Monday, July 27, 2009

Are The Letters Of Ignatius And Polycarp Forgeries?

I recently read Allen Brent's Ignatius Of Antioch (New York, New York: T & T Clark International, 2009). Brent is an Anglican priest, a patristic scholar, and one of the leading Ignatian scholars in the world today. The book carries an endorsement from the Oxford patristic scholar Mark Edwards, who calls it "the best available introduction to the world of Ignatius of Antioch". It's primarily about Ignatius, but it also has a significant amount of material on Polycarp, since the two men and their writings are closely related.

Brent isn't a conservative. He denies the traditional authorship attributions of many of the books of the New Testament, he believes in something like the community authorship view of the gospels held by Raymond Brown, he denies that the Refutation Of All Heresies was written by Hippolytus, etc. He believes that the seven letters of Ignatius commonly accepted today are genuine works of Ignatius, however. I disagree with Brent on some points, but I mostly agree with his assessment of the context and genuineness of the letters of Ignatius and Polycarp.

Here's some of what I took away from the book:

- Significantly modified versions of Ignatius' letters, as well as some new letters falsely attributed to Ignatius, arose in the fourth and fifth centuries. However, not everybody accepted the modified and new letters, so the original letters continued to be used alongside the others. The original letters of Ignatius or something close to them continued to be used down to medieval times (pp. ix, 6-8).

- J.B. Lightfoot and Theodore Zahn's arguments for the authenticity of the seven Ignatian letters commonly accepted today created a widespread scholarly consensus that lasted for about a century. Though the letters are still accepted in most circles today, they became more controversial again in the last quarter of the twentieth century (pp. x, 95).

- If Brent's description of the recent arguments against the authenticity of the Ignatian letters is accurate, then there's no good reason to reject the letters. The arguments against their genuineness are of minor significance and are far outweighed by the evidence on the other side (pp. 95-143).

- Ignatius' letters are consistent with authorship in the first half of the second century. They're free of anachronisms and contradictions in a manner that's "very rare" in ancient forgeries (p. 147).

- It was common for a prisoner in the Roman empire to be allowed access to visitors and thereby receive food, send letters, etc. Those who visited prisoners would give gifts to the guards, and would relieve the guards of the responsibility for providing food and other necessities for the prisoner, thus giving the guards incentive for allowing the visitors access to the person under their watch. Lucian, a second-century pagan critic of Christianity, confirms the historicity of such practices when he describes the behavior and treatment of Christian prisoners. Thus, there's nothing unlikely about the scenario presented in Ignatius' letters, in which he's in frequent contact with other Christians on his way to martyrdom (pp. 49-51, 110).

- The harmony of details in Ignatius' letters is "striking", to the point that Brent comments:

"If a forger, in other words, had been at work in the production of the middle recension [the commonly accepted edition of Ignatius' letters], then what he has produced would have been done with the ingenuity of a Conan Doyle specializing in false leads and loose ends in his weaving of the narrative of his detective stories." (pp. 147-148)

- The view of martyrdom presented in Ignatius' letters is inconsistent with that of later sources, such as Clement of Alexandria and Cyprian, thus suggesting an earlier date (p. 19).

- Ignatius doesn't make any reference to apostolic succession as later defined by men like Irenaeus and Cyprian and by groups like Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. He parallels presbyters, not bishops, with the apostles, and he never refers to himself as a successor of the apostles or as having the authority of Peter or the other apostles. (Ignatius' church, the church of Antioch, was apostolic.) He may have failed to refer to a monarchical bishop when writing to Rome because that form of church government hadn't developed in Rome yet, as other sources from the same time period also suggest. His view of church order is different from what we see later in the second century and beyond, suggesting an earlier date for the letters (pp. 86-87, 116, 122-129).

- The low Trinitarianism in Ignatius' letters supports an early date. The letters "were undoubtedly seen as monarchian by the author of the long recension, who duly altered them and gave them a properly Trinitarian form" (pp. 87, 135).

- The letters of Ignatius don't quote the Old and New Testaments in the manner that Justin Martyr and other later sources did, suggesting an earlier date (p. 143).

- Brent argues that sources of the third and fourth century were already misunderstanding some of the content of Ignatius' letters, thus suggesting that they were composed in an earlier context that was significantly distant from these sources of the third and fourth centuries (pp. 107-109).

- There are some indications that the themes of Ignatius' letters had some influence on Polycarp, suggesting an earlier date for those letters (pp. 151-158).

- Lucian, a pagan who wrote in the second half of the second century, shows awareness of the letters of Ignatius and/or some of the themes of those letters, to the point that even critics of Ignatius' letters will acknowledge that the letters should be dated prior to the time when Lucian wrote (pp. 54, 99-100, 112, 119).

- There are many allusions to the letters of Ignatius in other second-century sources: Melito of Sardis, Theophilus of Antioch, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, etc. Note that some of these men had lived in locations that would have been in contact with Ignatius if the letters attributed to him are genuine. (p. 98)

- Polycarp's Letter To The Philippians is so widely accepted that Brent comments that its "authenticity has not been challenged". He argues against the concept that some portions of the letter consist of interpolations, a claim for which there's little evidence (pp. 100-103, 137).

- Polycarp refers to a collection of Ignatius' letters, and Polycarp's church would have had access to all of the Ignatian letters extant today, since all of them were written to or from Smyrna or carried through Smyrna. The reason why we have the seven letters we possess today, without other letters we know Ignatius wrote or have reason to think he may have written, might be because our collection of letters is the one preserved by the church of Smyrna (pp. 146-147).

- There seems to be no monarchical episcopate in Polycarp's letter (p. 149).

- I agree with Brent that Ignatius seems to have been trying to convince other churches to adopt or retain his preferred form of church order, involving a monarchical episcopate, thus explaining why he mentions the subject so much in his letters. However, I suspect that the monarchical episcopate was already more widespread than Brent suggests. The truth probably is somewhere between Brent's concept of Ignatius as an innovator and the view that all of the early churches had a monarchical episcopate all along. (Brent prefers not to use the term "monarchical episcopate" when discussing Ignatius' view, but I'm using it in a broad sense, which I think is more common, to refer to having a single bishop who leads the remainder of the church hierarchy.)

- "[T]he Acts of his [Ignatius'] martyrdom are late and unreliable" and "generally regarded as spurious" (pp. 12, 20).

- According to Brent's rendering of section 12 of Ignatius' Letter To The Ephesians, Ignatius refers to the martyrdom of Paul (p. 72).

- Below is a summary of Brent's reconstruction of Ignatius' context. He believes that there were disputes in Ignatius' church, the church of Antioch, that partly involved matters of church government. The disputes became significant enough to attract the attention of the Romans, who sentenced Ignatius to execution. Brent writes:

"Thus Ignatius has been successful in achieving, as a scapegoat sacrifice, the peace at Antioch that he had failed to achieve whilst still free. His claim for a single bishop at the apex of a hierarchy had been the reason for the inner conflict in that church that had led to his removal for execution at Rome at the mouths of the wild beasts in the arena. Since they [Ignatius' opponents in the church of Antioch] had opposed the ecclesial order that he had advocated and had been the cause of his troubles, they had now to accept the collective guilt for making him a scapegoat. Thus Ignatius by his martyrdom had sapped their will to continue in a state of faction. And they were being joined through the effects of that scapegoat sacrifice by the divided churches of Asia Minor that were joining his procession and accepting his church constitution. Ignatius is assimilating his concept of a 'scapegoat sacrifice' (peripsema) drawn from Old Testament typology to the pagan and Hellenistic concept of a joint sacrifice or sunthusia. His martyr procession, in sending forth and receiving ecclesial ambassadors, is like a procession that culminates in a sunthusia that concludes a homonoia treaty between city-states." (pp. 53-54)

Brent spends much of the book arguing for parallels between Ignatius' letters and the pagan religions and political environment of his day. Ignatius often appeals to themes that his readers would have understood from their religious and political context, but which aren't so easily understood by modern readers. Though I'm not convinced by all of Brent's arguments, I do think most people would find Ignatius easier to understand after reading Brent's book.


  1. Thanks, Jason. This will be very helpful to me as I continue my series on the Dutch Radicals, who deny the authenticity of Ignatius and Clement as early witnesses to Paul's letters. See the most recent CADRE posts and tell me what you think

  2. Good stuff. Ignatius and the early Apostolic Fathers get insufficient attention in apologetic circles.

  3. Both articles are good, JD. I haven't read much of Detering, so the following comments are based largely on what I've heard about his views from you and others.

    If he's suggesting that Acts was written in the second century, and that Luke was disputing the view of Paul in the Pauline letters, then he has a lot to explain about the patristic data. Why would a second-century Acts written by somebody other than Luke produce a universal consensus affirming first-century authorship by Luke, with no indication of a dispute over the matter? If Luke's writings were meant to argue against Paul's, why do we see such widespread acceptance of Luke's writings and Paul's together? Where are the people who accepted Acts as a correction of the Pauline letters?

    If you're interested, Steve Hays wrote an article in response to Detering a couple of years ago. As Steve explains in that article, moving a document like Acts to another century has ramifications for other documents. And the altered status of those other documents has further ramifications. Etc. Does Detering show an awareness of just how much his speculations would alter the historical record and, thus, how much he needs to explain?

    Concerning Paul's conversion, you may be interested in my recent article on the subject. Detering would need to address the issues I raise there.

    In the second article of the two you recently posted, you comment:

    "Luke does not describe Paul as actually seeing the form of Jesus in the bright light that surrounds him"

    You might be limiting your comment to the Acts accounts of the experiences on the road to Damascus, not the accounts of what happened just afterward. Elsewhere in Acts, however, in one of the accounts involving Ananias, we are told that Paul saw Jesus (Acts 22:14). It's unlikely that Luke would have doubted what Paul was saying in that passage, and it's unlikely that Paul would have thought that Ananias was mistaken. In other passages, we're told that Jesus appeared to Paul (9:17, 26:16). Even if Paul had only seen some sort of light surrounding Jesus (contrary to 22:14), accompanied by hearing Jesus and possessing other evidence that Jesus had appeared to him, why should we think such experiences don't qualify Paul as one who was a "witness with us of His resurrection" (1:22)?

    Unless Detering adds some major qualifiers I'm unaware of elsewhere, his statement that "The Paul of Acts has never heard anything about justification by faith alone" is remarkably inaccurate. I've been citing passages from Acts as evidence of justification through faith alone for years, such as in discussions with Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. The people in Acts 10:44-48 are justified through faith, prior to baptism and all other works, and Peter goes on to refer to their experience as normative, with Paul's approval (15:7-11). Paul repeatedly mentions faith without mentioning works of any type, which is most naturally taken as an expression of faith alone (13:39, 26:18, etc.). In 19:2, Paul refers to the reception of the Spirit at the time of faith as what's normative, what's to be expected. How can that be anything other than justification through faith alone?