Invitations to Watch a Martrydom: The Letters of Ignatius (or Peregrinus) continued

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by Roger Parvus

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

IN MY PREVIOUS POST I argued that the Asian delegates to Antioch mentioned in the letters to Philadelphia and to Smyrna should be identified as being part of the Asian delegations that, according to Lucian, were sent to encourage Peregrinus when he was imprisoned by the governor of Syria.

The author of the letters was Peregrinus, I maintain, and when he wrote them he himself was being led in chains to Antioch for imprisonment and— he hoped—martyrdom.

And having heard that the recent factional turmoil in the church of Antioch had ceased, he wanted the churches in Philadelphia, Smyrna and other cities in Asia to appoint delegates to go Antioch for his martyrdom.


THIS POST will inspect the other letter that he wrote after learning that peace had been restored in the Antiochene church.


That letter is the letter to Polycarp, and although it was written at the same time as the letters to Philadelphia and Smyrna, it differs from them in several significant particulars. As will be seen, these differences are the clue to its true character.

Solving the many puzzles of this letter will confirm that the would-be martyr was indeed being led to Antioch, not Rome.


The Letter to Polycarp

Polycarp is identified as the bishop of Smyrna in the letter addressed to him but, strangely, not in the letter to the Smyrneans that was written at practically the same time.

. . . one would never guess that the two men had just parted.

The prisoner wrote the two letters just a short while after his departure from Smyrna, having visited with Polycarp and his church during his stop there. Yet, from the kind of advice contained in the first five chapters of the letter to Polycarp, one would never guess that the two men had just parted. One could legitimately wonder why they didn’t discuss the material in those chapters when they talked face-to-face presumably just days before. And the advice to Polycarp regarding his responsibilities to the members of his church who are widows, or married, or slaves (IgnPoly 4 & 5) looks like advice for a newly installed bishop.

It looks like most blessed Polycarp has been forced into a text where he was not originally present.

In the letter to Polycarp there is a section (IgnPoly.6:1 – 8:3) apparently intended to be read by a number of people. For in 7:2 the address “most blessed Polycarp” is lodged in a paragraph in which all the second-person personal pronouns are in the plural form. It looks like most blessed Polycarp has been forced into a text where he was not originally present. And in IgnPoly. 8:1-3 there is what William Schoedel calls “the surprising alternation between singular and plural.

Schoedel acknowledges that “there seems to be no parallel in ancient letters for such a shift from singular to plural,” but he explains it by saying:

Evidently Ignatius wished to communicate with the Christians in Smyrna a second time after the lapse of only a very short time and found it advisable to address them through their bishop. He expected the letter would be read to the group and now drops the mask. (Ignatius of Antioch, p. 274).

That is, at IgnPoly 6:1 the author of the letters dropped the mask of pretending that he was only addressing Polycarp.

But that raises more questions:

It is hard to shake the impression that the two letters were originally destined for two different communities but someone has tried, very clumsily, to make them look as if they were addressed to the same one. . . . But why?
  • Why was the would-be martyr writing two letters—the letter to the Smyrneans and the letter to Polycarp—at the same time to the same people? Why, in his correspondence with the church he had just left behind, were two letters necessary instead of one? Did the Smyrneans really need to be told twice, for example, that peace had been restored at Antioch (IgnSmyr. 11:1-2 and IgnPoly. 7:1).
  • And in regard to the repetitions, wouldn’t one normally expect some kind of acknowledgement of them in one of the letters? Something like: “I know I told such and such in the other letter that I just wrote to you, but it bears repeating that … etc.” But neither letter lets on about the other.
  • And when the letter addressed to the Smyrneans is compared to the one addressed to Polycarp there are a couple differences in content that their author should have explained. In the letter to the Smyrneans the prisoner requests that an ‘Ambassador of God’ be appointed to go to congratulate the church of Antioch. But in the letter to Polycarp he requests that a ‘Courier of God’ be appointed. Is the Ambassador the same as the Courier?
  • But most curious of all is that the request for a Courier is connected with another request: that Polycarp and his flock convoke a ‘most God-pleasing council.’ Why in the one letter but not in the other does he pressure the Smyrneans to convoke a ‘most God-pleasing council?’ And why is there not a word of explanation regarding this new request? Something like: “After sending you the previous letter, a new plan occurred to me. How about convoking a council too?”

It is hard to shake the impression that the two letters were originally destined for two different communities but someone has tried, very clumsily, to make them look as if they were addressed to the same one. But why?


A Letter to the New Bishop of Antioch

I am convinced that the letter to Polycarp was not originally addressed to the bishop of Smyrna. Its contents make most sense as a letter that was originally addressed to a newly installed bishop at Antioch.

Among other things, this would explain why it has a request for a Courier of God, not an Ambassador of God.

And it would explain why it has a request for a most God-pleasing council. One might be tempted to think that the purpose of the council was to choose the ‘Courier of God,’ but the connective used (‘and’) shows that the requests for the convocation of a council and the appointment of a Courier are really two separate though related items.

Furthermore, why would the selection of the Courier require a council? In the letters that the prisoner wrote to Smyrna and Philadelphia he doesn’t tell them that, in order to select their ‘Ambassador of God,’ they will need to convoke a council.

So why should the selection of a Courier of God require one?

No, the purpose of the council appears to be that by its prayers to God for the prisoner, he “may, through suffering, attain to God” and “be found a disciple.” (IgnPoly 7:1).

In other words, he is telling his readers that just as their prayer was effective in procuring peace for the church of Antioch, he expects that their prayer for him at the council will be effective in procuring his greatly desired martyrdom. The purpose of the Courier will be to carry to other churches a letter announcing the council and to invite them to send delegates—Ambassadors of God— to it.

The most God-pleasing council (IgnPoly. 7:2) should be identified as the same gathering of delegates that attended to Peregrinus during his imprisonment by the governor of Syria.

The church of Antioch didn’t send out an Ambassador of God; it was the other churches that sent Ambassadors of God to them, to take part in their gathering.

So when the Philadelphians are told to appoint an Ambassador of God to go and rejoice with the Antiochene Christians “when they assemble,” (IgnPhil. 10:1) the assembly referred to was the most God-pleasing council requested by the prisoner. Antioch, for its part, would have sent out not Ambassadors of God, but Couriers of God to announce the council and its purpose.

With that scenario in mind, notice how the passage which follows makes sense. Within parentheses I indicate whether the pronouns are singular or plural. And I put within brackets the words that I believe were added by an interpolator to disguise the original destination of the letter.

Since the church at Antioch in Syria is now at peace through your (plural) prayer, as I have been informed, I too have become the more comforted in the freedom from care which God has given me, that I may attain to God through suffering, and may be found, through your (plural) entreaty, a disciple. It is fitting [most blessed Polycarp] to convoke a most God-pleasing council and to appoint someone whom you (plural) consider greatly loved and resolute, who can be called a ‘Courier of God.’ Commission him to go [to Syria] and glorify your (plural) resolute love to the glory of God. A Christian has no authority over himself, but devotes himself to God. This is God’s work and yours (plural) when you (plural) accomplish it; for by grace I believe that you (plural) are prepared to do a good work that is truly worthy of God. Knowing your (plural) zeal for the truth, I have exhorted you (plural) with these few lines.

Thus, since I could not write to all the churches, because I sail immediately [from Troas to Neapolis] as God’s will commands, you (singular), as one who has the mind of God, will write to the churches which lie in front, [to bid them also do the same thing]. Let those who can send messengers, and have the rest send letters through those whom you (singular) send out, that you (plural) may all be glorified by a work that will live forever. You (singular) are worthy of this. (IgnPoly. 7:1-8:1).

Notice that the Courier of God to be appointed must be “resolute” and that his commission is to go and glorify the addressees’ “resolute love to the glory of God.” Why the need for such resoluteness on the part of all involved? Because Peregrinus was popular and loved by them, so the idea of convoking a council to beg God to fulfill the prisoner’s desire for martyrdom went against all their natural inclinations and affection for Peregrinus.

That also explains why in this matter the author of the letters feels it necessary to appeal to their “zeal for the truth.” For the truth, as he spells out in IgnRom. 8:1-2, is “I no longer desire to live this human life… Believe me. Jesus Christ will make clear to you that I am speaking the truth.

And this scenario also explains why the reward he holds out for compliance with his requests is so magnificent. By complying they will have some part in his martyrdom, and that is why he can call it a work “truly worthy of God” and one “that will live forever.” This passage, like the ones we examined in the previous post, is much more about the would-be martyr’s prospective sacrifice at Antioch than about the cessation of divisions in that church.

An original destination of Antioch for the letter can make sense of the puzzling aspects of its earlier parts. For it appears to be addressed primarily to church officials; first to a new bishop, and then—with the transition occurring at IgnPoly. 6:1—to the bishop together with his presbyters and deacons.

A number of scholars (e.g., J.B. Lightfoot, B.H. Streeter, Fredric Schlatter) surmise that the return to peace at Antioch probably entailed the installation of a new bishop and the resumption of ecclesiastical order there. The bishop may have earned his episcopal position (“the grace with which you are clothed” – IgnPoly. 1:2) by the leadership he displayed in resolving the recent strife in the Antiochene church, for the letter starts out by praising his “godly mind-set, firmly established as on an immovable rock” and tells him “to continue on his course and exhort all so that they may be saved.” The “course” would be the course of action he took to bring unity back to that church. It is with that recent turmoil in mind that the prisoner goes on to tell the bishop to “attend especially to unity, for there is nothing more important than this.”

He then gives advice on how to deal with “the more troublesome” (IgnPoly. 2) and with “those who are seemingly trustworthy yet teach strange doctrine” (IgnPoly. 3).

There follows general advice regarding a bishop’s responsibilities to widows, slaves, and the married and unmarried members of his church (IgnPoly, 4-5).

Chapter six of the letter appears to address the responsibilities of the church officials—bishop, presbyters and deacons—to each other. And, again apparently with the recent divisions in mind, they are told: “Let none of you be found a deserter.”

It would appear, then, that in the recent Antiochene upheaval, church officials, including the bishop, were among those who deserted.


Peregrinus: Bishop or Deacon?

But wait.

  • Wasn’t it the arrest of the author of the letters that caused the episcopal vacancy at Antioch?
  • Wasn’t the author of the letters the bishop of Syria?

Not if he was Peregrinus he wasn’t.

For after Peregrinus’ release from jail he resumed a life of wandering.

Moreover, there is only one letter in the collection where the author calls himself a bishop—Romans—and there is good reason, as I will point out later, to think that letter too has been tampered with.

If the author of the letters was a bishop there were many places in them where it would have been natural to appeal to that fact, as, for example, in the letter presently being examined. But except for in the Romans letter, he doesn’t do that.

To judge from the letters we would have to conclude that he was a deacon, for when speaking of deacons in four of them, he calls himself their fellow-deacon (IgnEph. 2:1; IgnMag. 2:1; IgnPhil. 4:1 and IgnSmyr. 12:2). He never refers to any of the bishops as fellow-bishops. TDOP says Peregrinus was a leader in the church—which description can certainly apply to a deacon. And it was likely pride in his status as a deacon that was behind the surprising pride of place he gives deacons in chapter three of the letter to Tralles:

So too let everyone respect the deacons as Jesus Christ; and the bishop also, who is the image of the Father, and the presbyters as the council of God and the band of Apostles. Without these there is no church deserving of the name. (IgnTral. 3:1).

TDOP also says Peregrinus “interpreted and explained some of their books and even composed many…” (TDOP 11. Harmon). This description would fit with what the letters indicate about the role of a deacon. They are ministers in the word of God (IgnPhil. 11:1) and, as the prisoner is careful to point out, they “are not deacons of food and drink” (IgnTral. 2:3).

But if he was only a deacon, why does he speak so authoritatively in the letters, giving advice to everyone including bishops? I think there are two reasons for that. Both in TDOP and the letter collection he is said to be a prophet. And so, when need be, he can claim to speak “with the voice of God” (IgnPhil. 3:1). His status as an acknowledged prophet would explain his claim to have “many deep thoughts in God” (IgnTral. 4:1) and to know “heavenly things” that others—being mere infants—would choke on (IgnTral. 5:1).

But secondly, he was also very much aware of the moral authority he had acquired by being put in chains for the Name. He says that he is scared by all the praise his chains have won him: “For it is especially now that I must fear, and not give heed to those who puff me up.”

But it is he himself who, all the while protesting his insignificance, rarely lets an opportunity pass of reminding his readers that he is in chains: For instance:

“I do not command you as if I were someone. For even though I am in chains for the Name, I have not yet been perfected in Jesus Christ” (IgnEph. 3:1).

And: “Even though I am in chains, I am not comparable to a single one of you who is not in chains” (IgnMag. 12:1).

And: “It is for love of you that I refrain from writing with greater severity. And condemned man that I am, I should not give orders to you as if I were an apostle.” (IgnTral. 3:3).

Another: “For even though I am in chains and able to understand heavenly things, the angelic locations, the formations of the archons, things visible and invisible, yet I am not thereby already a disciple.” (IgnTral. 5:1-2).

The prisoner’s awareness of the moral stature conferred by his chains matches up with what Lucian says about Peregrinus. What I am calling ‘moral stature’ Lucian calls—less respectfully—the ‘standing’ and ‘magic aura’ that Peregrinus acquired by his arrest:

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. (TDOP 12, Casson)


The End of the Letter

In chapter eight of the so-called letter to Polycarp, the prisoner tells the new bishop of Antioch to write letters to the churches which lie in front and to have them delivered by “those whom you send out” i.e. the Couriers of God. We will see in the next post what churches are the ones that lie in front. I expect that he wanted the bishop to write letters along the same lines of what we see at the end of the letter we have been examining.

The other letters the new bishop of Antioch is told to write

  • They will announce that Peregrinus is in chains, is headed back to Antioch, and will likely be executed.
  • And that he has requested a most God-pleasing council be convened at Antioch both to thank God for the gift being offered to the least member of the Antiochene church,
  • and to pray that he will in fact consummate the martyrdom he so greatly desires.
  • The churches are requested to send, preferably, messengers, i.e., Ambassadors of God, to the council. But if they can’t do that, they should at least send back a letter of congratulations with the Courier that can be read aloud at the council.
  • All who comply with these requests “will be glorified by a work that will live forever.”
Ignatius is inclined to write to everyone, except his own flock.

In closing, Robert Joly, in his Le Dossier d’Ignace d’Antioche, relates that one of his reasons for rejecting the entire Ignatian collection of letters as spurious is the fact that nowhere in the letters does their author say anything about writing a letter back to his home church of Antioch. The prisoner asks for prayers for that church, and he wants delegates sent to that church, but despite his relish for letter-writing, he never mentions writing any letter to them. He never asks any of the churches with which he is in correspondence to carry a letter for him back to his home church. “Ignace est disposé à écrire à tout le monde, sauf à ses ouailles” (p. 40. Translation: “Ignatius is inclined to write to everyone, except his own flock.”) To Joly that failure seemed unrealistic. And he pointed out that he was not alone in being bothered by it, for later, in the fourth century, a forger composed an entirely spurious letter of Ignatius to Antioch.

But, as I have argued in this post, there is good reason to think that there was at least one letter to Antioch in the letter collection all along. But it was difficult to recognize it after it had been modified and readdressed to the great proto-Catholic hero Polycarp as part of the disguise needed to disassociate the letters from their real author, Peregrinus.

In the next post I intend to show what route to Antioch was taken by the author of the letters, and why the letter to the Romans, like the one to Polycarp, should not be accepted at face value.

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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2 thoughts on “Invitations to Watch a Martrydom: The Letters of Ignatius (or Peregrinus) continued”

    1. My guess is that his name will never be known. In later posts in this series I will argue that the communities addressed by the so-called Ignatians did not belong to the proto-orthodox branch of Christianity. If so, all the more reason to think the name of the poor bishop chosen to set up Peregrinus’ “most God-pleasing assembly” is lost and will remain so.

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