In any case, the commentary remains an important historic text. The bishop’s exegesis is densely allegorical, as were many patristic commentaries. He identifies the four Evangelists with the four heavenly creatures of the Apocalypse, but in keeping with other early writers he identifies Mark as the Eagle and John as Lion:
Mark, observing the rule of prophecy, starts as follows: As is it written in Isaiah the prophet: Behold, I send my angel before your face. The Gospel according to Mark is therefore the face of an eagle, which is the likeness of the Holy Spirit. The prophets, when filled with this, prophesied continually. Fortunatianus’s references to the Gospel texts in Latin are quite different from Jerome’s later Vulgate, and even inconsistently rendered. He writes of an early and apparently very unpopular tradition that the Virgin Mary was martyred:
We believe that, in accordance with the prophecy of Simeon, she was put to death by the sword, because he said to her: And a sword will pass through your own soul. He is also a witness to the patristic tradition of St. Joseph’s first marriage:
For the reason that James and Jude are called the brothers of the Lord is undoubtedly not because they were born of Mary, but they were sons of Joseph from another wife. They were called the brothers of the Lord by normal custom because of Joseph, since he was from the same tribe, or Mary, since she was called the wife of Joseph. The talent and training for allegorical preaching is mostly lost in our time, and it is sometimes shocking to see the connections early commentators make within the Holy Writ. For instance, the mention of foxes and their dens in the eighth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel brings to mind Christ’s description of Herod as a fox and also the story of Samson burning the fields of his enemies with foxes:
Jesus said to him: Foxes have their holes. He calls heretical people foxes, just as he said of Herod, who was a Sadducee: Go, tell that fox: Leave it alone, I cast out demons. Foxes, he says, have their holes: for foxes, in order to feed, hide themselves in the deep earth, buried away in their holes. False people, heretics, who have earthly works and make dark and shady little gatherings for themselves, are similar to foxes. For Samson, too, having captured some foxes, tied firebrands, meaning torches, to their tails and set fire to their entire harvests and vineyards[...] showed because the tail is the outermost part of the body. Having taken a torch, it sets fire to the crops and vineyards, plainly through wicked preaching. Gregory the Great’s magisterial commentary on the book of Job would run along similar lines of allegory and animal symbolism. One is hard-pressed to find anything similar in the last few centuries, arguably because of St. Thomas’s insistence on the primacy of the literal meaning.
For the modern reader, the Commentary of Fortunatianus will be more edifying when used as an occasional reference than as a systematic work of exegesis. His writing is dense and often alien to our sensibilities. It is what one friend of mine calls “holographically interesting,” in that each small part of it seems to contain an entire world. Our forebears had faith that could see the mountain in the grain of sand. In every action and word, the God-Man enfolded many teachings, prophecies, and explanations of things past. Preachers take note!