12. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Pt. 12. Three Voices . . . Ignatius

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Earl Doherty


Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Pt. 12

Three Voices on the Historical Jesus – No. 2: Ignatius of Antioch



  • Martyrdom of St Ignatius of Antioch

    Martyrdom of St Ignatius of Antioch (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    Are the Ignatian letters forgeries?

  • What does “truly” mean for Ignatius:
    • anti-docetism?
    • historical fact?
  • Ignatius knows no Gospels, even in 110 CE or later
    • implications of this
    • rumours of an allegorical tale interpreted as history
    • no teachings of Jesus, no miracles,
    • no apostolic tradition
  • Why did docetism arise in Ignatius’ time?
    • two reactions to the historical Jesus
  • A Christ myth in Ignatius’ Ephesians


* * * * *

Evidence for Jesus from Outside the Gospels

(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 101-104)

Ignatius of Antioch


Did Ignatius write the Ignatian Letters?

Bart Ehrman seems to assume the authenticity of the story that Ignatius was caught up in a persecution of Christians at Antioch around 107-110 CE, was condemned to death and sent to Rome under military escort to die in the arena. Along the way, he wrote letters to six churches in Asia Minor and one to bishop Polycarp of Smyrna.

Many doubt the feasibility of such an enterprise, including the likelihood that the authorities would have undertaken to send him all the way to Rome for execution. But that is the story told in later tradition, and it is to be found within the letters themselves.

I will not go into the arguments for and against authenticity here, but if they are later forgeries (that is, the versions known as the “Shorter Recensions” which have traditionally been considered the originals, with the Longer Recensions coming much later in the century and filled with obvious insertions based on the Gospels), such forgeries cannot have been made much later than a decade or two after Ignatius’ death. (I myself might opt for forgery, but I will continue to refer to the writer as “Ignatius.”)


Arguing for a “true” life on earth

One of the principal purposes of these letters is to attack fellow Christians who espouse doctrines and practices Ignatius cannot countenance. Ignatius makes a set of claims about Jesus which he declares to be true, in opposition to those who deny them. The fullest statement of these claims is found in the epistle to the Smyrneans (as translated by Ehrman):

For you are fully convinced about our Lord, that he was truly from the family of David according to the flesh, Son of God according to the will and power of God, truly born from a virgin, and baptized by John that all righteousness might be fulfilled by him. In the time of Pontius Pilate and the tetrarch Herod, he was truly nailed for us in the flesh. . . [Smyrneans 1-2]

How does Ehrman (and scholarship traditionally) interpret a passage like this? What is Ignatius arguing for and what is the position of those he criticizes? According to Ehrman, the latter are

. . . Christians who insisted that Jesus was not a real flesh-and-blood human. These opponents of Ignatius were not ancient equivalents of our modern-day mythicists. They certainly did not believe that Jesus had been made up or invented based on the dying and rising gods supposedly worshipped by pagans. For them, Jesus had a real, historical existence. He lived in this world and delivered inspired teachings. But he was God on earth, not made of the same flesh as the rest of us. (p. 102)

In other words, Ehrman sees Ignatius’ opponents as docetists (from the verb dokein, to seem), holding the doctrine that Jesus only seemed to be human, only seemed to possess a body of human flesh. In reality, this was only an illusion; he was and remained in spiritual form, so that he did not partake of human nature and did not suffer on the cross.

But is this the meaning that can reasonably be taken from some of Ignatius’ statements?

The word “truly” (bolded above) in the Smyrneans passage (Greek alēthōs) could fit a docetic scenario, meaning “genuinely” as opposed to something illusory. But it can also fit a claim that something was true in actuality, that it really existed or took place (as in Mt. 14:33: “Truly you are the Son of God”). Note also the declaration that our Lord was “Son of God according to the will and power of God.” This is something that would have no relation to docetism, and can only be a statement of the actuality of the claimed situation.

Consider another passage, from the epistle to the Trallians (9:1-2):

Close your ears, then, if anyone preaches to you without speaking of Jesus Christ. Christ was of David’s line. He was the son of Mary; he was truly (alēthōs) and indeed born, and ate and drank; he was truly persecuted in the days of Pontius Pilate, and truly and indeed crucified…He was also truly raised from the dead.

That first sentence tells of preachers who do not speak of Jesus Christ, which Ignatius defines as a human born of David’s line, son of Mary, persecuted by Pontius Pilate, crucified and risen. Those opponents are failing to teach such a figure having those historical characteristics. It is not merely a case of teaching such a man while claiming that these features of his life were illusory. Such docetists would not have been claiming that Jesus was not the son of Mary or crucified by Pilate.

The point that Jesus “ate and drank” is usually claimed to point to a docetic issue, in that a phantom or illusory being would not eat and drink. But in the context of this particular passage, the phrase can be seen as having another meaning. In fact, it’s an expression representing the idea that Jesus had led a normal human life, doing the normal things real historical men do. Such a meaning can be found in Luke 17:27: “They ate, they drank, they married, they were given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all…” Nothing of docetism there.

William R. Schoedel (Ignatius of Antioch, p.124-5) recognizes that such passages as the above in Trallians 9 suggest that “Ignatius had in mind a denial of the passion more thoroughgoing than our argument has so far indicated.” He acknowledges that what some seem to deny “is the very reality of Christ’s death,” and thus of the incarnation. The opposing view offers not simply a docetic Christ, it offers something which gives Christ “no place in our lives” (Magnesians 9:2).

Another Magnesians passage (11:1) makes this clear:

I wish to warn you not to fall into the snare of stupid doctrine, but to be convinced of the birth, passion and resurrection, which took place at the time of the governorship of Pontius Pilate.

Here the issue is plainly one of historical fact. Why would the latter have been in any doubt, let alone be denied by some, if an actual crucifixion under Pilate had taken place—regardless of whether Jesus was docetic or fully human? Ignatius is making a firm declaration that such events did indeed happen. He is championing the basic Gospel story in the face of those who preach without it or openly deny it.


Ignatius ignorant of a Gospel

Before looking at some of Ignatius’ other remarks, we need to note that in none of his letters, even when putting forward his claims about a human Jesus, does the bishop of Antioch appeal to a written Gospel. He knows a handful of basic biographical ‘facts’ about Jesus, his birth to Mary, baptism by John, crucifixion by Pilate, a rising from the dead, all at an historical time and place. But he gives no sign that he has in his possession a document which is the source of that information. If he had, we can certainly expect that he would appeal to it, point his readers to it, throw it in his opponents’ faces.

A single passage in the letters resembles a Gospel scene. In Smyrneans 3, Ignatius offers a “touch me” post-resurrection scene to ‘prove’ that Jesus rose in the flesh of his former body and was not a phantom. But here, too, he does not point to a document as his source, or even to apostolic tradition. Scholars like Schoedel (op.cit., p.225) tend to judge that he is not deriving it from Luke’s similar scene, nor from John’s ‘doubting Thomas’ scene, but either from something of his own or some Christian prophet’s invention, or from a floating oral tradition.

Consider the implications

Ehrman fully supports this lack of derivation from a written Gospel for anything Ignatius says. After all, if Ignatius did not derive his data from a Gospel, then he must know it through separate tradition, and so this constitutes for Ehrman “another independent witness to the life of Jesus.” But consider the implications.

This is the year 110 (or later if the letters are forgeries) in Antioch, a stone’s throw from the Syrian-Galilean region where Jesus conducted his ministry, where the evangelists Mark and Matthew wrote (Matthew is commonly dated c.80 CE with a suggested provenance in Antioch itself!), and yet the bishop of that city does not possess a copy of a written Gospel?

The story of Jesus which this bishop has received is limited to the bare-bones biography he puts forward over six letters? Not once in all of the seven letters is there a reference to a single teaching by Jesus, a single prophecy or a single miracle.

Facing a body of heretics who deny all that he holds dear, it is astonishing that Ignatius has not managed to obtain a copy of an account of Jesus’ life reputedly written almost 40 years before (or longer). Mark’s passion account alone, with its scene of a tortured Jesus in Gethsemane and the despairing cry from the cross, would have been perfect ammunition against those who were claiming that Jesus did not suffer.

Christians may not have had photocopiers, but the clamor we should expect for the first written account of the figure they all worshiped did not lead to getting a copy to Antioch from Mark’s home town (a couple of hundred miles away?) by the time 40 years had passed? Even the Israelites did better crossing Sinai!

An Allegory reaches Ignatius as History

Even 20 years or so, if Mark was written around 90, should not have been a stretch. Unless, of course, Mark was originally written as a piece of symbolism, not meant as history, and it took a couple of decades for the story’s basic features to filter out to the surrounding Christian world, through rumor and missionary contact, through expansion and redaction of the story in other nearby communities, eventually to be accepted by some as historical fact — particularly those who would have found it appealing and useful.

Ignatius seems to have received those rumors and reports, and he and others in his circle of communities have swallowed the new fish whole, while having to contend with those who have failed or refused to do so.

No Apostolic Tradition

Not only does Ignatius not possess a copy of a Gospel, he also argues from a position which lacks a few other things. One of them is apostolic tradition, another is an appeal to simple history within his faith movement: the argument that “Christians have believed these things for generations.” Ehrman is quite mistaken when he says:

And he was bishop in Antioch, the city where both Peter and Paul spent considerable time in the preceding generation, as Paul himself tells us in Galatians 2. His views too can trace a lineage straight back to apostolic times. (pp. 103-104)

And just where in Paul do we find views like those of Ignatius, that Jesus was the son of Mary, that he was baptized by John the Baptist, that he was crucified by Pilate? Tracing a lineage of ideas back through preceding generations, through a chain of apostles and their teaching, is something which Ignatius never does.

Not even the bishops and other community leaders who he urges should be obeyed are appealed to as holding passed-on truths going back to the apostles. (We might note that whatever the dispute in 1 John 4, neither does that writer appeal to a lineage of belief and history, or to the principle of apostolic tradition. In fact, the Johannine community seems at this stage to have nothing that can be traced back to a Jesus, and God is the source of its revelation.)


Ignatius and Docetism

At the same time, we can tell from some passages that Ignatius is also dealing with an issue of docetism, although it seems not to be within any gnostic context. Ignatius’ opponents are members of his own community, and no other doctrines characteristic of Gnosticism contribute to raising his ire. This is a point which scholars usually overlook. If this particular brand of docetism is not part of a wider gnostic outlook, why has it raised its head in Ignatius’ community?

First, let’s look at a couple of representative passages (to which we could add the ‘touch me’ scene of Smyrneans 3 mentioned above):

It is asserted by some who deny God…that his sufferings were not genuine [Trallians 10].

So what is the point of my standing well in the opinion of a man who blasphemes my Lord by denying that he ever bore a real human body? [Smyrneans 5:2]

The whole issue of docetism is a perplexing one. Why, whether here or in a developing gnostic community, would it suddenly appear after almost a century of traditional belief in an historical Jesus, during which no one voiced any objection to believing in a divine son of God who had actually suffered in flesh, who actually partook of human nature? Paul certainly shows no problem with the idea, nor is there any sign that anyone around him did. (Of course, apart from a couple of ambiguous statements, the epistles don’t show the very concept that any human flesh or nature was involved, but let’s consider the situation if it were.)

The traditional view of docetism sees it as a sudden about-face by certain Christian teachers and thinkers, the complete rejection of a presumably universal view of Jesus held for three-quarters of a century as a human being born of a human mother and suffering in human flesh. What would explain this throwing of the Christian faith train into reverse? Why would there be a widespread enough acceptance of such new preaching — or at least a willingness to consider it — that Ignatius must regard it as of the greatest danger to contemporary communities and preach so virulently against it? What established Christian would be ready to subscribe to a dramatic reversal of the faith to such negativity: that Jesus Christ had not been real, had not suffered, had not taken on true humanity?

The solution is to realize that prior to the end of the first century, no one had believed the opposite. Christ was a heavenly figure who suffered, died and rose in the spiritual dimension. But at precisely the time when the first idea that Christ had been on earth arose (largely through an evolution within the Q sect and a misunderstanding of the Gospels which grew out of it) we find the first objections to a human Jesus, a philosophically-based resistance but one dependent on the new claim that the heavenly Son of God had been on earth in a human incarnation.

This is why a type of docetism could arise in a ‘traditional’ Christian community (of the Pauline type) which had nothing to do with Gnosticism, and why it had not arisen earlier. It is why Ignatius cannot appeal to traditional belief, because both outlooks — an historical Jesus and a docetic Jesus — are of recent vintage, competing on the same level playing field.

Reactions to the historical Jesus

In Ignatius’ milieu, we see that the new development of an historical Jesus gave rise to more than one type of push-back.

  1. Some were saying, well, if there was a human Christ on earth, he had to have only seemed to be human, since God would not lower himself so far as to take on human nature.
  2. Others had a different reaction: they simply denied (as they seem to be doing in 1 John 4 as well) that such a thing had happened, and thus Ignatius had to declare that Jesus Christ had really been born, really been baptized, had really been crucified by Pilate.

Ignatius’ language in various passages shows that he was dealing with those two different and equally unacceptable positions. (He also tackles those who want to re-establish certain Jewish practices, so scholarship has already recognized that his opponents are of different varieties.)


From the heavenly Christ to the historical Christ

If Ignatius (or his forger, who would have inhabited the same thought-world) straddles the crossover line, one foot in the old cultic heavenly Christ camp and the other in the new historicist camp, we would expect to find indications of both in the letters, a sign of the old morphing into the new. And so there are, notably in Ephesians 19 in which a cultic myth is set in the realm of the stars, with revelations to the heavenly aeons, things such as the conception and birth of Christ as well as his death being hidden from “the ruler of this age” which is an unmistakeable reference to Satan. (Compare the same phrase and concealment motif in 1 Cor. 2:8.)

Such secret events were “brought to pass in the deep silence of God.” In other words, in a mythical dimension.

None of this is consistent with a life on earth — which failed to deter Ignatius, who craved a human Jesus suffering like himself in flesh. We again meet the idea that “God was manifested/revealed in the likeness of men.” All these motifs and language are familiar from the epistles — akin to the atmosphere of the pre-Pauline Christological hymns — but which are foreign to the Gospels and established historicism.

Upon that highly mythological ‘hymn’ Ignatius has superimposed one obvious Gospel element: the ‘virgin’ to whom the Lord was born was named Mary, an item Paul never gives us. It would be the same as if some later Christian had taken chapter 12 of Revelation, with its mythical scene of the heavenly birth of the Messiah to “the woman robed with the sun,” and given her a name out of a later earthly story. Or the “virgin” in the Odes of Solomon, No.19, originally referring to personified Wisdom, being identified with the Gospel Mary — which it has been by some conservative scholars today.

None of this complex and subtle dimension to be seen in the figure and epistles of Ignatius is even remotely recognized by Bart Ehrman.


. . . to be continued


Enhanced by Zemanta


  • 2012-05-18 03:18:51 UTC - 03:18 | Permalink

    @Earl Doherty , Hello

    Good essay. Thanks. I’m confused on the point that Ignatius (or the Ignatian interpolator/redactor) did not refer to a written Gospel when the link you provided to Magnesians 9:2 shows notes identifying several quotes and allusions to passages in Gospel of John and Matthew or NT epistles. For instance: “If ye had believed Moses, ye would have believed Me, for he wrote of Me;” looks like a direct quote of John 5:46, and “lovers of pleasure, and not lovers of God, having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof.” seems to be from 2 Tim 3:4-5a.

    Wouldn’t critics cite such to show Ignatius did have access, perhaps memorized, to Gospels and Epistles? Have embedded quotes like those in Mag. 9:2 been shown to probably be interpolations?

    Best Wishes

    • Will A
      2012-05-18 03:21:17 UTC - 03:21 | Permalink

      That’s the longer recension you’re quoting from dude – what everyone agrees is later expansion. At this site, only the first para in each chapter is the shorter recension – http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.v.iii.ix.html

      • 2012-05-18 22:45:05 UTC - 22:45 | Permalink

        Hello Will A: Thank you for pointing that out to me. For some reason, I thought the seven longer epistles were not included as part of the Apostolic Fathers books. Just goes to show me to take nothing for granted; my basic assumptions are to be questioned. Have a great weekend and stay safe out there.

    • 2012-05-20 11:09:18 UTC - 11:09 | Permalink

      By the way, there is one good indication that ‘Ignatius’ does not know the Gospel of John. For purposes of his ‘touch me’ scene in Smyrneans 3, which he does not identify as from any Gospel, John’s “doubting Thomas” scene would have been perfect, yet he does not draw on it.

  • Will A
    2012-05-18 03:18:53 UTC - 03:18 | Permalink

    I’m rly not sure that Ignatius is addressing two separate sets of opponents. The passage from Smyrneans 1-2 is followed by anti-docetist rhetoric (ch 2). Similarly the Trallians 9 passage is followed straight away by anti-docetist rhetoric in ch 10. Magnesians 11 has no anti-docetist rhetoric, but it’s not obvious from the wording that the author has anti-historicists in view.

    I would love to have Ignatius as strong evidence for MJ, but I think Earl is trying to make it stronger than it is.

    • 2012-05-20 11:06:18 UTC - 11:06 | Permalink

      I thought I had explained in some detail why and how two different reactions against an HJ could have arisen in Ignatius’ time, Whether the two are juxtaposed in a few places (and why should they not be, if Ignatius covers both bases while railing on the subject of his various “mad dogs”?) doesn’t change the fact of what the language itself conveys: both anti-historicism and docetism.

  • 2012-05-18 03:29:53 UTC - 03:29 | Permalink

    Perhaps this might be useful in thinking of Ignatius’ epistles.

    The Ignatian Epistles Entirely Spurious by W. D. Killen


  • mcduff
    2012-05-18 04:50:30 UTC - 04:50 | Permalink

    The issue of dating a person named Ignatius [who may or may not be the author of whatever recension such a person is purported to have so authored] has been discussed at FRDB. It was pointed out there that Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians mentions an Ignatius as being a contemporary.
    It was suggested that Polycarp’s reference in that letter to ‘2 kings’ is a reference to the era of the co-leadership of the Roman Empire by Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verius which is dated from 161-169 ce and thus both Polycarp and Ignatius would fit into that time span some half a century later than orthodoxy likes to suggest.
    If so that is past the time of even late dating of the gospels and so any reference to them would be unsurprising and, being so late, no witness to an HJ.
    The whole question of dating almost any purported person or event from the second century is much less clear than orthodoxy likes to admit.

    • Anna Nimous
      2012-05-19 05:24:33 UTC - 05:24 | Permalink

      Very interesting. That would kind of make sense. Isn’t it Irenaeus who gives us our first unambiguously explicit references to the canonical gospels by name? Since his writings post date the 160s, that seems quite corroborative.

    • 2012-05-20 11:00:08 UTC - 11:00 | Permalink

      Do you really think that if the Ignatian ‘originals’ were written only in the 160s, that they would contain such a dearth of Gospel material, no appeal to apostolic tradition, etc.? And not a word about written accounts from which his claims would have been taken?

      As far as I’m concerned that trumps any possibility of reading a reference like ‘two kings’ as having to refer to Aurelius and his co-emperor.

    • mcduff
      2012-05-20 12:26:10 UTC - 12:26 | Permalink

      Gidday Earl,
      I think the whole field of alleged early christian/patristic writings is a ramshackle edifice of shonky buildings built on a swamp of shifting sands that defy gravity.
      If you look at one corner of the building you see loose bricks, rotten mortar, termite riddled wood all held up by a loose framework of struts that sway in the slightest breeze and yet that bit of the building is used to support other eaqually unstable sections which in turn support the former. An architect’s nightmare.
      Nothing is certain.
      I recently read a conservative scholar on the Pastoral Epistles [Houlden J.L. “The PE’s: Pelican NT Commentaries” Penguin 1976] who makes it clear that he dates those 3 purported Pauline epistles as early to mid second century.
      Well after the orthodox dating of the gospels which puts the last gospel at late 90s.
      He is far from alone in this dating of the PEs as post Paul and post gospels.
      Yet the PEs do not have direct quotes etc of the gospels [or so I understand].

      I would suggest that this may be because the author[s] of the PEs is pretending to be Paul writing several decades previously and is consciously back dating the material to avoid anachronistic gospel references and so, in a back handed way, this is support for a late dating for the gospels.

      For me the trump card that something is not right about the Ignatiana is the absurdity of the scenario that functions as their background – 10 soldiers escorting a prisoner to Rome who allow fellow criminals to somehow find him along the way and engage in conversation etc. Nup, very shonky.

  • Jon Steinar Ragnarsson
    2012-05-22 06:56:16 UTC - 06:56 | Permalink

    I have not read Ehrmans book, but I have followed some of the discussion and critique. I’m at awe by his claims and shameless fallacy’s of argument. That is, if I am to believe what Im reading here. What happened to the man? He discredits mythisists for lack of credentials, but assumes himself as an authority in archeology where he dishonestly attacks Rene Salm, for example. (I wonder if he did the same to the Archeologist Aviram Oshri who has shown that Bethlehem in Judea didn’t even exist at the time.)

    Anyhow, regarding Antioch and the period in discussion, I have not yet seen any mention of Bishop Theophilius (115-185) who seems to be oblivious about many things regarding this “established” religion and personal faith though living in this alleged hub of early Christianity. He even does not refer to himself as a Christian, but says that he is mocked by people calling him this name in a scolding manner. He accepts being called Christian thoug and defends the name as fitting his faith. Never mentions any persecutions as far as I know, just some teasing. More interestingly, in his writings of 29.000 words or so, he never even mentions Jesus, much less the infamous Jesus Christ. He hints at some unnamed gospels without further details, wich is not very much to build upon. (Mark even speaks of a gospel).
    Any thoughts on that Earl?

  • Roger Parvus
    2012-06-02 19:41:55 UTC - 19:41 | Permalink

    As some Vridar readers are aware, my own theory is that the original author of the so-called Ignatians was Peregrinus and that he was a follower of the ex-Marcionite Apelles. And I think the two groups of opponents in the letters should be identified as Marcionites and proto-orthodox Christians—Marcionites, of course, being the docetic adversaries, and the proto-orthodox being the Judaizers. I hold that Peregrinus wrote the letters in the early 140s with his execution at Antioch in view—a martyrdom that was thwarted when he was instead released by the governor of Syria. Peregrinus’ subsequent apostasy from Christianity rendered his letters unusable by Christians. That changed when later, toward the end of the second century, a proto-orthodox Christian made modifications to them, turning them into letters of “Ignatius.” (Those interested in a fuller exposition of the theory can find it on this Vridar site in a series of posts entitled “The Letters Supposedly Written by Ignatius of Antioch”).

    Earl Doherty makes some excellent observations regarding the Ignatians. He has noticed not just one but several peculiarities that, to my knowledge, have been overlooked by patristic scholars. I maintain, however, that my theory can plausibly account for the curious features. They in fact confirm the identifications I have made above of the principal parties involved. Here’s what I mean:

    1. Non-gnostic docetism

    Earl points out

    that Ignatius is also dealing with an issue of docetism, although it seems not to be within any gnostic context… and no other doctrines characteristic of Gnosticism contribute to raising his ire.

    To me this feature is an additional confirmation that the prisoner’s docetic adversaries were Marcionites. Marcion’s system lacked many doctrines characteristic of Gnosticism. It didn’t include, for example, the many divine emanations that were a part of so many Gnosticisms. Or, another example, the fallen sparks of divinity in man. Earl is aware of this Marcionite peculiarity. On page 293 of his book Jesus: Neither God Nor Man he writes: “Ironically, the most famous ‘Gnostic,’ Marcion, almost fails the Gnosticism test, since he lacked more than one essential feature of that generality.” But perhaps because Earl dates the Ignatians to no later than the third decade of the second century, he appears not to have considered the possibility that the docetists in question were Marcionites.

    In my series of posts on the Ignatians I provide some other reasons to identify the docetic opponents as Marcionites. I would like to add one here that I left out: In the letter to the Smyrneans it is said that they praised the prisoner, apparently for his willing embrace of martyrdom (IgnSmyr. 5:2). Now, if Irenaeus can be believed, Gnostics generally denied the value of martyrdom (see Against Heresies, 3,18,5). But the extant record does include a notable exception: Marcionites. Proto-orthodox literature itself is witness that that there were Marcionite martyrs.

    2. No apostolic tradition or history

    Earl wrote that Ignatius

    also argues from a position which lacks a few other things. One of them is apostolic tradition, another is an appeal to simple history within his faith movement: the argument that “Christians have believed these things for generations.”

    Earl is right about this. In fact, the letters do not give the impression that the communities had much of a history at all. The single reference that could be interpreted as referring to their existence in earlier days is in IgnEph. 12:1. But even there, it appears that Ignatius/Peregrinus is just calling attention to the fact that Paul mentions Ephesus in his letters. Otherwise there are no indications that the addressed communities were in existence even a generation ago, let alone apostolic times. In praising the bishops of the communities (Onesimus, Damas, Polybius) the prisoner says not a word about any predecessors of theirs. There is no admonition to any of them to continue in the footsteps of their exemplary predecessor so-and-so. And the communities are never praised for fidelity to any belief—not just one related to docetism—that an earlier generation of members had handed on to them.

    In short, the letters contain nothing to rule out the possibility that the faith community in question was recently established. My theory can account for this: It was Apellean, and so had no continuity with earlier—let alone apostolic— times. In fact, it had scarcely any attachment even to the Old Testament Scriptures. Marcion and Apelles held that the church had gone wrong almost from the start. They viewed their work as a work of restoration, but a restoration based largely on their understanding of Paul and his letters, not on any unbroken tradition or succession of teachers in the past.

    Apelles, however, also based some of his teachings on the revelations of his prophetess associate Philumena. So when Earl writes that the Smyrneans 3 “touch me” post-resurrection scene could be “some Christian prophet’s invention”, he may very well be right. As I see it, it may be a revelation of Philumena’s that shortly afterwards—when the proto-orthodox sanitized the Apellean gospel—became the doubting Thomas scene of the newly created Fourth Gospel.

    3. “True” happenings

    Earl argues that a distinction should be made among the statements that say something “truly” happened. He writes that some of them

    can also fit a claim that something was true in actuality, that it really existed or took place.

    In fact, some of them seem to require that meaning, rather than an anti-docetic sense of “genuinely, as opposed to illusory”.

    I think the distinction Earl has picked up on really exists in the letters, but I would account for its presence differently. In part it is due to the nature of Apellean engagement with proto-orthodox belief. That is the context of one of the passages Earl brought forward, IgnMag. 11:1, where it does indeed appear that the in actuality historical fact of the passion and resurrection are emphasized. They are said to be things that not just “truly” happened, but “truly and certainly”. But it is important to notice the circumstances: the prisoner is putting his readers on guard against his Judaizing opponents, i.e. the proto-orthodox. In the eyes of the Apelleans the proto-orthodox were Judaizers because they made full use of the Old Testament to support their teaching. Apelles, on the other hand, taught that the writings of Judaism were in large part fables and falsehoods. This Apellean dismissal of the Old Testament protrudes earlier in the Magnesians letter, in IgnMag. 8:1, where Judaism is described as “falsehoods and old fables which are worthless.” So the contrast that is being made in the later Magnesians passage is between the passion and resurrection that really happened and the empty, baseless stories of the Old Testament that didn’t.

    We find a similar contrast in the Philadelphians letter where the prisoner is again in discussion with Judaizers. Whereas they would base their faith on the “archives” (i.e. Old Testament), he instead would base it on something solid: “But for me the archives are Jesus Christ, the inviolable archives are his cross and death and his resurrection and faith through him” (IgnPhil. 8:2). As I see it, the prisoner, in his engagements with the proto-orthodox belief, emphasized that the crucifixion and resurrection really happened in order to clearly distinguish those events from the false and fabulous things related in the Old Testament.

    But that is only part of the solution. In some of the instances the in actuality items are additions inserted by the interpolator in order to make up for beliefs missing from the teaching of Apelles. Apelles’ brand of anti-docetism was unique. He taught that

    Christ allowed himself to suffer in that very body, was truly crucified and truly buried and truly rose, and showed that very flesh to his own disciples…(Panarion, 44, 2, 7-8, my emphases)

    But his insistence on the reality of Christ’s flesh revolved around that flesh’s crucifixion and resurrection. That is, he retained from his days as a Marcionite the belief that Christ descended to this world as an adult. Thus his anti-docetism did not extend to any nativity of Christ or childbearing by Mary. Apelles held that

    He (Christ) has not appeared in semblance at his coming, but has really taken flesh; not from Mary the virgin, but he has real flesh and a body, though not from a man’s seed or a virgin woman. (Panarion, 44,2,2,)

    As I see it, that distinction posed a problem for the later proto-orthodox interpolator of the Ignatians. He had letters by an Apellean in which there was emphasis on the real bodily suffering and resurrection of Christ, but no mention of the childbearing of Mary, birth of Christ, or descent from David. Those missing items were important elements of proto-orthodox belief in the incarnation of Christ. So as part of the conversion of Apellean Peregrinus into the proto-orthodox Ignatius, the missing items were inserted.

    The added items appear in passages that Schoedel characterizes as semi- or quasi-creedal (Ignatius of Antioch, pp. 84, 152, 220). I think that the interpolator was doing his work around the same time (late second century) that the Roman proto-orthodox church was in the process of forming its creed (the so-called Apostles Creed). The quasi-creedal additions were meant to supply for any perceived deficiencies in the beliefs of the Apellean author of the original letters.

    4. The Ephesians hymn

    There is one item that Earl does acknowledge as superimposed. In regard to the hymn in IgnEph. 19 he writes:

    Upon that highly mythological ‘hymn’ Ignatius has superimposed one obvious Gospel element: the ‘virgin’ to whom the Lord was born was named Mary, an item Paul never gives us.

    Earl is not alone in seeing superimpositions in the hymn. The biblical scholar Alfred Loisy held that two of the three mysteries in the hymn were insertions: Mary’s virginity and her childbearing. But I myself would argue that it was the later interpolator who did the superimposing. And I think I know why he did it.

    If we ignore the hymn’s apparently superimposed items its true character emerges: it is a hymn about Christ’s Ascension. The astonishing “star” is not some kind of marker of the spot where the Son was born on earth, it is the Son himself ascending through the lower heavens back to his heavenly Father. (Earl too identifies the star as the Son: “The ‘star’ no doubt represents God’s emanation the Son…” – Jesus Neither God Nor Man, p. 304. But he appears not to have recognized the Ascension character of the scene.)

    Now the extant record informs us that the Ascension belief of the Apelleans was unacceptable to the proto-orthodox. According to Apelles, Christ rose from the dead in his flesh, but he did not ascend to heaven in it! He set aside the elements out of which he had constructed his real human body and returned to heaven without it:

    And thus, after again separating the body of flesh from himself, he soared away to the heaven from which he had come. (Epiphanius, Panarion, 44, 2, 7-8)

    This scenario was unacceptable, of course, to the proto-orthodox:

    And tell me, what was the point of his abandoning it (his body) again after the resurrection, even though he had raised it? … If he raised it to destroy it again, this is surely stage business, and not an honest act… They (the disciples) did not see his remains left anywhere—there was no need for that, and it was not possible. And Apelles and his school of Apelleans are lying. (Panarion, 44, 3, 9 and 44, 5, 10)

    I submit that the proto-orthodox interpolator, by inserting Mary’s virginity and childbearing into the Ephesians hymn, aimed to convert the star of an unacceptable Apellean Ascension scene into something bearing at least a slight resemblance to the proto-orthodox star of Bethlehem. To the same end the interpolator added “as man” at the end of the hymn (“Thus God was manifested [as man]…). It is those additions that are responsible for the problem Earl calls attention to on page 304 of JNGNM:

    Some scholars have attempted to see this myth as referring only to God’s “preparation” for the Jesus event on earth, but the effects the ‘star’ brings about have happened—they were “brought to pass”—and they can only have come about as a result of the event already having taken place.

    5. The Prisoner’s Gospel

    Earl writes:

    A single passage in the letters resembles a Gospel scene. In Smyrneans 3, Ignatius offers a “touch me” post-resurrection scene to ‘prove’ that Jesus rose in the flesh of his former body and was not a phantom. But here, too, he does not point to a document as his source, or even to apostolic tradition. Scholars like Schoedel (op.cit., p.225) tend to judge that he is not deriving it from Luke’s similar scene, nor from John’s ‘doubting Thomas’ scene, but either from something of his own or some Christian prophet’s invention, or from a floating oral tradition.

    The prisoner’s failure to directly appeal to a written gospel doesn’t particularly bother me for this reason: No one has the least doubt that he knew of written Pauline letters but he doesn’t appeal to those either. We don’t find in the letters: “As Paul says…” or “As is written in 1 Corinthians…” That’s not the prisoner’s style. Instead he here and there mixes words and phrases from the Pauline letters with his own words. And many scholars hold that he has followed the same procedure in his use of his gospel. They see, for instance, the following as inspired by the Fourth Gospel:

    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)

    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)

    As therefore the Lord did nothing without the Father, being united with him… (IgnMag. 7:1)

    …through Jesus Christ his Son… who in all things was pleasing to him who sent him. (IgnMag. 8:2)

    In my series of posts on the Ignatians I give additional reasons to see the Fourth Gospel as a proto-orthodox reworking of the gospel of Apelles, the Manifestations. If the Manifestations was extant, I expect we would recognize many more echoes from it in the Ignatians. It should be kept in mind too that it may still have been a work in progress in the early 140s, based as it was on the ongoing revelations of the prophetess Philumena.

    And because of the above Johannine connection I am not surprised that the prisoner, in his arguments against docetism, doesn’t use Mark’s passion account. Earl writes that

    Mark’s passion account alone, with its scene of a tortured Jesus in Gethsemane and the despairing cry from the cross, would have been perfect ammunition against those who were claiming that Jesus did not suffer.

    True enough. But the Johannine/Apellean tradition is at times at odds with the Markan one. The time when Christians would accept four gospels and blithely explain away the contradictions between them had not yet arrived. The Johannine Jesus is calm, dignified, majestic and far above the making of despairing cries from the cross. In fact, many scholars think that Jn. 12:27-28 was written expressly to repudiate the Markan Gethsemane scene: “And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.”

    As I see it, the Johannine/Apellean perspective on the passion is better reflected by passages like IgnEph 15:1. “Now there was one teacher who spoke and it was accomplished. And the deeds which he did in silence are worthy of the Father.” Jesus at one point kept silent before Pilate: “Jesus did not answer him. So Pilate said to him, ‘You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?’” And on the cross the Johannine Jesus says “It is accomplished.”

    And I see no reason why the Smyrneans 3 post-resurrection scene could not be from Apelles’ Manifestations gospel. The intent of that scene is to prove that Jesus rose in the flesh of his former body and was not a phantom. Such an anti-docetic intent squares with what is known about Apelles own priorities. As Hippolytus relates: Apelles taught that Jesus “showed them (his disciples) the prints of the nails and the wound in his side, desirous of persuading them that he was in truth no phantom, but was present in the flesh” (The Refutation of All Heresies, 7,26).

    So, to sum up: Earl’s insightful observations have unquestionably added to our knowledge of the Ignatian letters. But, in my opinion, the curious features he has called attention to are best explained by my Ignatian theory. Of course, on the larger issue of whether the Ignations can be regarded as an independent witness to a historical Jesus, both of our scenarios reach the same conclusion: No!

  • Pingback: Dabating the Place of the Ignatian Letters in Christian Origins: Doherty & Parvus « Vridar

  • Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *