Early Writings:


The Epistles of Ignatius

The following is transcribed from Kirsopp Lake's The Apostolic Fathers
(published London 1912), v. I, pp. 166-9.

The epistles or letters of Ignatius are among the most famous documents of early Christianity, and have curiously complicated literary history. Eusebius in Historia Ecclesiastica iii. 36 tells the story of Ignatius. He was the third bishop of Antioch in Syria, and was condemned to be sent to Rome to be killed by the beasts in the ampitheatre. His journey took him through various churches in Asia Minor and while he was in Smyrna he wrote letters to Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, and Rome, and later on, when he reached Troas he wrote to the Philadelphians, Smyrnaeans, and Polycarp the bishop of Smyrna. In his chronicon Eusebius fixes the date of his martyrdom in Rome in the tenth year of Trajan, i.e. 108 A.D.

Modern critics are by no means unanimous as to the correctness of this date, but, though each has his own special preferences, there is a general tendency to think that Ignatius was really a martyr in Rome in the time of Trajan (98-117 A.D.).

The immediate purpose of each of the letters, except that to the Romans, is to thank the recipients for the kindness which they had shown to Ignatius. The "Romans" has the object of preventing Christians at Rome from making any efforts to save Ignatius from the beasts in the arena, and so robbing him of the crown of martyrdom. But besides this immediate purpose the writer is influenced by three other motives, all or some of which can be traced in each letter.

(1) Ignatius is exceedingly anxious in each community to strengthen respect for the bishop and presbyters. He ascribes the fullest kind of divine authority to their organisation, and recognises as valid no church, institution, or worship without their sanction.

(2) He protests against the form of heresy called docetism (dokein), which regarded the sufferings, and in some case the life, of Jesus as merely an appearance. He also protests against any tendency to Judaistic practices, but it is disputed whether he means that this was an evil found in docetic circles, or that it was a danger threatening the church from other directions.

(3) He is also anxious to secure the future of his own church in Antioch by persuading other communities to send helpers.

Of the letters of Ignatius there are extant three recensions.

1. The long recension. - The most widely found contains not only the seven letters of which Eusebius speaks, but also six others. In this collection the chronological scheme (not however followed in the MSS.) is:-

(1) From Antioch. A letter from a certain Mary of Cassobola (a neighboring town) to Ignatius, and a letter from him in reply.

(2) From Smyrna. Letters to Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, and Rome.

(3) From Troas. Letters to Philadelphia, Smyrna, and Polycarp.

(4) From Philippi. Letters to Tarsus, Antioch, and Hero (the successor of Ignatius as bishop of Antioch).

(5) From Italy. Letter to Philippi.

There is also an appendix in the Latin version of Grosseteste containing letters from and to S. John and the Virgin Mary.

2. The short recension. - It was early seen that the long recension contained several letters which were clearly not genuine, and that those which had the most claim to acceptance, as having been mentioned by Eusebius, were greatly corrupted by obvious interpolations. Fortunately the remnants of an early collection have been found which originally contained only the even Eusebian letters.

The text of this recension is nowhere extant in a pure form. All the known MSS. of Ignatius (with the possible exception of the Berlin papyrus) which contain the seven Eusebian letters belong in some degree to the "Long recension," but this degree fortunately varies. Two classes of MSS. must be distinguished. (1) MSS. containing the additional epistles of the "Long recension," but preserving the uninterpolated text of the Eusebian letters. It is obvious that the second class are genuine MSS. of the "Long recension," and that the former class are MSS. of the "Short recension," copied from originals containing only the Eusebian letters, to which teh copyist has supplied the additional material of the "Long recension" from some other material of the "Long recension" from some other original, but luckily without correcting the text of the seven letters from this second source. Having, therefore, the information of Eusebius to define the extent of the original collection of letters we can use this class of MSS. to determine its text.

3. The Syriac abridgment. - In 1845 Dr. Cureton discovered a Syriac text of a collection of three epistles, Ephesians, Romans, and Polycarp, and there was for a time a tendency to think that this might be the original text. Lightfoot however and others showed it to be merely an abridgment from a Syriac text of the short recension. It has therefore disappeared from the field of study except as evidence for the text of the short recension, in the same way as the 'long recension' is only valuable for the light which the interpolations throw on the doctrinal development of Christianity, and in a few places as a help to reconstructing the true text where the short recension has been corrupted.