There is a wide array of opinions over the authorship of Ignatius’ Epistles.
Some men such as John Calvin and many textual critics today view them as outright forgeries.
Others, probably the majority, argue that seven shorter Greek manuscripts of the 13 epistles ascribed to Ignatius are authentic.
A minority opinion, primarily put forward by William Cureton, is that the earliest manuscript of Ignatius preserves for us his original letters. This Syriac manuscript preserves for us only three of Ignatius’ epistles–To Polycarp, Ephesians, and Romans.
All three of the epistles have renderings found in the generally accepted, shorter Greek versions of the same letters in the same order–however, they are quite a bit shorter. They also lack a lot of the proto-orthodox credal statements and appeals to episcopacy (i.e. Eph 20) which have made the letters so compelling to many observers (and doubtful to others) over the centuries. Further, it is worth noting that an implication we may draw is that the scribe knew there to be only three letters, as the final letter ends saying, “Here end the three Epistles of Ignatius, bishop and martyr.”
The following are reasons that favor the authenticity of the Syriac manuscripts:
- They lack any obvious theological reason for abridgment. For example, they mostly lack the developed assertions of Christ’s deity and the episcopacy found in the Greek versions of the epistles. However, it does not appear that such material was purposely excised. When a scribe purposely excises material there is usually some sort of motivation for it (he’s an Arian and opposes Christ’s deity, he opposes the episcopacy, etcetera.) However, the text still retains some of the theologically developed material of the Greek epistles–just a lot less of it.
- Eph 1 in the Syriac still calls Christ God and Polycarp 5 and 6 still speaks of singular Bishop vis a vis the presbyters. In Polycarp 5 Christians are told to get married with the Bishop’s counsel.
- The Syriac letters do not read as sloppy abridgments. They flow very naturally, if not more naturally than the Greek versions which weirdly remind every single church to submit to a Bishop at every single turn of phrase. In the Greek letters, the reader may surmise that there was a general insurrection going on against Bishops in the near east at this time! In the Syriac version, there is not a hint of this.
- The Syriac also lacks the formulation “do nothing apart from the Bishop,” which is used in nearly all the Greek letters. While politicians and ad execs will repeat slogans over and over, this is not common in ancient letter writing. Rather, it would appear that a forger took older epistles and added the same jargon over and over, as he had limited creativity.
- The Syriac letters also lack extensive quotations of the New Testament. In fact, the Syriac version of Ephesians is mainly missing large sections with quotations of the New Testament that the Greek version has. The ability to quote the New Testament accurately without the use of written sources is certainly compromised when you are a man who was supposedly writing letters while “being bound [i.e. chained] between ten leopards, which are the band of soldiers, who, even when I do good to them, all the more do evil unto me” (Romans 5).
- The Greek letters do not extensively quote the New Testament, with the exception of Ephesians (the others generally repeat the same warnings about not following the Bishop but with different names for the recipients.) While it is not impossible that Ignatius wrote Ephesians in between a long stay in prison in a situation similar to Paul’s, the extent of quotations in Greek Ephesians adds an element of possible forgery. I say this because having read Irenaeus and Clement extensively, I believe that it is readily apparent that there are times where they are obviously quoting Scriptures from memory, because they get a few details wrong (attribute a Scripture to the wrong author, get the wording a little wrong, etcetera.) After all, the Bible existed in individual manuscripts back then and at so early a period, most men did not have every scroll. So, it would have been very difficult for Ignatius to have such scrolls handy, let alone remember so much Scripture and quote them accurately.
- By way of comparison, Paul wrote five Epistles from prison (Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon, Philippians and 2 Timothy.) He quoted or cited the Old Testament a total of five times in those letters. This includes even short quotations such as Phil 2:15 saying, “every knee will bow” and the part of Eph 6 which quotes one of the ten commandments (something most Sunday schoolers can do from memory.) In Paul’s other non-jailhouse letters he quotes the Old Testament (not including the Deuterocanon) as many as 105 times in Romans, 72 times in 1 Corinthians, 21 times in 2 Corinthians, 24 times in Galatians (my own count is 11, so the numbers in this source are inflated.) In short, it is pretty much impossible for Ignatius to have quoted the New Testament sometimes accurately at length in a total of 10 quotations in Ephesians unless he was somehow a better expert of the Apostles’ writings than Paul himself was with the Hebrew Scriptures, or he had better access to Apostolic letters than Paul himself had to parchments and books (2 Tim 4:13).
- Irenaeus quotes Ignatius’ Rom 4 in AH 5.28.4, while Origen quotes Rom 5 and Eph 19. According to Cureton, the passages all match up with the Syriac. Being that the Syriac version is one third the length of the Greek, if we were to surmise the probability of the first three citations of Ignatius being that of the Syriac and not that of the Greek-only text (which includes four additional letters, plus the large sections in the existing Greek letters not found in the Syriac), the chances of this happening is 1 out of 343*. Surely, this is not in the realm of statistical impossibility, but it is unlikely.
- *I surmised the math like so: If each Syriac letter is about 1/3 the size on average, then three letters equals the length of one letter. Hence, there is a 1 out of 7 chance of picking a citation that is Syriac-only. If this happens twice this is 1 out of 49 (1/7 * 1/7). Three times (1/7*1/7*1/7), 1 out 343.
The following reasons are suggestive of the Syriac being abridgments of the originals:
- The focus of the Greek Ignatian epistles dwells upon Gnostic heretics and the importance of the episcopacy. While textual critics take issue with the references to church government (they claim that they are “too developed” for the early second century) the concern over Gnosticism would likely date the Greek versions before the Arian controversy.
- While critics see claims by Ignatius of Christ’s deity (“Jesus Christ, our God,” Eph 1) as proof of a date of composition in the fourth century during the Arian controversy, the Syriac manuscript retains this rendering.
- The Syriac versions of Ephesians and Romans end without any closing remarks or well-wishing. This is unlike the Syriac version of his letter to Polycarp, and all the Greek versions which contain closing greetings. To the casual reader, this makes the ending of those Syriac epistles appear abrupt.
- It is worth pointing out that contemporary Epistles, such as James and 1 John, also end abruptly without closing remarks.
- The rendering of Romans 5 in the Greek version of the epistle is closer to Eusebius than the Syriac is. This means the Greek tradition likely originates before the fourth century:
- Greek version: Pardon me [in this]: I know what is for my benefit. Now I begin to be a disciple. And let no one, of things visible or invisible, envy me that I should attain to Jesus Christ.
- Eusebius’ History, Book III, 38:9: I know what is expedient for me. Now do I begin to be a disciple. May nothing of things visible and things invisible envy me that I may attain unto Jesus Christ
- Syriac version: Know me from myself what is expedient for me.* Let no one envy me of those things which are seen and which are not seen, that I should be accounted worthy of Jesus Christ.
- *Cureton commented that the meaning of the Syriac appeared to be, “I crave your indulgence to leave the knowledge of what is expedient for me to my own conscience.” It is possible the rendering “now I do begin to be a disciple” was lost due to a manuscript corruption, translation error, or Syriac idiom in the preceding we are not aware of which is to the same effect as “now I begin to be a disciple.”
Significance. The debate over the significance of Ignatius’ epistles depends largely upon the accuracy of the manuscripts. While many Protestants who deny the Real Presence,the Monarchical Episcopacy, or there being a Catholic Church may feel more comfortable believing that Ignatius was wrong, they would not have to accuse so early a Christian witness of innovation or ineptitude if, according to the Syriac, he never made statements to such an effect.
Let’s take a passage from the Greek version of Ephesians not found in the Syriac and tease out its ramifications:
…if the Lord make known to me that you come together man by man in common through grace, individually, in one faith, and in Jesus Christ...so that you obey the bishop and the presbytery with an undivided mind, breaking one and the same bread, which is the medicine of immortality, and the antidote to prevent us from dying, but [which causes] that we should live for ever in Jesus Christ (Chapter 20).
Now, most Catholics quote this passage as proof that the Eucharist forgives venial sins. Ironically, by taking this interpretation they are ignoring the much more damaging blow against Protestantism–unless you break one bread (the same as the other churches) undivided, one does not have immortality. Unity in the faith, in submission to the Bishop, is the medicine of immortality.
This is not the only early witness to such an idea. Didache Chapter 9 speaks of the Eucharist as follows:
And concerning the broken bread: We thank You, our Father, for the life and knowledge which You made known to us through Jesus Your Servant; to You be the glory for ever. Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Your Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Your kingdom…
In the above, similar to Eph 20, the significance of breaking the bread is that it is gathered together and made one, like the Church.
So, by necessary consequence, to break apart the Church in a substantive way is to be broken off from the Church. Such a person does not have the body of Christ in the bread nor the membership in His body that this confers–which means no eternal life.
The Syriac does not contain Eph 20, so the Protestant may breath a sigh of relief over the idea that no Christian, so early, explicitly held to the idea that schism leads to damnation.
However, even in the Syriac we can see the faintest hint of an idea similar to Eph 2o:
If any man is able in power to continue in purity, to the honour of the flesh of our Lord, let him continue so without boasting; if he boasts, he is undone; if he become known [for his purity] apart from the bishop, he has destroyed himself. It is becoming, therefore, to men and women who marry, that they marry with the counsel of the bishop, that the marriage may be in our Lord, and not in lust (To Polycarp, Chap 5, Syriac).
In short, those who are celibate must be like those who marry–they must live in submission to the Bishop. Ignatius is making it known that the lone ascetic, though seemingly Godly in the eyes of the world, destroys himself if he is not in communion with the Church by not being under the Bishop’s discipline. This would have been a common problem in the early second century, as the earliest ascetics were Gnostic schismatics. So, while perhaps not as explicit a condemnation against schism in general, it along with the Didache teaches a concept of unity at the very least suggestive of the position elaborated upon in Eph 20.
Conclusion. There is very little reason to believe that Ignatius did not write any of the Epistles we have today. After all, we have quotations of the Epistles in existence within decades of their composition. However, we do have some good reason (even if it is simple probability) to doubt that the commonly accepted Greek versions of the Epistles represent the corpus that truly belonged to Ignatius. Nonetheless, even though these Greek letters write in much more detail about the Episcopacy, we can see that even in the Syriac tradition Ignatius’ ecclesiology is markedly similar. Further, the symbol of broken bread representing the unity of the Church is found in another very early source, Didache 9. From this, we may draw the conclusion that though no one explicitly taught that there was “no salvation outside the Catholic Church,” a concept markedly similar (“no salvation apart from submission to the Bishop”) already existed in the early second century.