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CROSSING THE THRESHOLD OF HISTORY
Jesus in the Apostolic Fathers at the Turn of the Second Century
Part Two: The Epistles of Barnabas and Ignatius
— III —
The Epistle of Barnabas
An Emerging Jesus of History
For the document known as the Epistle of Barnabas, most scholars prefer a date between 115 and 132, though some have placed it before the end of the first century. Kirsopp Lake summarizes the two positions (Loeb Apostolic Fathers, vol.1., p.337), that the ten kings in chapter 6 may refer to emperors, which would place the epistle within the first century, though at a date uncertain since “there is no unanimity as to the exact manner in which the number of the ten Emperors is to be reached.” The later choice of date, often specified as close to 130, is based on the reference to an expected—apparently imminent—rebuilding of the Temple (16:3-4). While such a hope may have flared up at various times during this period, it was at its height on the eve of the Second Jewish War. While the writer mentions the first War (making the document no earlier than 70), he fails to refer to the second, which should place the upper limit at 132.
The traditional ascription of the epistle in ancient times to Paul’s companion Barnabas is rejected today. Where it was written is uncertain, though Rome is not likely. It seems to be the product of “a learned Jew” (Staniforth’s phrase), quite possibly in Alexandria, since its earliest attestation is by Clement and Origen in that city. If so, this Jew has disowned his ancestral religion and claimed the sacred writings of the Jewish heritage for Christianity. Others have suggested that he is a gentile writing to other gentiles who have thoroughly absorbed Judaism and who see themselves as the inheritors of a new covenant which the Jews have forfeited.
It would perhaps be easy to characterize this epistle as one which reflects a primitive knowledge of the historical Jesus of the Gospels, something which would not be surprising of a document that may have been written as late as the second or third decade of the second century. But closer examination calls this into question, and it will be fascinating to look at this epistle to see just how far the picture of a Christ derived from the sacred writings could develop before it ruptured its scriptural skin and spilled into actual history. The impression created by the epistle of Barnabas suggests one of those moments in movies and television where one scene starts to fade out and simultaneously a new scene fades in. The clash of worlds is at times almost bizarre.
Viewing the Old Testament books as prophecy, the writer of this epistle has progressed to the point where he envisions Christ as having lived on earth at some time in the past. But as to exactly when that was, or even about the few details offered by Ignatius, he gives us no information. His sole source for an account of that newly-conceived Incarnation in historical flesh still seems to be scripture.
In this polemic against all things Jewish, “Barnabas” accuses the Jews of failing to understand their own writings. (They were misled by an evil angel.) They were guilty of making a literal interpretation of scripture instead of an allegorical one. The latter made it clear that the Old Testament, the rites and regulations of the Jewish Law, were entirely God’s coded prophecy about Christ and his cross. This epistle is an attempt to demonstrate this contention, employing a range of exegesis which is both imaginative and occasionally ludicrous.
A Picture of Christ’s Passion
The crucifixion and its significance lies at the very center of the author’s theology. What does he tell us about it? He touches on some details that could be said to be related to the Gospel story, but in every case he points to scripture as the source of his information. Not only does he not possess a written Gospel (very telling if we are to date Barnabas a fair distance into the second century), he shows no sign of any access to oral traditions which supply an account of Jesus’ historical experiences.
Consider the opening verse of chapter 5. (My translations are based on Staniforth in the Penguin edition, but with occasional changes in the direction of the literal Greek.)
“Now, when the Lord [i.e., Jesus] resigned himself to deliver his body to destruction, the aim he had in view was to sanctify us by the remission of our sins…For what scripture says of him is: ‘he was wounded on account of our transgressions, and bruised because of our sins, and by his scars we were healed. He was led to the slaughter like a sheep, and like a lamb that is dumb before its shearers.’ ”This idea of dying to remit sins could have been illustrated by Mark 10:45, that “the Son of Man…(came) to surrender his life as a ransom for many,” surely a representative tradition in any interpretation of Jesus’ death. It is difficult to believe that any Christian community would not by now have possessed some tradition, some saying of Jesus himself, which related to the significance of his sacrifice on the cross.
Other references to the passion suggest a very imperfect picture of its outline, often at odds with the Gospel story. In a ‘description’ of Jesus’ sufferings, Barnabas appeals to the prophets of the Old Testament, quoting ten examples in all, beginning at 5:13:
“Even the actual form of his Passion he willingly embraced, since the word of prophecy had doomed him to meet his death on a tree. ‘Spare my life from the sword,’ it said; and then, ‘Pierce my body with nails, for the congregation of the wicked have risen up against me.’ And again he says, ‘See, I have tendered my back to scourgings and my cheeks to blows, and I have set my face as firm as a rock.’ ” (Quotations are from Psalms 22 and 119 and Isaiah 50.)Barnabas then goes on:
“Moreover, after he had done as it was commanded him, what does he say then? ‘Who presumes to accuse me? Let him stand up to face me…’ ”In Barnabas’ sequence, the false accusations, which we would associate with the trial portion of the passion story, follow after the biblical passages representing the crucifixion itself. After this further quote from Isaiah 50, he goes on to offer other passages which in the Gospel tradition are not associated with the passion, focusing for example on the reference in Isaiah 28 to the foundation stone that becomes a cornerstone. Following this, he dips back into Psalm 22:
“A gathering of wicked men surrounded me; they came about me like bees round a honeycomb,’ and also, ‘they cast lots for my garments.’ ”This chain of biblical prophetic passages creates a hodge-podge impression, completely out of sequence with the Gospel story, and indeed conveying no sequential picture at all, certainly not one which the writer might be associating in his mind with an historical scene. Rather, his mind is focused on the ‘story line’ in the Psalms and prophets. And like Clement he hears the voice of Jesus in the first person words of the prophets and Psalmists. Barnabas’ ‘account’ of an historical crucifixion seems to be determined solely by scripture. We wait in vain for any spelling out of the corresponding event in history, events of the time of Herod and Pontius Pilate. No such historical time or figures are ever provided.
This silence is repeated all through the epistle. Barnabas never supplements his scriptural quotations with a corresponding historical version of things. This creates a curious effect. Though he regards scripture as “prophecy,” we are never given a concrete equivalent in history which constitutes the fulfillment of the prophecy. The actual experiences of Jesus on earth seem to be theoretical. That is, the writer is deducing their existence from scripture and then labeling scripture as a prophecy of them; his eye rests solely on the latter. The prophecies are given no independent support or illustration, let alone reference to a Gospel.
To make a brief comparison with Justin. In chapter 104 of the Dialogue with the Jew Trypho Justin quotes lines from Psalm 22, including: “They parted my garments among them and cast lots for my vestments.” He then goes on to say, “And this is recorded to have happened in the memoirs of his Apostles. I have shown that after his crucifixion they who crucified him parted his garments among them.” In other words, Justin has drawn two sides of a clear parallel or equation: Psalm 22 prophesies an event, and here is the event itself, independently presented from a different source. Justin’s source was a written one, which Barnabas may have lacked, but there should have been nothing to prevent Barnabas from offering his own independent source in the form of oral traditions, in a description of the events of history derived independently of scripture. His Christian world should have been full of such things, traditions and ways of speaking about Jesus’ passion and the events of his life which did not rely entirely on the words of scripture, as though scripture were the only concrete source available.
For this author, such a silence is glaring. Elsewhere, Barnabas’ concern is repeatedly to draw a clear parallel between a biblical prototype and a present-day equivalent. He is at pains to show how ancient Hebrew institutions prefigured counterparts in current Christian belief and practice. This is one of the chief aims of his letter, the purpose of his allegorical interpretation of scripture: to show that the scriptural “past” is fulfilled in the Christian “present.” But when he turns to describing Christ’s passion in scripture, the corresponding fulfillment in the experiences of Christ “on earth” go undetailed, unidentified in terms of specific historical content.
Perhaps the most bizarre example of this is the passage immediately preceding the ‘story line’ of the passion in chapter 5.
“For God tells us that the bruising of [the Son’s] flesh is from them [the Jewish people], for he says: ‘When they strike the shepherd, the sheep will be scattered.’ ”To show that the Jews are guilty of killing Jesus, he points to a scriptural passage (Zechariah 13:7) in which God is seen to declare this. He does not say, “God prophesied that the Jews would kill his Son and history shows its fulfillment.” Rather, he seems to be implying that the knowledge of ‘history’ itself comes from the scriptural passage. It is God, not historical memory, which has identified the Jews as those who killed his Son.
This view of the history of Barnabas’ Jesus figure is more than implied. It is spelled out by the writer himself. Following the quote in 5:3 of Isaiah 53 (above), he tells his readers:
“Therefore we ought to give great thanks to the Lord that he has given us [i.e., through the scriptures he has just quoted] knowledge of the past, and wisdom for the present, and that we are not without understanding of the future.” (From the Lake translation)In other words, Barnabas is stating that we know of Christ’s experiences on earth through the scriptures, through passages like Isaiah 53. Near the start of the letter (1:7) he has declared the same principle: “For the Lord made known to us through the prophets things past and things present and has given us the firstfruits of the taste of things to come.” It would seem that there is no recent history, no oral tradition, in Barnabas’ mind which also tells of Christ’s experiences. Knowledge of the past comes through scripture and scripture alone. (Staniforth’s translation in 5:3 that the writings “give us an insight into the past” looks to be fanciful; I can find no evidence that the verb “gnôridzô” is so accommodating.)
A Void on the Gospels
In light of all this, we can look at the passage which seems most ‘historical’ and help resolve the question of whether Barnabas could have known any written Gospel, or even corresponding oral traditions. 5:7-9 reads in part:
“[By allowing himself to suffer] he was able to fulfill the promise made to our ancestors… and to show…while he was on earth, that he will raise mankind from the dead and judge them. Moreover, by teaching the people of Israel and performing miracles and wonders, he made known his message and his love. But when he chose the apostles who were to preach his gospel, men who were sinners of the worst kind, he showed…that he came not to call saints, but sinners.”The view that Christ had taught and performed miracles (Barnabas never itemizes any of these miracles) conformed to a universal expectation about the Messiah based on scripture. Here, the writer may simply be assuming that such things had happened. Another possibility is that this view of teaching and miracle-working grew out of precedents in the mythical phase of the faith: out of the belief—on the part of men like Paul—that the spiritual Christ communicated with Christian prophets, “teaching” them through the Spirit; out of the fact that miracles had been performed by such prophets in Christ’s name. For such things to be attached to a new historical Jesus would have been natural. This is a pointer to the likely derivation of Barnabas’ next idea, that Christ had appointed apostles, for in the earlier phase he had done so: an appointment, through spiritual channels, of apostles (like Paul and Peter) who believed they had been called by Christ himself.
(In 8:3 Barnabas declares that these apostles were twelve in number. But he never gives us any names, and he supplies the origin of his own reasoning: because the tribes of Israel were twelve. There is no need to see historical tradition as the source of this information.)
That Barnabas is not in touch with actual history—at least, the history as portrayed in the Gospels—is shown by his description of these “apostles.” No one who possessed the later traditions about Peter and Paul would have been likely to call them “sinners of the worst kind.” Who, then, does he have in mind? Though he never states it, it is possible that Barnabas had some sense of when the Christian movement started, which means that he may have placed such “apostles”—and consequently Jesus himself—around the time of Peter and Paul. Indeed, he may even have these men in mind, and perhaps the traditions about such early preachers of the Christ were, in Barnabas’ circles, less than flattering.
But something else may be operating here as well. In the text, the phrase, “He came not to call saints but sinners” is not set out as a quote; Barnabas does not identify it as coming from any writing, though it does have that flavor. Scholars are quick to focus on it as something taken from Mark 2:17, or the equivalent oral preservation of such a saying by Jesus. It is true that we know of no other location for this saying, but elsewhere Barnabas quotes other things whose source cannot be identified, so this could be from some writing now lost. In any case, those who would claim it to be the saying by Jesus would have to acknowledge that Barnabas’ application of it is an anomaly. In the Gospel, Jesus is speaking about the people at large to whom he is appealing in his ministry, “not the righteous, but sinners.” He is not referring to the apostles he has called, which is the way Barnabas applies it. It looks as though the expression itself, wherever he derived it, has influenced Barnabas’ picture of the apostles to which he thinks it applies. If Barnabas believes this quotation (if it is that) refers to men like Peter and Paul, then it would indicate to him that those apostles were in fact sinners.
Thus, it is difficult to maintain, as many do, that the line is a quotation from a Gospel, for such a Gospel should have conveyed a different picture of the apostles than the one which Barnabas presents. Even identifying it as an oral tradition of Jesus’ words faces objection, for in that case Barnabas would more likely have labeled it Jesus’ own saying.
The same problems apply to the claim that another Gospel quotation appears in 4:14. After pointing out that the people of Israel were rejected by God, Barnabas cautions his readers not to be among such people “…of whom it is written that many are called, but few are chosen.” This saying appears in the mouth of Jesus in Matthew 22:16, attached to the parable of the wedding guests. Perhaps it comes from a version of the parable unattached to Jesus, set down in writing elsewhere. Or it may have been an established Jewish apocalyptic pronouncement.
But to claim that a Gospel is Barnabas’ source for the saying is virtually unsupportable. Again, Barnabas is more likely to have identified it as the words of Jesus, rather than to say simply, “it is written,” which is the traditional formula used for holy scripture. At this early date, a primitive Gospel account of Jesus’ life would hardly be regarded this way, and there is no evidence for such a reverent attitude toward such accounts until considerably later. Moreover, if this were a Gospel, Barnabas would have before him a wealth of material on Jesus’ life. Not only would he then be unlikely to portray the “apostles” the way he does in 5:9, he would possess a detailed historical record to which he could point as the fulfillment of those Old Testament “prophecies” he uses to illustrate Jesus’ passion, as Justin does.
Furthermore, he would not show the astonishing ignorance he does on the teachings of Jesus relating to numerous subjects which he discusses throughout the epistle. The question, for example, of whether the Jewish dietary laws are valid is an issue Barnabas expounds on at length (10), without considering any of Jesus’ Gospel pronouncements on the subject. What will happen at the End time is a topic of immediate interest to Barnabas, yet nowhere does he introduce any apocalyptic sayings by Jesus, let alone the identification of Jesus as the Son of Man. In a letter whose central concern is “hearing” the word of God that bestows moral direction and correct understanding of the past, present and future, no contribution from Jesus himself is put forward. Barnabas refers to “the new Law of Jesus Christ” (2:6) but never gives us a word of it.
Once again, the point should be made that even if Barnabas had no written record of teachings by Jesus, they should have been present in oral tradition; and even if there were no authentic teachings by Jesus on these issues, at least some of the latter should by now have prompted the invention of such teachings with an attribution to Jesus.
Thus, it is possible to conclude that Barnabas’ concept of Jesus as a teacher of Israel in 5:7 is simply a hypothetical one, of fairly recent development and not grounded in actual historical memory. We should note further that the “Two Ways” section appended to the epistle, forming chapters 18-21, is a compendium of Jewish-Christian moral directives, somewhat similar to the opening section of the Didache. In neither document is there any attribution of such teachings to Jesus. It concludes (21:1) with the statement that “All this shows what a good thing it is to have learned the precepts of the Lord [God], as they are set forth in scripture.” And in 21:6 the writer (who in these closing chapters may have been a later editor who added this material) advises his readers to “take God for your teacher.”
A few other silences in the epistle are worth noting. Barnabas supports (2:4) Isaiah’s condemnation of animal sacrifices, but fails to offer the fact that Jesus had made a similar disparagement while pointing to this very passage of Isaiah: “Go and learn what that text means, ‘I require mercy, not sacrifice’ ” (Matthew 9:13). He scoffs at physical circumcision (9) and declares that Abraham’s circumcision served only to prefigure the name of Christ and the cross, ignoring any question of Jesus’ undergoing of the rite at birth. In discussing the Jews’ loss of their Covenant (4:6-8), there is no mention of a new Covenant established by Jesus. He even seeks to discredit the term “son of David” for Christ (12:10-11), appealing to the same argument Jesus himself makes in Matthew 22:43-5, though he shows no sign of being aware of this. As for the Gospel post-resurrection appearances, the writer makes only this brief, cryptic statement (15:9): “We celebrate with gladness the eighth day in which Jesus rose from the dead, and was made manifest, and ascended into heaven.” (Lake’s quite literal translation.) Not only does this contradict Acts, “was made manifest” (that ubiquitous verb phaneroô) hardly seems to do justice to the full range of Gospel traditions about Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances.
Scripture Vs. History
Two passages will further illustrate that this writer is not deriving his statements about Jesus “on earth” from his sense of history—or familiarity with a Gospel story—but from scripture. In both cases, Barnabas compares “past” and “present” without ever leaving the pages of the Old Testament. In 7:3, he asks his readers if they know “why he [Christ] was given vinegar and gall to drink at his crucifixion.” Is this the historical side of the equation I have earlier said was missing? Barnabas goes on to detail two prefigurings of this ‘event,’ one in scripture and another of unknown provenance, both relating to priestly practice. He then enlarges on the idea of the drink at the crucifixion which he says those practices ‘foretold’ (using his characteristically strained exegesis). In these remarks (7:5), there is an allusion to Psalm 69:21—No. 68 in the Septuagint, which is the version of the bible the writer is using. The Septuagint passage reads:
“They gave me also gall [xolê] for my food, and made me drink vinegar [oksos] for my thirst.”In all four Gospels, Jesus on the cross is offered only vinegar [oksos: Mk.15:36, Mt.27:48, Lk.23:36, Jn. 19:29]. Mark, whom all the others are likely copying, probably read the Septuagint passage but took only the vinegar reference as applying to a drink. However, “xolê” can also be used of a bitter tasting liquid, and Matthew apparently decided to use the first phrase of the Psalm passage as well, rendering it as a drink. But he does so in a separate incident, having the soldiers offer Jesus a drink of gall mixed with wine (not vinegar) before nailing him to the cross (27:34). In none of the canonical Gospels is Jesus at any point offered a drink which is a mix of both vinegar and gall. Only in the apocryphal Gospel of Peter (5:16), is the drink offered to Jesus such a mix. (This is another argument against Crossan’s view that his “Cross Gospel” stratum of the Gospel of Peter was the first passion story penned, serving as the source for at least the Synoptics, for it is not likely that all three evangelists would reject the mixed-drink feature and substitute a single ingredient.)
Thus, Barnabas’ “drink of vinegar and gall at his crucifixion” is more likely to be based on the Septuagint passage than on Gospel or oral tradition. This is rendered virtually certain by the way he enlarges on the ‘event’ in 7:5. He says that the priestly practices served as a prefiguring of Christ’s crucifixion,
“Because ‘when I am about to offer My Body for the sins of this new People of Mine, you will be giving Me gall and vinegar to drink. That is why you shall be the only ones to eat, while the people of Israel are fasting and lamenting in sackcloth and ashes.’ In this way he indicated his predestined sufferings at their hands.”The inner quotes are Staniforth’s, but they serve to make it clear that Barnabas is presenting this as Christ himself speaking and explaining the prophetic meaning of the priests’ actions. And the reason for doing this may well have been the nature of the Septuagint passage itself, which speaks in the first person: they gave me gall and vinegar. Not only does the same form of expression indicate that this is Barnabas’ source, it is a direct confirmation of the principle that early Christian writers up to this time are finding Christ, his words and his activities, in scripture itself and not in historical tradition. Thus, as stated earlier, Barnabas exhibits the peculiar and fallacious paradox of declaring scripture to be a prophecy of the Christ, and then extracting the ‘historical’ part of the equation from scripture as well.
As the final sentence quoted above puts it, “In this way [that is, ‘words’ of Christ in based on Psalm 69], he indicated his predestined [in scriptural priestly practice] sufferings at their hands.” One doesn’t quickly recover from the dizzying effects of that kind of circularity.
Barnabas goes on immediately (7:6) to detail another example of the same fallacious practice. He describes the ritual of the Day of Atonement as recorded in Leviticus 16. The treatment of the two sacrificial goats is declared to be, in its various details, a prefiguring of the experience of Jesus in his passion. How does Barnabas describe that experience (7:9)?
“Now what does that signify? Notice that the first goat is for the altar, and the other is accursed; and that it is the accursed one [which he is comparing to Jesus] that wears the wreath. That is because they shall see him on That Day clad to the ankles in his red woolen robe and will say, ‘Is not this he whom we once crucified, and mocked and pierced and spat upon? Yes, this is the man who told us that he was the Son of God.’ ”The resemblance of these details to the Gospel scene of the crucifixion is undeniable, of course—because the Gospel picture is derived from scripture—but there are several telltale anomalies. First, Barnabas is not pointing directly to the passion but to a Parousia scene (“That Day”) when Christ will arrive at the end of the world; the passion is only looked at in a kind of flashback at that time. And the details (possibly with one exception) are presented in conformity with their scriptural derivation, not in historical or Gospel terms. Thus, the long robe is based on the eschatalogical scene of a robed Joshua in Zechariah 3:1-5, not on the Gospel detail of Jesus in a mock kingly mantle at his scourging. The question asked in the above quotation is based, not on a Gospel account or historical tradition, but on the words of Zechariah 12:10 (“They shall look upon him whom they have pierced”), with other scriptural references to mocking or rejecting (Isaiah 53) and spitting (Isaiah 50) thrown in.
Once again, Barnabas points to scripture (the ritual of the goat) as a prefiguring of Jesus, but the event that such things prefigure is entirely taken from scripture (Zechariah and Isaiah).
The last phrase, “the man who told us that he was the son of God,” is harder to pin down, but since the preceding references are derived from scripture, there is no reason to think that this one is not as well. The writer of this epistle is notorious for his bizarre stretches of interpretation, and perhaps this idea has even been wrung out of the concluding phrase of Zechariah 12:10 which speaks of a “first-born son,” something Christians at that time took as referring to the Messiah. It has been pointed out, of course, that the line about the man who said he was the son of God is very similar to Matthew’s description (27:43) of the taunts by the crowd at Jesus’ crucifixion. This is true, but Barnabas fails to point this out, and any claim that a Gospel or even a corresponding oral tradition was the source of this idea founders on the rest of the passage.
If Barnabas knew a fine detail such as this about the crucifixion scene (one recorded only in Matthew, though Luke says something similar), then he must have had access to a fairly thorough account of the passion. Why then does he show clearly that he knows of no crown of thorns (Matthew 27:29 and parallels)? He is detailing the ritual handling of the two goats, pointing out that the accursed one—to be driven into the desert—has a wreath of scarlet wool wound about its head. He is at pains to draw a correspondence in Christian faith with every feature of the ritual. He continually speaks of “types” of Jesus—things in scripture that symbolize and prefigure Jesus’ own features.
So what does the red wreath of wool around the goat’s head signify? Barnabas can know nothing of a tradition, or a Gospel account, that Jesus wore a crown of thorns during his passion, for he offers no such parallel. Instead he points to the practice of removing the wool wreath once the goat has reached the desert and placing it on a bramble bush. This, he declares, is to signify that the Christian in reaching for the wool (a symbol of something precious, namely the faith) risks pain and anguish from the bramble thorns on which wool has been placed, a symbol of the suffering and persecution which is the lot of the believer. Even the reference to the “thorns” in the bushes does not prompt the writer to refer to the Gospels’ crown of thorns on Jesus’ head.
We look in vain, then, for anything pointing to history, written or oral, to be found in the Epistle of Barnabas. Scripture may be bursting its seams, but this writer’s picture of an historical Christ is still bounded by the sacred pages of the ancient writings.
A Savior in Flesh
Barnabas’ language, especially the phrase “when he was on earth”—something no epistle writer before him states so explicitly—shows that his idea of Jesus “in flesh” (en sarki) has progressed beyond that of his predecessors. He no longer limits Christ’s “incarnation” to the lower spirit layers of heaven and mythological contexts. In 5:10 we are given an insight into the reasoning behind the development of this idea, that the Son had of necessity to enter the material world:
“Furthermore, supposing that he had not come in the flesh, how could it then have been possible for men ever to ‘look upon him and be saved’?” (Inner quotes are by Staniforth.)That last phrase, if meant as a quote, might be from an unknown piece of writing, or it may represent a current philosophical debate. Barnabas is saying that salvation by beholding God is only possible if his Son assumes flesh. Earlier he had declared that Christ’s suffering in human flesh was needed in order to prove that the dead can rise (5:6). The point is, belief that the divine Son came into the world was a product of philosophical necessity and religious need, not an interpretation of an historical figure or event.
We can see in 1 John 4 that this need was not universal. In fact, some in the Johannine circle are denying that Jesus “has come in the flesh,” and the writer opposing them labels them “antichrist.” Barnabas’ use of the phrase “come in flesh” (êlthen en sarki) is almost identical to the phrase in 1 John 4:3, that Jesus Christ “has come in the flesh” (en sarki elêluthota), and is thus a pointer to its meaning in the other epistle, that the Johannine dispute was over whether Christ had incarnated to the earthly world, and not over some docetic question. (Neither epistle makes or addresses any arguments relating to docetism.) Barnabas’ argument, as we shall see, is very similar to that of Ignatius who maintained that Christ had to have come in material flesh, else humanity’s sufferings had no meaning and no assurance of salvation was possible.
Grant makes the observation (The Apostolic Fathers, vol.3, p.35) that “Barnabas shows little interest in or awareness of Jesus’ earthly life.” We have come scarcely any way at all from the similar situation in regard to Paul, over half a century earlier. Grant makes another telling observation (Ibid., p.36) that, while “Lord” is used for Jesus in connection with his sufferings, the title is also “freely used for God,” a fact which “makes precise interpretation difficult in many passages.” That is, it is often unclear just who Barnabas is referring to, and as Grant puts it, “Jesus’ functions often seem to overlap with those of God,” and “Jesus’ acts were God’s acts.” This merging of the two figures is best explained as a continuing vestige of the phase of the faith which Barnabas’ world is just emerging from, the view that Jesus was a spiritual entity only, an aspect of God in heaven. His is a world that is only starting to develop the sense of the Son as a distinct historical personage, though all that can be known of him is still dependent on scripture.
The Sin of the Jews
While Barnabas now postulates a Christ on earth, his starting point remains of the old variety: Jesus Christ is the divine Son in heaven—who then came to earth. He does not start from the historical Jesus of Nazareth and declare him to have been the Son of God. In fact, this is an issue, a question of faith, which nowhere appears in the epistle, despite the writer’s focus on a multitude of debated questions. Even more tellingly, the Jews are never accused of or condemned for not believing that Jesus was the Messiah, which is the way someone like Justin was to put it, as were the Gospels. Rather, the Jews’ “sin” was that they had done the same thing to the Son as they (allegedly) had done to all the prophets sent from God: they had persecuted and slain him (5:11). Nowhere does Barnabas say that this was because they had not believed in his identity and divinity.
This is a subtle but crucial observation. The rejection of Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah would have been a piece of information based on historical record, whereas there would be nothing in scripture to point to a feature like this. (And Barnabas does not try to give us such a thing.) Even Paul in Romans 10, scouring the sacred writings for passages foretelling a lack of response on the part of the Jews, fails to offer anything which could fit the idea of rejecting someone who claimed to be God’s Son. Rather, Paul applies his findings only to the rejection of messengers like himself, of apostles who declare the word of God, as the ancient prophets had done. Barnabas, too, casts the Jews’ rejection of Jesus solely as the killing of the messenger, though he goes a step further in equating that messenger with the Son himself. The point is, such a rejection is something which need not be dependent on historical record but rather would be derived from scripture.
In fact, this is precisely what Barnabas tells us. Throughout chapters 5 and 6 he quotes Old Testament passages which he interprets as pointing to the Jews’ killing and rejection of the Son. But there is a critical difference between Barnabas’ picture of the Jews’ rejection and killing of Jesus, and that of the Gospels. For Barnabas is lacking the central feature of the Gospel Jews, the essential failing they were accused of by generations of subsequent Christians: that they had closed their minds to his true identity, to his fulfillment of the prophecies; they had rejected his claims to be the Son of God and Messiah. In fact, Barnabas seems to do the opposite. He wraps up (6:7) with a quotation from the Wisdom of Solomon:
“And the prophet says of the Jews, ‘Woe to their souls, they have planned a wicked scheme to their own hurt, saying, Let us bind the Just One in fetters, for he is a vexation to us.’ ” (2:12)In other words, Barnabas assumes from this passage that the Jews knew Jesus was the Son of God but killed him because they did not like his message. He tells his readers (5:11) that all this had been intended by God in order to consummate the Jews’ long and sinful history of rejection and to sweep the stage for the new inheritors of his promise.
If behind Barnabas had lain a near-century of condemnation of the Jews on the grounds that they had rejected the man Jesus of Nazareth as being the Messiah and Son of God (the picture created by the Gospels and held to this day), he is hardly likely to have presented things in his own peculiar way.
A Missing Link
“Barnabas” is typical of a certain class of early Christian writer. He is not an intellectual giant and not particularly inspiring, and some of his pieces of interpretation strike us today as ridiculous and embarrassing. Still, he is a knowledgeable student of the scriptures, which makes his lack of a written Gospel and his equally empty stock of oral tradition about Jesus something which cannot simply be ignored, especially as he was probably writing in a major center like Alexandria, in the early decades of the second century or perhaps late in the first.
Though he still draws his script from God’s coded word in the ancient books, Barnabas has moved the scene of Christ’s salvation activities onto the stage of history. As such, he is a “missing link” in the evolution of Jesus of Nazareth. The impulse to place the spiritual Christ in a material past resulted from a combination of psychological need and a study of scripture. As the sacred writings were plumbed ever deeper for more information about the Christ who had entered flesh, the words themselves would have created an increasingly immediate and vivid picture. After all, the writings of the prophets were not about the spiritual realm; most of them were too early to possess a concept of the later Platonic-style creations. The ancient writers had spoken of material events and people, in the context of their own times. What later ages were to make of their words would have flabbergasted them. But their down-to-earth language eventually reasserted itself and pulled the spiritual Christ in that very direction, onto the land of Israel and into the time of the early empire. It told interpreters like Barnabas that he had actually taught and performed miracles, that he had chosen followers, that the Jewish leaders had conspired against him and killed him. It had probably told other preachers whose names are now lost many other things about him which were imparted to their audiences and slowly entered Christian consciousness.
In Part Three of the Main Articles (“The Evolution of Jesus of Nazareth”), I suggested that the impulse to the historicization of the spiritual Christ was not confined to the Gospels, that such an impulse may also have been developing independently of them. Since Barnabas shows none of the biographical detail we see in Ignatius, which can reasonably be put down to the spread of basic Gospel ideas in the northern Levant region two or three decades after Mark was written, it may make better sense to see the trend in Barnabas’ community as something that was not, thus far, impelled directly by Mark or the later evangelists.
Could Mark have been influenced in part by the beginnings of a wider trend toward historicization? Or were they two parallel developments which only began interacting with each other after both were under way? While the internal evidence within Mark itself would indicate that his tale was an allegory employing midrash on scripture, I have said that to the extent that he was part of a Q-type milieu, Mark could have imagined the existence of a founding figure such as evolved in the later Q document, and his Gospel may have been designed as a fictional expansion on such a figure, perhaps for instructive purposes and symbolic of much that was going on in his own community. How much the later evangelists believed that Mark’s story was based on history is not possible to say. If, at the same time, Mark had come in contact with circles of the Christ cult who were beginning to think historically about their Son of God, such as we see in the Epistle of Barnabas (even if this particular document was likely written later than Mark), this may have influenced the first evangelist’s ‘biographical’ creation.
Of course, this is essentially
speculation. But deductive speculation is what one has recourse to after
all the evidence has been examined, and one seeks to formulate a scenario
which best explains the features of that evidence. It is a legitimate exercise,
even if certain elements of the scenario have no specific illustration
in the documents themselves. This goes on all the time in historical research,
and especially in New Testament research. For the first hundred years after
the time of the reputed life of Jesus, we have a miniscule number of documents
compared to the amount that must have been written by these various apocalyptic
sects, religious cults and reform movements, Jewish and Hellenistic, operating
across the empire. The few we have are like narrow windows onto an obscure
landscape, and none of them are concerned with presenting scientific, unbiased,
or historically accurate pictures of the world around them. For too long
we have allowed our own picture of the period to be determined by the faith
traditions and interpretations of the Christian Church, and that includes
the bulk of the scholars who for centuries have been engaged in biblical
research. It is time to offer new scenarios, new paradigms, to attempt
to achieve a better understanding of how Christianity began and unfolded,
now that the old paradigms have crumbled with the arrival, in critical
New Testament study, of more rational standards by which to judge the documentary
— IV —
The Letters of Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch
Of the fifteen ancient letters that bear Ignatius’ name, eight have long been rejected as spurious, including ones addressed to the Virgin Mary and the apostle John, as well as the cities of Antioch, Philippi and Tarsus. The remaining seven, to the Ephesians, Magnesians, Trallians, Romans, Philadelphians, Smyrneans, and to Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, exist in shorter and longer forms (“Recensions”), with the shorter almost universally judged for the past two centuries to be the genuine version. The longer Recensions have been heavily interpolated with Gospel references and other polemical and devotional material.
Traditional dating of these letters, along with many biographical elements about Ignatius himself, is dependent on the document known as The Martyrdom of Ignatius. Its reliability remains in question, as do most ‘biographical’ accounts of early Christian figures set down at later times. Accepting a certain degree of reliability leads to dates of either 107 or 116 CE as the year of Ignatius’ death in the arena at Rome, with the added, perhaps fanciful, detail that the sentence was imposed at Antioch by the emperor Trajan himself on his way to a campaign in the east.
Whether all the circumstances of Ignatius’ condemnation and martyrdom are historical or not, the question of the authenticity of the letters themselves is a separate issue. Traditional scholarship by and large accepts them; radical scholarship since the late 19th century has tended to date them later, perhaps as late as 160. Again, it is not crucial for the purposes of this article to arrive at a firm decision as to authenticity. My own inclination would be to lean away from authenticity but to date them no more than a decade or two after Ignatius’ passing. The main reason for finding a date after the middle of the century unconvincing is the absence in the shorter recension of all but the most basic Gospel data along with elements like apostolic tradition and succession, and the conclusion that the writer was familiar with no written Gospels. These features will be discussed at length below.
The reasons arguing against authenticity of authorship are the alleged circumstances of the letters themselves. It is difficult to believe that under the situation of arrest and transport by military guard, Ignatius would have had the freedom to receive delegations from several Christian churches along the way. At Smyrna he was also visited by clerical representatives from three other cities of western Asia Minor, and one wonders at the logistical difficulty which would have been attendant on coordinating such a visit. One also wonders at the willingness of all these bishops and church people to place themselves in danger of being arrested and charged with similar offences. That Ignatius would have the opportunity and materials to write at such length to so many, and find ways to dispatch all these letters, also raises doubt. Finally, the letters themselves are suspiciously well crafted, and go on often repetitively and unnecessarily long to make their points, more like little treatises than pieces written under difficulty and duress. None of these objections is decisive, but they are enough to give one pause in accepting the letters at face value. Perhaps a later author designed them as a tribute to the martyred bishop and as vehicles for the issues they address, but we have no way of knowing how genuine is the scenario in which the letters are cast, and it may be that the Martyrdom has been based on the circumstances portrayed in the letters.
Does Ignatius know any of the Gospels?
Apart from Ignatius’ fixation on martyrdom, which often approaches the unsavory, there are two issues which he repeatedly addresses, and we can assume that if the letters are not authentic, these constituted the ‘agenda’ of the later writer—as indeed they would have been of Ignatius himself. One is the authority of the clergy in Christian communities. Obey your bishops and presbyters is a constant exhortation. The picture of clerical government seems a little further advanced here than in 1 Clement, for there is a greater implication of hierarchy, a pyramid with the bishop at the head (e.g., Trallians 3:1, Magnesians 13:2). One thing still missing, however, is any sense of a centralized authority, even an advocated one, across the wider Christian world. The Inscription of the epistle to the Romans designates that church as “holding chief place in the territories in the district of Rome,” but whether this implies an authority over the others cannot be said, and Ignatius never urges deference to any outside church upon the congregations he writes to.
Perhaps the chief reason Ignatius is concerned with obedience to eccesiastical authority concerns the other, more important issue he addresses in all the letters but Romans. He is concerned with unity, for there seems to be a widespread contention, a troubling heresy or heresies, in the Asia Minor communities, from Antioch itself to Smyrna and Ephesus on the Aegean. The exact nature of this heresy, or whether Ignatius is attacking two separate and distinct groups—usually styled Judaizers and docetists—is still unsettled. I will offer my own view of the situation, but first the question of whether Ignatius knew any written Gospel needs to be addressed.
Two general observations. At no time does Ignatius point directly to a written Gospel in support of his claims about Jesus against his opponents. His occasional reference to “the gospel” is always singular, with no name of a reputed author attached to it, nor any sense that there are more than one of these entities, requiring differentiation. As in the case of the other Apostolic Fathers, scholars tend to judge that Ignatius draws on no written Gospel but only on oral tradition. (See William R. Schoedel: Ignatius of Antioch, p.108, 115. Schoedel judges that all the uses of the term “sound much more like references to a message than to a document.”) Thus the term “gospel” denotes, as in Paul, the preached kerygma. And if this is the case, it implies that Ignatius cannot be familiar with a written “Gospel,” else he would have to make a distinction between the two categories. In Philadelphians 5, he refers to the gospel message he “clings to” and in the next sentence says that the Prophets also preached this “gospel.” The latter cannot be referring to any product of the evangelists.
This is not to say that some have not suggested a knowledge on Ignatius’ part of Matthew or John (rarely Luke and never Mark). It is true that expressions in the epistles often have a particular affinity to passages in Matthew. The problem is—as in 1 Clement—knowledge of a Gospel implies that a whole range of material, supplying arguments and precedents, should have been available to the writer in regard to issues that are clearly important to him, and there would have been no feasible reason for him not to appeal to it. In defense of his claims for the veracity of such historical details as Jesus’ birth from Mary, his baptism by John, his crucifixion by Pilate, it is difficult to believe that Ignatius would not have pointed directly to a written document that contained an account of such things. Many episodes in the Gospel story could have demonstrated the ‘humanity’ of Jesus. If Ignatius wants his readers “to be convinced” of this or that aspect of his human Christ, he should have been quoting Matthew on these occasions, and clearly identifying his source at least some of the time.
Some of the glaring silences include the idea of apostolic succession. Unlike 1 Clement, which contains a primitive form of the idea, in that the first apostles appointed leaders to govern each new community and thus the appointed elders in Corinth derive their authority from such a precedent, Ignatius expresses no such concept. As Schoedel puts it (Ibid., p.201), “There is no apostolic succession in Ignatius,” and appointment of authorities is only “in terms of a divine power which continually realizes itself in the institutions of the church.” Had Ignatius a Gospel like Matthew, he would surely have found precedents in Jesus’ own appointment of apostles and the powers with which he invested them. Indeed, the practice of Christian communities should have been universally based on such traditions—and by extension, on the chain of succeeding appointments going back to the first apostles.
There is very little if anything in Ignatius about apocalyptic expectation. Ephesians 11:1 has a bare reference to these being “the last times.” But nowhere does Ignatius intimate that Jesus will be returning as those last times come to an end, something that is a major focus of Matthew, with his Parousia of Jesus as the Son of Man. Could Ignatius’ community possess a Gospel like Matthew and ignore its—and Jesus’—eschatological predictions? (The first element of the declaration that Jesus is “son of man and Son of God, in Ephesians 20:2, is simply referring to his dual nature.) Ignatius even uses the word Parousia to signify the Incarnation itself (Phil. 9:2), the birth of Jesus into the world, not his promised return to judge it, which is the centerpiece of Matthew’s apocalyptic picture. Schoedel calls this a “shift” of the Parousia terminology to a “first coming”—a shift of usage which, tellingly, no earlier documents display. But it is more likely that Ignatius has no tradition of a Parousia of Christ, just as other circles apparently lacked it (such as those of 1 Clement and 1 John).
The other curiosity about Ignatius’ references to “the gospel” is that his description of its content (written or orally preached) is entirely limited to the birth, baptism, passion and resurrection. Nothing in Ignatius’ catalogue speaks to the ministry in Galilee, to miracle-working, to any prophecy by Jesus. No word or deed of Jesus on earth is ever appealed to, beyond the fact of his dying and rising, and his birth is simply stated. This, and two passages which scholars like to relate to Gospel incidents, will be looked at later.
No less dubious is the assumed presence of oral tradition in Ignatius’ thinking, and by extension in his community. He never appeals to the idea that certain things have been passed along from earlier generations of apostles, that sayings or traditions go back to Jesus himself. While he several times refers to Jesus in a teaching role (e.g., Ephesians 9:2: “the commandments of Jesus Christ” or Magnesians 9:1: “Jesus Christ our sole teacher”), no actual saying is ever identified.
Not even on the subject so dear to Ignatius’ heart, martyrdom, is a saying of Jesus put forward. In Romans 6:1 he says: “The ends of the earth and the kingdoms of this world shall profit me nothing. It is better for me to die in Christ Jesus than to be king over the ends of the earth.” In such a fervent declaration, one might have expected him to appeal to the saying in Matthew 16:26, “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world yet forfeits his soul,” or the dramatic Temptation scene in which the devil offers Jesus the kingdoms of the world. R. M. Grant (The Apostolic Fathers, p.91) confidently declares that Ignatius’ words are based on Gospel sayings about self-denial, and commentators as a rule always seem secure in their knowledge of what is present in the writer’s mind, but no such mental connection is ever evident in the text itself. In Ephesians 14, in recommending a certain moral outlook to his readers, Ignatius appeals to the same thought which Jesus expresses in Matthew 12:33, that “a tree is known by its fruits.” The instinct of the preacher ought to have led to a mention of this parallel, the impetus provided by Jesus’ own words, which is a phenomenon we see expressed in preachers of all ages since.
In fact, the impression is consistently conveyed that in these ‘echoes’ of the Gospel, Ignatius has no awareness that he is quoting Jesus. In his letter to Polycarp, he admonishes the bishop of Smyrna to “in all circumstances be wise as the serpent though always harmless as the dove.” In this sort of context, the urging of some attitude or behavior, the most natural thing would have been to say something like, “as Jesus told us.” These very words are found in Matthew 10:16. (So close are they to the Gospel saying that Staniforth puts them in italics as though signifying a quote.) Ignatius makes no such attribution. In fact, an example like this suggests the likely source of many of the Gospel-like sayings Ignatius uses, namely commonplace maxims, culled from the expression of the time, both Jewish and Hellenistic, some of them age-old, some reflecting contemporary innovative thinking. Scholars who discount knowledge of a written Gospel on Ignatius’ part suggest that both he and Matthew are drawing on oral traditions, creating a commonality of wording and sentiment. But the fact that no attribution to Jesus is ever offered by Ignatius suggests rather (as does an epistle like James) that these ideas were simply in the air of the time and were only placed in Jesus’ mouth by the evangelists, some of them earlier in Q.
Claims are also made that Ignatius may know the Gospel of John, pointing especially to Philadelphians 7:1. Here the writer speaks of the Spirit, which “knows whence it comes and whither it goes, and tests secret things.” The first part of the quote is almost identical to part of John 3:8, also speaking of the Spirit. But the phrase has the ring of an established saying about the Spirit which could have been known to many. A similar idea is expressed in 1 Corinthians 2:10, though not with common wording. The point is, in the absence of any clear identification with a Gospel on the part of a writer, the possibility that both are drawing on common stores of expression from the background culture of the time is by far the more sensible interpretation.
To mention a related silence, Ignatius is also fixated in Christ’s own sufferings and their “true” nature, yet he never once offers any details of those sufferings such as are recounted so vividly in the Gospels. That traditions about gory details of the crucifixion, authentic or not, would not have been circulating at least orally, is difficult if not impossible to believe, and yet Ignatius is silent on the whole subject—as is Paul.
Rising in Flesh
Here we can look at one of the Gospel-like anecdotes the letters contain. In Smyrneans 3 we read the following (in the Lake translation):
“For I know and believe that he was in the flesh even after the Resurrection. And when he came to those with Peter he said to them: ‘Take, handle me and see that I am not a phantom without a body.’ And they immediately touched him and believed, being mingled both with his flesh and spirit.”If there is any place in the Ignatian letters where we would expect the writer to appeal to all the resources at his command, oral and written, this is it. Is he quoting a Gospel here, however loosely? Here is the passage in Luke which bears some resemblance to Ignatius:
“And he said to them, ‘Why are you troubled, and why do questionings rise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ ” (24:38-40 RSV)Grant (op.cit., p.115) suggests that Ignatius is not likely to be quoting Luke so freely and that he is relying on oral tradition. One phrase, “psêlaphêsate me kai idete,” “handle me and see,” is identical between the two, but the thought is so basic it is difficult to conclude that one borrows from the other. Schoedel (op.cit., p.225) also suggests that he is not loosely quoting Luke, if only because “further evidence for dependence on Luke is virtually absent in Ignatius.” One might add that if Ignatius was consciously presenting a passage from a written document (even if he didn’t have it before him), he would have said so, for pointing to such a document would have been a natural impulse as a way of giving his declaration authority and support.
The same argument applies in regard to the “doubting Thomas” episode in John. Those who suggest that Ignatius knows the Fourth Gospel need to acknowledge that such a claim founders on this passage, for Ignatius would surely have referred to the Thomas incident to make his point much more vividly, and again, he would have spotlighted his source. But we can go further. The “doubting Thomas” episode can hardly have been circulating in oral tradition, for Ignatius’ silence on it is a clear indicator that he knows of no such incident.
The Gospel of Matthew has no equivalent scene where Jesus directs his followers to touch him (Matthew’s post-resurrection scenes are more primitive and less detailed, being only the first rung on the evangelists’ ladder of invention following Mark’s bare empty tomb ending), although he has the women take hold of Jesus’ feet when they meet him on the road. But if Ignatius knew Matthew, one might expect he would appeal at least in a general way to the post-resurrection scenes in that Gospel to bolster his contention of Jesus’ true resurrection.
How, then, do we interpret the anecdote in Smyrneans 3? All commentators make the assumption that there has to be a source—however garbled in the transmission—going back to Easter or the early apostolic preaching. But this is unfounded, especially in the absence of any indication that Ignatius ever appeals to traditions, oral or written, going back before his own time. (I’ll enlarge on that when considering Ignatius’ faith declarations against his opponents.) How do such sayings or anecdotes materialize? The simplest explanation is that they are invented: by preachers and writers, by figures like Ignatius, seeking to illustrate a newly developed belief about Jesus. Paul himself offers more than one directive, incident or prophetic scene which he states or implies has come to him ‘from the Lord,’ by perceived revelation. When a preacher is in front of an audience (or readers), making some theological declaration, describing some act or experience of Jesus, if something comes into his mind which would effectively add to his exposition, he is not likely to pass it up. Later he may regard it as a revelation. He may be expanding on an earlier statement or scenario known in the community, equally invented. (Who has not seen modern evangelists employ similar techniques, even making claims that God or Jesus had spoken to them personally?) We must keep in mind that the early Christian preaching movement was based on the idea of revelation from the Lord, both in the study of scripture and in Christian meetings where prophets prophesied and others interpreted glossolalia (see 1 Corinthians 12 and 14). Once the principle is established that the Lord communicates information about himself, about commandments, about the ‘gospel,’ then anything appearing in any piece of writing can conceivably be imputed to such an origin, if there is no clear declaration or evidence to the contrary.
Besides, if the evangelists can simply make things up, why not Ignatius? Critical scholars often judge that Gospel figures like Judas, incidents like Gethsemane, or many of the post-resurrection scenes, are likely the evangelists’ invention. Luke, in order to demonstrate the reliability of the physical resurrection, invented a ‘reliable’ scene in which the apostles touch the physical Jesus. The fact that no other writing before the Gospel of John arrives ever mentions the dramatic “doubting Thomas” episode—something that should have been a prime candidate for preservation and transmission by oral tradition—can only lead us to conclude that the fourth evangelist simply made it up.
Besides, what does Ignatius’ anecdote actually say? It’s pretty basic. Speaking to Peter and the disciples, Jesus said, touch me and see that I am not a phantom without a body. Ignatius is having to deal with heretics who declare that Jesus was a phantom without a true physical body. Ignatius’ counter to this in the Smyrneans passage is little more than the basic denial, No he was not. There is no necessity to see it as derived from some circulating tradition. Ignatius “knows and believes” that Jesus was in flesh after his resurrection. The anecdote is his way of stating such a principle, something he does not attribute to any source, oral or written, lying outside or prior to himself.
When he goes on to say that “after his resurrection he ate and drank with them as being in flesh,” this, too, need not be tied to tradition but could well be a statement based on the assumption that if Jesus had been resurrected in the flesh and spent time with the apostles, he would likely have shared meals with them, if only because it would have been an obvious way to prove himself.
If it is a virtual certainty that Ignatius had no written Gospel, and never identifies oral or apostolic traditions about Jesus’ ministry and passion circulating in that part of the empire, we face an astonishing situation. The bishop of Antioch, living in the foremost Christian center in the eastern Mediterranean, almost on the outskirts of Galilee and Judea, seemingly has no access to knowledge about Jesus’ life and death beyond the basic biographical data he puts forward. He does not identify a single saying or moral dictum attributed to Jesus; he seems to know nothing about miracles; he mentions two incidents which bear an uncertain and superficial resemblance to Gospel events. He never alludes to features of early Christian history surrounding the apostles, save the bare names of Peter and Paul (Romans 4:3)—not even making a reference to their martyrdom, a key issue for Ignatius. This silence, as in 1 Clement 5, would tend to show that at this time the legends about such a fate concerning the two apostles had not yet developed. Of earlier documents, Ignatius shows a familiarity with 1 Corinthians and possibly one or two other Pauline epistles and Hebrews. Almost a century after the reputed crucifixion, perhaps a full hundred years if the letters are somewhat later creations, this is the state of knowledge about the seminal figure and events of the Christian movement. It certainly casts serious doubt on the almost universal consensus (based on no concrete evidence) that Mark had been written by 70, and the rest of the Gospels—and Acts—by the year 100. Rather, the picture created by Ignatius fits consistently with the slow-developing, fragmented condition we see in earliest Christianity, the limited contacts between communities, the lack of doctrinal agreement among them, the puzzling anomalies, the perplexing variety of ideas, and the vast silence on the Gospel story, which the murky first hundred years presents.
The Nature of the Heresy in Ignatius
In railing against those who disagree with his own position, Ignatius throughout five of the seven letters makes a handful of basic biographical statements about his historical Jesus. The principal ones are these (in the Staniforth translation):
“Under the divine dispensation, Jesus Christ our God was conceived by Mary of the seed of David and of the Spirit of God; he was born, and he submitted to baptism so that by his passion he might sanctify water.”Magnesians 11
“I want you to be unshakably convinced of the birth, passion, and the resurrection which were the true and indisputable experiences of Jesus Christ, our hope, in the days of Pontius Pilate’s governorship.”Trallians 9:1
“Close your ears, then, if anyone preaches to you without speaking of Jesus Christ. Christ was of David’s line. He was the son of Mary; he was verily [alêthôs] and indeed born, and ate and drank; he was verily persecuted in the days of Pontius Pilate, and verily and indeed crucified, and gave up the ghost in the sight of all heaven and earth and the powers of the nether world.”Smyrneans 1:1-2
“You hold the firmest convictions about our Lord; believing him to be truly of David’s line in his manhood, yet Son of God by the divine will and power; truly born of a virgin; baptized by John for his fulfilling of all righteousness; and in the days of Pontius Pilate and Herod the Tetrarch truly pierced by nails in his human flesh…”In a few other places, Ignatius makes statements that more clearly refer to docetism and his rejection of it as unacceptable:
“It is asserted by some who deny God—in other words, who have no faith—that his sufferings were not genuine…In that case, I am giving away my life for nothing, and all the things I have ever said about the Lord are untruths.”Smyrneans 2-3
“And suffer he did, verily and indeed; just as he did verily and indeed raise himself again. His passion was no unreal illusion, as some skeptics aver…” This is followed by his declaration that “I know and believe that he was in actual human flesh, even after his resurrection,” and the anecdote discussed above about appearing to his disciples, who touch him and verify his physicality.Smyrneans 4:2
“After all, if everything our Lord did was only illusion, then these chains of mine must be illusory too.”Smyrneans 5:2
“So what is the point of my standing well in the opinion of a man who blasphemes my Lord by denying that he ever bore a real human body?”There is no question that in this latter group of passages, Ignatius is combating a position known as docetism. But a clarification is required here. It is recognized that the earliest form of this kind of outlook was significantly different from the one Ignatius witnesses to. Associated with Cerinthus (about whom knowledge is scanty) around the beginning of the second century, this doctrine claimed that Jesus was a mere man, into whom the spirit of the divine Christ entered only at the former’s baptism, to depart from that man before the crucifixion. Consequently, the passion was not undergone by Christ himself. (A corollary, we must assume, is that for such as Cerinthus, the suffering and death of Jesus was not the source of salvation, and that there was no real resurrection.) This, strictly speaking, is not docetism. Rather, the true docetic doctrine, of which we have no other evidence before we get further into the second century, stated that Christ was born, lived his life, suffered, died and resurrected only in the artificial semblance of a material body (dokein=to seem), but that he was really spirit all the time, a “phantom.” This avoided the distasteful (to some) idea that a divine being, especially one who was part of God, would have entered flesh and suffered from its pain and frailties. The latter, however, was an absolute necessity to minds like Ignatius. If all that Christ suffered was an illusion, not genuine, then “I am giving away my life for nothing” (Tral. 10) and “our resurrection is jeopardized” (Sm. 5:3).
One point to note in passing is that if we have reason to doubt that at the time of Ignatius’ death as tradition sees it, the later form of docetism had fully materialized, the picture of Ignatius’ opponents in the letters becomes suspect, leading us to give greater credence to dating them perhaps a decade or two later.
Before examining the first group of passages, a further question needs to be addressed. Scholars are still divided as to how to interpret the opponents in Ignatius’ letters. Do they represent one ‘heresy’ or two? Is there a distinction between those who are advocating a docetic view of Jesus and those who advocate an adherence to Judaism, or are they essentially the same people who combine both positions? Beyond that, I would ask, is there an element which denies the historicity of any Jesus in the recent past, docetic or not, Judaizing or not?
The docetists are addressed in the second group of passages listed above. The Judaizing faction is represented in a few passages like Magnesians 8-10:
“Never allow yourselves to be led astray by the teachings and the time-worn fables of another people…If we are still living in the practice of Judaism, it is an admission that we have failed to receive the gift of grace…so lay aside the old good-for-nothing leaven, now grown stale and sour, and change to the new, which is Jesus Christ…To profess Jesus Christ while continuing to follow Jewish customs is an absurdity.”As Staniforth points out, most scholars tend to assume two different groups of opponents, although a few like Lightfoot and Bauer postulated a single ‘Judaeo-Docetic’ heresy. (None, of course, recognize a full-blown denial of the very historicity of Jesus.) But Ignatius never makes it clear that he is speaking of distinct groups of opponents. While he talks of “some” here and “some” there, they all seem to blur together, only with different emphases voiced in different places. Let’s start by looking at those passages in the first group quoted above, which seem to be focusing on the veracity of basic historical elements.
In the Days of Pontius Pilate
When Ignatius declares in Magnesians 11 that he wants his readers to be convinced of the birth, passion and resurrection which took place at the time of Pontius Pilate, and that these things “were truly and certainly done by Jesus Christ” (Lake), or when in Trallians 9 he declares that Christ was truly born of Mary in the family of David, truly persecuted by Pilate and truly crucified in the sight of all, the language goes beyond a counter to docetism, if indeed it addresses it at all. As Schoedel says in regard to Magnesians (op.cit., p.125), this is “relatively anemic as an anti-docetic statement.” Ignatius conveys nothing so much as a declaration that these events had actually happened, that they are historically true, implying that others were denying such a historicity. If, for example, he only meant that when Christ was born of Mary it was in an actual physical body, not a phantom one, we might have expected him to be thus specific. In the several passages where he is stating historical facts like this, he never gives us that specific docetic orientation or language.
The word dokein is used only in passages that clearly address docetism, such as Trallians 10 and Smyrneans 4:2. Schoedel claims that using the phrase “ate and drank” in Trallians 9 betrays an interest in docetism. Possibly, but it could also be a handy phrase representing the idea that Jesus had ‘lived’—coming between being born and being persecuted by Pilate. It meant he did the normal things real men do.
While maintaining that Ignatius’ historical arguments are “designed to answer docetism” (Ibid., p.153), Schoedel nevertheless admits (p.124) that a passage like Magnesians 9 “also suggests that Ignatius had in mind a denial of the passion more thoroughgoing than our argument has so far indicated. What ‘some deny’ in Sm. 5.1 is the very reality of Christ’s death.” Schoedel pulls back from this abyss by going on to judge that the Ignatian comment in Magnesians 9:1—“though some deny him”—is an “exaggeration” (Ibid., p.125, n.9), a kind of throwaway link made between the Judaizers he is criticizing and the docetists.
Schoedel, as do others, calls attention to the frequent use of the word “alêthôs” (truly) as an anti-docetic indicator in Trallians 9 and Smyrneans 1. But this adverb can also entail the meaning of “in actuality,” in reference to historical veracity or any other perceived truth. Its use here is ambiguous, and it is used both in reference to the “true” sufferings of Jesus and his “true” birth from Mary and crucifixion by Pilate. (In Romans 8:2 it is used in a general sense, when Ignatius claims that he is “speaking truly.”)
Does the presence of genuinely anti-docetic statements, such as the second group listed above, force us to regard all of Ignatius’ arguments as having solely a docetic context (as unspecific as they might be), and that he cannot be arguing for a purely historical factuality as well? Let’s consider a couple of other passages.
The passage in Magnesians (8-10) quoted above deals undeniably with “Judaizers,” either converted Jews who want to retain some of their heritage, or gentiles who are urging that Jewish customs be adopted or maintained. “If we are still living in the practice of Judaism,” we are without grace, says Ignatius. Drop the “old leaven” for the “new.” “It is monstrous to talk of Jesus Christ and to practice Judaism” (Lake). And yet in the midst of these admonitions, Ignatius says this:
“That death [of Jesus], though some deny it, is the very mystery which has moved us to become believers, and endure tribulation to prove ourselves pupils of Jesus Christ, our sole teacher. In view of this, how can it be possible for us to give him no place in our lives…” (my emphasis; literally, “how shall we be able to live without him”)Apparently these Judaizers hold viewpoints which go beyond the simple advocacy of Jewish traditions. But is it docetism or something more? If they simply hold a docetic doctrine, would this have to mean that they are denying the death of Jesus, or that they are entirely doing without him, as Ignatius charges? Staniforth’s explanation (Mag., notes 4 and 5), that these people are indeed docetists and this is simply a denial of “the reality of the Passion,” and that living without him or giving him no place in our lives is “by the docetic rejection of his death and resurrection,” seems strained, an attempt to force the writer’s words into a preconceived mold. It is not impossible that Ignatius sees things this way, but there is no denying that the language he uses is much more sweeping.
It is similarly more sweeping in the Trallians 9 passage: “Close your ears, then, if anyone preaches to you without speaking of Jesus Christ.” In Philadelphians 6, Ignatius condemns those who “fail to preach Jesus Christ,” the latter also in the context of those who advocate Judaism. As in Magnesians 9, no docetic language is in view here; rather, the thought seems to be that there are Christians who go about failing to preach the Jesus that Ignatius believes in, and which he defines in historical terms, not in anti-docetic ones. Because the language could be ambiguous, with docetic implications read into it, the issue cannot be definitively resolved, but we are still faced with the implications which the texts themselves more openly convey: that this is a denial of the historical fact of birth by Mary, baptism by John, and crucifixion by Pilate. Can we formulate a picture of the conditions at the time of Ignatius which would see the various positions given to Ignatius’ opponents as part of a conglomerate yet coherent situation?
A Cauldron of Ideas
Here we need to step back and consider the broader picture. If everyone Ignatius is opposing is simply a docetist, including those who also advocate Judaism, we have to ask how such a position arose. Everything that Ignatius says indicates that these opponents lived and operated within the wider Christian community. Like the opponents in 1 and 2 John, they are being received and listened to by Christians, which is why Ignatius adjures them not to do so (Eph. 7:1, Phil. 6:1). In the orthodox scenario, this would mean that the movement toward denying the physical reality of everything Christ underwent, probably denying the role of the resurrection itself since such a thing was only that of a phantom, would have to have been a staggering about-face in regard to the central kerygma of the faith, a complete rejection of some 80 years or more of belief presumably held by Christians of all stripes in all places. Why would there be a widespread enough acceptance of such new preaching—or at least a willingness to consider it—that Ignatius must regard it as of the greatest danger to contemporary communities and preach so virulently against it? How could we understand such a development? If based on philosophical considerations (which the docetic stance was), why did it develop only in Ignatius’ time; why not earlier in the time of Paul?
Moreover, docetism as generally envisioned is essentially a negative movement. If we follow the usual interpretation of commentators like Schoedel, a great number of Christian preachers have coalesced all across Asia Minor (at least) to preach a doctrine of denial, that Jesus Christ was not real, that he had not undergone suffering, death and resurrection in true bodily form. Could this idea have motivated so great a number of Christian believers to become apostles and propagate such denials? Missionaries are rather driven by positive convictions, by new ideas they perceive as advantageous. Ignatius’ opponents would be in the unenviable position of approaching people who had long believed in their faith and telling them that they were mistaken, deceived and defrauded by three-quarters of a century of teaching. At the same time, they would be trying to substitute a much less appealing view, almost an insulting one, of the Jesus of Nazareth Christians had hitherto embraced. How did such preachers get past the first encounter at the prospect’s doorway, much less avoid having a chamber pot thrown at their heads?
This standard view of docetism makes little sense. We need to look for a new alignment of the movement within early Christianity. It seems natural to regard it as part and parcel of the growing gnostic phenomenon, that the world and matter was evil, that separation from it and a return to one’s divine nature in unity with God in heaven was the goal of salvation, and that if a Savior figure had entered the material world to impart the knowledge of those truths, he had not done so in material form. Current scholarship on the wider spectrum of the gnostic movement has concluded that it began and existed independently of Christianity, though links were eventually made by some gnostic sects to the Christian Jesus; and that it had its own range of Savior figures that were independent of Jesus and were mythological in nature (such as the Third Illuminator in the Apocalypse of Adam, or Derdekeas in The Paraphrase of Shem).
It looks as though some of these ideas had developed within the circle of Christian communities of which Ignatius was a part. A passage like Smyrneans 5 strongly suggests that this ‘heresy’ had arisen inside the community. But instead of regarding it as coming up against a long-established way of viewing Jesus, rooted firmly in an historical base and traditions no one prior to this time had questioned, we need to see the two tendencies as competing on a level playing field. They emerged more or less at the same time. (Here we can appeal to Walter Bauer’s seminal Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity for its picture of a widespread Christian landscape during the first and second centuries—including in Ignatius’ Syria—which was as much ‘heretical’ as ‘orthodox.’) In other words, Ignatius’ historical Jesus who had been born of Mary and crucified by Pilate was no more entrenched than the docetic/gnostic one. The apostles of the latter movement were going about “not speaking of Jesus Christ” the recent human man, they were gaining a hearing and undoubtedly some converts, because the historical Jesus was an equally newly-developed idea, advocated by such as Ignatius in language aimed at establishing, first and foremost, his historical veracity. The docetists were not bucking a tradition of decades, or butting their heads against longstanding views of Jesus the man and an historical, physical resurrection.
The clash of these two outlooks produced two effects, two central arguments. One was centered on the docetic question. As long as Christians, like Paul, had propagated a divine Christ in heaven, one who had not yet set foot on earth, the issue of his corporeal form and nature did not arise. Once he was claimed to be historical, acting on earth, the docetists had to resist, to advocate that, even if so, he was only seemingly a physical man. (Or, a non-physical Jesus may already have been a part of their message, and not a direct reaction to the historicizing trend.) One can envision that there were also those who resisted placing him on earth at all, denying that he had been here in any form. Thus, we see the dispute in 1 John against those who deny that he had “come in the flesh” (4:3), and a little later, Ignatius’ adamant claims to a fleshly historicity with basic biographical details.
These claims, it has to be stressed, cannot be backed up by appeals to documents or oral traditions, or by any sense that they are longstanding views held in the community. Not even the bishops and other clergy hold the correct view because of links to past teaching or past orthodoxy. Ignatius never makes the argument that ‘we have believed these things about Jesus for generations,’ much less that they were written down. He doesn’t say that ‘the apostles knew Jesus in the flesh and have passed on undeniable traditions about him.’ The docetists are never accused of ‘overturning’ established tradition, of trying to shove the Christian train into reverse. (Rather, they are simply “mad dogs” [Eph. 7:1], “false-hearted wolves” [Phil. 2:2], and “beasts in the form of men” [Sm. 4:1].) Ignatius’ truth is not time-honored, it is one of necessity. His argument is that the historical position must be so because it needs to be so. Without a Jesus in flesh, our sufferings are pointless. That is the extent of his pleading for historical veracity, and the legitimacy of his position over that of his opponents.
The second effect relates to those who are Jews or subscribe to Jewish tenets. It is one thing to compromise monotheism by postulating a separate divine person, a Son, in heaven, as Paul did. It is another to place him on earth and give him human flesh and blood. When elements of the Christian movement started to develop the latter idea, the Jewish-minded among them must have felt compelled to say, Stop, that’s too much! You can’t associate a human with God. And so in Ignatius’ circles, the “Judaizers” could also be found guilty of resisting the historical Jesus and “denying him,” as we see in Magnesians 9 and perhaps Smyrneans 5. They could be accused of “giving Jesus no place in our lives” and “failing to preach Jesus Christ” (Phil. 6). Some of them may have joined in the docetic chorus and compromised by adopting the ‘phantom body’ position.
The confusion about opposing groups, the mix of motifs found in Ignatius’ admonitions, the sense of a level playing-field: this picture is most easily explained by adopting the view that at the beginning of the second century, the wide and varied ‘Son and Savior’ salvation movement was a cauldron of different ideas, a competing variety in a state of flux. Some of it was moving toward a coalescing orthodoxy in bringing the spiritual Christ to earth and appropriating the Jewish heritage, other parts were moving toward a full-fledged gnosticism that rejected the world of flesh and regarded the Jewish Deity as a subordinate, evil God who was responsible for the hated world of matter. None of it was grounded in a genuine historical figure or set of events in the recent past. In Ignatius’ own world, which seems to have extended across Asia Minor, many voices were raised with different ideas and ways of looking at saviors and salvation. Ignatius was simply trying to shout louder than the rest.
Finally, where did Ignatius get his biographical data? I have postulated elsewhere that it may ultimately proceed from Mark, that a Gospel written two or three decades earlier in a community not too far distant in Syria or Galilee, a Gospel not originally intended to reflect history, may have produced a gradual ‘leakage’ of ideas that Ignatius and other Christians of the region were exposed to. Some ideas could have come from the milieu that produced the later stages of Q. Many people could have found them appealing, adopting them with an increasing conviction. Perhaps this adoption was further encouraged by a wider trend toward the historicization of the spiritual Christ, as discussed above in regard to the epistle of Barnabas. I have tended to discount the suggestion (in my book review of Alvar Ellegard’s Jesus—One Hundred Years Before Christ) that it was Ignatius himself, or perhaps his circle, who came up with these biographical features, and this in turn influenced the first evangelist who set them within his Gospel. Such a scenario is not impossible, though it would require that all the Gospels be placed in a post-110 or so time frame. There are radical scholars and mythicists who advocate such a dating scheme, though I have reservations. But it cannot be ruled out.
The Nature of Jesus in Ignatius
From our earliest record to the early second century (outside the Gospels), one of the central threads is an attempt to define the nature of Jesus the spiritual Son. Those who made docetic claims were continuing in that tradition, in the face of the snowballing trend to bring him into matter and onto earth itself. They were defining his human nature when he came to earth in different terms than those of Ignatius. That alternate nature was hardly bizarre or unprecedented. Angels had long been looked on as having taken on the semblance of bodily form to appear to humans, and Satan and his evil brood in the lower realms of the heavens were believed to possess some kind of corporeal form. But it was not matter itself. It could be said that the ‘docetist’ position was more orthodox than that of Ignatius, for Paul and the early cultists had kept Christ in a spiritual realm, and this was all that the gnostic-leaning docetists were intent on doing. Their movement toward a stark dualism, however, the separation of spirit and matter into good and evil, was more radical.
What does the Son in Ignatius’ picture tell us?
The first thing we encounter in Ignatius’ view of Jesus Christ, in the inscription to the epistle to the Ephesians, is the phrase “Jesus Christ our God.” Jesus is declared to be a fully divine entity, inseparably joined to God himself. Paul never went quite this far, though he could speak of his Christ Jesus as an integral part of the heavenly Godhead, fulfilling divine functions similar to those of Wisdom and the Logos, as in 1 Corinthians 8:6. Ignatius calls Jesus “God” at a few other points in the epistles.
In Magnesians 6:1, Ignatius says that Christ was “with the Father from all eternity,” that is, he is pre-existent, again as Wisdom and the Logos were regarded, although it is not clear whether Ignatius sees the Son as subordinate, being an emanation of God. Probably so. The days of elevating the Jesus figure to absolute equality with the Father, as in the Trinity, seem not to have arrived until later, perhaps not until the Councils. Both the pre-existence and the blatant identification of Jesus as God go considerably beyond the portrayal of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels. Rather than see this as an evolution beyond the Gospel picture, it actually reflects the earlier Pauline Christ, who was seen as a transcendent divine entity. The Gospel Jesus, though syncretized with the cultic Christ, was essentially derived from the Q milieu, from the perception of a teaching prophet and wisdom sage, and the apocalyptic Son of Man. Ignatius’ roots lie with the former, onto which he has grafted the human conception, perhaps from echoes of Mark. The Gospels, coming from the other direction, have not yet caught up to Ignatius’ own world of a pre-existent Christ as full God.
In a few very revealing passages, Ignatius betrays an inseparability of God and Christ which does not properly fit his idea of Jesus as a recent man, a distinct personality on earth who had given rise to the faith. For Ignatius, Jesus could be said to be ‘theocentric.” God himself is present and acting—and experiencing—in and through Jesus. This is one way of describing an ‘emanation’ of God, and it is an earlier, more primitive way of viewing the Son. It is ultimately grounded in the Logos, which (as in Philo) is virtually an abstract force given off by God: his thought, power, image. This force becomes the agency by which God reveals himself, contacts and saves humanity. In Ephesians 18:3, “God was now appearing in human form” defines Jesus as God himself taking on human nature. In Magnesians 8:2, God has “manifested himself through Jesus Christ his son, who is his Word proceeding from silence.” It is even more strongly expressed in Polycarp 3:2. (Staniforth presents it in its seemingly metrical form, which may indicate an existing liturgical poem, or possibly one of Ignatius’ own. The terms used indicate that the thought is applied to God himself.)
“…but also keep your eyes on Him who has no need of opportunities, being outside all time.Schoedel (op.cit., p.20) acknowledges that Ignatius’ reference to the “blood of God” (Eph. 1:1, which Staniforth softens to “divine blood”) and the “passion/suffering of my God” (Rom. 6:3), indicate Ignatius’ “undifferentiated…sense of the divinity of Christ.” In other words, he lacks the sense of Christ as a fully distinct entity, or he is reflecting an earlier (and probably not too much earlier) form of expression which lacked that sense.
Whom no senses can reveal
Was for us made manifest;
Who no ache or pain can feel
Was for us by pain opprest;
Willing all things to endure,
Our salvation to procure.”
This close identification of Jesus with God, a degree of integration which sees God as manifesting himself and undergoing suffering through Jesus, is an indicator that the faith began, not with a man who created a belief that he was a part of God, but with a Godhead that came to be seen, through philosophical meditation, as containing a subordinate element, serving as an intermediary, revelatory and salvific agency. This heavenly Son became increasingly regarded as having entered the world of flesh, eventually to take on full human nature and live an earthly life. But the highly elevated nature of this Son, compared to the paucity of information and historical connection in regard to his perceived incarnation, strongly suggests that he began as the former and not the latter. We are brought back to Paul’s mode of expression, his starting point in a Jesus who is a transcendent heavenly being never linked to a specific historical man. Ignatius betrays the same way of thinking, the same starting point, only a new dimension, still opaque and with few details attached, has been introduced.
Schoedel also remarks that “there is as yet no critical reflection in Ignatius on how the divine and the human can be joined in Christ.” Indeed, before Ignatius, no one ever raises the point. Paul is unconcerned with understanding how God could become human and take on two natures, and we must conclude by many of his statements (as in 1 Corinthians 15:44-49) that this is because he had no concept of his Jesus possessing two natures. Ignatius raises the subject in Ephesians 7:2:
“…there is one Physician, who is both flesh and spirit, born and yet not born, who is God in man, true life in death, both of Mary and of God, first passible and then impassible, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Lake’s translation)But as Schoedel says (see above), there is nothing in this passage suggesting that current Christian thinkers had to grapple with the concept of the divine-human duality in Jesus, nor does Ignatius engage his opponents on such an issue. The above verse (possibly a hymn, due to its rhythmic nature) shows for the first time that Christians are expressing that duality, but the idea has not been around long enough to generate critical examination.
Ignatius also expresses the idea of mystical union of believer with Christ. In Ephesians 4:2, the readers “are indeed members of his [God’s] Son’s Body,” and “parts of [Christ’s] own Body” in Trallians 11. None of the Gospels contain this idea of the believer being united with the savior god and being a part of a common “body” (a feature of mystery cult thinking), which places Ignatius in the line of Pauline mystical thought, not that of a Jesus of Galilean ministry.
In the Deep Silence of God
There is one passage in Ignatius’ letters which is overtly mythical, opening a window onto a previous phase of the faith before an historical Jesus was introduced. This is Ephesians 19, which I will quote in its entirety in the Staniforth translation.
“Mary’s virginity was hidden from the prince of this world; so was her child-bearing, and so was the death of the Lord. All these three trumpet-tongued secrets [literally, ‘three mysteries of a cry’: Bauer translates ‘cry’ as “(to be) loudly proclaimed”; the ANF as “of renown”] were brought to pass in the deep silence of God. How then were they made known to the world? [Literally, how was he manifested to the ‘aiôsin’—see below.] Up in the heavens a star gleamed out, more brilliant than all the rest; no words could describe its luster, and the strangeness of it left men bewildered [literally, it caused astonishment]. The other stars and the sun and moon gathered round it in chorus, but this star outshone them all. Great was the ensuing perplexity, where could this newcomer have come from, so unlike its fellows? Everywhere magic crumbled away before it; the spells of sorcery were all broken, and superstition received its death-blow. The age-old empire of evil was overthrown, for God was now appearing [literally, being manifest] in human form to bring in a new order, even life without end. Now that which had been perfected in the Divine counsels began its work; and all creation was thrown into a ferment over this plan for the utter destruction of death.”Attempts to demonstrate that this passage is a hymn have proven inconclusive. Schoedel (op.cit., p.88) settles on regarding it as “a product of Ignatius’ rhetorical methods,” though he could be putting in his own words a summary of a ‘cosmic myth’ that already existed in the community. Its resemblance to the gnostic redeemer myth has been pointed out, with its implications of a descent of the savior while hidden from the evil spirits, and his re-ascent to heaven as represented by the “star” which shines out and gains power over the world of evil in magic, sorcery and superstition, bringing in a new order. Some of these elements can be found in the Pauline epistles (e.g., Eph. 1:10 and 3:10), but perhaps the closest parallel is in the Ascension of Isaiah 9, in which the Son descends through the spheres of heaven, to be hung on a tree by the god of the firmament, Satan. There, Christ’s identity is hidden from the evil powers who “do not know who he is.” (See Article No. 3: Who Crucified Jesus?)
The parallels are also striking in 1 Corinthians 2:6-8. There, God’s wisdom in Christ is also a hidden “mystery,” while “the rulers of this age” are unaware of the Lord of Glory’s identity and crucify him. The debate over the meaning of “tôn archontôn tou aiônos toutou” in 2:8 should be elucidated by Ignatius’ use of the identical phrase—with “ruler” in the singular—here and elsewhere as a reference to Satan, and not to any worldly authority. It makes a strong argument for taking Paul’s phrase as also referring to the evil powers of the lower heavens. (Schoedel is another scholar who concedes that this is the meaning of Paul’s term “the rulers of this age.”) Paul’s “hidden wisdom of God” and Ignatius’ “deep silence of God” convey the same thing: the spiritual realm of God where spiritual processes take place, and those to whom they are of most concern and whom they most affect are the spirit powers.
In fact, Ignatius’ passage speaks of these “secrets” of God being “made known to the aiôsin.” Both Staniforth and Lake translate the latter term as “the world,” but this is an avoidance of the more direct meaning. There are other words Ignatius could have used to signify the world as a spatial area or the people that inhabit it. Instead, he uses the plural (dative) of “aiôn.” This can mean “ages” in regard to an expanse of time, and the writer elsewhere uses it as such. But it can also mean supernatural beings, “Aeons,” who inhabit the celestial spheres. Bauer’s Lexicon provides such a meaning (def. 4), and suggests this as the meaning in Ignatius’ Ephesians 19:2. Further, it regards this as the probable meaning in the Pauline Ephesians 2:2—“when you followed the aeon [spirit ruler] of this world” (“the age of this world” doesn’t really make much sense)—as well as in Colossians 1:26—“hidden from the aeons and from the generations” (the spirits and the humans, since “from the ages and from the generations” would be a redundancy)—and in Ephesians 3:9, although it allows that other meanings in these passages are possible. Schoedel (Ibid., p.91, n.24) supports the reading of supernatural beings in Ignatius.
Such a reading is internally supported. Ignatius asks how these things were made known to the world/aeons. Since he goes on to speak solely of the effects created in heaven—the “star” portion of the passage—and not of effects on a human audience, “aeons” is to be preferred. Staniforth’s translation of “it left men bewildered” is not specified in the text, which merely says that the new star caused astonishment; and since this is enlarged on by reference to “the other stars, with the sun and moon gathered in chorus round this star” (Lake), we ought to be left in no uncertainty as to where this scene takes place.
Thus, if Ignatius means “how were these things revealed to the aeons,” the spirit powers, we are squarely in the realm of the mythological, part of a family of passages in several documents which provide mutual support to each other, including the crucial 1 Corinthians 2:8. We need not make all the tortured readings most commentators feel are necessary to get around the plainest meaning of the passage. It represents a mythical outlook predating the adoption of the new historical Jesus. The virginity of Jesus’ mother, the birth, and Jesus’ very death itself, are mythological events that “came to pass (epraxthê, aorist passive of prassô)”—were wrought (Lake), performed, executed—within that mythological setting. To get around this, Staniforth suggests they were “prepared” in the silence of God. Schoedel notes that it could mean that these three things were “effected within the purpose or sphere of the divine” (Ibid., p.91), but then chooses to drop them into history on the basis of the use of same verb in Magnesians 11 and Smyrneans 4:2 in connection with Ignatius’ historical declarations about Jesus. The latter consideration is hardly conclusive. It is the context that determines the meaning we should draw, and prassô is an extremely common verb, used in all sorts of contexts.
In the earlier form of this myth, we are led to assume that the name of Mary did not appear (just as Paul does not give us her name in Galatians 4:4’s “born of woman”); this is possibly Ignatius’ own amendment. Schoedel suggests that the two elements at the head of this mythical scene, Jesus’ conception by a virgin and his birth, are a direct mirroring of Isaiah 7:14 (“A virgin shall conceive and bear a son”). But he fails to follow through and conclude that these things are not based on historical traditions but are in fact mythical elements grounded in scripture, just as we can surmise in regard to Paul’s Galatians 4:4 statement. The Christian myth before historicization was the product of meditation on scripture. Everything in the New Testament epistles points in this direction.
When we get to the “star” passage, we encounter some uncertainty. It is by means of this star that the Aeons learn of the conception, birth and death of Jesus—things already brought to pass. If this myth has ties to gnostic thought, the star could be seen as the ascended Christ himself, now shining out in heaven. It is after his death and exaltation that he gains the power to destroy magic and superstition, and the old empire of evil forces and death is brought to an end. Because gnostic mythology does not specifically use the image of a star in the ascension of the divine redeemer, but only light and glory, Schoedel and others claim the star refers to Jesus’ descent into the world, not his ascension, and their tendency is to relate it to the Star of Bethlehem, though not assuming that the latter is literally historical. The precise alignment of the star motif is not spelled out in this passage, and it may not matter. But if the plainer meaning of the opening sentences is adopted, that all activities of the Savior have already been accomplished, then the star in this sequence of thought must appear at the ascension and not at the point of birth.
It is quite possible that the Star of Bethlehem feature of Matthew’s Nativity story (it is missing in Luke’s) is derived from this sort of mythological background. Ignatius’ thought milieu is undeniably closer to elements of the Matthean Gospel than any other, and the similarity of many passages in Matthew to expressions in Ignatius is best explained by postulating that Matthew was being written in the same general area around the same time.
This “myth” in Ephesians 19, then, is a hold-over from the pre-historical Jesus phase of the Ignatian community. All its elements fit a mythological setting, including the wonder and confusion of the other stars as representing the spirit forces, good and bad, from whom the identity of Jesus has been hidden from “birth” to death. Under the historical scenario, it may well be questioned how Satan could be unaware of the birth and death of Jesus, taking place under the open skies of Judea and in the sight of many. If Ignatius sensed inherent contradictions, now that Jesus had died outside Jerusalem under sentence of Pontius Pilate, he shows no sign. But old modes of expression are often adapted to new understandings, while anomalies are glossed over or ignored.
Ignatius says that the three “mysteries,” Jesus’ conception, birth and death, were brought to pass in the “deep silence of God,” which although obscure, strongly suggests a spiritual realm that is inaccessible to human observation where God carries out his work of salvation. The word “silence” is “hêsuxia” and this word appears a few chapters earlier in another passage which commentators find obscure. In 15:1, Ignatius says that “the man who truly possesses the word of Jesus can also hear his silence.” Staniforth muses over and rejects a possible application to Jesus’ silence before the High Priest and Pilate, but he fails to offer any meaningful alternative. But here Jesus’ “silence” which the one possessing his “word” can penetrate suggests the same mythical significance as in the later passage. Jesus began as a spiritual entity who also worked in the deep and impenetrable mythical realm of God.
A Rite of Chrisma
Finally, a quick look at the second Gospel-like anecdote in the Ignatian epistles. In Ephesians 17:1, Ignatius tells his readers:
“The reason for the Lord’s acceptance of the precious ointment on his head was to exhale the fragrance of incorruptibility upon his church. So you must never let yourselves be anointed with the malodorous chrism of the prince of this world’s doctrines, or he may snatch you into his own keeping and away from the life that lies before you.”That the “chrism” refers to an anointing at the time of baptism (here contrasted with the Devil’s anointing), part of a rite of initiation, is a common interpretation and undoubtedly correct. The first Johannine epistle, probably coming from the same geographical area of northern Syria a little earlier than Ignatius, also refers to a rite of chrism (2:20/27). That Ignatius’ is alluding to the Gospel episode of the anointing of Jesus at Bethany is also a common suggestion, but this is far less certain. Not only are no historical details attached to it, the reference bears all the marks of a traditional cultic explanation for the community’s rite, in that sectarian thinking tends to develop myths about the founder establishing the ritual or performing some act upon which the ritual is allegedly based, or which gives it its meaning. In this passage, Ignatius refers to the rite of chrism, and makes his remark about the Lord, specifically to explain a certain aspect of the rite’s significance. This is an example of the phenomenon which anthropologists such as Mircea Eliade have long noted, that of ‘ritual producing explanatory myth.’ In this same class, we may place Paul’s scene of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, something he says he has “received from the Lord.” Here Paul may be inventing on his own and claiming revelation, attempting to impart a sacramental quality to the communal meal whose spirit he feels the Corinthians are abusing. (See Article No. 6: The Source of Paul’s Gospel.)
Again, Ignatius does not appeal to any Gospel account or apostolic tradition as the source of this information. The alleged similarity to Matthean wording (26:7) relates only to the word “ointment” and the phrase “upon his head,” basic ideas that can hardly avoid being expressed in a common way. As for the possible derivation of Ignatius’ idea from a more general oral tradition, this is undermined when one notes that no consistent tradition is in evidence in the Gospels, since both Luke and John portray their equivalent scene as an anointing of Jesus’ feet. It is much safer to conclude that Matthew may have derived his scene from mythical precedents such as we see in Ignatius.
From the vantage point of the mythicist position, it is safe to say that not a single early Christian document outside the Gospels from the first hundred years of the faith—and some extending beyond that—actually says the things that orthodox scholarship would like them to say and which it has done its best to make them say. From the 19th century translator of Minucius Felix (in the Ante-Nicene Fathers), who labeled Octavius’ denigration of the idea of a crucified man and his cross as “A reverent allusion to the Crucified, believed in and worshipped as God,” to J. H. Charlesworth’s scouring of the Odes of Solomon in search of some word that could refer, no matter how obscurely, to the resurrection, Christian scholars have imposed one small segment of the early Christian documentary record, the Gospels and Acts, upon their reading of everything else.
The Hellenistic era was the age of personal salvation, through the individual’s mystical union with a personal savior god. While the Greeks looked only for the ascent of the soul to the divine, Jews and Christians looked for a place in the Kingdom of God. While Paul did not envision this Kingdom as located on earth in the material world, he still looked for a resurrection in a transformed body, made of spirit material like that of Christ. The god’s own death and resurrection in the heavenly dimension guaranteed that of the believer, but as Christian thought moved increasingly toward resurrection in the flesh, the divine redeemer who was entrusted with this role had to do so by taking part in the same flesh: to save it he must enter it. But the exact nature of his coming to earth was not universally accepted. Its precise nature had to be worked out. Some circles along the way resisted the more concrete manifestations ‘in flesh.’ The conflict first appears in 1 John 4, although exactly what the writer of that epistle conceived of as constituting “in flesh,” or the precise position of his opponents, is not clear. It is notable that, writing probably a decade or two before Ignatius, he did not enumerate any of the bishop of Antioch’s historical biographical details, and the basis of his own belief was revelation through the Spirit.
There was one way to ensure that a divine Savior had fully partaken in flesh and human nature, that his redemptive acts were sufficient to guarantee the benefits to his devotees: place him in history. This was a need which the equivalent salvation religions among the Greeks did not so urgently feel—probably because they had no need or desire to perpetuate the flesh. Though they conceived of their savior gods as ‘approaching matter’ in some way, of having a body and experiences that possessed the “likeness” of those of humans, they were content to leave them in mythical times and settings. The earliest Christians as well were content with this much: a Christ Jesus, an Anointed Savior, incarnated in a mythical part of God’s heavens, grappling with the evil spirits who were one of the chief concerns of both Deity and humanity. Man as a whole was separated from God largely because Satan and his evil angels were the rulers of this age, cutting off earth from heaven. They were the cause of much misery, misfortune and unbelief in the world, including the original Fall. Jesus had a job to do in the heavens and in the underworld—perhaps his principal job—to destroy the power of the demons, restore the unity of the universe, and rescue the souls of the righteous.
The victory over the evil powers would automatically set the scene for salvation and a new age. The righteous who believed in Christ Jesus would enter the Kingdom when Jesus came to earth to judge the world. A simple, efficient system. Some time before Ignatius, it ceased to be enough. Jesus had to have entered history and material flesh. His parentage had to be elucidated, though he kept the universal paternity of the ancient world gods and heroes as son of a Deity by a virgin. The agency of his suffering had to become a human force (as was humanity’s own), the governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, with an active part played by the hostile and despised Jewish authorities. The biographical details were largely supplied from scripture. But there was another, fortuitous source for his activities in flesh: the milieu of Kingdom preaching centered in Galilee. Probably by the grace of the writer of Mark, the imagined founder of that movement became wedded to the savior god come to suffer and die on earth. Thus the single most dramatic and influential historical event in the planet’s history, the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, entered human consciousness. Before Ignatius, no Christian document—allowing for the inauthenticity of 1 Thessalonians 2:15-16 and a second century provenance for 1 Timothy—refers to it in that context.
Ignatius himself clearly shows the fundamental impulse for this development, for the historicization of Jesus and his ‘true’ human experience of suffering and exaltation. It is not because it is so recorded, not because some reliable account of it exists to be read and drawn upon. It is not because these traditions have been passed down through the generations since the events themselves. It is not because some carefully thought-out theology and process of philosophical deduction urged such a doctrine upon him, for this, too, Ignatius never offers us in his letters. It is for purely subjective reasons, personal and immediate, that he “knows and believes” that Jesus Christ was truly born of Mary, truly suffered under Pilate, was truly crucified in human flesh and rose in the same state. It is so because “by believing in his death you may escape death” (Tral. 2:1), and here he is drawing on the universal pattern of Hellenistic salvation thought: the paradigmatic parallel that has both deity and believer undergoing the same experiences. It is because if Christ’s suffering was only a semblance, then Ignatius is “dying in vain” (Tral. 10:1). If all of Christ’s experiences were simply an illusion, then his experiences too are only an illusion (Sm. 4:2). This is the true source of all theology: human need. What we need we will create theologies to support. God’s Anointed Savior arose when certain circles within the Hellenistic Jewish milieu created their own divine intermediary to their increasingly inaccessible God, and a Messiah to rescue them and bring them into their destiny. This Christ Jesus emerged into history when the need of the individual for salvation became paramount and only a Jesus who had been fully human could accomplish the task.
Before long, the political advantages of possessing a human figure as the fount of the movement also emerged, providing a chain of authority and correct doctrine that could be traced back to him who had established it, and the Jews could be accused of rejecting a human figure who had been in their midst. If the first apostles could be claimed to have seen Jesus in the flesh, the assurance of human resurrection in the flesh was secure, but it could only be available through the institution that preserved those traditions and guaranteed their historical veracity. The power over the human mind is the power most sought after, and human fear is its most vulnerable channel. Humanity’s most primitive fear is the fear of death, and the story of Jesus evolved to take away that fear.
Staniforth, Maxwell: Early Christian Writings, Penguin Classics, 1968
Lake, Kirsopp: The Apostolic Fathers (2 volumes), Loeb Classical Library, 1912-13
Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol.1 (1870), reprinted Eerdmanns, Grand Rapids, 1951-78
Translations also included in some works below.
Cross, F. L., The Early Christian Fathers, Duckworth, London, 1961
Grant, R. M., editor (and author of vols. 1, 2 and 4), The Apostolic Fathers (6 vols.), T.
Nelson, New York, 1964-68
Schoedel, William R., Ignatius of Antioch, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1985
Kleist, J. A., Ancient Christian Writers *
Tugwell, Simon, The Apostolic Fathers, London, Chapman, 1989
Lightfoot, J. B., The Apostolic Fathers (5 vol.) *
Richardson, Cyril, Early Christian Fathers, London, SCM Press, 1953
Barnard, L. W., Studies in the Apostolic Fathers and Their Background, Schocken, New York, 1966
Molland, E., “The Heretics Combatted by Ignatius of Antioch,” JEH 1954
* Publishing information not available at this time
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