History of Interpretation: Venantius Fortunatus on the Virgin Birth

Fortunatus was a poet during the 6th century in France. The following poem is an exposition on the virgin birth prophesied in Isaiah 7:14:[1]

The prophets’ tongue has sung the Virgin’s giving birth:[2]
The angel takes the tidings to earth beneath the sky.
The voice of men agrees, remembers what this girl has done,
How she, a virgin, bore a man without man’s seed.
Concordant with this gospel, Isaiah tells
What God inspires, he sounds the trumpet call,
With eloquence abounding, and truly tells the mystery,
And sings the Virgin’s gift of our Emmanuel,
Predicting from of old, that through the mother of the Lord
Would Jesse’s root produce a flower from his shoot.
The Virgin is that shoot, from which the Flower, Christ, has sprung,
Whose living fragrance causes buried limbs to rise,
As Lazarus, undone by death four days before,
Received anew his breath from Christ, the fragrant Flower.
Made holy in the womb[3], the prophet Jeremiah
Likewise foretold her in his vatic speech: Behold,
The days will come: from David will I cause a shoot
To sprout, a king will reign, and wisely will he rule[4]
The Virgin is this shoot, the king her infant son,
The arbiter of justice, heir to world rule.
The psalmist hymned the Virgin on his plectrum,
When strings and voices sang their melody:
Of Mother Zion will they say: One man here, one born there”
In her”[5], which means: He founded her, became a man in her.
And then it says, Most High is he who founded her:[6]
For she, the Virgin Mother, she is Mother Zion.

Here, we can see some of the early stages of the emphasis on the virgin Mary. I think it is interesting that she is referred to as the shoot from Jesse and that Christ is the flower. We see this interpretation in Ambrose, who uses Isaiah 7:14, 11:1, and Song of Solomon 2:1 to interpret Christ as the flower from the root of Jesse:[7]

The flower from the root is the work of the Spirit, that flower, I say, of which it was well prophesied: A rod shall go forth from the root of Jesse, and a flower shall rise from his root.”The root of Jesse the patriarch is the family of the Jews, Mary is the rod, Christ the flower of Mary, Who, about to spread the good odour of faith throughout the whole world, budded forth from a virgin womb, as He Himself said: I am the flower of the plain, a lily of the valley.’”

Jerome, in line with Ambrose, says:[8]

‘There shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a flower shall grow out of his roots.’ The rod is the mother of the Lord—simple, pure, unsullied; drawing no germ of life from without but fruitful in singleness like God Himself. The flower of the rod is Christ, who says of Himself: I am the rose of Sharon and the lily of the valleys.’ In another place He is foretold to be a stone cut out of the mountain without hands,’ a figure by which the prophet signifies that He is to be born a virgin of a virgin.”

Let this be another tool in the interpreter’s tool belt in reading Old Testament texts in light of the New.

  1. Wilken, Robert L. Isaiah: Interpreted by Early Christian Medieval Commentators. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007, 106  ↩︎

  2. Is 7:14  ↩︎

  3. Jer 1:5  ↩︎

  4. Jer 33:14  ↩︎

  5. Ps 87:5a  ↩︎

  6. Ps 87:5b  ↩︎

  7. Ambrose of Milan. (1896). Three Books of St. Ambrose on the Holy Spirit H. de Romestin, E. de Romestin & H. T. F. Duckworth, Trans.). In P. Schaff & H. Wace (Eds.), A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series, Volume X: St. Ambrose: Select Works and Letters (P. Schaff & H. Wace, Ed.) (119). New York: Christian Literature Company.  ↩︎

  8. Jerome. (1893). The Letters of St. Jerome W. H. Fremantle, G. Lewis & W. G. Martley, Trans.). In P. Schaff & H. Wace (Eds.), A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series, Volume VI: St. Jerome: Letters and Select Works (P. Schaff & H. Wace, Ed.) (29). New York: Christian Literature Company.  ↩︎

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