The Authenticity of Ignatius’ Seven Letters

I wrote this over the summer for a reading seminar I did on Ignatius of Antioch. Dr. Haykin supervised my work. I had great fun researching this very important church father and the transmission of his writings.


The authenticity of the seven letters of Ignatius, bishop of Antioch (c. 34-c.107),

[1] has been debated throughout the history of the church, particularly in the seventeenth century.[2] John Milton best captures the complexity of the debate in his satirical question, “In the midst therefore of so many forgeries where shall we fixe to dare say this is Ignatius? as for his stile, who knows it? So disfigur’d and interrupted as it is.”[3] While most contemporary scholars are in agreement that the so-called middle recension of letters is authentic, there have been some who have argued otherwise.[4] The purpose of this paper will be to survey the historical scholarship pertaining to the letters and how the conclusion was reached that the middle recension is the true collection. Particular attention to the role of James Ussher will also be paid in the discussion of the middle recension.

It has been recognised since the work of Lightfoot that there are three different classifications of letters, called recensions, that claim to be of Ignatian character.

[5] In chronological order the first is the middle recension, containing the seven authentic letters, referred to in Eusebius’ Church History.[6] The second is the long recension that appeared in the latter part of the fourth century. The third, known as the short recension was not discovered until the middle of the nineteenth century. In the following the short recension will be discussed first, followed by the long and concluding with greater attention to detail regarding the middle.

Short Recension
The short recension is so-labelled because of the brevity of its form and because the letters “lack phrases, sentences, and even long sections that appear in the text of the uninterpolated seven.”
[7] It is thought to be a précis of the middle recension, specifically the letters to Polycarp, Ephesians and Romans with a paragraph from Trallians. Schoedel surmises that the summary was constructed for monastic purposes.[8] Corwin compares the letter to the Ephesians in the short and middle recensions showing that the former is one-third the length of the latter.[9]
The short recension exists only in a Syriac text.
[10] William Cureton was the first to publish it in his Antient Syriac Version of the Epistles of Saint Ignatius to St. Polycarp, the Ephesians and Romans (1845) after the letters had been brought from the Nitrian desert to the British Museum. It was Cureton’s argument that these were the genuine letters and that Eusebius had not been absolutely certain of the letters (middle recension) he referenced.[11] Both Theodor Zahn[12] and J. B. Lightfoot argued against Cureton’s thesis in favour of the middle recension. Most scholars since their time have followed in their footsteps, dismissing Cureton’s arguments.
The most decisive blow levelled by Lightfoot against Cureton is the comparison he made between the short recension and fragments of a Syriac translation of the middle recension. “It is strange that Cureton should not have been struck by the close resemblance between the Syriac fragments (S1, S2, S3) and the Syriac version of the three epistles in the Short recension (S).”
[13] Lightfoot felt that the coincidences between them were so strong that the only possible conclusion was that one had to be derived from the other. If it can be shown that the short is dependent upon the middle, “all the evidence for the genuineness for the Short recension disappears.”[14] Lightfoot observes, “Cureton failed to see the resemblance, and therefore did not enter into this question, though it was one of paramount importance to him, inasmuch as his theory of the genuineness of the Short recension stands or falls as it is answered.”[15] For Lightfoot, it makes more sense to think that a Syrian had found a copy of the middle recension and summarised it for one reason or another, than to think that it was expanded upon in forgery: “This is the more obvious explanation.”[16] Quoting C. C. Richardson, Brown says, “In the works of Theodor Zahn and of J. B. Lightfoot it was ‘convincingly shown that Cureton’s text represents a rather crude abridgment of the original letters.’”[17]

Long Recension
The long recension owns its name because it is the largest collection of letters, thirteen in all, vying for a spot in the Ignatian corpus. Schoedel claims that it first appeared in the late fourth century and was first referenced by the monophysite Stephen Gorbarus in 570 AD.

[18] The long recension contains the seven letters found in the middle recension, namely those to the churches in Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, Philadelphia, Smyrna and Rome and to the bishop Polycarp. Yet, these seven differ from the middle recension as they have been interpolated with texts that expand the length of the letters. Accompanying these are five additional letters addressed to the churches in Tarsus, Antioch and Philippi as well as to a man named Hero (said to be Ignatius’ replacement in Antioch[19]) and a woman named Mary of Cassabola. There is also included a letter from Mary to Ignatius. Manuscripts for the long recension exist only in Greek and Latin.[20]
Of its style, excluding the letter from Mary, Brown observes,
These twelve letters bear a remarkable resemblance to the pattern of Paul’s corpus…There is an inner consistency of form, notably in the salutations and farewell greetings, and there is considerable homogeneity of thought, doctrine, and exhortation. The amount of writing is extensive enough for an application of the customary linguistic or stylistic tests.

This description differs widely from the letters of the middle recension, which were apparently written in haste. Corwin describes the writings as “broken, marred occasionally with uncompleted sentences and above all lacking in connected argument. Nowhere is there development of ideas in measured, logical sequence.”

[22] By noting the style Corwin does not seek to “dispose of the letters as inconsequential,” rather, the hurriedness of their style speaks to the external conditions suffered by Ignatius as he travelled in chains from Antioch to Rome. The letters of the middle recension, over and against the long, “bear the clear marks of having been written under external as well as internal pressures.”[23] Therefore, the structure and form of the long recension described by Brown militate against their being the genuine letters.
The authenticity of the long recension has been the subject of “learned and acrimonious” debate.
[24] During the fourth century when the long recension first came into existence, the church was embroiled in a monophysite controversy regarding Christ’s two natures.[25] Much of the interpolated texts were anachronistic[26] having “reflected the religious and social realities of the time.”[27] Yet the long recension came to dominate in the medieval period, displacing the authentic letters.[28]
In the seventeenth century a debate over ecclesiastical polity erupted and Ignatius was again a key figure. Because his letters were the first in the early church to offer a tripartite distinction between the offices of bishop, elder and deacon,
[29] those in favour of mono-episcopalian church order sought to establish an early date for his letters to demonstrate the antiquity of their view. Many of non-conformist background argued against this, hoping to either discredit Ignatian authorship of the letters altogether, or at least demonstrate that they were of a later date. A casualty of this debate was the spurious collection of letters and interpolations that contributed to the long recension whose true nature was realised. More detail on how this razing occurred is provided in the discussion of the middle recension.

Middle Recension
The middle recension contains seven letters, in uninterpolated form, that constitute modern collections of the letters of Ignatius

[30] and are widely recognised as authentic. They exist in Greek (Codex Mediceo-Laurentianus), Latin and Armenian versions as well as fragments in Coptic and Syriac.[31] An early reference to them can be found in the Church History of Eusebius of Caesarea, who records Ignatius as the second bishop of Antioch after Euodius with Hero succeeding him.[32] The historian also draws attention to references to the letters by Irenaeus and Polycarp in their writings.
The authenticity of the long recension held sway throughout the medieval period. In 1623, when Nicholaus Vedelius published a text that contained the middle recension with an appendix of spurious letters attached, scholars began to question the long recension. Vedelius was of the opinion that even the Eusebian letters were interpolated and were dependent upon the Apostolic Constitutions that had been written long after Ignatius lived.
[33] As much as he tried, Vedelius could not establish the original text of letters.[34] It was not until the work of an Irish primate that serious headway could be made in determining which letters were the ones that came from Ignatius’ own hand.
James Ussher (1581-1656), bishop of Armagh in Ireland, is memorialised for his Annals of the World that set the date of the world’s creation at 4004 BC. Unfortunately, Ussher’s brilliance as a theologian and historian has been overshadowed by contemporary creation/evolution rhetoric. Alan Ford, in the introduction to his biography of Ussher begins with a lengthy list of quotations from various figures in history that showered accolades upon the Irish theologian.
[35] To cite but one, Robert Huntington, Provost of Trinity College Dublin, who said that Ussher was “one of the greatest scholars, which the reformed churches or the Irish nation ever bred.”[36]
One discipline that Ussher was regarded to be an expert in was patristic history.
[37] Often engaged in debates with various Roman Catholic theologians, Ussher defended the antiquity of protestant thought by tracing it throughout the early church.[38] As the debate over the authenticity and date of Ignatius’ letters continued in the seventeenth century, Ussher was one of the key scholars to offer an opinion.[39] Most importantly, it was Ussher who made a major contribution to the final laying aside of the long recension.
In the thirteenth century Robert Grossteste (c. 1250), bishop of Lincoln, published works containing various Latin quotations of Ignatius. In the fourteenth century more quotations were to be found in the writings of John Tyssington (c. 1381) and William Wodeford (c. 1396). Upon reading them, Ussher recognised that these quotations coincided with the ones found in Eusebius, and differed with the long recension.
[40] Because English writers quoted them, Ussher concluded that the Latin text of Ignatius’ letters must be housed in an English library. His search paid off as Ussher discovered two Latin manuscripts of the letters. As he studied them, Ussher discovered that the translation was likely by Grossteste himself. Notes in the margin betrayed an English author: “Incus est instrumentum fabri; dicitur Anglice anfeld (anvil).”[41] There were also comparisons made in the notes between the Latin translation and the original Greek. Knowing that Grossteste was one of the foremost Greek scholars in England at the time, he was the best candidate for translator.[42] Lightfoot himself determined that Grossteste was the author by accurately comparing a manuscript from Tours that testified to be authored by the bishop of Lincoln.[43]
The seven letters of the Latin translation were enough to convince Ussher that six of the seven were genuine; he rejected the letter to Polycarp thinking it false. Ussher came to this conclusion because of a statement from Jerome who argued that the Polycarp letter was inauthentic. In 1644 he published Polycarp et Ignatii Epistolae offering his conclusions to the greater scholarly community. Ussher’s work was so significant, moving criticism of the Ignatian corpus “beyond the speculative stage”
[44] that at the time of publishing, Oxford University made an engraving of Ussher to be placed at the beginning of his edition of Ignatius.[45] Of his importance, Lightfoot could say, “To the critical genius of Ussher belongs the honour of restoring the true Ignatius.”[46]
In 1646 Isaac Voss published a short form of the Greek text found in the Medicean Library in Florence. Although the letter to the Romans was absent, it was later included as authentic after it had been found in a Latin manuscript of the “Acts of Ignatius” published by T. Ruinart in 1689 in his Acta Martryum Sincera.
[47] The work of these seventeenth century scholars essentially closed the door on the question of which were the authentic letters. The final work of Zahn and especially Lightfoot placed final confirmation in the minds of scholars that they can rest assured that the seven letters of the middle recension are indeed those written by Ignatius of Antioch.
[1] To the Ephesians, To the Magnesians, To the Trallians, To the Romans, To the Philadelphians, To the Smyrnaeans, To Polycarp.
[2] For a survey of this debate see Virginia Corwin, St. Ignatius and Christianity in Antioch (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1960), 1-30; William R. Schoedel, “Introduction” in Ignatius of Antioch: A Commentary on the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch, William R. Schoedel, ed., Helmut Koester (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 1985), 1-7; Christine Trevett, A Study of Ignatius of Antioch in Syria and Asia Studies in the Bible and Early Christianity 29 (Lewiston/Queenston/Lampeter: Edwin Mellen Press, 1992), 9-15.
[3] John Milton, Of Prelatical Episcopacy, 1641 cited in Trevett, A Study of Ignatius in Syria and Asia, 10.
[4] For instance Josep Rius-Camps, The Four Authentic Letters of Ignatius, The Martyr Christianismos 2 (Rome: Pontificum Institutum Orientalium Studiorum, 1979). For a response to Rius-Camps and others see William R. Schoedel, “Are the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch Authentic?” in Religious Studies Review 6.3 (July 1980): 196-201; and Trevett, A Study of Ignatius of Antioch in Syria and Asia, 11-15.
[5] J. B. Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers: Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp (London: Macmillan, 1889; reprinted Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1989).
[6] Paul L. Maier, Eusebius The Church History: A New Translation with Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 1999), 123-125.
[7] Corwin, St. Ignatius and Christianity in Antioch, 5.
[8] Schoedel, “Introduction,” 3.
[9] Corwin, St. Ignatius and Christianity in Antioch, 5.
[10] Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers, 72-73.
[11] Corwin, St. Ignatius and Christianity in Antioch, 5.
[12] Theodor Zahn, Ignatius von Antiochen (Gotha: Perthes, 1873).
[13] Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers, 104.
[14] Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers, 105.
[15] Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers, 105.
[16] Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers, 105.
[17] Milton Perry Brown, The Authentic Writings of Ignatius: A study of linguistic criteria (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1963), xiii.
[18] Schoedel, “Introduction,” 2.
[19] Maier, Eusebius The Church History, 125.
[20] Corwin, St. Ignatius and Christianity in Antioch, 4.
[21] Brown, Authentic Writings of Ignatius, xi.
[22] Corwin, St. Ignatius and Christianity in Antioch, 19.
[23] Corwin, St. Ignatius and Christianity in Antioch, 20.
[24] Stephen Neill and Tom Wright, The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861-1986 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988, reprinted 2003), 44.
[25] For more on monophysitism see Iain R. Torrance, “Monophysitism” in The Dictionary of Historical Theology ed. Trevor A. Hart (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2000), 378-380.
[26] Brown, The Authentic Writings of Ignatius, xii.
[27] Schoedel, “Introduction,” 2.
[28] Brown, The Authentic Writings of Ignatius, xiii; Schoedel, “Introduction,” 2.
[29] Ephesians 3.1-6.1; Magnesians 3.1-4.1; 6.1-7.2; Trallians 2.1-3.2; Smyrnaeans 8.1-9.1; Polycarp 1.2-1.2.
[30] For instance, Bart D. Ehrman, The Apostolic Fathers: Volume 1 Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2003).
[31] Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers, 73; Corwin, St. Ignatius and Christianity in Antioch, 4. Schoedel, “Introduction,” 3, notes an Arabic text close in relation to the Syriac.
[32] Maier, Eusebius The Church History, 123-125.
[33] Brown, The Authentic Writings of Ignatius, xii; Trevett, A Study of Ignatius of Antioch in Syria and Asia, 9.
[34] Corwin, St. Ignatius and Christianity in Antioch, 5.
[35] Alan Ford, James Ussher: Theology, History, and Politics in Early-Modern Ireland and England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 1-4.
[36] Ford, James Ussher, 3.
[37] J. E. L. Oulton, “Ussher’s Work as a Patristic Scholar and Church Historian” in Hermathena LXXXVIII (November 1956): 3-11.
[38] For instance An answer to a challenge made by a Jesuite in Ireland (Dublin, 1624).
[39] Ford, James Ussher, 237.
[40] Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers, 76; Brown, The Authentic Writings of Ignatius, xii; Corwin, St. Ignatius and Christianity in Antioch, 5.
[41] “The anvil destroys the workman’s tool; says the Englishman’s anvil.”
[42] Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers, 76.
[43] Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers, 76-77.
[44] Brown, The Authentic Writings of Ignatius, xii.
[45] Oulton, “Ussher’s Work as a Patristic Scholar and Church Historian,” 9.
[46] Cited in Oulton, “Ussher’s Work as a Patristic Scholar and Church Historian,” 9.
[47] Brown, The Authentic Writings of Ignatius, xii.



Filed under articles, church history, ignatius, james ussher, me, patristics, tbs, textual criticism

3 responses to “The Authenticity of Ignatius’ Seven Letters

  1. Colin Giesbrecht

    That was a very interesting paper. Textual criticism is strangely beautiful.

  2. Pingback: Bibliography on Ignatius of Antioch « The Jesus Memoirs

  3. Pingback: Ignatius of Antioch: a Bloody Diotrephes – Lamb's Harbinger

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