Ignatian Problem


IN the present, as between the brief Syriac recension of three epistles, the shorter of the two Greek recensions of seven epistles, and the longer Greek recension, there is a very general agreement that the second is the more primitive, whether it is to be accounted the unadulterated product of the hand of Ignatius or not.

The greater continuity of thought in the shorter Greek recension suggests rather that the Syriac epistles were made by an abridgment of it than that it arose by enlargement of them. Moreover, the task of abridging would have been a very simple matter, whereas that of enlarging in the manner supposed would have been difficult. No one would have been likely to have attempted so laborious a task except on the score of a desire to modify the contents in favor of some particular views. But doctrinally and ecclesiastically the two lists of epistles are of very much the same tenor.

The longer Greek recension is discredited by points of similarity with the confessedly spurious epistles attributed to Ignatius, by plain indications of borrowing from the writings of Eusebius and the Apostolic Constitutions, and by other tokens of a comparatively late origin. These facts place it in unfavorable contrast with the other Greek recension.

Respecting the genuineness of the shorter Greek recension of the seven epistles, Lightfoot makes the following cogent summary of evidence:--

  1. No Christian writings of the second century, and very few writing of antiquity, whether Christian or pagan, are so well authenticated as the epistles of Ignatius. If the epistle of Polycarp be accepted as genuine, the authentication is perfect.
  2. The main ground of objection against the genuineness of the epistle of Polycarp is its authentication of the Ignatian epistles. Otherwise there is every reason to believe that it would have passed unquestioned.
  3. The epistle of Polycarp itself is exceptionally well authenticated by the testimony of his disciple Irenaeus.
  4. All attempts to explain the phenomena of the epistle of Polycarp, as forged or interpolated to give color to the Ignatian epistles, have signally failed.
  5. The external testimony to the Ignatian epistles being so strong, only the most decisive marks of spuriousness in the epistles themselves, as for instance proved anachronisms, would justify us in suspecting them as interpolated or rejecting them as spurious.
  6. But so far is this from being the case that one after another the anachronisms urged against these letters have vanished in the light of further knowledge.
  7. As regards the argument which Daillé calls 'palmary' -- the prevalence of episcopacy as a recognized institution -- we may say boldly that all the facts point the other way; If the writer of these letters had represented the churches of Asia Minor as under presbyteral government, he would have contradicted all the evidence, which without one dissentient voice points to episcopacy as the established form of church government in these districts from the close of the first century.
  8. The circumstances of the condemnation, captivity, and journey of Ignatius, which have been a stumbling-block to some modern critics, did not present any difficulty to those who lived near the time and therefore knew best what might be expected under the circumstances; and they are sufficiently borne out by examples, more or less analogous, to establish their credibility.
  9. The objections to the style and language of the epistles are beside the purpose. In some cases they arise from a misunderstanding of the writer's meaning. Generally they may be said to rest on the assumption that an apostolic father could not use exaggerated expressions, overstrained images, and the like,-certainly a sandy foundation on which to build an argument.
  10. A like answer holds with regard to any extravagances in sentiment or opinion or character. Why should Ignatius not have exceeded the bounds of sober reason or correct taste? Other men in his own and immediately succeeding ages did both. As an apostolic father he was not exempt from the failings, if failings they were, of his age and position.
  11. While investigation of the contents of these epistles has yielded this negative result, in dissipating the objections, it has at the same time had a high positive value, as revealing indications of a very early date, and therefore presumably of genuineness, in the surrounding circumstances, more especially in the types of false doctrine which it combats, in the ecclesiastical status which it presents, and in the manner in which it deals with the evangelical and apostolic documents.
  12. Moreover, we discover in the personal environments of the assumed writer, and more especially in the notices of his route, many subtle coincidences which we are constrained to regard as undesigned, and which seem altogether beyond the reach of a forger.
  13. So likewise the peculiarities in style and diction of the epistles, as also in the representation of the writer's character, are much more capable of explanation in a genuine writing than in a forgery.
  14. While external and internal evidence thus combine to assert the genuineness of these writings, no satisfactory account has been or apparently can be given of them as a forgery of a later date than Ignatius. They would be quite purposeless as such; for they entirely omit all topics which would especially interest any subsequent age. On these grounds we are constrained to accept the Seven Epistles of the Middle Form as the genuine work of Ignatius."
1 The Apostolic Fathers, Part II., vol, i., pp. 401, 409.