The complete series is archived here.
I am genuinely grateful to Neil for allowing me to present on his blog a series of posts explaining my theory about the letters commonly attributed to Ignatius of Antioch. It should be understood that his permission does not imply that he concurs with the theory or any part of it. These posts will be a condensed, revised version of the main arguments contained in my self-published book “A New Look at the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch and other Apellean Writings.” In particular I will argue
(1) that the seven Ignatian letters that comprise the ‘middle recension’ were originally letters written by Peregrinus c. 145 CE,
(2) that he was an Apellean Christian i.e. a follower of the ex-Marcionite Apelles, and
(3) that later, towards the end of the second century, the letters were modified by a protoCatholic Christian.
By way of preliminaries I would first point out that the kind of scenario I am proposing for the letters should not be dismissed out of hand. The authenticity of the letters has been questioned by many in the last three hundred years. And it is a fact that there exist versions of them that are acknowledged as spurious by all (e.g. the longer recension of the letters) and that early Christians at some point composed entire Ignatian letters that all scholars recognize as spurious (e.g. the letters of Ignatius to Mary; and to Hero; and to the Tarsians). It is likewise a fact that already in the second century many Christians, with perhaps the best of intentions, were engaged in less-than-straightforward literary efforts. Christian pseudepigraphical writing was not rare and even produced works that made it into the New Testament.
The scenario I am proposing for the Ignatians is similar. I am proposing that some letters written by Peregrinus were later reworked, so that the lofty sentiments they contain would be safe and suitable to inspire other Christians facing persecution by the state. Peregrinus was, for a time, very popular with his Christian brethren and he composed a number of written works for them. But eventually he was caught in an infraction for which they expelled him. He abandoned Christianity and embraced the Cynic discipline. So, if any of the writings of this near-martyr were to later be salvaged for use by the protoCatholics, his name would have had to be removed from them and their true provenance disguised. I maintain that his name was removed from some letters he wrote and replaced with the name of a martyr mentioned by Polycarp in chapter nine of his Letter to the Philippians: Ignatius.
I want to also point out that my theory should not be summarily dismissed on the grounds that a 145 CE date of composition for the original letters is clearly too late. Eusebius, in the fourth century, was the first to claim that the letters were written in the reign of Trajan (98 – 117 CE). A number of scholars have recognized that his dating is untrustworthy, and that the letters should be dated later. To give some recent examples: Allen Brent says “we can…, if we like, place Ignatius’ work towards the end of Hadrian’s reign (AD 135)” (p. 318 of his 2006 book “Ignatius of Antioch and the Second Sophistic.” And Paul Foster, in his “The Writings of the Apostolic Fathers” (2007), placed the composition of the Ignatians at “sometime during the second quarter of the second century, i.e. 125 – 50 CE, roughly corresponding to Hadrian’s reign or the earlier part of Antoninus Pius’ period in office” (p. 89). Timothy Barnes, in a 2008 article in ‘The Expository Times,’ concluded that the letters were written “probably in the 140s” (p. 128). And Richard Pervo, in his “The Making of Paul” published in 2010 says “A date of c. 130 – 140 is the preferable date for Ignatius” (p. 135). Earl Doherty too, in his “Jesus: Neither God Nor Man,” does not have a problem with dating the letters to the third decade of the second century. (p. 296). So I am hardly alone in abandoning the Eusebian date.
Finally, I want to acknowledge upfront that my Ignatian theory is basically a combination and development of ideas first put by others. Daniel Voelter, in his “Polykarp und Ignatius und die ihnen zugeschriebenen Briefe,’ proposed that Peregrinus was the author of the letters attributed to Ignatius. And Josephe Turmel, in his “Lettres d’Ignace d’Antioche,” (written under the pseudonym ‘Henri Delafosse’) argued that the original author of the letters was a Marcionite. Alfred Loisy, in reviewing Turmel’s theory, agreed but specified that he seemed to be a moderate Marcionite such as Apelles (“un marcionite assez mitige sur certain points… tel Apelles” – “Remarques sur la Litterature Epistolaire du Nouveau Testament,” p. 168). It occurred to me that Apelles held a number of quite distinctive doctrines and that, if indeed the letters were written by Apelles or a follower of his, traces of those doctrines might still be detectable in them. My decision to follow up on Loisy’s suggestion was the first step in the development of my theory.
I. PEREGRINUS WROTE THE SO-CALLED IGNATIAN LETTERS
My first contention is that the real author of the Ignatians was Peregrinus Proteus. Before examining the letters themselves it will help to first review what is known about Peregrinus. Almost all of our information about him comes from Lucian of Samosata’s satire, “The Death of Peregrinus.” (I will indicate quotes from this work by the abbreviation ‘TDOP’ and will use the translations of either A. M. Harmon or Lionel Casson). Lucian was a contemporary of Peregrinus. They were at one point passengers on the same ship. And Lucian was present at Peregrinus’ spectacular self-immolation. He considered Peregrinus to be a charlatan and a vain publicity seeker. We need to keep that in mind and be aware that to some extent Lucian’s portrait of Peregrinus may be a caricature. However, Donald Dudley’s assessment is representative of that generally held by scholars, that “though one must always suspect Lucian’s imputation of motives, somewhat more reliance can be placed in his mere statements of fact… It is therefore a fair assumption that the main outlines of Peregrinus’ career as given by Lucian are trustworthy.” (“A History of Cynicism,” pp. 171-172)
Peregrinus is thought to have been born at the beginning of the second century. His hometown was Parium on the Hellespont. Of his early life little is known. After the death of his father—a death neighbors suspected the son had caused by strangulation—Peregrinus imposed on himself a sentence of banishment from Parium and took to the road. The name ‘Peregrinus’ means ‘wanderer,’ and it is possible that it was not his given name, but rather a name he chose for himself when he began his self-imposed exile. Later, at other turning points in his life, he assumed other names (Proteus and Phoenix). Lucian mockingly calls him “He with the most names of all the Cynics.”
During his wanderings Peregrinus visited Palestine and became a Christian. He soon attained a position of authority among them, becoming their “prophet, cult-leader, head of the synagogue, and everything, all by himself. He interpreted and explained some of their books and even composed many…” (TDOP 11. Harmon). At some point he was arrested by the Roman authorities and thrown into prison. During his imprisonment he received much support from his Christian brethren. Lucian notes that “people came even from the cities in Asia, sent by the Christians at their common expense, to succour and defend and encourage the hero.” (TDOP 13, Harmon). The governor of Syria, however, “aware of his recklessness and that he would gladly die in order that he might leave behind him a reputation for it, freed him.” (TDOP 14, Harmon). Upon release Peregrinus returned home to Parium to put an end to the accusations that he had strangled his father. He silenced his accusers by publicly renouncing his inheritance and donating it to the town. He then left Parium to resume his life of wandering.
Eventually he was expelled by the Christians, allegedly for having eaten something forbidden. He then went to Egypt where, under the tutelage of a certain Agathobulus, he embraced Cynicism. Already as a Christian he seems to have had leanings in that direction, for when he returned to Parium after his release from jail, he presented himself in a way usually associated with that discipline, wearing a crop of long hair, an old coat on his back, a sack over his shoulder, and carrying a staff in his hand. From Egypt he made his way to Italy. In his preaching there he insulted the emperor, Antoninus Pius, which resulted in his being expelled from Rome by the city prefect. From Rome he went to Greece where, at Elis, he took an active part in the incitations there against Rome. Moving on to Athens he for a time taught his Cynic philosophy to a number of pupils, amongst them Aulus Gellius.
At the Olympic games — probably those held in 153 CE — he irritated those in attendance by his criticism of the wealthy philanthropist Herodes Atticus for financing the building of an aqueduct at the site of the games. When some picked up stones to throw at him he fled for refuge to the temple of Zeus. Realizing his popularity had been damaged, “at the next Olympiad, he gave the Greeks a speech which he had composed during the four years that had intervened, praising the man who had brought in the water and defending himself for running away at that time.” (TDOP 20, Harmon)
Finally, having announced at the Olympic games of 161 that he would put an end to his life at the next Olympiad by throwing himself onto a funeral pyre, he made good on his promise and publicly burned himself to death on the final night of the games in 165. His self-immolation was well-attended, for he had “sent letters to just about all the important towns, as a sort of last will and testament, with advice and rulings” and, to publicize the event, had “appointed certain of the brethren with the titles of ‘Messengers from Death’ and ‘Couriers of the Grave’” (TDOP 41, Casson). In a pre-demise oration to the assembled crowd he explained that the motive behind his dramatic suicide was his wish “to help all men by showing them the way to scorn death.” And he proclaimed that “just as he had lived like Heracles, he must die like Heracles and dissolve into thin air.”(TDOP 33, Casson).
From Lucian’s sketch of the life of Peregrinus it is apparent that there are many similarities between him and the author of the letters attributed to Ignatius:
- Both are prominent Christian leaders in the same part of the world and were active at about the same time, the second quarter of the second century.
- Both are reputed to be prophets. Peregrinus “had become their prophet, cult-leader, head of synagogue, and what not, all by himself.” The author of the letters claims to have spoken “with the voice of God” (IgnPhil. 3:1) and to receive revelations from the Lord (IgnEph. 20:2). It is sometimes thought that Lucian made a mistake in saying that Peregrinus was head of a ‘synagogue.’ But that word means ‘assembly’ and the author of the letter uses it too to tell his readers to assemble more frequently: “Let synagogues be held more often” (IgnPoly. 6:2.)
- Both figures are associated with a convocation of Christians that drew participants “even from the cities in Asia.”
- Both wrote treatises and last-will type letters of advice and rulings. Peregrinus “sent letters to just about all the important towns, a sort of last will and testament, with advice and rulings… ” This description is an equally apt way to describe the letter collection.
- Both figures conferred titles on their messengers. Peregrinus called them “Death’s Messengers” and “Couriers of the Grave.” The author of the letters called his “God’s Ambassadors” and “Couriers of God.”
- Both figures display an unusual interest in taking on additional names. Peregrinus liked to call himself ‘Proteus’ (TDOP 1) and, later, Phoenix (TDOP 27), while the author of the letters is careful in all seven of them to refer to himself as “Ignatius who is also Theophorus.”
- Both figures have a remarkably similar death wish and loudly profess their desire for martyrdom. Peregrinus, while he was a Christian, wanted to “gladly die in order that he might leave behind him a reputation for it.” Later, after he became a Cynic, he longed “to die like Heracles, and dissolve into thin air.” Compare this to the author of the letters’ longing “to be an imitator of the passion of my God” (IgnRom. 6:3) and “to be visible to the world no more” (IgnRom. 3:2). Notice how in both cases the desire to imitate God is expressed. And in one instance we have total consumption by wild beasts, and in the other total consumption by fire. Do we not seem to be dealing with the same person whose mindset, despite a change of religious affiliation, remained basically the same? Earlier in life he wanted to die suffering like Christ; later, after a transfer of allegiance, he wanted to die like Heracles?
- Access to both prisoners by their religious supporters seems unusually easy. Peregrinus’ supporters “even slept inside with him after bribing the guards. Then elaborate meals were brought in, and sacred books of theirs were read aloud.” (TDOP 12, Harmon). Similarly, the author of the letters has no problem meeting with the Christian delegations that come to see him. He even asks the Ephesians to let one of their number – a deacon named Burrhus – stay on with him to keep him company (IgnEph. 2;1). When he writes to the Philadelphians he has with him a deacon named Philo “ministering to him in the word of God.” (IgnPhil. 11:1). And when he says his guards “are treated well” (IgnRom. 5:1) the reference is apparently to bribes.
- And both figures have a friend with a similar name. Peregrinus, while still a Christian, began to dress like a Cynic, and when he finally was expelled by the Christians he took up Cynicism under the guidance of someone named Agathobulus. The author of the letter collection too knows someone with a name like that: Agathop(o)us. And his description of him as a man “who has renounced this life” (IgnPhil. 11:1) has a Cynic-like ring to it. If Ignatius is Peregrinus, it may be that his Cynic friend too abandoned Christianity when Peregrinus was shown the door.
Now, in light of the above similarities, it seems undeniable that there is some connection between Peregrinus, as described by Lucian, and Ignatius, the supposed author of the letter collection that presently bears his name. There are just too many similarities to deny a connection. It could perhaps be argued that one of these figures consciously imitated the other; that Peregrinus was imitating Ignatius. But is it reasonable to think that Peregrinus went looking for a Cynic with a name close to ‘Agathobulus’ just so he could imitate Ignatius? And, in general, is it reasonable to think a glory-hound like Peregrinus would be satisfied with imitating a contemporary of his, Ignatius, when he clearly sets his aim so much higher: the imitation of no less than Heracles himself? Would someone who is bent on imitating the gods be content to be the copycat of a mere human contemporary?
Some have tried to account for the similarities in another way, by saying that Lucian used elements from the life of Ignatius for his portrait of Peregrinus. But that is pure speculation. Nowhere in any of Lucian’s writings does he mention an Ignatius. And there are so many similarities, what would be left of the portrait of Peregrinus if the items supposedly borrowed from Ignatius were removed? Moreover, if that kind of borrowing took place, wouldn’t Lucian’s contemporaries have noticed how false the portrait was? After all, Lucian wrote “The Death of Peregrinus” only about five years after the notorious leap into the flames. Peregrinus was already being viewed as godlike; so much so that a statue had been erected to him and was, it was said, producing oracles. Lucian’s main object in writing his satire was to show how ridiculous it was to claim that Peregrinus was godlike. But who could Lucian hope to convince if, with Peregrinus’ ashes still warm, he composed a portrait that his contemporaries would recognize was fictitious?
So, I think there is a better explanation for the similarities: Someone put the name ‘Ignatius’ on Peregrinus’ letters as one element in the disguise of those letters. The so-called Ignatians were indeed written by a Christian prisoner on his way to jail. But the prisoner was Peregrinus and he was on his way to jail in Antioch when he wrote the letters. In my next post I will show how that scenario can explain many of their puzzling aspects.
By Roger Parvus
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