Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Were the Letters of Ignatius Forged?

As I have mentioned a number of times, Calvin viewed the Ignatian epistles as spurious (for obvious reasons). I have also been in the habit of mentioning that he has since been proven wrong. A reader asked me how certain this really was and pointed to the book "The Ignatian Epistles Entirely Spurious" by W. D. Killen (Presbyterian minister). This book was written in response to Lightfoot whom I was mostly resting in when I said that it was an accepted fact these days that the epistles were genuine. I'm sure Killen's work has been dealt with adequately by others; as far as I can tell, Protestant and Catholic Patrologists alike take the authenticity of the seven Ignatian epistles for granted these days. But for fun, I threw together this quick and sloppy response to his book.

In point of fact, the letter of Polycarp, as a genuine production of the second century, occupies an incomparably higher position than the Ignatian Epistles. The internal evidence in its favour is most satisfactory. It is exactly such a piece of correspondence as we might expect from a pious and sensible Christian minister, well acquainted with the Scriptures, and living on the confines of the apostolic age.
This quote makes it rather clear that Killen cannot envision a “pious and sensible Christian minister” being as Catholic as Ignatius obviously was. This is an important glance into the assumptions Killen brings to the table. Throughout the book, he repeatedly refers to bishops as “chief pastor” etc.. This is more than just a bit ridiculous. A weak case may be made for the interchangeability of the terms “bishop” and “priest” (“overseer” and “presbyter” if you want to be very Presbyterian about it) in the New Testament and in Clement to the Corinthians. In the second century and beyond, the argument is utterly worthless. Following Calvin, he is apparently interested only in showing that the early Church didn’t have bishops not in whether or not Ignatius actually wrote these letters.
But whilst the internal evidence testifies against them, they are not noticed by any writer for considerably more than a century after they are said to have appeared.
I wonder if he is aware that the same could said of several of the canonical New Testament books. Killen blunders on Polycarp’s age following Eusebius saying that he died under Marcus Aurelius. He claims that Polycarp would have been 24 in 107 (using this as evidence that Ignatius wouldn’t have asked a youngster to write a letter on his behalf) whereas Polycarp was martyred at 86 years old in the year 155 (in fact it was February the 23rd). (See Catholic Encyclopedia for a discussion of this date) This would make him born in 69 or even 68 AD making him 38 at the time of the Ignatian epistles. Furthermore, it is not necessary that Polycarp follow Ignatius’ request to write letters to the remaining Churches immediately in the same year. I place his letter to the Philippians at approximately 111 AD which would make him 42 or 43. That’s plenty old enough to be writing the type of letter that he wrote. Remember, his honor wasn’t just because he was a clever guy, he was the successor and immediate student of the Apostle John. Killen erroneously places Polycarp’s letter in 161, 6 years after he died citing in a supposed mistranslation of the “Syria” in Polycarp’s letter to the small island of Psyria which was much closer to Smyrna. I have no credentials to argue the linguistics here other than the fact that scholars who translate it routinely translate it as Syria and not Psyria and that I think Killen is vastly overestimating the penetration of Christianity at this early stage. If Psyria did have a Christian community, it was most likely a very small one under the episcopate of an outside bishop. Not every fishing village had its own bishop in the second century.

He says:
That this letter of Polycarp to the Philippians was written at a time when persecution was rife, is apparent from its tenor throughout. If we except the case of Ignatius of Antioch--many of the tales relating to which Dr. Lightfoot himself rejects as fabulous [19:1]--we have no evidence that in A.D. 107 the Christians were treated with severity. The Roman world was then under the mild government of Trajan, and the troubles which afflicted the disciples in Bithynia, under Pliny, had not yet commenced.
The letter of Pliny the Younger was written a mere 4-5 years after Ignatius. Trajan himself may have been mild in comparison to Nero or Marcus Aurelius, but he still approved of the Roman law of forcing Christians to worship the pagan gods. Killen is only getting his information from the fact that Trajan replied to Pliny telling him not to go searching for the Christians (but up until that point they had been!!!!) Trajan still says that Christians should be given a chance to repent (of Christianity) or else… Now the incidence of Pliny’s persecution and the general Roman persecution under Trajan was by no means limited to the year 111 or 112 AD when Pliny wrote to the emperor. Who knows how long this had been happening? Killen apparently thinks he does but provides no source.
In the Ignatian Epistle addressed to Polycarp, he is directed to "write to the Churches," to "call together a godly council," and "to elect" a messenger to be sent to Syria (sec. 7). Polycarp, in his letter to the Philippians, takes no notice of these instructions. He had obviously never heard of them. It is indeed plain that the letter of the Philippians to Polycarp had only a partial reference to the case of Ignatius and his companions. It was largely occupied with other matters; and to these Polycarp addresses himself in his reply.
“Churches” is plural. The letter to the Philippians either represents only a portion of them or perhaps the instruction was followed out in an entirely separate incident. At any rate, we are not in possession of at least one of Polycarp’s letters, this much we can be fairly sure of. Of the entire ordeal (the supposed forgery) he writes:
In an uncritical age the cheat succeeded; the letters were quite to the taste of many readers; and ever since they have been the delight of High Churchmen.
But why would it be an “uncritical age”? If the reformers were right, then the early Church was basically Protestant. The forgery (if it really happened) happened in the early Church. So the supposed fact that it was forged in the first place together with the subsequent supposed fact that it was widely and uncritically accepted shows that the early Church was very Catholic and very eager to accept Catholic sounding writing! If the early Church was really Protestantish – then they would have been “critical” (in the sense he’s using the word) and would have therefore rejected the “forgeries” or maybe they wouldn’t have been forged in the first place. So even if we consider them forgeries, it is still telling of a very Catholic early Church in the same way that the “Proto-evangelium of James” may be a forgery (under the name of James), it gives us profound insight into the second century Church’s view of Mary. Protestants seem to think that the Immaculate Conception was invented in the nineteenth century whereas this second century forgery goes even further than any of the dogmas of the Catholic Church!

Following Ussher, Killen places the martyrdom of Polycarp in 169 AD. This would make him a young teenager in the very last years of the apostle John (which would be a stretch to call him a “disciple”, thereby marginalizing a mass of early father testimony). It would also make him alive during all the writings of Justin Martyr (and even outliving Justin) and possibly alive at the writing of “Against Heresies”. This chronology causes far more problems than it solves (and all in the interest of showing the Ignatian epistles forgeries).

He explains that Irenaeus is obviously ignorant of the Ignatian epistles since he does not directly mention Ignatius’ name (although he clearly quotes from him : “As a certain man of ours said, when he was condemned to the wild beasts because of his testimony with respect to God: I am the wheat of Christ, and am ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of God.” Adv. Haer. 5.28.4 compared with Ignatius to the Romans 4 “I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.”) While Irenaeus does quote from Ignatius, he does not quote from Philemon, 2 Peter, 3 John or Jude. Are these to be considered spurious? The mere fact that he doesn’t mention his name doesn’t prove anything. He may well have not been in possession of these letters but only aware of them. Irenaeus didn’t exactly have Google at his finger tips.

He points out that Polycarp (while supposedly contemporary with Ignatius) quotes the New Testament far more than Ignatius and that Ignatius stresses the episcopacy far more than Polycarp. In fact, Polycarp doesn’t mention it at all. This is a fair point to ponder but I can offer a few responses. First, one writer may more naturally quote NT writings for his own specific purposes without the other being a forgery. I haven’t quoted the NT yet in this post and another contemporary of mine may write on this very subject and quote it extensively – can we then assume mine is a forgery and the two of us can’t be contemporaries? Isn’t it possible for differences in persons to exist between early Church fathers or must they all be identical to each other in order for us to consider them real people? Secondly, they are not strict contemporaries. It is quite possible and even likely that Ignatius and Polycarp have met each other. My guess is that Ignatius traveled to Asia Minor at some point to hear St. John and may have then met the young Polycarp. Their acquaintance is not likely to have extended much further than this (even this is speculation). Antioch was a different place than Smyrna. Ignatius was ordained by Peter (according to Theodoret) and was the successor of Evodius. Polycarp was ordained and instructed by John. These represent different localities and different traditions. It is not a stretch in the least to assume that they could have had varying emphases on the hierarchy of the Church or the Church in general. We know from the Quartodeciman controversy in the second century that there were a number of differences in the respective traditions arising from the East and West. St. John quite apparently was a quartodeciman while St. Peter and the Western apostles weren’t. This is not to say the East didn’t have bishops or that the East didn’t care about bishops. Far from it. It is only to say that Polycarp’s inherited tradition didn’t necessarily have as strong of an emphasis on episcopal hierarchy as Ignatius’ did. We can assent to this without assuming the two could not have possibly been contemporary.
In these letters Ignatius speaks as a vain babbler, drunken with fanaticism; Polycarp, in his Epistle, expresses himself like an humble-minded Presbyterian minister in his sober senses.
He calls Polycarp a Presbyterian minister. Just wanted to point that out.
"He that honoureth the bishop is honoured of God; he that doth aught against the knowledge of the bishop,rendereth service to the devil" [58:6] Polycarp, on the other hand, describes himself as one of the elders, and exhorts the Philippians to "submit to the presbyters and deacons," and to be "all subject one to another."
I am utterly unconvinced here that these two are contradictory. The Church is composed of bishops, priests and deacons. Ignatius and Polycarp would both agree that we should submit to the presbyters and deacons; that Polycarp doesn’t mention the bishop certainly doesn’t mean he is unaware of their existence or that he would advocate rebellion to them or the unimportance of obedience to them. It shouldn’t be ignored that Polycarp doesn’t speak of the bishop, but we shouldn’t make too much of it either. Polycarp doesn’t mention the Holy Spirit. Do you see how far this “argument from silence” is going to get us? Again he says:
The internal evidence furnished by the Ignatian Epistles seals their condemnation.
Which is basically admitting what this is all about. The “internal evidence” is that Ignatius’ ecclesiology is radically different from Killen’s and the Presbyterian community and therefore must be wrong.
The account of his hurried removal as a prisoner from Antioch to Rome, in the custody of ten fierce soldiers--whilst he was permitted, as he passed along, to hold something like a levee of his co-religionists at every stage of his journey--wears very much the appearance of an ill-constructed fiction.
Actually, it sounds rather like St. Paul to me. Killen seems to think Pope Callistus (or according to him, Chief Presbyterian Minister of Rome - Callistus) was the forger of these epistles citing such evidence as:
Callistus, when labouring in the mines of Sardinia, must have been well acquainted with ropes and hoists; and here Ignatius describes the Ephesians as "hoisted up to the heights through the engine of Jesus Christ," having faith as their "windlass," and as "using for a rope the Holy Spirit."
It may be just a bit of a stretch to assume one could only learn of “hoists” and “engines” in the salt mines of Sardina. He makes a further mistake here:
Hippolytus tells us that Callistus was a Patripassian. "The Father," said he, "having taken human nature, deified it by uniting it to Himself, ... and so he said that the Father had suffered with the Son." [75:3] Hence Ignatius, in these Epistles, startles us by such expressions as "the blood of God," [75:4] and "the passion of my God." [75:5]
First of all, Hippolytus was wrong; Callistus wasn’t a Patripassianist. In fact, he excommunicated the arch-patripassianist (or modalist) Sabellius whom Hippolytus also criticizes. Beside that, I’m not sure if Killen understands what Patripassianism is since he seems to view Ignatius in error by referring to “the blood of God” and “the passion of my God”. However, Patripassianism is the error of ascribing the passion to God the Father, not merely “God”. Jesus is “God” but Jesus is not God the Father. God (the Son) did die on the cross, God the Father did not. Ignatius is not in error here.

Again, this is a sloppy and hurried response. I read and responded to the book entirely in this evening. Hope this has been useful if only minimally. In parting, obey your bishop!


Thos said...


Thanks for this excellent piece of work. You obviously spent a lot of time on it. I appreciated what I thought to be your 'thesis' here, that our skeptic called the Epistles spurious precisely because the internals were intolerable to him. Maybe he wanted to call Hebrews or James 'right strawey' epistles too, for their internals.

I'm investing in some Ignatian Epistles to read, so am glad to hear this defense of their authenticity.

Peace in Christ,

William Eunice said...

Thanks for this ... all I can ever see is that people tend to state that "everyone already accepts this" ... occasionally I run across people who reject them and beyond the "everybody accepts" notion I really don't know where to begin defending this. It doesn't matter if scholars accept something if the average lay person is relying on 150 year old testimony that considers the works spurious. The lay apologist has to deal with "everybody" including Bob at Yo average Protestant church.

William Eunice

Tim A. Troutman said...

Thos, glad it could be of some use. I skipped over some of the stuff in his book and a much more thorough treatment could be written if I had the time.

His theories on Pope Callistus as the forger surprised me. He seems to take Hippolytus' accusations against Callistus for granted whereas Dollinger (and as I understand it De Rossi as well) has soundly demonstrated that while generally based in fact, Hippolytus' accusations fall far short of proving Pope Callistus to be a corrupt bishop. This is backed up by the principal fact that Hippolytus was reconciled to the Church during his time spent in the salt mines of Sardina before his martyrdom alongside of Pope Pontian the third in succession after Callistus.

Dollinger's work, "Hippolytus and Callistus" is a great read and free on Google books.

William - thanks for the comments. At some point, in the interest of progression, one has to trust a great deal in scholars that went before him. For me, I don't read Koine Greek fluently (or more accurately I can barely read it at all) so I need to trust in the Greek scholars and their consensus to some degree.

But you're right, science and scholarship isn't done by a consensus. I differ from scholarly consensus on several issues including Matthean Priority etc...

I wanted to respond to this at the request of a reader to show that there is a strong Catholic response for everything. The closer we examine the Catholic faith, the more we have the urge to say... well dang.. it looks like we just may have found "the answer".

Catholicism is the mysterious and sometimes elusive answer to all of life's puzzles that every cult, sect and philosophy has been aiming to achieve since man began thinking on his own. We're so surprised to find her right on so many things.

I'm sure there are in existence much more able and thorough critiques of Killen's work. As I said before in the email to the reader, Lightfoot, Harnack and Zahn (all Protestants) affirm the authenticity of the Ignatian epistles.

But I also asked the question - who cares if they're authentic? Even Protestants regularly take them for granted these days.

But here's the kicker: the Protestants don't suddenly discover the Ignatian epistles to be genuine and say "Wow, the early Church really was Catholic". Instead they say: "Wow, I've been misreading Ignatius this whole time. He doesn't actually advocate Catholic ideas after all"!

Do you see what I mean? They already have their answer: the early Church was NOT Catholic - facts be damned whatever I run across must fit into this paradigm. So it isn't of much consequence in the ongoing Catholic-Protestant debate whether they were authentic or not.

Tim A. Troutman said...

Correction - that's a Biblical "third from Callistus"!! - It was Callistus, Urban then Pontian. I always proofread - just usually after I publish.

R. E. Aguirre. said...

Right Tim, the only reason to reject the authenticity of the Ignatian corpus is on theological grounds.

Numerous scholars from across the theological spectrum have defended the originality of St. Ignatius' seven letters, i.e, (Anglican Protestant John Lightfoot), (Liberal Protestant Adolf Harnack), (Lutheran patristic scholar, Theodore Zahn), (professor F.X Funk of Tubingen)to name but a few.

Hubertus Drobner in his massive recent work on Patrology "The Fathers of the Church" (Hendrickson, 2007) can say with full confidence,

"Until most recently...rise to basic discussions on the authentic number of letters, but none of the delimitation attempts have been successful. Generally, all seven letters...are considered to be authentic" (p. 49).

R.E. Aguirre

George Weis said...

I just finished i Clement and I am moving into Ignatius. I am skipping ii Clement for the time being. I am excited to read at length this work. From what I have read on the letters-few think the work to be fraud. Few have less than poor evidence to support their labeling these as forged or false documents.

Again, I am excited to read at length this work instead of simply jabbing at different topical points that are covered in the letters.

Good post Tim!


Tim A. Troutman said...

George, I'll be interested to hear what you think of the Ignatian letters. Do post something on your blog so we can compare notes. I posted a mini series a while back on the same topic.

Ignatius is a great read. BTW, I'm sure you already know that 2 Clement wasn't actually written by Clement of Rome - it was just attributed to him later. It is an anonymous second century homily but it is a good read as well.

George Weis said...


Yes, I did find that II Clement was a homily. That is why I left that for later on.

I thus far have enjoyed Ignatius. It is an interesting to read the perspective of a follower of Christ knowingly heading for martyrdom. I think it is great to see the testimony of someone who is eager to be killed for the sake of Christ, and to "follow Him to the cross". If only more of us had that outlook. I pray that if the day comes, that I would move forward with eagerness even unto death.

I will post something. Namely, since I am reading his writings directly after I Clement, I can already note a climate change of sorts in the Christian community. The organizational level has become much more obvious (bishops, presbytery and deacons). With Ignatius I see the differentiated roles, which is quite different from Clement who uses the terms very loosely. Interesting to observe the changes that went into effect over time.


Tim A. Troutman said...

Yes his zeal is inspirational. Being able to accept suffering takes some bravery and Ignatius knew that to be martyred under the Romans meant suffering. Being hungry for suffering (for Christ), that takes the Holy Spirit.

It's a valid question to raise though - why was Ignatius able to present his hierarchy so much clearer than Clement when possibly only a decade separates them?

Let's continue this conversation at your blog when you post on it.

John R said...

I find that you still state Polycarp's age at 86, whereas the Harris fragment now reveals he was 104. He served Christ 86 years but did not become a christian till 18.

This diffuses the use of Polycarp as an example of infant baptism and again supports an age of 20 vs 38 for the letter written.

Most of your writing is based upon an incorrect age for Polycarp at death.

Tim A. Troutman said...

Hi John, thanks for stopping by. I am unaware of the Harris fragment.

Do you have a link to the fragment or a translation, or a scholarly work citing it?

Otherwise, the claim sounds pretty dubious. Even if it were true, it would not change my belief about infant baptism or about the authenticity of the Ignatian epistles.

That is because the proof for infant baptism rests with the Tradition and teaching of the Church.

John R said...

Here is a link to a book, it was a coptic fragment that stated Polycarp's age.

It was theorized Polycarp was 86 at death but this fragment stated 104.

Catholic apology has used the age 86 in some public debates covering a few subjects but it seems they made a bad assumption.

I don't believe the scriptures or the church witnessed to infant baptism, there have been some assumptions but those assumptions have been answered by the other side.

Like Cornelius household being baptized, Acts 10:2 says they feared God, all such scriptures have within them the concept of fear, belief, faith, hearing, etc.

Household baptism as given in the New Testament seems to not support infants. Acts 16:30-33

"Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved, you and your household", so the promise for all in the house required belief followed by baptism. then "as many as heard the word were baptized"

All the household baptism examples have those type of statements somewhere around them except maybe Lydia.

Then take Polycarp's age out of the evidence and there is no direct statement for it before Origen.

Tim A. Troutman said...

John thanks for the link. Cool stuff, I was not familiar with that until this point.

You are right, as far as I know, that the first direct statement in favor of infant baptism was Origen. But just some food for thought - that's still a lot older than the idea that we shouldn't baptize infants if we're just looking at age of a doctrine to determine its truth...

John R said...

I don't agree with that, Tertullian did not practice it before Origen supported it. There were groups during Augustines day who did not support it.

Keep in mind that an estimated 40 million were killed from the 3rd to the 8th century over the subject.

A lot of the opposition and the evidence they could produce were killed and removed.

The one argument Catholics brought from the New Testament was Colossians 2, where they correlate baptism with circumcision, but the wording makes that usage impossible saying,

"circumcision made without hands"

So whatever it is it was without human hands, either forgiveness itself or the gift of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps the New Birth which required baptism.

Circumcision would correlate to physical birth while the circumcision without hands was associated with spiritual.

So it wouldn't infer a physical babe but a spiritual birth.

By the way Polycarp being older at baptism would make him older when the letters were written if they were authentic, thus in the lower 50's.

His estimated death 155-167 and lived to be 104, so he became a christian between 51 & 63 AD.

His later age would help the authenticity of the Irenaeus letters, but hurt infant baptism.

John R said...

One reason you see no competing denominations after about 416 is it became law that sects could not use the name christian or be called christian if they did not align themselves with the councils. Parties in disagreement over the trinity or baptism or a number of other principles were in violation of law.

They were simply known as other names or heretics, and their works were normally burned, as in the Arius banishment his work was destroyed to a large degree.

Yet we know there was opposition because the works of those refuting dissenters exist.

Augustine for example refuted the idea as did Origen take it up. Thus we know the dissension is in the same period they wrote.

Those pushing the dissent back to the protestant reformation are simply incorrect.

Also, Augustine was very much a pro state religion and wielded power against dissenters, once his view was public, open rebuttal was basically illegal.

I don't have to prove that 40 million died though I believe they did, some say 50 million, nor was it all considered religious but in the name of keeping a stable political society, we do know millions died who were in opposition to various state religious pronouncements. Of those millions you would think some of their works might exist.

Thus we know there was dissent over it.