Recent advances in digitisation mean that it is easier than ever before to consult manuscripts held in libraries and archives across the world. Birmingham’s own Virtual Manuscript Room enables researchers to do this without ever setting foot on campus. Yet it is still the case that first-hand examination of these artefacts can lead to new discoveries.

The manuscripts of Cologne Cathedral Library were made available online in 2002. But it was some ten years later that an Austrian academic, Dr Lukas Dorfbauer, visited the library to make one of the most extraordinary finds in recent decades. Previously, scholars had been interested in a ninth-century manuscript as the sole witness to a short letter which claimed to be from the Jewish high priest Annas to the Roman philosopher Seneca. They had dismissed the hundred-page anonymous gospel commentary as one of numerous similar works composed in the court of Charlemagne. As a specialist in such writings, however, Dorfbauer could see that the commentary was much older than the manuscript itself. In fact, it was none other than the earliest Latin commentary on the Gospels.

In his Lives of Famous Men, written at the end of the fourth century, Saint Jerome included an entry for Fortunatianus, who had been bishop of the north Italian diocese of Aquileia some 50 years earlier. This prominent cleric had written a gospel commentary including a series of chapter titles, which Jerome described as ‘a pearl without price’ and consulted when writing his own Commentary on Matthew. Later Christian authors, such as Hrabanus Maurus and Claudius of Turin, searched for it in vain. As with so many works from antiquity it seemed to have been lost, the remaining copies destroyed in a Vandal raid or eaten by mice in a dusty library.

Among the features which attracted Dorfbauer’s attention was a long list of 160 chapter titles detailing the contents of the commentary, which corresponded to Jerome’s description of Fortunatianus’ work. In addition, the biblical text of the Cologne manuscript did not match the standard version of the Gospels produced by Jerome, but seemed to come from an earlier stage in the history of the Latin Bible.

This was where Birmingham came in. The University’s Institute for Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing (ITSEE) is home to long-term projects working on new editions of the Bible in Greek and Latin. As a specialist in the Latin New Testament, I was able to compare the biblical quotations in the Cologne manuscript with our extensive databases. Parallels with texts circulating in north Italy in the middle of the fourth century offered a perfect fit with the context of Fortunatianus. 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.

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. In this substantial commentary, Fortunatianus is reliant on even earlier writings which formed the link between Greek and Latin Christianity. This sheds new light on the way the Gospels were read and understood in the early Church, in particular the symbolic reading of the text known as ‘allegorical exegesis’. There are also moments of insight into the lives of fourth-century Italian Christians, as when the bishop uses a walnut as an image of the four Gospels or holds up a Roman coin as a symbol of the Trinity.

In the form of a single (no longer anonymous) manuscript, or even a scholarly edition of the Latin text, it will still be some time before this work becomes as widely-known as the famous writings of later Christian teachers such as Ambrose, Augustine and Jerome. For that reason, I have worked closely with Dr Dorfbauer to prepare an English translation of the commentary, the first ever to be produced. This will enable a much wider audience to take account of this rediscovered work. In fact, this English version may be the form in which most people will encounter Fortunatianus’ commentary, as studying languages is now a much smaller component in theological study and online translation tools are beginning to produce more satisfactory results. But for the fullest appreciation of this work, it will still be necessary to put alternatives to one side and consult the original – which is how the commentary was rediscovered in the first place.