Students of fourth-century Latin writers have had to be content with three small excerpts from a larger commentary on Matthew (in CCSL 9.367-70) by Fortunatianus of Aquileia until now. In October 2012, Lukas J. Dorfbauer encountered an anonymous gospel commentary in Codex 17 of the Cologne Cathedral Library. Thought to have been copied in the Rhineland in the first third of the ninth century, this parchment codex consists of 103 pages written in a most Carolingian miniscule script. Dorfbauer recognized in the preface of the commentary the third extract, which was followed by a long list of chapter titles that corresponded to Jerome’s description of Fortunatianus’ work (Jerome, De viris illustribus 97).
This commentary not only covers Matthew but also includes portions of text from Luke (2-5) and copious comments on all of John 1 and as far as 2:11. There are gaps in the Matthew commentary, partly because of corruptions of the parchment and partly because patristic commentary did not yet regularly move consecutively, passage by passage. Nonetheless, it is striking that Fortunatianus saw fit to forgo comment on the Lord’s Prayer, most of the Beatitudes and Jesus’ transformation. As for Matthew 5-7, our author may have thought, along with Hilary of Poitiers in his commentary on Matthew, that there was no need to cover these, since Tertullian and Cyprian had done the job so thoroughly. Besides these gaps, most of chapter 16 is missing, as is all of 17. Matthew 22 is bypassed. The bulk of Matthew 27 is not treated, and the whole commentary ends at Matthew 27:51. Fortunatianus does not use the familiar chapters to divide the text; rather, the gospel is divided into 127 sections, and thus many of these are only a few sentences long.
Figural or allegorical exegesis predominates in the interpretation in a way that is similar to the extant passages of Victorinus of Poetovio. The over-arching concern in the author’s understanding of Matthew is how the rest of the NT and the OT supply similar words or events or people. Scripture interprets Scripture. But of all the commentaries produced from the second to the fourth centuries, including the Pseudo-Cyprian texts, none are freer than or as colorful as Fortunatianus in the use of spiritual exegesis. Fortunatianus offers something like a principle at the beginning of his Matthew commentary: “the series of old scriptures pays attention to what is new, and whatever the Old Testament contains figuratively the new has fulfilled through the reason of truth” (p. 7). In actuality, the New Testament contains just as many figurative possibilities. Mountains, towns, boats, sheep and hens are figures of the church, as are some female figures such as Eve, the queen of Sheba, the girl raised from the dead in Matthew 9 and so on. The sea is the world; references to darkness, the desert, sterility, disease or misunderstanding are taken to represent Judaism. Figures of Christ are everywhere: the spring of water in Eden, a rock, the sun, a lion, a calf, both lambs and chickens offered as sacrifices, the flower on Aaron’s staff and many others.
A delightful example of Fortunatianus’ creativity is his treatment of the walnut—all in a single passage—which he says sprouted from Aaron’s rod (not almonds) (Num. 17:6). The walnut has multiple levels of figurative meaning that the careful reader should seek out. Divided into its four sections, the walnut signifies the gospels, as well as being a figure of the cross; the taste of the walnut shows the passion of Christ while the “wood” of the walnut signifies the wood of the cross. Moreover, the walnut can be broken into two halves which reveal the two testaments, and the outside of the shell, which has bitter bark, represents the iniquity of the Jews (p. 35).
Lest the reader think that Fortunatianus makes only figurative comparisons, there are moments of stark literality. He remarks, for example, that Simeon’s prophecy to Mary in the temple—“a sword will pass through your own soul” (Luke 2:35)—shows that Mary would perish by the sword (p. 13; 96). No other patristic commentator follows this track.
Fortunatianus is not an easy bishop to characterize, historically or theologically. He signed for Athanasius and Marcellus at Serdica (AD 343), but refused to do so at the council of Milan (AD 355). He must have signed the Homoian creed at Ariminum; however, Fortunatianus takes a clear pro-Nicene position in this commentary. One is justified is assuming that Fortunatianus was one of those bishops who subscribed at Ariminum but later took advantage of the repentance offered to western bishops which Eusebius of Vercelli brought back from the council of Alexandria (AD 363). That he finally adopted a pro-Nicene position is most clearly reflected in his statement about John 1: “the Son of God who is always God with God the Father.” Fortunatianus does use “created” language to define the Son’s generation, but this usage stems from his citation of Proverbs 8:22. In the end, the Son is our God while also true God from true God, true Son from the true Father, light from light, born of the unbegotten Father, not made (p. 103). Without his commentary, we would never have known that Jerome’s indictment of Fortunatianus as an “Arian” tells only a part of this bishop’s story.
Missing from what is an otherwise fine translation is any discussion of the dating of the work. Since two later pro-Nicene bishops used the commentary with no reservations, it can be assumed that Fortunatianus wrote it after his exoneration, which places it some time after the council of Alexandria in 362.