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History of the Christian Church, Volume II: Ante-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 100-325.
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§ 165. The Ignatian Controversy.


Of all the writings of the apostolic fathers none have been so much discussed, especially in modern times, as the Ignatian Epistles. This arises partly from the importance of their contents to the episcopal question, partly from the existence of so many different versions. The latter fact seems to argue as strongly for the hypothesis of a genuine basis for all, as against the supposition of the full integrity of any one of the extant texts. Renan describes the Ignatian problem as the most difficult in early Christian literature, next to that of the Gospel of John (Les Évang. p. x).

The Ignatian controversy has passed through three periods, the first from the publication of the spurious Ignatius to the publication of the shorter Greek recension (A. D. 1495 to 1644); the second from the discovery and publication of the shorter Greek recension to the discovery and publication of the Syrian version (A. D. 1644 to 1845), which resulted in the rejection of the larger Greek recension; the third from the discovery of the Syrian extract to the present time (1845–1883), which is favorable to the shorter Greek recension.

1. The Larger Greek Recension of Seven Epistles with eight additional ones. Four of them were published in Latin at Paris, 1495, as an appendix to another book; eleven more by Faber Stapulensis, also in Latin, at Paris, 1498; then all fifteen in Greek by Valentine Hartung (called Paceus or Irenaeus) at Dillingen, 1557; and twelve by Andreas Gesner at Zurich, 1560. The Catholics at first accepted them all as genuine works of Ignatius; and Hartung, Baronius, Bellarmin defended at least twelve; but Calvin and the Magdeburg Centuriators rejected them all, and later Catholics surrendered at least eight as utterly untenable. These are two Latin letters of Ignatius to St. John and one to the Virgin Mary with an answer of the Virgin; and five Greek letters of Ignatius to Maria Castabolita, with an answer, to the Tarsenses, to the Antiochians, to Hero, a deacon of Antioch, and to the Philippians. These letters swarm with offences against history and chronology. They were entirely unknown to Eusebius and Jerome. They are worthless forgeries, clothed with the name and authority of Ignatius. It is a humiliating fact that the spurious Ignatius and his letters to St. John and the Virgin Mary should in a wretched Latin version have so long transplanted and obscured the historical Ignatius down to the sixteenth century. No wonder that Calvin spoke of this fabrication with such contempt. But in like manner the Mary of history gave way to a Mary of fiction, the real Peter to a pseudo-Peter, and the real Clement to a pseudo-Clement. Here, if anywhere, we see the necessity and use of historical criticism for the defense of truth and honesty.

2. The Shorter Greek Recension of the seven Epistles known to Eusebius was discovered in a Latin version and edited by Archbishop Ussher at Oxford, 1644 (Polycarpi et Ignatii Epistolae), and in Greek by Isaac Vossius, from a Medicean Codex in 1646, again by Th. Ruinart from the Codex Colbertinus (together with the Martyrium) in 1689. We have also fragments of a Syrian version (in Cureton), and of an Armenian version apparently from the Syrian (printed in Constantinople in 1783, and compared by Petermann). Henceforth the longer Greek recension found very few defenders (the eccentric Whiston, 1711, and more recently Fr. C. Meier, 1836), and their arguments were conclusively refuted by R. Rothe in his Anfänge, 1837, and by K. Fr. L. Arndt in the "Studien und Kritiken," 1839). It is generally given up even by Roman Catholic scholars (as Petavius, Cotelier, Dupin, Hefele, Funk). But as regards the genuineness of the shorter Greek text there are three views among which scholars are divided.

(a) Its genuineness and integrity are advocated by Pearson (Vindiciae Ignatianae, 1672, against the doubts of the acute Dallaeus), latterly by Gieseler, Möhler (R.C.), Rothe (1837), Huther (1841), Düsterdieck (1843), Dorner (1845), and (since the publication of the shorter Syriac version) by Jacobson, Hefele (R.C., 1847 and 1855), Denzinger (R.C., 1849), Petermann (1849), Wordsworth, Churton (1852), and most thoroughly by Ulhhorn, (1851 and ’56), and Zahn (1873, Ign. v. Ant. 495–541). The same view is adopted by Wieseler (1878), Funk (in Patr. Apost. 1878, Prol LX. sqq., and his monograph, 1883), Canon Travers Smith, (in Smith and Wace, 1882), and Lightfoot (1885).

(b) The friends of the three Syriac epistles (see below under No. 3) let only so many of the seven epistles stand as agree with those. Also Lardner (1743), Mosheim (1755), Neander (1826), Thiersch (1852), Lechler (1857), Robertson and Donaldson (1867), are inclined to suppose at least interpolation.

(c) The shorter recension, though older than the longer, is likewise spurious. The letters were forged in the later half of the second century for the purpose of promoting episcopacy and the worship of martyrs. This view is ably advocated by two very different classes of divines: first by Calvinists in the interest of Presbyterianism or anti-prelacy, Claudius Salmasius (1645), David Blondel (1646), Dallaeus (1666), Samuel Basnage, and by Dr. Killen of Belfast (1859 and 1883); next by the Tübingen school of critics in a purely historical interest, Dr. Baur (1835, then against Rothe, 1838, and against Bunsen, 1848 and 1853), Schwegler (1846), and more thoroughly by Hilgenfeld (1853). The Tübingen critics reject the whole Ignatian literature as unhistorical tendency writings, partly because the entire historical situation implied in it and the circuitous journey to Rome are in themselves improbable, partly because it advocates a form of church government and combats Gnostic heresies, which could not have existed in the age of Ignatius. This extreme scepticism is closely connected with the whole view of the Tübingen school in regard to the history of primitive Christianity, and offers no explanation of the stubborn fact that Ignatius was a historical character of a strongly marked individuality and wrote a number of letters widely known and appreciated in the early church. Renan admits the genuineness of the Ep. to the Romans, but rejects the six others as fabrications of a zealous partizan of orthodoxy and episcopacy about a.d. 170. He misses in them le génie, le caractère individuel, but speaks highly of the Ep. to the Romans, in which the enthusiasm of the martyr has found "son expressio la plus exaltée"(p. 489).

(d) We grant that the integrity of these epistles, even in the shorter copy, is not beyond all reasonable doubt. As the manuscripts of them contain, at the same time, decidedly spurious epistles (even the Armenian translation has thirteen epistles), the suspicion arises, that the seven genuine also have not wholly escaped the hand of the forger. Yet there are, in any case, very strong arguments for their genuineness and substantial integrity; viz. (1) The testimony of the fathers, especially of Eusebius. Even Polycarp alludes to epistles of Ignatius. (2) The raciness and freshness of their contents, which a forger could not well imitate. (3) The small number of citations from the New Testament, indicating the period of the immediate disciples of the apostles. (4) Their way of combating the Judaists and Docetists (probably Judaizing Gnostics of the school of Cerinthus), showing us Gnosticism as yet in the first stage of its development. (5) Their dogmatical indefiniteness, particularly in regard to the Trinity and Christology, notwithstanding very strong expressions in favor of the divinity of Christ. (6) Their urgent recommendation of episcopacy as an institution still new and fresh, and as a centre of congregational unity in distinction from the diocesan episcopacy of Irenaeus and Tertullian. (7) Their entire silence respecting a Roman primacy, even in the epistle to the Romans, where we should most expect it. The Roman church is highly recommended indeed, but the Roman bishop is not even mentioned. In any case these epistles must have been written before the middle of the second century, and reflect the spirit of their age in its strong current towards a hierarchical organization and churchly orthodoxy on the basis of the glory of martyrdom.

3. The Syriac Version contains only three epistles (to Polycarp, to the Ephesians, and to the Romans), and even these in a much reduced form, less than half of the corresponding Greek Epistles. It has the subscription: "Here end the three epistles of the bishop and martyr Ignatius," on which, however, Bunsen lays too great stress; for, even if it comes from the translator himself, and not from a mere transcriber, it does not necessarily exclude the existence of other epistles (comp. Petermann, l.c. p. xxi.). It was discovered in 1839 and ’43 by the Rev. Henry Tattam in a monastery of the Libyan desert, together with 365 other Syriac manuscripts, now in the British Museum; published first by Cureton in 1845, and again in 1849, with the help of a third MS. discovered in 1847; and advocated as genuine by him, as also by Lee (1846), Bunsen (1847), Ritschl (1851 and 1857), Weiss (1852), and most fully by Lipsius (1856), also by E. de Pressené (1862), Böhringer (1873), and at first by Lightfoot.

Now, it is true, that all the considerations we have adduced in favor of the shorter Greek text, except the first, are equally good, and some of them even better, for the genuineness of the Syrian Ignatius, which has the additional advantage of lacking many of the most offensive passages (though not in the epistle to Polycarp).

But against the Syriac text is, in the first place, the external testimony of antiquity, especially that of Eusebius, who confessedly knew of and used seven epistles, whereas the oldest of the three manuscripts of this version, according to Cureton, belongs at the earliest to the sixth century, a period, when the longer copy also had become circulated through all the East, and that too in a Syriac translation, as the fragments given by Cureton show. Secondly, the internal testimony of the fact, that the Syriac text, on close examination, by the want of a proper sequence of thoughts and sentences betrays the character of a fragmentary extract from the Greek; as Baur (1848), Hilgenfeld (1853), and especially Uhlhorn (185l), and Zahn (1873, p. 167–241), by an accurate comparison of the two, have proved in a manner hitherto unrefuted and irrefutable. The short Syriac Ignatius has vanished like a dream. Even Lipsius and Lightfoot have given up or modified their former view. The great work of Lightfoot on Ignatius and Polycarp (1885) which goes into all the details and gives all the documents, may be regarded as a full and final settlement of the Ignatian problem in favor of the shorter Greek recension.

The only genuine Ignatius, as the question now stands, is the Ignatius of the shorter seven Greek epistles.


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