How Ignatius Cut Christianity Off From its Jewish Roots

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by Neil Godfrey

(updated 2 hours after first posting)

This post is a distillation of the chapter “Why Ignatius Invented Judaism” by Daniel Boyarin in The Ways That Often Parted: Essays in Honor of Joel Marcus. It covers the same questions addressed by Roger Parvus (see sidebox) but with a different hypothesis.

Roger Parvus posted a series on Vridar arguing that the letters of Ignatius were in fact composed by a follower of a breakaway sect from Marcionism. Roger’s thesis builds upon ideas advanced by earlier scholars that the letters of Ignatius show signs of the teachings of someone closely related to Marcionism, such as Apelles, a former disciple of Marcion. Roger also revisits and develops an idea that first appeared a century ago in scholarly publications that the author of the original letters was in fact that colorful character Peregrinus, the subject of a satire by Lucian.

The essence of Boyarin’s view is that Ignatius

a. used the term that we translate as “Judaism” to refer to any attempt to link gospel details to the Old Testament; and that

b. the gospel of Jesus Christ stood as true without any reference to Old Testament prophecies or scriptures.

This idea throws an interesting perspective on thesis we have at times addressed on this blog that the canonical gospel characters, events and sayings were constructed out “midrashic” or intertextual interpretations of Old Testament books and that their symbolic meanings were subsequently lost by those Christians who became the foundation of the Church we know today. Can the epistles of Ignatius be viewed as an early stage of that misunderstanding and loss of the original meaning of our gospels? (These, of course, are my questions, not those directly raised by Boyarin.)

Boyarin begins by comparing Paul’s and Ignatius’s respective uses of the term “Judaism” (Ioudaismos). For Paul it meant performing certain practices, not an institution. Thus when Paul writes

and I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions (Gal. 1:14 NASB)

Daniel Boyarin

he means the “practice of Jewish ways of loyalty to the traditional doings of Jews” that Josephus described as

the ancestral [traditions] of the Ioudaioi (τὰ πάτρια τῶν Ἰουδαίων – A.J. 20.41)

It does not mean an abstract category of “a religion”. It means performing practices, customs, rituals, etc. It is the counterpart of what Thucydides complained that Plataeans were doing when they were “Medizing” — that is, “forsaking their ancestral traditions” (παραβαίνοντες τὰ πάτρια, Thucydides, P.W. 3.61.2), copying the customs of the Medes. (I am only presenting the main idea: Boyarin’s justification for this interpretation is a lengthy discussion of Galatians passages than I have outlined above.)

For Paul, it was the Jewish law that stood against the gospel. For Ignatius, however, gospel stood in opposition to Jewish scriptures.

Old Fables/Myths

At one point Ignatius equates “heterodoxy and old myths” with this Judaizing of his heretics:

Be not deceived by heterodoxiai nor by old fables, which are useless. For if we continue to live until now according to Ioudaismos, we confess that we have not received grace” (Magn. 8.1).

Could such fables possibly be connected with Jewish Scriptures here? Ignatius links them with “Judaizing”. Ignatius continues from the above passage to speak positively of the prophets, but he used the fact that they were persecuted (Magn 8:2) as evidence that they were on his side (Barrett, 237). In the Pastoral epistles we likewise read of the association of Judaism with mythology — Titus 1:14; I Timothy 1:4; 4:7; II Timothy 4:4). Ignatius appears to criticize the “Judaizers” for “mythologizing” the Scriptures: i.e. either reading them literally (Barrett, 237) or midrashically (my suggestion).

Gospel versus Scriptures

The first Christian to make that declaration, as far as we know, was Marcion. (Boyarin doubts that Ignatius took the idea from Marcion but Parvus argues that that was exactly where the idea ultimately derived.) The key passage is in Ignatius’s letter to the Philadelphians:

I exhort you to do nothing from partisanship but in accordance with Christ’s teaching. For I heard some say, “unless in the archives I find (it), in the gospel I do not believe (it),” and when I said, “It is written,” they answered me, “That is just the question.” But for me the archives are Jesus Christ, the inviolable archives are his cross and death and his resurrection and faith through him — in which, through your prayers, I want to be justified. (Phld. 8.2 — Boyarin, 319)

The passage is not speaking of written, fixed gospel texts. As with Paul, the gospel is a message taught and delivered orally. Some Christians are saying that unless they can find a detail of this gospel in the Scriptures then they will not believe it. Ignatius replies that the only archives he recognizes are not a gospel text but “the fact” of Jesus Christ himself, his cross, death and resurrection. If, however, you suspect that when Ignatius says “it is written” he cannot mean anything other than a written gospel, Boyarin replies:

The somewhat confounding moment, however, is Ignatius’s statement that “it is written,” which seems to counteract this view. There are two possible interpretations that I would suggest:

the one is that Ignatius first simply declares that whatever he claims as being in the gospel is/must be already written in the archives, and when they retort by saying that is the question, he resorts to his claim that the gospel is the archives, the only archives that matter.

A second possibility would be that when Ignatius says “It is written,” he already means it is written, as it were, in the only archives that matter to him, Jesus Christ, his death and resurrection in the flesh. They misunderstand, retorting that it is not written, which he then clarifies with his Jesus as the archive. That is exactly the question that they put to Ignatius: “They answered me, ‘That is just the question,’” to wit: indeed Ignatius, whether or not the physical death of the Son of Man is written in the archives is precisely the question. For Ignatius, however, for whom the nonscriptural kerygma is central and, who sees, as he insists over and over, such reliance on scripture is itself, loudaismos [Judaism], the following of Jewish scriptures, and not Christianismos [Christianity], the following of Christ’s birth, actual death, and resurrection in the flesh alone. Whether or not Ignatius had access to any written gospels or pregospel literature, his claim is absolutely clear and unambiguous: the archives are Jesus Christ, not what is written in scripture.

(Boyarin, 320-21 – my formatting and bracketed insertions)

What Ignatius has done is to redefine Judaism as something other than observing certain customs. Boyarin finds a pointer to the right answer in Schoedel’s analysis of Ignatius’s letter to the Philadelphians:

The following sections ofthe letter suggest that the judaizers of Philadelphia may weil have been more interested in the idea of Judaism than the practice of it (see on Phd. 8.2; 9.1 ). Thus perhaps it was the “expounding” (exegetical expertise) that was the problem and not the “Judaism” (observance).

(Schoedel, 203)

Boyarin goes a step further:

A further development in the history of these gospel formulae is visible in the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, written ca. 110 CE.* Here the “gospel” is still in general the preaching of Jesus Christ, and Ignatius never implies that he is speaking of a written text when he uses this term. . . . . But in spite of the evident tendency toward more comprehensive and possibly more stable formulation in Ignatius, the term “gospel” does not designate any fixed formula and it certainly does not refer to any written text enumerating the basic topics of Jesus’ appearance. It is rather the message of salvation in general of which the center is Christ’s death and resurrection . . . . (Koester, 7f)

* Parvus posits a later date and cites support for the mid-second century.

I would go further than Schoedel by making one more seemingly logical exegetical step, namely, to assume that for Ignatius, loudaismos is the expounding. In Ignatius, I suggest, loudaismos no longer means observance of the Judean way of life, the torah, as it had in Paul. In other words, for Ignatius, but not for Paul, Christianismos and loudaismos are two doxas, two theological positions, a wrong one (έτεροδοζία, 8.1) and a right one, a wrong interpretation of the legacy of the prophets and a right one. The right one is that which is taught by the prophets “inspired by his grace” and called Christianismos as it is that which is “revealed through Jesus Christ his Son, who is his Word” (8.1). The words quoted certainly seem to mean that Christianismos consists of “speaking of Jesus Christ,” gospel — still oral — while loudaismos is devoting oneself to the study of scripture.

(Boyarin, 317)

Yes, Ignatius also condemns (“heretical”) Christians who observe the Sabbath or practice circumcision but he does so on the grounds that in doing so they are denying the death of Christ, the one true gospel.

“Judaizers” had the Highest Christology

Contrary to what we might assume, especially when we hear elsewhere that “Judaizers” like the Ebionites taught that Jesus was a “mere man”, the “Judaizing” Christians Ignatius opposes may well have taught a Christology that was “too high” for Ignatius’s taste, opines Boyarin:

I have argued elsewhere that Jews who held a version of Logos theology, and perhaps might even have seen in Christ the manifestation of the Logos, might yet have balked at an incarnational Christology*, adopting a way-too-high, docetic Christology, rather than the low Christology of which so-called Jewish-Christians are usually accused. These Christians might have insisted on a docetism that denied that the Logos ever took on flesh, and Ignatius’s Ioudaismos might then be a doxa that the Christians of Philadelphia had inherited from such a tendency. That which is not found in the archives, then, is precisely the notion that the Logos could die! That is exactly that which Ignatius himself claims as the something that the gospel has that is distinctive over-against the Old Testament: “the coming of the Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ, his passion and resurrection” (Ignatius, Magn. 9.2)

(Boyarin, 321f, my bolding. For the note on * see below.)

For Ignatius, on this interpretation, “Judaizing” was the habit of over-relying on Scripture, and thus, even though accepting Jesus and accepting the Logos, nonetheless denying an actual physical death and resurrection.

Many questions arise, too many to address here and now.


The Midrashic Imagination Ignatius Denied

Ignatius did not know of a written canonical gospel. (This should be kept in mind when reading the previous post where I outlined Ignatius’s gospel. The early days of Christianity were anything but a straight trajectory of thought.

* On Jews holding a Logos theology yet balking at an incarnational Christology, Boyarin writes in another article in which he believes that our earliest Christian texts are closer to original Jewish ideas than some of the later rabbinical ones are:

As Μ. J. Edwards has argued, “the womb of [Justin’s] Logos-doctrine was the Dialogue, where the term is used to confer on Christ the powers that were already attributed in Jewish literature to the spoken and written utterance of God,” and his final statement is even more lucent: “Our conclusion, therefore, is that in the two Apologies, no less than in the Dialogue with Trypho, Christ is the Logos who personifies the Torah. In Jewish thought the Word was the source of being, the origin of Law, the written Torah and a Person next to God. Early Christianity announced the incarnation of this Person, and Justin makes the further claims that Scripture is the parent of all truth among the nations, and that the Lord who is revealed to us in the New Testament is the author and the hermeneutic canon of the Old.” It follows, then, that in the Logos theology, both John and Justin represent old common Judaic patterns of religious thought, a way from which later rabbinism has parted.

As an emblem of this exchange, I would conclude with the following astonishing juxtaposition: … “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known,” John 1:18 and … “Rabbi Elicezer the son of Rabbi Yose the Galilean says: Nine hundred and seventy four generations before the world was created, the Torah was written and lying in the bosom of the Holy Blessed One and singing song with the serving angels, as it says: ‘I was his nursling/, or, and I was his little child/, or, I was his betrothed, and I was daily his delight, playing before him at all times,'” Prov. 8:30. It seems almost certain to me that the verse of the Gospel is based on an ancient midrash similar to the one found in the late rabbinic text, where the subject has been transferred from Wisdom (the Logos) to Torah. I believe that the key to explaining this midrash (both the Gospel and the late rabbinic version) is, in fact, the common midrashic practice I have remarked on above — of building on a verse that is not cited in the text at all. In Num 11:12, we read: … “Have I conceived all of this People; did I give birth to it, that you should say to me: ‘Carry him in your bosom, as the nurse carries the child’?”). The word that I have translated “nurse” here — and from the context it would seem to mean nursing parent — is the active participle of which the crucial vocable in the Proverbs verse is the passive, and therefore, “nursling,” “infant child.” Moreover, from the verse in Numbers we learn that the nurse carries the nursling in her/his bosom, exactly as in the verse in John and the midrashic text. In other words, the text from Numbers connects the word in the Proverbs 8 verse referring to “Wisdom” as “nursling” to the image of being carried in the bosom of her father.

For the rabbinic text, the beloved child that the Father carries in his bosom, the son or daughter of God, is the Torah; for the earlier midrash of the Fourth Gospel, she was the Logos, the Son.

(Boyarin, Gospel of the Memra, 283-84, my formatting and bolding)

Barrett, C. K. 1976. “Jews and Judaizers in the Epistles of Ignatius.” In Jews, Greeks and Christians: Religious Cultures in Late Antiquity : Essays in Honor of William David Davies, edited by Robert Hamerton-Kelly and Robin Scroggs, 220–44. Leiden: Brill.

Boyarin, Daniel. 2001. “The Gospel of the Memra: Jewish Binitarianism and the Prologue to John.” The Harvard Theological Review 94 (3): 243–84.

———. 2018. “Why Ignatius Invented Judaism.” In The Ways That Often Parted: Essays in Honor of Joel Marcus, edited by Lori Baron, Jill Hicks-Keeton, and Matthew Thiessen. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.

Koester, Helmut. 1990. Ancient Christian Gospels: Their History and Development. Bloomsbury Academic.

Schoedel, William R. 1985. Ignatius of Antioch: A Commentary on the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

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15 thoughts on “How Ignatius Cut Christianity Off From its Jewish Roots”

  1. That which is not found in the archives, then, is precisely the notion that the Logos could die!

    It is more than that to be missing in the “Archives”, pace Boyarin. The Greek term
    ἀρχεῖον means public memories, not necessarily holy scriptures. Ignatius is attesting so that today’s skeptics had very early predecessors. The “sin” of the Judaizers (really: true Jewish-Christians) in the eyes of Ignatius was the use of a Docetic Christology to accept/neutralize the criticism addressed by skeptic accusation of the type: you adore a mr. X totally unknown to us.

    The first historian to note this “Mythicist problem” for Ignatius was the French Salomon Reinach (originally Jesus agnostic, he became historicist because he believed that the slavonic Josephus about Jesus was genuine):

    A keen adversary of the Docetes, St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, writing about 110, says that the birth and death of Jesus were unknown to Satan, the Prince of the world ; he also speaks of certain persons who declared : “What we do not find in the archives we cannot accept in the Gospel.” Efforts have been made to twist these texts, which are undoubtedly very odd, but must be taken as they stand and interpreted honestly. They seem to show that the Bishop of Antioch had to contend with unbelievers inspired by the Devil, who stated that they could find no evidences of the birth and death of Jesus in the public archives (of Caesarea ?). Ignatius answered them only with pious phrases ; after him, from the first half of the second century, forgeries were concocted to refute them.
    (Salomon Reinach, A short history of Christianity, my bold)

  2. Is that M.J. Edwards reference by Boyarin:

    M.J. Edwards, “Justin’s Logos and the Word of God,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 3.3 (1995): 261-280 ??

    Have you read, Daniel Boyarin, “Justin Martyr Invents Judaism,” Church History 70.3 (2001): 427-461 ??

      1. Do you know if or where Boyarin’s (conference) paper titled “Pious Fictions: The Theodosian Code, the Letter of Severus of Minorca, and the ‘Curse of the Christians” is available?

        As for B’s other article on Justin as inventor of Judaism, I have often considered posting about it here. But each time I come back to it I find a lot in it to get on top of. One day….

        1. • Boyarin, Daniel (2001). “Justin Martyr Invents Judaism”. Church History. 70 (3): 427–461 doi:10.2307/3654497. [Available online @ berkeley.edu]

          [n. 36] In a forthcoming paper, “Pious Fictions: The Theodosian Code, the Letter of Severus of Minorca, and the ‘Curse of the Christians,’” I shall be arguing further for a particular fifth-century context for this curse as part of a general, empire-wide (and beyond) discursive move on the part of both Christian and Jewish orthodox authorities to effect a final, thorough break between the religions. —(p. 437)

          Expected the paper to be at “Daniel Boyarin”. berkeley.academia.edu.
          Perhaps it was incorporated into the following:

          • Boyarin, Daniel (2004). “The Christian Invention of Judaism: The Theodosian Empire and the Rabbinic Refusal of Religion”. Representations. 85 (1): 21–57. doi:10.1525/rep.2004.85.1.21.[Available online @ Researchgate]

          [§.Abstract] In this paper, it is argued that a significant development takes place in the second half of the fourth century and the beginning of the fifth, a development that we might call the orthodox Christian invention of religion. The paper examines effects of this development as it touches on Jewish religious history as well. —(p. 21)
          [§.Notes] This paper is an expanded and modified version of the last chapter of Daniel Boyarin, Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity (Philadelphia, 2004). —(p. 48)

        2. If this seems useful to you, There are 3 pages available on line about Ignatius, Judaism and Christianity

          Goy: Israel’s Multiple Others and the Birth of the Gentile
          De Adi Ophir, Ishay Rosen-Zvi 2018
          pages 168, 169, 170

  3. The perentory answer of Ignatius (“It is written”) is the same given by Pilate: quod scripsi scrispi. The sense is identical: against sinedrites who denied that Jesus was the “king of the Jews” (Christ) – a marcionite point -, Pilate confirms it again. But the difference is that while the Fourth Gospel (at least in the Pilate’s answer) addressed polemically Marcionites masked as sinedrites, Ignatius is addressing real Jews. That is the true reason Pilate’s presence was never really embarrassing but theologically necessary in a canonized gospel, more than any accusation of deicide: it confirmed that, for the same Lex Romana (decisively more persuasive than any Jewish oracle), Jesus was “the king of the Jews”.

      1. Sorry, I agree entirely with Reinach about this point, pace Boyarin:

        Christian docetism therefore seems very clearly a way of reconciling the Christian idea of the divine and spiritual Christ, without which there is no Christianity, with a Jewish x. In what way could this x be formulated by the Jews, whose pernicious influence these docetic Christians suffer? Evidently so: “The Jesus of whom you speak to us was not a descendant of David; he was not a son of Mary; he did not come into the world; he did not eat or drink; he was not baptized by John; he was not crucified at the time of Pilate and Herod; he is completely unknown to us. This was not docetism, for the very idea of a “docetic Jew” is absurd, but the diffuse denial of Jesus’ existence in the time when Christians placed his life and death.

        The radical docetism of the Christians of the first century is therefore a compromise to respond to an insolent denial that took place, which was significant, not in Ephesus or Alexandria, but in the very theatre of Jesus’ earthly activity, not one or two centuries later, but almost in the aftermath of his death.

        “Yes,” said these docetists to the Jews, “you did not know Jesus in the flesh, for the reason that he did not exist according to the flesh; but the apostles and the crowds of the faithful heard him, they saw him; they saw him on the cross at the time of Pilate; they saw him risen. He was a divine ghost, an ethereal and all spiritual being whose eyes have seen, whose ears have heard his voice, but who could not be grasped with his hand”.

        In the presence of the denials of the Palestinian Jews, it seems that Christians had a simpler way to make them shut their mouths without resorting to the subtleties of docetism: it was to add, in support of Jesus in the flesh, testimonies, authentic documents, for example an act of the synedrium or the report of Pilate. Why did they not do so? I hesitate to answer; but perhaps there were no authentic documents, or perhaps they had not yet dreamed of producing others. This would explain many things: the antecedence of docetism in relation to the Gospels, as Saint Jerome knew; the clearly anti-docetist nature of our four Gospels, even of the Fourth; the Church’s susceptibility in this matter and the condemnation of the Gospel of Peter, because isolated signs of docetism were found there.

        The author of an excellent life of Jesus according to the apocrypha, Mr. Walter Bauer, says that there is no trace in early Christian or anti-Christian literature of that paradox already familiar to Voltaire and rejected by him, of those who deny the historical reality of Jesus. In fact, if such subversive texts had existed, the Church would not have allowed them to reach us, except in the slums of Jewish literature, where Toledoth’s stupid calumnies rightly seemed harmless. But it seems to me impossible not to conclude, as much from the assertions of radical docetism as from the reproach made to docetists coming from Judaism, the existence of a Jewish party, contemporary with the apostles and still powerful at the beginning of the 2nd century, which declared that they knew nothing about Jesus. Once again, those were not docetists, intoxicated by the idea of the divine Christ, but people who were resolutely hostile to the idea of the divinity of Jesus and who also contested the earthly Jesus. Docetist Jews renounced believing in the Jesus of the flesh; they christianized in affirming the spiritual Christ even more strongly. To these dangerous men, Ignatius still preferred the circumcised, who, without believing in the divinity of Jesus, at least admit that he existed and died under Pilate. Ignatius is right; he is right again when he cries out, “If it is an appearance what has been done by the Lord, then why have I offered myself up to death? To suffer with him all I endure!”

        It will perhaps be objected that Docetism was born in Palestine because the Jews, while waiting for the glorious Messiah, were more scandalized than the Gentiles by the ignominious death on the cross. But it would have been enough, to answer them, to admit that the crucified Christ was but a ghost, who had stripped his mortal body at the moment of the Transfiguration. Now, the texts of Saint Ignatius prove that this radical docetism applied to the whole life of Jesus, from his birth until his death. Therefore, it is not the “scandal of the cross” that could suggest this.

        The conclusions I have just set out are serious; they seem to offer the equivalent of a 1st century Palestinian document that would support Benjamin Smith’s intransigent skepticism. I am asking only to see them discussed and refuted; I respect and listen willingly to theologians; I only ask them to answer me with arguments, not offenses, because I already owe to their liberality a large collection of the latter and because I need the former to enlighten me.
        (freely translated from “Questions on Docetism”, in Revue moderniste, 1912, p. 184-188)

        Reinach asked himself why the Christians of Ignatius’s time didn’t invent testimonia à a la Testimonium Flavianum to “prove” the Jesus’s historicity by that early time, since it was already threatened. Reinach’s solution was to interpret the Jewish docetism as a form of naive Christian compromise with that early skepticism. Ignatius could only attack both Jewish docetists and anti-Christian skeptics without real arguments.

        While I accept fully the Reinach’s explanation for the origin of that (otherwise unexplained) “Jewish docetism”, even so, differently from Reinach, I know now the answer for the surprising Ignatius’s reaction (the absence of real evidences, even of forged evidences, in support of Jesus’s historicity), because it describes a trend that will show itself definitely in our Gospels (only, see the repetition of the “titulus crucis”): by simply insisting on the Jesus’s death by hand of Pilate, Ignatius had his desired “It is written!” even more than his skeptic adversaries could desire. The introduction of Pilate in the myth was a masterstroke: the same form of death – a Roman crucifixion – suggested the true identity of Jesus:

        1) the Romans crucified so-called “kings of Jews”.
        2) the Romans crucified Jesus
        3) therefore: Jesus was THE King of Jews (= THE Christ).

        You could still continue to deny that identity – accusing that Jesus was only a false messiah, a false king – but you couldn’t deny more the FACT of the crucifixion by Pilate: Jesus EXISTED because the accusation against him – sediction deserving crucifixion – was sufficient to give him an earthly identity otherwise unknown: Jesus was the so-called “King of Jews”.

        The conclusion is inevitable:

        Without Pilate, Ignatius would have really been forced to invent testimonia de nihilo à la Eusebius for Jesus’s existence.

  4. Where does “Ignatius” get virgin birth, Pilate, & Herod from? I lean to him being an invented person, but what were the inventor’s sources?

  5. If Ignatius is Peregrinus then whatever contribution he made to the cut didn’t happen overnight, he was kicked out of the community at the time he wrote the epistles, and indeed Antioch and sounding part of Syria was one of the last places where the split occurred. In Antioch Christians and Jews were worshiping in the same Synagogues into the 5th Century, and nearby Aleppo and Bashan were where the Narzane Christians still lived in according to Epiphanius.

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