The Fioretti of Saint Francis of Assisi and the First Gospel (Qn)

One of my favorite memories of graduate student teaching at the University of Virginia was helping to teach the course on Medieval Christianity with Father Augustine Thompson, OP, a Dominican who happens to be one of the world’s leading experts on Francis of Assisi.

It was that class that first made me fall in love with Saint Francis and Saint Claire of Assisi and all the stories about them, which are collectively known as the Fioretti, or “Little Flowers.” These stories are simultaneously inspiring and entertaining, having an almost fable-like quality to them. While they often strain credulity for scientifically-minded modernists like ourselves, they are still so delightful. If you’ve never read them, please be encouraged to lose yourselves in these stories for at least a day or two.

Francis of Assisi had his own way of reading the Gospels, and for some reason, Jesus’ ethical teachings—especially the teachings on wealth and poverty—stood out to him as demanding his attention and devotion above and beyond anything else.

Other monastic orders—such as the Order of Saint Benedict—had very well-articulated and organized charters called Rules, which covered the vows, philosophical tenets, expectations, obligations, routines, and rituals of the community.

Saint Francis found the core of his Rule, the charter for his new monastic order, in Jesus’ ethical teachings in the Gospels.

It strikes me that our own American Humanist genius Thomas Jefferson found something similar when he made a version of the Gospel that distilled down the ethical teachings of Jesus.

While the First Gospel that I’ve discovered is not just ethical teachings and is not something Francis or Jefferson had in front of them as an intact, well-defined text, I still like to think that they still pretty closely intuited Qn as the core of the Gospel tradition, the heart of the earliest Jesus movement.

I look forward to the day when we have fully restored Qn as an almost perfectly complete, reliable, and intact text, allowing us to visualize it by making it stand out boldly against a grayed background of later layers.

Qn was very evident in Marcion’s Gospel (Early Luke, 80s CE), making up perhaps around 70% of its content, which may be a big reason why Marcion’s Gospel and movement had staying power despite the suppression of the early orthodox.

It was also evident in the Late/Canonical Luke (117-138 CE), but there Qn probably only comprised around 30% of the total content. The editorial and storytelling creativity shown in Late Luke is beautiful (infancy stories, Good Samaritan, Prodigal Son, etc.), but all those lovely narrative embellishments also had the effect of obscuring Qn even further.

Thus the more successful the early-orthodox were in their suppression of Marcion’s Gospel, the more Qn was obscured and buried. The development of Orthodoxy was innovative, eclectic, and assimilative, a process of growth and compromise that simultaneously preserved and obscured the earliest Jesus movement textual tradition.

Be that as it may, as the original textual DNA of the Jesus movement, Qn has been hiding in plain sight in the (Late) Gospel of Luke now for nearly 1900 years. While there are numerous minor edits that Late Luke made to Qn, Late Luke still preserved Qn with a very high degree of fidelity. When we read the Gospel of Luke in our Bibles, we still by and large are encountering Qn.

When Francis heard the Gospels, he heard Qn. What moved him most within the Gospels was Qn. What transformed his life was Qn. I think it is safe to say the same about Pope Francis I. It was Francis of Assisi, and beyond and behind him, Qn that has inspired the bold and creative Humanist inclusivity that the Holy Father has modeled in word and action.

The same was true 1000 years before when Saint Anthony the Great heard the words that led him to sell his possessions, devote his life to prayer, and become the founder of Christian desert monasticism. He heard Qn and lived Qn.

The same was true in the 20th century with Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr., who both heard in Qn the teachings of non-violence and non-retaliation and found in them the inspiration and methods for transforming whole societies and nations.

Thus while for the purposes of developing testable, open scientific hypotheses and methods, as well as for public awareness, I’ve spoken of finding, retrieving, and restoring “the lost Gospel of Qn,” in many ways Qn was never lost.

It’s always been there, speaking to us, inspiring us, waiting for us to discover and rediscover not just as a text but even more so as a philosophy, a way of thinking, a way of living, and as the transformative divine seeds of Humanist social movements.