Solving a Puzzle (or four) in the Letters of Ignatius: The Christian Years of Peregrinus

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by Roger Parvus


This post is a continuation of The Letters of Ignatius: Originally Written By Peregrinus?

In my previous post I showed that Peregrinus, as described by Lucian, bears great resemblance to the man who wrote the letters commonly ascribed to Ignatius of Antioch, and I proposed that the reason for their similarity is that the real author of the letters was Peregrinus.

In his adult life he was first a Christian, but later abandoned Christianity to become a Cynic philosopher. So, some of the similarities noted are those that existed between those two periods of his life.



According to Lucian, what characterized Peregrinus was that he “always did and said everything with a view to glory and the praise of the multitude.” (TDOP 42, Harmon).

And his glory-seeking was already clearly present in his Christian days when the governor of Syria freed him because he realized that Peregrinus “would gladly die in order that he might leave behind him a reputation for it.” (TDOP 14, Harmon). So I see it as quite plausible that many of the ways he pursued glory as a Cynic would be similar to the ways he pursued it earlier as a Christian.

Publicity letters

When, as a Cynic, he sought to die a fiery death, he sent out letters to publicize the event. Earlier, I maintain, when he sought to die a martyr’s death as a Christian, he sent out letters too, among which are the seven so-called Ignatians.

Bestowing titles on his messengers

As a Cynic enamored of death, he gave titles to the messengers who spread the news of his upcoming leap to glory. I submit that the similar titles present in the letter collection are an indication that earlier, as a Christian enamored of martyrdom, he had already engaged in that practice. The specific titles were different, of course, because of the difference in his affiliation. But the very idea of giving titles to the messengers is the same.

Desire to imitate the gods into the invisible realm

And as a Cynic he proclaimed his desire to dissolve into thin air via fire so as to imitate Heracles. To this would correspond his earlier proclamation, as a Christian, that he desired to be visible no more, and to be — courtesy of a painful execution by the Romans — an imitator of the passion of his God.

A new name

And, as I see it, his adoption of new names to mark important moments in his life was not something he only began once he became a Cynic. No, the greeting at the head of each of the seven letters from “Ignatius who is also Theophorus” shows that it was already there during his Christian period. His becoming a prisoner in chains for Christ was one of those moments that called for a new name. (In a later post I will come back to this and look more closely at the name he took to mark the occasion).


An Objection

One could object at this point that Lucian did not appear to notice the specific parallels I have indicated between Peregrinus the Christian and Peregrinus the Cynic.

But we need to remember, first of all, that TDOP actually devotes very little space to the Christian period of the life of Peregrinus. Most of it is devoted, as its title indicates, to the death of Peregrinus, the death he leapt to as a Cynic.

And, secondly, Lucian clearly says that what he relates about the Christian period he learned from someone else. He was personally present during the final days when Peregrinus the Cynic spoke about his upcoming flamboyant demise, and he was among the crowd of people there to watch it. But he doesn’t claim to have been present at the goings-on that accompanied Peregrinus’ earlier brush with death as a Christian.

Lucian’s descriptions are more precise when he speaks about the last period of Peregrinus’ life. And this is true about the geographical information he provides. He mentions towns and cities; Elis, Harpina, and the Troad, for instance.

But the geographical information about the Christian period is second hand and more vague. He knows from his source that Peregrinus embraced Christianity during the course of his wanderings in ‘Palestine’ but no town or city is specified. And he knows from his source that Peregrinus was jailed somewhere in the jurisdiction of the governor of Syria, but, again, no town or city is specified. And we are not told where Peregrinus was arrested or any other details of the arrest.

But if I am right that the so-called Ignatians provide us with a window onto the Christian period of Peregrinus’ life—specifically, the time immediately after his arrest—we should be able to plausibly fill in some of the blanks in Lucian’s account.

To do that, we will start by taking a look at another of the similarities.


The Delegates From the Cities Of Asia

“. . . people came even from the cities in Asia, sent by the Christians at their common expense, to succour and defend and encourage their hero [Peregrinus].” (Lucian)

Both TDOP and the letter collection make mention of a gathering of Christians that drew participants from as far away as the Roman province of Asia. Lucian says 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” imprisoned by the governor of Syria (TDOP 13, Harmon).

For his part, the author of the letter collection, while passing through cities in Asia, requests that the churches in those cities send delegates to Antioch in Syria to congratulate the church there.

Could the Asian delegates in the letters be the same Asian delegates that are in Lucian’s TDOP?


Send ambassadors of God to Antioch . . .

rejoice with them . . .

you too will be glorified . . .

for the honour of God . . .

the Antioch church has obtained its own greatness . . .

they have had their poor body restored to them (Letters of ‘Ignatius’)

Ostensibly the reason for the sending of congratulators was that peace had been restored to the church of Antioch. Thus, in the letter to the church at Philadelphia we read:

It has been reported to me that … the church at Antioch in Syria is at peace. It is fitting, then, that you, as a church of God, should appoint a deacon to go there as an Ambassador of God, to rejoice with them when they assemble and to glorify the Name. Blessed in Jesus Christ is he who will be deemed worthy of such a ministry. You too will be glorified. If you desire it, it is not impossible for you to do this for God’s name, even as the churches which are nearest have sent bishops, and others presbyters and deacons. (IgnPhil. 10:1-2).

And in the letter to the church at Smyrna:

Your prayer has gone forth to the church which is at Antioch in Syria… In order, then, that your work may be made perfect on earth as well as in heaven, it is fitting for the honor of God that your church should appoint an Ambassador of God to go to Syria and rejoice with them because they are at peace and have obtained their own greatness and have had their own body restored to them. (IgnSmyr. 11:1-2).

P.N. Harrison makes some interesting observations about these passages in his book Polycarp’s Two Epistles. It was Harrison who years ago conclusively demonstrated that the peace restored to the church at Antioch was not the cessation of a persecution by the state. One of the key arguments he used was that “to be at peace” in the above passages is the translation of a Greek word that in the New Testament:

It is used only as the antithesis to factions and strife within the Christian community. Ignatius himself uses it elsewhere in this sense only. In the Apostolic Fathers it carries this meaning invariably… Neither in Liddel and Scott’s Lexicon, nor in Thayer’s, nor in Walter Bauer’s admirable Worterbuch, nor in Moulton and Milligan, do we find a single instance of its use elsewhere to denote the end of a persecution. (Polycarp’s Two Epistles, p. 84).

And nowhere in the letters is there any mention of a general persecution of Christians in Antioch. The church there, then, had apparently been troubled from within by factions, and the restoration of peace meant that those who still remained after the disruption were at peace with each other. For the state to get involved, it seems clear that the internal turmoil apparently did spill over and become a public disturbance. But, as William Schoedel notes,

The arrest of one considered the leader of a disruptive group would probably have sufficed to maintain public order. (Ignatius of Antioch, p. 213).



A Puzzle

But what rightly puzzled Harrison about the passages was why the author of the letters made such a big deal about sending congratulatory delegates to Antioch at all. The following paragraphs are from one of Harrision’s arguments against the old ‘persecution theory’:

Would he (the author of the letters) quite naturally insist that every Church with which he had recently come into contact, and every Church that lay on the road from Smyrna to Antioch, must forthwith send representatives, and only if this were impossible, letters, so great a distance, for the sole purpose of congratulating them?

What useful purpose would be served by this great organized scheme of massed congratulations?

  • In what way would it redound to ‘the glory of God’ (IgnPoly. 7),
  • or how was ‘God’s honour’ (IgnSmyr. 11) at stake in this?
  • How did he justify to himself, and to the Christians … of Asia, his demand that so many people, in so many places, should put themselves and others to the very considerable trouble and expense involved in these commissions?

He offers no explanation, but takes for granted that the reasons for it will be as obvious to all concerned, as to himself.

But are they obvious?

On the contrary, in the circumstances presupposed by the usual interpretation, we can find no reason, no justification, and no intelligible motive for such a demand.

Here were a number of presumably busy people, occupying positions of some importance (in their own estimation, and in that of Ignatius), and already fully engaged in what they sincerely believed to be ‘God’s work.’ Why should they be called upon to leave all this, and spend many weeks in travelling hundreds of miles on foot, simply to assure their fellow-Christians at Antioch that they rejoiced with them in their present immunity from persecution? Might it not have been taken for granted—at least until someone was going that way on some more practical business—that of course they were all delighted to hear of it? Was it really necessary, or even worthwhile, to go so far out of their way to tell them so? (Polycarp’s Two Epistles, pp. 91-92 — formatting and bolding by Neil)

The best explanation Harrison can come up with to explain the insistence on sending congratulators to Antioch was the would-be martyr’s desire to encourage unity in the churches.

But Harrison himself seemed to realize the weakness of that explanation too.

He concedes that:

If the interpretation of that message from Antioch now offered were shown to be after all mistaken, this would indeed affect our whole conception of the true inwardness of the life-story of Ignatius, and especially of his reasons for reacting to that message as he did, but the fact of his reactions to it, as recorded in his own words… would still remain. From this fact there is no escape. It is certain,

  • first, that he was profoundly moved – overjoyed – to hear what had happened at Antioch after he left;
  • secondly, that he at once, in the limited time at his disposal, set about promoting his great scheme by which congratulations were to be sent to Antioch forthwith from every Church that could be persuaded to join in;
  • and thirdly his own words leave no doubt but that, for some reason which to him, and at least to some others, seemed sufficient, he attached the very highest importance, and the most extreme urgency, to this matter.

He could not possibly have written as he did, unless he had felt sure that these errands and messages would in some definite way further the ends for which he was so eager to die.

Harrison continues:

Exactly why this should be so, and why Ignatius should have laid so much stress on the carrying out of these commissions, why it should have comforted and gladdened his spirit… to know that congratulations were still pouring in upon that Church, may or may not be explained along the lines now suggested. But explained it must be. If not the reasons now given, then some other reasons at least equally strong must be found to account for this certain fact. (Polycarp’s Two Epistles, p. 105).


A Solution

. . . there was soon going to be a Christian prisoner named Peregrinus at Antioch who was eager to become a martyr.

Harrison is right. The strange insistence that congratulators be sent to Antioch demands a strong reason to account for it. And I am convinced that TDOP provides us with that reason: there was soon going to be a Christian prisoner named Peregrinus at Antioch who was eager to become a martyr.

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).

A prospective martyrdom was a strong drawing card for Christians, the kind of strong reason that Harrison was struggling to find in order to explain the congratulator puzzle. Lucian is witness that the prospective martyrdom of a popular Christian was the kind of thing that could motivate Christians in Asia to send, at their common expense, delegates to Syria.

And if the author of the letters was Peregrinus and he wrote them while being led under military escort to Antioch, it would explain—to use Harrison’s words—“the very highest importance, and the most extreme urgency” that the would-be martyr attached to the matter of sending delegates to Antioch.

For just as Peregrinus later, as a Cynic, carefully arranged to have a good turnout at his suicide, so too it is plausible that earlier, as a Christian, he also wanted to be sure his expected execution would be well attended. The prospect of a large crowd to view his sacrifice would be just the sort of thing that— to use Harrison’s words again—“should have comforted and gladdened his spirit.”

The church of Antioch was to be congratulated not just because peace had been restored among them, but even more because one of their own, Peregrinus, had been chosen by God for martyrdom.

Even without an invitation, delegates from Ephesus, Magnesia and Tralles went to meet and encourage the author of the letter collection when they learned of his arrest. But once he heard that peace had been restored in the church at Antioch, he saw the opportunity for an even larger gathering of delegates from many more of the churches. The church of Antioch was to be congratulated not just because peace had been restored among them, but even more because one of their own, Peregrinus, had been chosen by God for martyrdom. That is the “greatness” (IgnSmyr. 11:2) that the Antiochene church has obtained, for, as indicated by IgnRom. 3:3, “Christianity is a thing of greatness when it is hated by the world.”

The Greek word in IgnSmyr. 11:2 that I have translated ‘obtained’ is usually translated ‘received back’ or ‘recovered’ by Ignatian scholars. But it can simply mean ‘receive’ or ‘obtain,’ and is used that way, for instance, in IgnRom 1:

For the beginning has been well ordered, if I attain the grace to obtain my lot unimpeded (William Schoedel’s translation).

The precious lot that Peregrinus hoped to obtain was martyrdom. But the church of Antioch obtained something precious too—greatness—by virtue of having one of their own in chains and selected for martyrdom.

The principle of the more difficult reading being the more likely. — The martyr’s body was

  • “the least member”,
  • “the offscouring”

The poor body of Peregrinus was being forcibly returned to Antioch to be put to death.

The “body that is being restored to them” (IgnSmyr. 11:2) is the shackled body of Peregrinus.

In defense of this claim it should be noted that, depending on the manuscript, the Greek word for “body” is either ‘somateion’ which is a legal term translated ‘corporate body,’ or ‘somation’ which is a ‘small’ or ‘poor’ body. This latter is the word used for Polycarp’s suffering body in the “Martyrdom of Polycarp”. Scholars, in their explanations of IgnSmyr. 11:2, invariably choose the former word, ‘corporate body,’ and reject ‘poor body’ because, as Schoedel says,

What could it mean that they had their small, poor, sick body (their condition as a persecuted community) given back to them? (Ignatius of Antioch, pp. 250-251).

But if the letters were written by Peregrinus and he was being led back to Antioch for execution, the ‘poor body’ makes good sense. For he proclaims that he was “the least member” (IgnPhil. 11:1 ) of the Antiochene church, an “offscouring” (IgnEph. 8:1), and that he hoped his shackled body would soon be delivered to “fire and cross, packs of wild beasts with their clawing and tearing, wrenching of bones and mangling of limbs, the crushing of the whole body.” (IgnRom. 5:3)

The poor body of Peregrinus was being forcibly returned to Antioch to be put to death.

How this solution also answers other puzzles

The above scenario can also provide satisfying explanations of other points raised by Harrison.

  1. It can resolve his puzzlement about “in what way would it redound to ‘the glory of God’, or how was ‘God’s honour’ at stake in this?” Martyrdom is the supreme sacrifice and would be viewed by Christians as honoring God far more than a cessation of squabbling in the church of Antioch.
  2. And when Harrison noted that the would-be martyr “could not possibly have written as he did, unless he had felt sure that these errands and messages would in some definite way further the ends for which he was so eager to die,” he was quite right, but not in the way he expected. The “ends for which he was so eager to die” was, according to Lucian, just one: love of glory. Lucian says it “possessed” Peregrinus (TDOP 1, Harmon). And as Lucian walked away after Peregrinus’ fiery departure from this world, he says he couldn’t help

    reflecting what a strange thing love of glory is, and how this passion alone is inescapable even by those who are considered wholly admirable, let alone that man who in other respects had led a life that was insane and reckless, and not undeserving of the fire. (TDOP 38, Harmon).

    The reason it is not obvious is because the letters (in their current state) have been tampered with.
  3. Finally, Harrison was puzzled because the author of the letters takes for granted that the reason for sending congratulators will be obvious to all concerned. But, says Harrsion, it isn’t obvious. To which I respond: The reason it is not obvious is because the letters (in their current state) have been tampered with. The readers of the original letters knew that their popular would-be martyr Peregrinus was being led back to Antioch for martyrdom. So, it was obviously very important to immediately send out people to be there for him when he arrived. He, no doubt, wanted them there to congratulate him and the church of Antioch on their good fortune. But human nature being what it is, their main concern became “to succour and defend and encourage the hero. (TDOP 13, Harmon).

In my next post I will look at the other letter that was written after the prisoner learned that peace had been restored in the Antiochene church: The letter to Polycarp. Its peculiarities will confirm that the prisoner was indeed headed to Antioch—not Rome.

Roger Parvus

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Roger Parvus

Roger Parvus is the author of this post. Roger is the author of A New Look at the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch and Other Apellean Writings and two series of Vridar posts: Letters Supposedly Written by Ignatius and A Simonian Origin for Christianity. In a previous life Roger was a Catholic priest.

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5 thoughts on “Solving a Puzzle (or four) in the Letters of Ignatius: The Christian Years of Peregrinus”

  1. The personality of the religious nut-case is a fascinating study. I have been reading “Going Clear” by Lawrence Wright which is a history of L Ron Hubbard and Scientology, the parallels are striking, especially the love of glory, the constant wandering from place to place, and the large output of writings. Hubbard was the most prolific writer of the twentieth century and Peregrinus seems to have left a lot of letters for someone of his times.

    1. Reminds me of that old scoundrel Herbert “W” Armstrong. Constant travel, especially international. Love of glory — always adulated as “the end time apostle” identified in Bible verses, destined to sit on the right hand of Jesus with Elijah on the left. Large output of writings, including monthly letters, often very long, to members.

  2. How (un)common was this type of behaviour? Is more reasonable to think that these two nutters are indeed one and the same, or could this just have been a case of a zeitgeist à la The Sorrows of Young Werther?

    The suggestions from geography and peculiar requests giving here are more suggestive than the original article, though.

    But why would the letters of someone who abandoned the Faith so easily have become so popular so fast? Why preserve the letters of an apostate?

    1. Jens, you ask: “But why would the letters of someone who abandoned the Faith so easily have become so popular so fast? Why preserve the letters of an apostate?”

      I think the letters would initially have become popular both with the Christians who made the trip to Antioch for the expected martyrdom, and among the churches who sent them out as representatives. I expect the Christians gathered at Antioch talked about little else other than Peregrinus while they awaited the blessed event. And I expect that during that period of waiting the attendees swapped, read, and copied the letters the prisoner had deigned to send out to their churches. He may have even composed a few more for them while in prison.

      Lucian is clear that Peregrinus’ arrest made him very popular with his co-religionists:

      Well, Proteus was arrested for being a Christian and thrown into jail, an event which set him up for his future career: now he had standing, a magic aura, and the public notice he was so passionately in love with. Once he was behind bars, the Christians, who considered this a catastrophe, moved heaven and earth to get him free. When this proved to be impossible they went all out to do everything else they could for him. From the crack of dawn on you could see gray-haired widows and orphan children hanging around the prison, and the bigwigs of the sect used to bribe the jailers so they could spend the night with him inside. Full-course dinners were brought to him, their holy scriptures read to him, and our excellent Peregrinus—he was still going under that name at the time—was hailed as a latter-day Socrates. From as far away as Asia Minor, Christian communities sent committees, paying their expenses out of the common funds, to help him with advice and consolation. (TDOP 12, Casson’s translation)

      Who preserved the letters after Peregrinus abandoned the faith? Impossible to know for sure, but my guess would be one of those who was with him at the time of his ordeal and who perhaps even helped him compose the letters. Someone like Philo, for example, “the deacon from Cilicia, a man who has received good testimony and who now serves me in the word of God… “ (IgnPhil. 11:1). Or the Ephesian deacon Burrhus, whose services were requested by the prisoner in IgnEph. 2:1. So, anyone who was personally involved with the composition or dispatch of the letters, or with setting up the convocation at Antioch may have kept them as mementos of better days. That is, until eventually—a few years after Peregrinus had left this world–the idea was hatched of putting the uplifting sentiments expressed in the letters to good use by attributing them to someone who not only was more worthy, but also actually did die a martyr’s death.

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