BMCR 2020.10.39

Die Briefe des Ignatios von Antiochia: Motive, Strategien, Kontexte

, , Die Briefe des Ignatios von Antiochia: Motive, Strategien, Kontexte. Millennium-Studien zu Kultur und Geschichte des ersten Jahrtausends n. Chr. 72. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2018. Pp. 288. ISBN 9783110604467 €89,95.

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

BMCR apologizes to the reviewer for the delay in publication of this review.

For many anglophone scholars, debate about the authenticity of the so-called middle-recension of the letters attributed to Ignatius of Antioch, their composition on his way to Rome where he suffered martyrdom under Trajan, and their subsequent collection together by Polycarp, had been settled by J. B. Lightfoot in his monumental study of the Apostolic Fathers (second edition, 1889). As a consequence, Ignatius has been taken as providing evidence from the first two decades of the second century for a variety of questions about the development of the early church, from ecclesial structures to Jewish-Christian relations and to ideas and forms of “heresy,” even where there has been a growing acceptance that his views may have been more aspirational than reflective of fact. In German scholarship, however, a tradition of dissent has become increasingly vocal over the last twenty years, to the extent that any discussion of early Christianity in the second century appealing to Ignatius is duty bound to explain and justify its position on the origin of the letters. It is, therefore, particularly welcome to have this collection of essays, stemming from a 2017 meeting of the “Internationalen Arbeitsgemeinschaft ‘Zweites Jahrhundert’,” which takes up a variety of questions prompted by the letters in the light of current debate. Admittedly, despite points of overlap, no consensus is achieved, but there is value itself in tracing just how extensive are the consequences of setting the spotlight on one long-assumed fixed-point in the swirling uncertainties of this key period. To a large extent the authors remain confident of their starting position, whether or not explicitly stated, and with the exception of Thomas Lechner (see below), do not expend excessive effort on persuading the doubters. Rather, they pursue specific topics, invariably with an authoritative grasp of earlier debate supported by valuable bibliographies, with appropriate attention to the text, and with a uniform clarity of presentation, for which the editors may deserve congratulations.

The editorial introduction succinctly sets out the core issues, with a particular focus on how questions of authenticity implicate that of Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians, before offering a summary of each of the contributions that follow (listed at the end of this review) and seeking to identify the major themes and topics for future research that emerge. Some authors take as their starting point the position that the middle recension is a pseudepigraphical collection from c. 170 CE. Thomas Lechner, an early proponent of this view, defends it through an in-depth critical review of Allen Brent’s recent defence of the traditional dating and contextualization of Ignatius in the second sophistic, and, in his own favour, through a summary of Michael Theobald’s thesis that the Pastoral Epistles represent a Pauline-mimesis of the second decade of the second century which is taken up, i.a., by the Ignatian corpus.[1] Josef Lössl, who similarly appeals to Theobald, identifies the recurring language of speaking or encouraging, keeping silence, and hearing, as a self-conscious strategy of communication which exploits contemporary epistolary conventions. Opting for a traditional dating and authorship by a “real” Ignatius, Karen Piepenbrink examines the understanding of office and ecclesial structure in the letters, distinguishing them from later notions of monarchical episcopacy that have sometimes been cited for a later dating.

Others at least start from a less committed position even if this leads them in different directions. Thomas Bauer undertakes a close analysis of the formulation of the prescripts and postscripts of the letters as pointing to their conception from the start as a letter collection deliberately alluding to that of Paul and presenting their author as a “second Paul.” This at least allows for a pseudepigraphical interpretation of their origin. Initially dating is of secondary importance to Peter von Möllendorff’s study of the way space is constructed by the letters, in terms both of Ignatius’s travel and of the relationship of the church communities to each other. In the light of the “spatial turn” his focus is on the letters as a literary corpus, allowing him to remain more circumspect about Ignatius himself, but because he finds the most productive comparators in 1 Clement and Revelation he concludes in favour of the first quarter of the second century. Abstaining from the broader debate, Ferdinand Prostmeier tests the hypothesis that the much-discussed differences in character and transmission between To the Romans and the other six letters of the middle recension are best explained if that letter was composed by Christians at Rome to secure their own authority over against that of the churches of Asia Minor and Greece. Yet having found this, admittedly speculative proposal, persuasive and explanatory of a number of oddities in the texts, he is led to ask more far-reaching questions about the function of the corpus as a whole, and about the origins of the letter of Polycarp. Uta Heil examines the reference to those “who no longer sabbathize (σαββατίζοντες) but live according to the lord’s day (κατὰ κυριακήν)” (Magn. 9.1). Against various alternatives, she accepts a reference to “the Lord’s day” as Sunday with its concomitant implication of a distancing from Jewish practice; having compared the connection between resurrection and Sunday celebration in other early Christian texts, including a recently-published fragment of the Dialogue of Jason and Papiscus, she rejects recent attempts to associate Ignatius’s comments with Marcion, opting instead for a date in the earlier part of the first half of the second century.

Wilhelm Pratscher compares the way God is spoken of in the surviving fragments of the Kerygma Petri and in the letters of Ignatius. Such commonalities as he finds are hardly surprising, and certainly not indicative of any literary or tradition relationship, while the differences are somewhat more evident. The conclusions, which cannot go beyond a statement of these findings, do not bear on the dating, although Pratscher evidently inclines to the traditional reading of the letters. Finally, Hanns Christof Brennecke addresses the so-called long recension, in which the seven letters of the middle recension are expanded and supplemented by a further six letters, according to Brennecke, following the majority position, by a single author some time in the fourth century. Brennecke seeks to locate the distinctive concerns of this version within the theological debates of that period, identifying it as “Arian,” loosely defined, showing evident connections with the Apostolic Constitutions, and suggests an Antiochene setting in c. 360-380 CE. Brennecke advocates the language of reception rather than that of “falsification,” noting both the importance of this corpus for an understanding of the history of theology and church in the late fourth century, and that its effective continuing theological influence far outweighed that of the so-called “genuine” or “authentic” middle recension.

Indeed, this insight is one that emerges from the volume as a whole. Understanding of the Ignatian corpus, as of much early Christian literature, is not helped by earlier models of, and preoccupation with, narrow historical reconstruction or a binary of truth versus forgery. A close reading of the texts in their own right, coupled with a range of interpretive models that attend to their rhetorical strategies and to their implied cultural context, offers a wealth of new insights and provokes yet more questions. That the Ignatian letters will continue to occupy a central place in our search for an understanding of the early church, is not dependent on any specific conclusions reached as to wherever, whenever, and by whomsoever they were written. This collection of essays is to be welcomed as a model of and inspiration for further exploration.

Authors and titles

Thomas Johann Bauer / Peter von Möllendorff, “Einführung.”
Thomas Lechner, “Ignatios von Antiochia und die Zweite Sophistik.”
Josef Lössl, “Die Motive Reden, Schweigen und Hören als Mittel brieflicher Kommunikation.”
Thomas Johann Bauer, “Ignatios–alter Paulus?”
Karen Piepenbrink, “Zur Perzeption des kirchlichen Amtes durch einen ‘Märtyrerbischof’.”
Peter von Möllendorff, “Sonne über Smyrna.”
Ferdinand R. Prostmeier, “Cui bono?”
Uta Heil, “Ignatios von Antiochia und der Herrentag.”
Wilhelm Pratscher, “Die Rede von Gott im Kerygma Petri und in den Ignatiusbriefen.”
Hanns Christof Brennecke, “Die recensio longior des Corpus Ignatianum


[1] Allen Brent. Ignatius of Antioch and the Second Sophistic, A Study of Early Christian Transformation of Pagan Culture. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2007; Thomas Lechner. Ignatius adversus Valentinianos? Chronologische und theologiegeschichtliche Studien zu den Briefen des Ignatius von Antiochien. Leiden: Brill, 1999; Michael Theobald. Israel-Vergessenheit in den Pastoralbriefen. Ein neuer Vorschlag zu ihrer historisch-theologischen Verortung im 2. Jahrhundert n. Chr. unter besonderer Berücksichtiging der Ignatius-Briefe. Stuttgart: Katholisches Bibelwerk, 2016.