2011-08-17

[6] THE LETTERS SUPPOSEDLY WRITTEN BY IGNATIUS OF ANTIOCH: 6th post in the series

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by Roger Parvus

6th post in the series by Roger Parvus. The complete series is archived here.

TDOP = The Death of Peregrinus by Lucian. Harmon’s translation here.

II. THE AUTHOR OF THE LETTERS WAS AN APELLEAN CHRISTIAN

In my previous posts I have presented my case for identifying Peregrinus as the real author of the so-called Ignatian letters. That case—if I may say so myself—is a strong one. And going forward, when I speak of the author of those letters it should be understood that I am referring to Peregrinus. I want to now continue on to the second part of my theory and identify, from other passages in the letters, the branch of Christianity that was his. To determine that, it is indeed the letters and not TDOP that must be examined, for Lucian simply calls Peregrinus a Christian. If he is aware that there were different types of Christians he doesn’t show it. He does not devote much of his treatise to what Christians believe, and the only Christian beliefs he mentions are ones that would apply to many of the various types:

“They still worship the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world… The poor wretches have convinced themselves, first and foremost, that they are going to be immortal and live for all time, in consequence of which they despise death and even willingly give themselves into custody; most of them. Furthermore, their first lawgiver persuaded them that they are all brothers of one another after they have transgressed once for all by denying the Greek gods and by worshipping that crucified sophist himself and living under his laws. Therefore they despise all things indiscriminately and consider them common property, receiving such doctrines traditionally without any definite evidence” (TDOP 11 & 13, Harmon).

In contrast to TDOP, the seven letters provide information about their author’s beliefs that is more detailed. And the letters show that he and his confreres subscribed to many beliefs that were not held by proto-Catholic Christians, at least not in the combination that is found in the letters. I think the distinctive combination of those beliefs can reveal to which brand of Christianity Peregrinus adhered. The original letters, assuming I am correct in my identification of Peregrinus as their author, were written sometime between 130 and 150 CE, for based on the information provided by TDOP the arrest of Peregrinus almost certainly fell within that period. I will argue that the unique assortment of beliefs expressed in the letters can in fact be closely matched with the known beliefs of one particular Christian church that existed in that same time period. In this post I will make a start by looking at some of the peculiar beliefs found in the letter collection.

THE OLD TESTAMENT

The author of the letters, as already noted, “shows very little interest in the Old Testament or tendency to imitate its language” (“Ignatian Problems,” by C.P. Bammel in “Journal of Theological Studies,” vol. 33, pt. 1, 1982, p. 73).  This in itself is very unusual in early Christian writings. The second century church looked principally to the Old Testament to support and illustrate its beliefs about Jesus. But Peregrinus doesn’t. He does quote from an Old Testament book twice and does so using the standard formula “it is written” but, curiously, both times the quote is not from the Law or the Prophets, but from the book of Proverbs. William Schoedel surmised that the prisoner’s scant interest in the Old Testament was probably due to a lack of exegetical ability (“Ignatius of Antioch” p. 205). But that is only a guess, and I will argue later that a better explanation is available.

JUDAISM

The prisoner makes a number of derogatory assertions about Judaism that are unusually blunt. For instance, in his letter to the Magnesians he writes: “Do not be deceived by false doctrines or old fables which are worthless. For if we still continue to live according to Judaism, we avow that we have not received grace” (IgnMag. 8:1). Such equating of Judaism with false doctrines and old, worthless fables is rarely found in second century proto-Catholic writings. The proto-Catholics viewed Judaism as a preparation for and a foreshadowing of Christianity; or—in the case of Justin—as a Christianity-in-embryo that the Jews largely failed to recognize. But the prisoner’s characterization of it as old worthless falsehoods and fables seems extreme. Johannes Weiss writes: “The vehement repudiation of Judaism … with such very deliberate and disdainful expressions shows that not even the slightest religious bond connects him with Jewish Christianity… Indeed, one may perhaps say that he loses too completely the consciousness of a historical connection with the religion of Israel… The pattern of prophecy and fulfillment, in which the present always appears as a continuation and completion of a far-away past, a way of thinking which is always historical, is hardly to be detected at all in him” (“Earliest Christianity,” vol. 2, pp. 767-8). It is true that the prisoner’s derogatory assertions about Judaism are always followed by curious abrupt and partial backpedalling. But those recantations, as will be shown, appear to be corrections brought into the text by the later proto-Catholic redactor, not by the prisoner.

THE CREATOR GOD?

Nowhere in the letters does their author unambiguously speak about God as the creator of the world and men. This absence too is unusual when compared to the frequent references to God as Creator and the praises of him for what he created that are present in other second- century proto-Catholic writings. In the letters God is described as doing a lot of things: he resists the proud, he is concerned about us, he knows the things that are hidden, he promises union, he dwells with those who are devoted to unity, he helps us and listens to us. But it is never said that he created the world and man. And frequent mention is made of his purpose, his will, his plan, his grace, his power, his church, his mercy, his commandment, his word, his love, his kindness, his voice and his work–but never his creative work. Forty-five times he is called ‘Father,’ though many of these have to do with him as the Father of Jesus Christ. But he is never called the Creator. I agree with Th. Preiss that “it is strange to never find a single allusion in the letters of the bishop of Antioch to God as the creator of the world… Should this be viewed as a simple omission due to chance? One could possibly have recourse to that explanation if it were not for the fact that Ignatius loves to extravagantly pile up the titles and attributes of God and Christ. Given these circumstances the argument from silence acquires a certain weight” (“Imitation et Unite chez Ignace d’Antioche,” in “Revue d’histoire et de philosophie religieuses,” issue 18, p. 221, my translation). True, letters are occasional in nature and one cannot expect to find an author’s whole creed in them. But given the size of these letters and their author’s intent to use them as a kind of last will and testament filled with exhortation and advice, it seems reasonable to expect to find in them at least a single clear expression of something as basic as belief in God as the Creator.

Many scholars do try to argue that there is a reference to creation in two verses of the letters but both instances are ambiguous. In the inscription of the first letter to Antioch (aka Romans) the prisoner sends greetings “to the church that is beloved and enlightened by the will of him who willed all things that are in accordance with the love of Jesus Christ our God.” If in this verse a comma is placed between the words “are” and “in”, the first part of the sentence could be understood as referring to creation. The Creator would be the one “who willed all things that are.” But notice that the verb is “willed,” not “created” or “made.” And as Turmel pointed out, adding a comma seems to leave hanging the rest of the verse: “in accordance with the love of Jesus Christ our God.” The love of Jesus is an important theme of the letters; the verse fits that theme better if what the Father willed was “all things that are in accordance with the love of Jesus Christ our God.”

The other supposed reference to creation is in the letter to the Ephesians: “Now there was one teacher who spoke and it was accomplished. And the deeds which he did in silence are worthy of the Father” (IgnEph. 15:1). It is claimed by some that the words “who spoke and it was accomplished” are either a quote from Psalm 32:9 or are from the description of creation in the book of Genesis. But those contentions have little to support them. First, the wording is not the same, and the author gives no explicit indication that he is quoting from the Old Testament. Unlike when he quoted twice from Proverbs, here the formula “it is written” or something equivalent is not present. Moreover, Christ was not yet our teacher when, according to proto-Catholic belief, he spoke creative words. Does it not make more sense for this verse to refer to an occasion when Christ was both teacher and (on the cross) spoke the words “It is accomplished”? (Jn. 19:30). And corresponding to the “silence” in IgnEph 15:1 there is, in the Johannine account of the passion, the silence of Jesus before Pilate. This interpretation also fits the context of the Ephesians letter better, for Peregrinus is speaking there about his impending martyrdom and saying it is one thing to talk about it, and another to actually accomplish it: “For at this time the work is no mere matter of professing faith, but of continuing in the power of faith unto the end” (IgnEph. 14:2).

JOHANNINE ALLUSIONS

And if IgnEph. 15:1 contains a Johannine allusion it would take its place alongside a number of similar ones in the letters. Many scholars see Johannine allusions in the following passages:

“Yet the Spirit is not deceived since it is from God. For it knows whence it comes and whither it goes, and it exposes the things which are hidden” (IgnPhil. 7:1. Compare with Jn. 3:8 and 8:14).

“There is no fire within me for material things; but only water living and welling up in me, saying from within me, ‘Come to the Father’… I desire the bread of God, which is the flesh of Christ” (IgnRom. 7:2-3. Compare with Jn. 4:10 & 14; Jn. 6:33).

“As therefore the Lord did nothing without the Father, being united with him…” (IgnMag. 7:1. Compare with Jn. 5:19; 8:28).

“…through Jesus Christ his Son… who in all things was pleasing to him who sent him” (IgnMag. 8:2. Compare with Jn. 8:29).

Charles Hill, in his “The Johannine Corpus in the Early Church,” examines the letter collection and concludes that “Ignatius was quite familiar with the Fourth Gospel, despite any lack of full or exact quotations. Again I mention the probability that Ignatius, the prisoner in transition, did not write his letters with any of his books before him. And yet we have seen a number of passages which correspond to thoughts and distinctive phrases unique, up to this point, to the Fourth Gospel, even down to the preservation of some of the same precise vocabulary” (pp. 440-441).

It would seem so, yet John is not mentioned in the letters; even in the letter Peregrinus sent to Ephesus, the city where John supposedly spent his later years. Peregrinus praises Paul in that letter, but is silent about John. Another puzzle!

THE VISIBLE WORLD

Related perhaps to the absence of creation from the letters is the prisoner’s belief that “nothing visible is good” (IgnRom. 3:3). He brings that belief forward on one of the many occasions that he expresses his desire for martyrdom, his desire for the moment when he “will be visible to the world no more” (IgnRom. 3:2). This passage along with others in the letter collection led Alfred Loisy to comment that, according to the prisoner, “there is no resurrection of the body, but only ascension of the soul to God. The body has only to disappear. And here Theophorus is in contradiction with the practice of the great Church whose zeal for collecting the remains of the martyrs, precisely because they believed in the resurrection of the body, is well known” (“Remarques sur la Litterature Epistolaire du Nouveau Testament,” p. 165, my translation). Nowhere in the letters does the prisoner express belief in a future resurrection of the body.

But although according to Peregrinus nothing visible is good, he does not appear to regard the visible world—including the body—as evil either. He says that the Smyrneans have refreshed him in every way, “in both flesh and spirit” (IgnTral. 12:1). He tells the Ephesians: “Even the things you do in the flesh are spiritual, for you do all things in Jesus Christ” (IgnEph. 8:2). To the new bishop of Antioch he writes: “You are of both flesh and spirit that you may attend kindly to the things that are visible to you” (IgnPoly. 2:2). And he does not disparage marriage: “It is right for men and women who marry to establish their union with the approval of the bishop, that the marriage may be according to the Lord and not according to lust” (IgnPoly 5:2). Thus the sphere of the visible, though not good, falls short of being evil. It lies somewhere in between.

THE SILENCE OF GOD

Another unusual emphasis in the letters is the description of God as silent. Jesus Christ is described as “his Word who came forth from silence” (IgnMag. 8:2), and his death was “accomplished in the silence of God” (IgnEph. 19:1). And bishops, as the earthly counterparts of the Father, are most like him when they are silent! Henry Chadwick writes: “Among the many remarkable features of Ignatius’ letters there is perhaps nothing more curious than his peculiar ideas about the value attaching to silence. There is something almost comic in his insistence that when a bishop is saying nothing he is then to be regarded with special awe… Silence being therefore a primary characteristic of God Himself, Ignatius is led by his theory that the bishop is the earthly counterpart of the divine archetype to his notion that the silence of the bishop is a matter of the profoundest significance. God is silence; therefore when men see their bishop silent, the more reverence should they feel towards him, for it is then that he most like God” (“The Silence of Bishops in Ignatius,” in the “Harvard Theological Review,” vol. 43, 1950, pp. 169 and 171-2).

MONEPISCOPACY

And while on the subject of bishops, it is quite generally acknowledged that the letters contain the earliest witness to a Christian monepiscopal (single-bishop) system of church authority. And the degree of authority claimed for the bishop and his assistants (presbytery and deacons) is considerable: “In things pertaining to the church, let no one do anything independently of the bishop. Let that Eucharist alone be considered valid which is celebrated by the bishop or his delegate… whatever he approves has God’s approval also” (IgnSmyr. 8:1-1). Paul Foster points out that “the vigorous manner in which Ignatius advocates this system may well suggest that this pattern was something of an innovation, at least in terms of the hierarchical structure being described, or that it had come under attack” (“The Epistles of Ignatius of Antioch,” in “The Writings of the Apostolic Fathers,” edited by Paul Foster, p. 93). And it is noteworthy too that the prisoner, in insisting on the authority of the bishop, doesn’t appeal as 1 Clement does to Old Testament precedents or make any claim that the bishop’s authority is due to apostolic succession. No, his argument is that authority in a Christian community must reflect the hierarchy of authority that exists between the Father and Jesus, and between Jesus and the apostles.

THE ASTONISHING STAR

Chapter nineteen of the letter to the Ephesians contains another distinctive belief held by the prisoner:

“From the ruler of this age was hidden Mary’s virginity and her child-bearing; in like manner, too, the death of the Lord. Three mysteries to be cried aloud, accomplished in the silence of God.  How then was he manifested to the aeons?  A star shone forth in the heavens more brightly than all the stars, and its light was greater than words can tell, and its novelty caused astonishment. And all the other stars, with the sun and moon, formed themselves into a choir round the star.  But the star itself surpassed them all in its brightness.  And there was confusion amongst the stars over whence came this novelty so different from themselves.  Thus began the vanquishing of all magic, the breaking of the bonds imposed by wickedness, the dissolution of ignorance, and the destruction of the old kingdom, since God was manifested in human form for the newness of eternal life.  That which had been prepared by God began to take effect:  Hence all things were thrown into commotion because the destruction of death had begun” (IgnEph. 19:1-3)

Many scholars admit to being perplexed by the star in this passage. Is it a star that appeared at the descent of Christ to this world? Or at his ascension when he victoriously departed it? Or is the star Christ himself at either his descent or ascent? This last possibility would seem to be the correct one, for the other stars in the passage were apparently heavenly figures too, the aeons to whom he was manifested.  The implied question of the stars (“Whence this novelty so different from ourselves?”) is very similiar to the questions which, according to other early writings, the powers asked when Christ ascended through their territory (See, for example, Justin’s “Dialogue with Trypho, ” 36, and “The Ascension of Isaiah,” 11:24-29).

Also to be noted is that ‘the star passage’ as it stands pulls in two directions because it forcibly brings together two mysteries concerning Mary and one that concerns Christ. And the two about Mary belong to the beginning of the Christian story while the death of the Lord belongs to its completion. Attempts to simply identify the star with the one that led the magi to Bethlehem in Matthew’s Gospel fail to satisfy. I will propose a different solution.

PAUL

There is another longstanding puzzle in the letter to the church of Ephesus. The prisoner tells the Ephesians: “You are fellow-initiates of Paul… who in every letter makes mention of you in Jesus Christ” (IgnEph. 12:2). But Paul doesn’t mention Ephesus in “every” letter. He mentions Ephesus twice in 1 Corinthians (1 Cor 15:32 and 16:8). The word ‘Ephesus’ is in the current title of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, but it is generally acknowledged that it was not there until later in the second century. If the earliest version had any addressee at all it was probably the church of Laodicea as is witnessed to by Marcion’s version of it. And the only other Pauline letters to mention Ephesus are the pastorals 1 and 2 Timothy, but these are late pseudonymous works which—as I pointed out in my previous post—may very well have been written after the so-called Ignatians and drawn from them. In any case, we are a far cry from Paul remembering the Ephesians in “every” letter.

THE HERESIES OPPOSED BY PEREGRINUS

As an aid to identifying the religious affiliation of Peregrinus it will also help to note the beliefs of his opponents. One of the most disputed questions in Ignatian studies has always been whether the prisoner had two groups of adversaries—Judaizers and docetists—or just one: Judaizing docetists. I have never understood why there should be a dispute about this. From the difference in the admonitions given by the letters it seems quite clear that there were two separate groups. To Peregrinus the docetists are by far the worst. They are “beasts in human form” (IgnSmyr. 4:1). In his eyes their docetism constitutes a complete denial of Christ (IgnSmyr. 5:2). It makes them “unbelievers” (IgnSmyr. 5:3). He tells his readers to absolutely avoid them: “It is right, then, to stay away from such people, and to say nothing about them either in private or in public” (IgnSmyr. 7:2). And he refuses to write their names and does not even want to remember them unless they repent (IgnSmyr. 5:3).

In contrast, Ignatius is willing to speak with the Judaizers about their differences (IgnPhil. 8:2). He does think their Judaizing beliefs are wrong and absurd, and he tells his readers not to listen to them when they expound on that topic (IgnPhil. 6:1). But it is clear that the Judaizers freely mingle with those whom Peregrinus considers orthodox. As Schoedel acknowledges, “the Judaizers were still part of the Philadelphian congregation when Philo and Rheus Agathopous passed through… People in Philadelphia were still on good terms with Judaizers…” (“Ignatius of Antioch,” p. 214). Oskar Skarsaune rightly observes: “It seems Ignatius treats these Judaizers in a more conciliatory way than he does the docetic heretics of his other letters” (“Jewish Believers in Jesus,” p. 506). Nowhere in the Philadelphian letter or any of the letters does Peregrinus call the Judaizers unbelievers or mad dogs, and nowhere does he tell his readers to avoid all contact with them.

It is important to understand that the Judaizers in question were not Christians of Jewish background. They were Gentile Christians who were themselves uncircumcised, as is implied by IgnPhil. 6:1: “It is better to hear Christianity from a man who is circumcised than Judaism from one who is uncircumcised.” And they apparently were not trying to impose circumcision or any of the Mosaic laws on anyone. Some scholars, based on their interpretation of IgnMag. 9:1, claim that the one exception to this may be the observance of the Sabbath but, as Schoedel points out, that is not actually stated by the text (“Ignatius of Antioch,” p. 123). So in what then did their Judaizing consist? I think Skarsaune gets it right: “It would seem that the ‘Judaism’ of the Judaizing party had to do with their interpretation of the (Old Testament) Scriptures, and the authority they accorded the Scriptures over against what Ignatius called ‘the Gospel’” (“Jewish Believers in Jesus,” p. 506).

“For I heard some saying: If I do not find it in the ancient sources, I do not believe in the gospel. And when I said to them, ‘It is written,’ they replied to me, ‘That is what is in question.’ But my ancient sources are Jesus Christ; the inviolable ancient sources are his cross, his death, his resurrection, and the faith which is through him” (IgnPhil. 8:2)

To Peregrinus the Judaizers’ error consisted in according more importance to some part or parts of the Old Testament than he did. They were having trouble accepting the gospel used by him because it apparently failed to meet some Scripture-related requirement of theirs. That does not mean they questioned every gospel; they questioned the one that Peregrinus and his coreligionists used.

In my next post I will propose that Peregrinus was an Apellean i.e. a follower of the ex-Marcionite Apelles. And I will show how an Apellean affiliation can not only account for the beliefs of Peregrinus but can also identify who his Judaizing and docetic opponents were.

Roger Parvus

2 Comments

  • Evan
    2011-08-20 14:04:27 UTC - 14:04 | Permalink

    Roger I am loving these posts. Can’t wait to see the next one.

  • Pingback: Can a comma be THAT important?

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