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Does a recently discovered ancient commentary on the gospels mean the early Church didn't take the Bible literally? Peter D Williams responds.
Welcome to August - the 'silly season' of the year when journalists have less to write about while MPs are on 'summer recess'.
Despite this quiet period, the newspapers still have plenty of pages to fill. Unfortunately they sometimes resort to churning out daft stories on Christianity that reveal their own profound religious illiteracy.
The latest example of this was a report yesterday in the Daily Telegraph, about a recently discovered 4th century manuscript of a text written by Fortunatianus of Aquileia, an African-born Italian bishop. This is a lovely find, as it constitutes the earliest Latin commentary on the Gospels we now have.
This could (and should) have been interesting enough, but what headlined the article was not this historical discovery, but the gloss given by the academic who translated it. The Telegraph reports that Dr. Hugh Houghton, an historian at Birmingham University, has stated that this commentary, "interprets the Gospels as a series of allegories instead of a literal history", and supports "the idea that many early biblical scholars did not see the Bible as a history, but instead a series of coded messages which represented key elements of Christianity".
This false dichotomy is obvious to anyone with an ounce of historical knowledge in this area.
To be even vaguely familiar with the early Church Fathers (the first few generations of Christian theologians and leaders after the Apostles) is to know that the early Church interpreted the Holy Scriptures according to four dimensions:
The first was the 'literal': not a simplistic and shallow 'literalism', but the 'literary' sense according to the intentions of the author. This includes the genre of the text (such as history like 1 or 2 Kings, or biography like the Gospels), literary devices used etc. The last three were the 'allegorical' (a secondary hidden meaning), the 'anagogical' (to do with the Last Things, or afterlife), and the ‘tropological’ (moral). None of this is new.
The last three senses however, never excluded the literal sense. Take the story of David and Goliath in 1 Samuel 17. On the literal level, this is the story of how David defeated Goliath, the champion of the Philistines, by his faith in God. Yet we also interpret David allegorically as a prefigurement of the defeat by Christ over sin and the Devil. We can also take the story of David and Goliath anagogically, as prefiguring the ultimate defeat of evil at the end of time, or tropologically, as an example of how we should stand courageously against the Goliaths of our own lives: sin, the flesh, and the evil we encounter.
That there are allegorical interpretations to the Scriptures then is strikingly unoriginal. Yet the literal and allegorical senses go side-by-side, not in opposition to each other. By allegorically appreciating the story of David and Goliath, we do not deny the literal historical truth of it.
To suggest that the allegorical interpretation of Holy Scripture by Christians somehow implicitly denies their historicity is just silly. Yet many journalists, as perhaps with many of their readers, do not know this, or else do not care. What apparently generates articles in the mainstream media, and gets academics noticed, is anything that will be seen as 'controversial' by its denial of the truth of Christian revelation.
The challenge for Christians is to be well-educated enough in Holy Scripture and Christian history, that they can be ready to point out this ignorance, and use it as a teaching moment for the veracity and richness of the Word of God.
Peter D. Williams is a Christian apologist and author, and a speaker for Catholic Voices
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