of its existence from St Jerome’s Lives of Famous Men in the fourth century.

The 160-page document, dating back to 800 AD, was known to the academic world since Dr Lukas Dorfbauer, a researcher at the University of Salzburg, discovered it in 2012 as part the Cologne Cathedral Library’s digitisation, but its biblical content had been overlooked.

Dr Dorfbauer then cross-checked some of its contents to St Jerome’s writings on Fortunatianus in the fourth century. After establishing the link, he worked with Hugh Houghton, reader in New Testament Textual Scholarship at the University of Birmingham, to prepare an English translation of his full Latin edition of the commentary, the first ever to be produced.

“Astonishingly, despite being copied four centuries after the last reference to his Gospel commentary, this manuscript seemed to preserve the original form of Fortunatianus’ groundbreaking work,” Hugh Houghton, reader in New Testament Textual Scholarship at the University of Birmingham.

“I was able to compare the biblical quotations in the Cologne manuscript with our extensive databases,” he said.

“Parallels with texts circulating in northern Italy in the middle of the 4th century offered a perfect fit with the context of Fortunatianus,” he said, according to the Conversation.

The 160-chapter commentary mainly focuses on the Gospel of Matthew, but also includes brief references to the gospels of Mark, Luke and John.

“Such a discovery is of considerable significance to our understanding of the development of Latin biblical interpretation, which went on to play such an important part in the development of Western thought and literature,” Houghton said.

The rediscovered Latin commentary from Fortunatianus now replaces the Vulgate as the earliest known Latin commentary of the Gospels.

The Vulgate was translated from Hebrew and Aramaic into Latin by St Jerome between 382-405, and was known as the earliest form of written Latin commentary of the Gospels.