Introduction to Ignatius of Antioch

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Who was Ignatius of Antioch?

Ignatius was the overseer of the Assembly at Antioch in toward the end of 1st century CE. He was martyred by the Romans for his faith in the Messiah toward the beginning of the 2nd century. According to the account of his martyrdom, he, like his friend Polycarp of Smyrna, was a disciple of the Apostle John.

Over the course of the Messianic movement, a handful of passages from the Greek manuscripts of Ignatius’ letters have been used to discredit him as belonging to the rank of the Apostolic fathers of our Hebraic faith. These passages in question support blatant Antisemitism, the abrogation of God’s Torah, and an unquestioning submission to the authority of Christian leaders, pioneering a new religion that was to be distinct and separate from Judaism. This position, though unfortunate, is entirely understandable. I contend, however, that Ignatius has been the victim of an elaborate set-up, and was framed as having written numerous letters that he did not legitimately write.

This theory has been put forth by the late 19th century Syriac scholar William Cureton– to whom we are indebted for his work on the Old Syriac versions of the Gospels– who wrote in his 1845 work The Ancient Syriac Version of the Epistles of St. Ignatius,

“…That he (Ignatius) wrote several letters to various Churches, on his way to Rome to suffer martyrdom for the Faith, is a fact than which none is better attested; but how far those Epistles, which have come down to our times bearing his name, are to be regarded as his genuine productions, has been a subject of the greatest dispute. Indeed, there are no writings, either of Christian or Heathen antiquity, concerning which a greater variety of opinion has prevailed and more discussion taken place: and yet perhaps there are scarcely any, which have been less the subject of that calm, unbiased, and sober criticism, which alone can be the sure method of searching for the truth under circumstances of similar doubt and uncertainty.”

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Authorship of the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch.

At least fifteen letters bearing Ignatius’ name have come down to us today; however, it is commonly accepted that only seven of these should be rightly attributed to Ignatius. 1 Even for those seven which are accepted, there are shorter and longer versions of the Greek manuscripts which seem to vary substantially from one another in terms of both content and theology.

Fortunately, three of his letters have survived in a Syriac manuscript, and they are substantially shorter than even the short version of their Greek counterparts.

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What makes the Syriac Manuscripts so special?

Church scholar William Killen wrote on the subject in his 1859 work, The Ancient Church. In his book, Killen drew attention to the publication of the Syriac text of Ignatius’ letters, noting that it is of special interest that the Syriac manuscript containing Ignatius’ letters only contains three of the traditional seven writings, those being to his friend Polycarp, to the Assembly at Ephesus, and to the Assembly at Rome. Excerpts from his argument are as follows:

“In the year 1845 a new turn was given to this controversy by the publication of a Syriac version of three of the Ignatian letters… Dr Cureton, the editor, has since entered more fully into the discussion of the subject in his ‘Corpus Ignatianum…’ in which the claims of the three recently discovered letters, as the only genuine productions of Ignatius, are ingeniously maintained. In the Syriac copies, these letters are styled ‘The Three Epistles of Ignatius, Bishop, and Martyr,’ and thus the inference is suggested that, at one time, they were the only three epistles in existence. Dr Cureton’s statements have obviously made a great impression upon the mind of the literary public, and there seems at present to be a pretty general disposition in certain quarters to discard all the other epistles as forgeries, and to accept those preserved in the Syriac version as the veritable compositions of the pastor of Antioch…”

Now some would be quick to point out here that the 4th century church historian Eusebius attributed seven letters to having been genuinely written by Ignatius; however, Killen addresses this argument as well:

“In his Ecclesiastical History, which was published as some think about A.D. 325, he asserts that Ignatius wrote seven letters, and from these he makes a few quotations. But his admission of the genuineness of a correspondence, bearing date upwards of two hundred years before his own appearance as an author, is an attestation of very doubtful value. He often makes mistakes respecting the character of ecclesiastical memorials; and in one memorable case, of far more consequence than that now under consideration, he has blundered most egregiously; for he has published, as genuine, the spurious correspondence between Abgarus and our Saviour… His reference to them is decisive as to the fact of their existence in the early part of the fourth century; but those who adopt the views propounded in the ‘Corpus Ignatianum,’ are not prepared to bow to his critical decision; for, on this very occasion, he has given his sanction to four letters which they pronounce apocryphal.”

Killen’s line of reasoning makes sense here. By the middle ages, there were some fifteen letters thought to have been attributed to Ignatius. Now almost immediately, we can discount eight of these fifteen as much later forgeries, as they were wholly unknown before the 5th century. Of the remaining seven which are believed to have been written by Ignatius, both longer and shorter recensions are available; and of these two recensions, the longer form shows clear and obvious signs of having been added to by later editors. Thus far we have seen a clear line of regression as we move backward in time, to a point when fewer and fewer of Ignatius’ letters were known, and when those that were known were known only in a shorter form. This line of regression also points out that, although such forgeries were relatively commonplace in ancient religious circles, Ignatius himself was singled out from many ecclesiastical writers as the victim of such prolific falsehoods.

This brings us back to the subject of the Syriac editions of three of the seven letters which Ignatius is believed to have written. As has already been shown, many letters have gone out into circulation falsely under the name of Ignatius. It is by no means a stretch to assume that out of the seven letters which were known by Eusebius, only a handful of those were genuinely written by Ignatius himself. The Syriac manuscripts of Ignatius’ writings witness directly to this very real possibility, especially given the pro-Torah theology of the much shorter Syriac versions compared with the downright anti-Semitic theology of even the shorter recensions of the Greek versions.

Additionally, about two thirds of the text of Ignatius’ letter to the Smyrnaeans is preserved in a Coptic manuscript, which Lightfoot suggested to be an early manuscript. The portions of this letter which can be corroborated with the Coptic are presented in this edition as an appendix to the writings of Ignatius which we deem trustworthy.

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Vindicating Ignatius

Perhaps the strongest testimony in favor of Ignatius is the endorsement he received from Polycarp of Smyrna, who spoke favorably of Ignatius’ writings in the end of his letter to the Philippians. Now if Polycarp is traditionally reckoned as having been a fervent Sabbath keeper, then why would he have vouched for someone who is traditionally reckoned as one who advocated for the abrogation of God’s Torah, and rejection of the Jewish people? Perhaps it is possible– even probable– that the accusations against Ignatius are unfounded, and that the writings attributed to Ignatius which support such anti-Semitic notions were forged in his name. This is the opinion of the editor of this volume, which is why the Syriac manuscripts of three of Ignatius’ letters, and the Coptic fragment of a fourth, are presented here as authentic; and the Greek manuscripts of his writings, which contain such anti-Semitic additions, cannot be rightly attributed to him.

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Textual support for the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch.

As has been previously mentioned, there are several forms of the Greek version of the Letters of Ignatius. The “longer form” is known primarily from Codex Hierosolymitanus, (11th century CE) the Jerusalem Codex, and contains many obvious later additions, as well as a handful of letters known to be fabrications forged in Ignatius’ name. Because it is among the oldest manuscripts containing any trace of Ignatius’ works, the translations presented here are taken from the Syriac version of his letters to the Ephesians, to the Romans, and to Polycarp of Smyrna. The translation of his letter to the Smyrnaeans is taken from Srawley’s translation of the Greek, with his notations from the Coptic version implemented into the text.

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What do the writings of Ignatius of Antioch mean to us today?

Ignatius serves as an excellent example of one who is steadfast in his faith; he was ardently committed to the principals he held dear, to Yeshua the Messiah, even to the point of death. Ignatius emphasizes diligence and perseverance, even in the face of overwhelming adversity. He frequently utilizes the comparison of the believer who lives out his faith to the athlete who strives in a contest, teaching us today that we should stand fast in our faith, even while being smitten by the pains of the contest.

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End Notes

1 The seven letters that are assumed to be authentic are his letters to the Ephesians, to the Magnesians, to the Trallians, to the Romans, to the Philadelphians, to the Smyrnaeans, and to Polycarp of Smyrna. Of those, only three are trusted by the editor of this edition: those to the Ephesians, the Romans, and to Polycarp of Smyrna, presented in this volume as translations of the Syriac manuscript. A fragment of a fourth letter is presented as well, that to the Smyrnaeans, which has been diligently compared with the Coptic by its translator, J. H. Srawley, in his 1900 work The Epistles of St. Ignatius. The remaining eight letters considered to be spurious are his letters to the Tarsians, to the Antiochians, to Hero of Antioch, to the Philippians, from a proselyte named Maria, to Mary at Neapolis, two to John, and one to the Virgin Mary.

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