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Letters of Ignatius of Antioch

[A CRNET member raised objections to the authenticity of the Letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch. Here are his arguments and replies to them.]

1. Ignatius has always been a 'problem child' in patristic investigation....there has been a long time consensus that the 'middle' version is authentic. This point of view has been challenged by Robert Joly, Rius-Camps and others in more recent times.

COMMENT: Not really always, as the same objector admitted in his earlier message, in which he said that the old denials of Ignatius were resurrected about 1979, through the old objections that there could have been no monarchical bishop with priests and deacons that early. That was an old protestant objection. Even Harnack dropped it some time back in Die Briefsammlung... (Leipzig, 1926).

2. Robert Joly's arguments are: (1) it is highly improbable that this set of letters would have been written during a travel as a prisoner at occasional halts under way: the quotations from apocrypha (especially fourth Maccabees) and other works make it plausible that this is 'cabinet theology', i.e., written with a rather good library at hand.

COMMENTS: Even today with our lesser memories we can quote from other works, especially from Scripture. And as was said, memories then were far better than ours. We think of the case of King Tudya of Assyria, first on the Assyrian King list. For long it was thought he was legendary. But now with the finds at Ebla, we know that King Ebrum of Ebla made a treaty with Tudya c 2350 BC, whereas the king list of Assyria dates from about 1000 B.C. So for about 1300 years that data was transmitted orally: Cf. G. Pettinato, Archives of Ebla (Doubleday, 1981, pp. 103-05).

We think too of the fact that the large works of Homer circulated for many years in merely oral form. And the earliest form of the Targums was also oral.

Further some of the specific items adduced, as given below, are fanciful.

3. (2) Circus executions of Christians are known only since the second half of the second century (the first datable instances are Polycarp and the martyrs of Lyons and Vienna [in Eusebius]. The persecution of Nero is no circus event: it took place in Nero's gardens.

COMMENTS: Tacitus, respected by modern historians, in His Annals 15.44 wrote that after the great fire, Nero needed scapegoats, and the regular amphitheater had been destroyed. But he used his own gardens which were very large: "First, Nero had self-acknowledged Christians arrested. Then on their information, large numbers of others were condemned... Their deaths were made farcical. Dressed in wild animals' skins, they were torn to pieces by dogs, or crucified, or made into torches to be ignited after dark as substitutes for daylight. Nero provided his Gardens for the spectacle and exhibited displays in the Circus at which he mingled with the crowd, or stood in a chariot dressed as a charioteer. Despite their guilt as Christians, and the ruthless punishment it deserved, the victims were pitied. For it was felt that they were being sacrificed to one man's brutality rather than the national interest."

4. (3) The complete 'tripartite hierarchy of one bishop, a college of priests at a lower level, and deacons in the third place is out of place in the chronological setting of 115 AD or around. Didache, 1 Clement, Hermas know only a collegial 'hierarchy' either called 'presbyteroi' or 'episkopoi kai diakonoi."

COMMENTS: Objector shows confusion here. The fact that two or three levels of officials is mentioned does not mean that they acted collegially--the Bishop was at the head as Ignatius says, and as later usage shows.

The terms Bishop, and priest were fluid for some time, as we see in 1 Clement and even earlier in Acts 20.17-29. This is not strange, in any field of knowledge it takes quite a while for terms to become precise. Thus sacramentum took until the 12th century to reach its present precise meaning. Besides, this is just the old worn out objection, which was rejected long ago even by Harnack as I mentioned above.

5. Rius-Camps. The four authentic letters of Ignatius the Bishop (Rome 1977), a book with which I do not agree at all, makes one good point. In the Ignatius letters, there are numerous admonitions to the faithful to 'venerate the Bishop as God the Father, the Presbyters as the apostles, and the deacon as Christ...;' or words to that effect. To those sentences there is almost a literary match in the Syriac Didascalia Apostolorum Orientalium of Louvain, where it is said also that 'the deaconess should be venerated as the Holy Spirit.' The Didascalia is dated in the beginning of the third century, but probably contains older elements. Anyhow, it is not very probable that the mention of the deaconesses, and the parallel with the Holy Spirit is added. Rather it is to be assumed that it has been deleted by "Ignatius." Ignatius does not know about deaconesses, and the idea that the Holy Spirit is feminine is found especially in the Syriac church, as well in orthodox Fathers [Aphrahat and I think also Efrem, but I am not sure]. This goes back to the fact that in Hebrew and Syriac, the word Ruach or Rucha is feminine. In the Valentianian gnostic system, there is a divine couple Christo-Pneuma where Pneuma is definitely feminine, and the Gospel of Philip (also Gnostic; see the Nag Hammadi writings) make a joke of the Church belief that Christ was 'conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.' It says: 'Whoever has heard of someone who is born out of two women?' or words to that effect."

COMMENTS: Pardon me for saying it, but the words about the feminines are shocking. They were only grammatically feminine, which has nothing at all to do with real sex. This is precisely the nonsense feminists are now using when they even worship Sophia as a goddess.--As for other features in the Didascalia, if a later work shows some similarity in wording, that would not have to mean Ignatius, much earlier, used it. It could be the other way around.

6. "My good friend Reinhard Huebner, professor of patristics in Munich made it plausible that there is a connection between the famous christological statement of Ignatius 'born and unborn, .....etc.' and what is found in the Contra Noetum of Hippolytus and that 'Ignatius' depends on Noetus. Noetus of Smyrna (see below) is end of second century.

COMMENT: again, a statement later by Noetus, a later heretic, would not have to be the source for Ignatius who is earlier, and even large and close similarity does not to prove literary dependence. Please recall this in connection with the claim made above that Ignatius would have needed a large library.

7. My humble self found a stipulation in Roman law (cannot check it now; the library of our law faculty is closed) which makes the scenario of Ignatius improbable. According to said scenario, Ignatius is condemned as a Christian in Antioch, but should be executed in Rome in the circus (eaten by animals). He is escorted all the way by a bunch of solders, whom he calls 'the leopards.' This of course is a very expensive enterprise: travel, halts, lodging, feeding etc. all the way long from Antioch to Rome. Roman law stipulates that this should be done only in very exceptional cases, and when it is guaranteed that the condemned would give a 'show worth looking at' in the capital of the empire. This would mean concretely that 'Ignatius" would have been a young man with an outstanding bodily stature, someone like Jean-Claude You-Guess-Who or Arnold Schwarzenegger.

COMMENT: That law is found in the later Digest 48.18, and even so it leaves things up to the Emperor, of course. There was a very special reason for sending Ignatius: in 115 AD there was a great earthquake in Antioch in which Emperor Trajan was injured, and the people of the city blamed the Christians for the earthquake. This sort of thing, blaming Christians for natural disasters, happened much, e.g., in the time of St. Cyprian, and in the numerous items reported by Augustine in his City of God Cf. Glanville Downey, A History of Antioch in Syria, Princeton, 1961, pp. 292-93, and F. A. Lepper, Trajan's Parthian War Oxford, 1948, pp. 54-83.