Old Christian Literature: Epistles

W. C. Van Manen

"Old Christian Literature, III. Epistles," in Encyclopaedia Biblica (New York: Macmillan, 4 Vols., 1899-1903), Vol. 4, 3480-3491. The section on Epistles is probably the most interesting part of a very long article on "Old Christian Literature," the entirety of which will eventually be posted here. In the following text, page numbers from the Encyclopaedia are given in brackets at the beginning of each new page. The bibliographies offered by Van Manen have been ommitted, since such references are, for the most part, either still standard (e.g., Baur, Zahn, Lightfoot, Harnack) or obscure. References in the text in the form (EB ROME) are to articles in the Encyclopaedia.

Meaning of the Word (§ 15)
Estimate of the Epistles (§ 19)
Pauline and Catholic Epistles (§ 20)
Barnabas (§§ 21-22)
Clement of Rome (§§ 23-27)
Ignatius (§§ 28-29)

Valentinus, Marcion, Themiso, Diognetus (§ 30)
Dionysius of Corinth (§ 31)
Irenaeus (§ 32)
Ptolemy (§ 33)
Apocryphal Epistles (§ 34)

15. Meaning of the Word

The greater proportion of the literary productions of the period of Christian history with which we are now dealing consists, in outward appearance, of letters; and many of these, though by no means all of them, are still regarded as having really been such—actual letters sent at first to definite persons and originally written with such persons in view—and as having penetrated to wider circles and become common property only at a later time. Continued examination, however, has led to the conclusion, first with regard to some of these, then with regard to a great number, and finally, in the opinion of the present writer and others (see below, § 19), with regard to the whole of them, that they neither are nor ever were "letters" in any proper sense.

They were, from the first, neither more nor less than treatises for instruction and edification, bearing witness to the character, aims, experiences, adventures, of persons, opinions, tendencies, [3481] in the form of letters written to one or more recipients, usually in a tone of authority, by men of name. These authors are thought of as still alive although they really belong to an earlier generation.

Such letters therefore seemed to be, even in the circle of their first recipients, as voices from the past. Yet they bear unmistakable marks of having been written in the later time. They come from the pens of persons who are unknown to us, and were designed like books which are brought into the market, or otherwise circulated, for all who take any interest in their contents; and more particularly and specially designed to be read aloud in religious meetings for the edification of the community or to serve as a standard wherewith to regulate faith and life.

As a literary device the epistolary form is an ancient one. It is met with alike among Jews, Greeks, and Romans, and was adopted also by Christian writers such as the authors of Acts 15:23-29; 23:26-30; Rev 2:3; Clem. Hom. 5:9-19, 20-26; the epistles of Peter and of Clement to James with which Clem. Hom. is prefaced, that of the Church of Smyrna concerning Polycarp's martyrdom; that of the Christians of Vienne and Lyons with reference to the persecution under Marcus Aurelius, and so forth; cf. also the epistolary form of the introduction both to the first and to the second work of Luke (Lk 1:1-4; Acts 1:1), and also the beginning and the end of the last book in the NT Canon (Rev 1:4-5a; 22:[18-]21). The letter of edification, on the other hand, is a peculiarly Christian product.

To compose "letters" under another name, especially under the name of persons whose living presentment, or real or supposed spiritual equipment, it was proposed to set before the reader was then just as usual as was the other practice of introducing the same persons into narratives and reporting their "words," in the manner of which we have examples, in the case of Jesus, in the gospels, and, in the case of Peter, Paul, and other apostles, in Acts. No one saw anything improper in this, or thought of any intentional falsification, deception, the playing of a part in which one had to be always on one's guard against self-betrayal. Any one who had anything to say wrote a "letter" without troubling himself—at any rate not more than other writers—with respect to his work, about a supposed defect in the literary form he had chosen, not even about an address left blank in the epistle when "despatched," as for example in the canonical epistle to the Ephesians; or about the absence of a suitable epistolary beginning, as in the canonical Epistle to the Hebrews; or about the want of an appropriate close, as in the Epistle of James, or about the absence of both, as in the first Epistle of John.

19. Estimate of the Epistles

At first no one thought about the matter at all—whether to hold or not to hold such epistles as really proceeding from and intended for their ostensible authors and recipients. Sometimes their real origin was known, sometimes it was guessed, sometimes people were content to remain in the dark. They used the epistles or left them unread, just as they were, indifferently, without asking any question as to their origin, knowing this only, that they were intended for all who chose to give heed to them.

Gradually the position changed as a result of a normal change in the readers' mode of thinking, their thirst for knowledge, their reverence for the authoritative word, and their exaltation of it to the dignity of canonical scripture. From the time of lrenaeus onwards the old way of looking at things passed away for centuries—first with regard to thirteen, anon fourteen, "Pauline" and certain "Catholic" epistles, and others, written by "apostolic fathers," next with regard to the whole body of Old Christian epistles so far as it was taken by the Church under its protection, the most recent not excluded, [3482] such as are now found in Acts, Revelation, Clem. Hom., even apocryphal writings such as the Epistle of Paul to the Laodiceans, 3 Cor, that of Jesus to Abgarus. All these epistles now came to be regarded as proceeding from the writers whose name they bore, and to have been originally intended for those who were named as their first recipients in superscription, subscription, address, or tradition.

Here also the rise of the modern spirit wrought a change, and the human mind had to retrace its steps along the path it had for centuries been following. The "apocryphal" epistles were all of them rejected soon after the Reformation; the genuineness of those embodied in the Clementine Homilies, Rev, and Acts was modestly questioned; some pieces, such as the larger recension of the Ignatian Epistles, and the second Epistle of Clement, formerly classed among the Apostolic Fathers, were no longer deemed to belong there; other epistles, both Catholic and Pauline, were from the time of Semler removed from the position they had so long occupied as possessed of the highest antiquity and indisputably "genuine." The process of disintegration steadily went on.

The Tübingen school left unchallenged hardly more than the four "principal epistles"—Rom, 1 and 2 Cor, Gal. In the end criticism succeeded in removing the veil of error and misunderstanding that concealed the true character of even these (see Van Manen, EB, "Paul," §§ 33ff; = "Pauline Writings" on this web site). The history of this criticism is the justification of those who hold to it and at the same time the condemnation of those who wholly or in part set it aside. The time seems to be approaching when the question as to "genuineness" —in the sense now usually attached to the word— will no longer be discussed as regards any of the epistles that have come down from the first Christian centuries; it will be enough to be satisfied of their genuine antiquity.

20. Pauline and Catholic Epistles

i. The Old-Christian "epistle" as a literary phenomenon seems, so far as we can discover, to have first made its appearance in progressive Pauline circles. The first examples of it have disappeared, unless it be that some portions survive in some of our present canonical "Epistles of Paul" ('Epistolai Paulou), also "the apostle" (ho 'Apostolos) or "the apostolic" (to 'Apostolikon). Perhaps there was an earlier group, to which reference is made in 2 Cor 10:9-11; cf. 1:13, and the present group had not originally the same extent as now. We know not by whom the collection was made, nor yet what influence his work had upon the traditional text. Perhaps we may suppose that it led to some changes. Probably the collection was not wholly the work of one person, but arose gradually through additions. The oldest account —to judge by what Tertullian says (AM 5)— tells of a group of ten epistles used by Marcion (about 140 A.D.). It is known that Hebrews was for a long time set aside in many circles. (For a detailed discussion, see Van Manen's essay, "The Pauline Writings" on this web site; = EB, PAUL)

ii.  A second group of Old-Christian Epistles is that known as Catholic ('Epistolai katholikai). The word must be understood as referring, not to the destination, nor to the ecclesiastical use, but to the contents of these writings. It was not originally intended to convey, as is often still incorrectly supposed, the idea of "general" or "circular" letters, nor yet of "canonical" ones, but only (as a careful examination of the ancient employment of the word shows) "trustworthy," "worthy of acceptance," when judged by the standard of religion and dogma. The group, after long hesitation, was finally made up of seven: James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2, and 3 John, and Jude. (see EB, JAMES (EPISTLE); PETER (EPISTLES); JOHN (SON OF ZEBEDEE); JUDE (EPISTLE))

iii.  A third group—Epistles of Barnabas (below, § 21f), Clement (§§ 23-27), Ignatius (§ 28f.), Polycarp (EB, PHILIPPIANS, = "The Philippian Epistles" posted here)— is usually [3483] included among the writings of the Apostolic Fathers. At a later date was added an Epistle of the Church of Smyrna; on the same grounds might be added the epistle of the churches of Vienne and Lyons.

21. Barnabas

The epistle of Barnabas (Barnaba epistolê)... professes to be a letter—now by one who is the spiritual father of the "sons and daughters" he addresses (1.1), to whom he feels himself bound by the closest ties, and among whom he has long sojourned (1.3-4); now by one who belongs to their own number, who earnestly addresses the brethren, but not as if he were the teacher who had been placed over them (1.8; 4.6, 9). The epistolary form, however well maintained, and on that account usually accepted without question, is, in view of the contents, seen to be fictitious; in reality the writing is a treatise intended for general use.

The writer's purpose is to instruct, to edify, to communicate under the form of a letter that which he has himself received, in order that his assumed readers, rich in faith, may now arrive also at fulness of knowledge (hina meta tês pisteôs humôn teleian echête tên gnôsin: 1.5). This knowledge or gnosis concerns chiefly the right attitude of Christians towards the OT, the religion of Israel, the divine covenant with the fathers. On these things they need to be enlightened, in connection with the putting into practice of the new religious ethical life. This end is sought to be accomplished by means of a peculiar view —partly allegorical, partly typological, but always arbitrary— of "Scripture" (the OT and some apocrypha).

The epistle admits of being divided into a double introduction (1.2-5; 1.6-8) and two main portions of a doctrinal (2-17) and a hortatory (18-21) character respectively.

The doctrinal part begins by showing that what is of supreme importance is not the offering of sacrifices or the observance of fasts, but a life in conformity with the moral precepts of the Lord (2-3). It is our duty to love righteousness, especially at the present time when the days are evil and the end of the present age is at hand (4.1-6a). We Christians have been ever since the days of Moses the true covenant people (4.6b-14), kept by the Lord, who suffered on our behalf after he had become manifest in the flesh in accordance with what can still be read in "Scripture" (5). "There we can continuously read of his manifestation in the flesh (6). The fasts prescribed in the law, the sacrifice of Isaac, the goat on the great day of atonement, all are types of his passion (7). So also the red heifer that must be slain and burnt, whilst the ministering servants prefigure the twelve as preachers of the gospel (8). The precept of circumcision must be spiritually understood; the 318, circumcised by Abraham, are a type of Jesus (9); the laws concerning foods are to be taken metaphorically (10). At every moment one finds in the OT hints of baptism and of the cross (11-12). In Jacob and Ephraim we come to see that not Israel but the whole body of Christians are the true heirs of the covenant broken in the days of Moses but renewed in Christ (13-14). The true day of rest is not the Jewish Sabbath, but the eighth day, the first of the new week; the true temple of God is not the building at Jerusalem, but the spiritual temple, of which Christians form a part (15-16). After a short retrospect (17), passing on to another knowledge and teaching (gnôsis kai didachê) our author depicts the path of light and of darkness, and stirs up the children of joy and peace to a walk in confomity with the precepts of the Lord (18-21).

As to the (relative) unity of the whole, often denied or disputed since le Moyne (1685), but also frequently defended, no doubt need be entertained; there is no need for supposing chs. 18-21 to be a later addition or that the original epistle has been largely interpolated or has undergone one or more redactions. It is obvious, however, that in the preparation of 18-21 the writer has made use of an older form of the Two Paths, as also, there and elsewhere, of the OT, the book of Enoch, 4 Ezra, and perhaps other works besides.

22. Barnabas: Authorship and Date

The author's name has not come down to us. [3484] Tradition, still clung to by many, suggests Barnabas, the companion of Paul, of whom mention is already made in the ß text of Acts 1:23 (see EB BARNABAS and BARSABAS); but it has no claim on our acceptance and has been often controverted. The tradition is admittedly old, however, and perhaps the name of Barnabas has been always associated with this work. The unknown author was probably a gentile Christian, by birth a Greek, belonging to the Alexandrian circle. This conclusion is pointed to at least by his language and his manner of scripture interpretation, his ideas and some of his expressions, such as "as novices shipwreck ourselves upon their law" (3.6). It is also possible, however, to think of him as living somewhere in Syria or Asia Minor not far from the environment within which the epistles of Paul arose. There is nothing to indicate that he was a Jew by birth, or one of the later inhabitants of Palestine.

Notwithstanding his love for gnosis, the author is a practical man who has at heart before all else the edification and the safety of the church. Neither things imminent nor things that lie in the future (ta enestôta ê mellonta) are of the highest importance, but present things (ta paronta) and to know how to comport oneself among them. See e.g, 1.6-8; 2.1-10; 4.1; 17.

The author belongs neither to the right wing nor to that of Paul, nor yet to that of the writer of Hebrews or that of Marcion. Towards Judaism his attitude is one of freedom; in his view Christianity came in its place in principle, as early as in the time of Moses; law and prophets are binding on believers, almost always, however, in the metaphorical interpretation only, not the literal, even where a historical occurrence seems to be described.

The date is earlier than that of Eusebius, Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Celsus, or the present form of the Didache; but later than the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. (chs. 4 and 16); later than the time of the apostles (5.9; 8.3); later than "Paul," including Hebrews; therefore not (as is still often supposed) before the end of the first century, but rather, let us say, between 130 and 140 A.D. It is not possible to gain a more precise determination from chs. 4 and 16, unless in so far as the silence regarding the building of the temple of Hadrian at Jerusalem, in honour of Jupiter Capitolinus, may be taken as showing that the temple had not yet been erected.

The value of the work, which, looked at either from the aesthetic or from the edificatory point of view, is not great, lies so far as we are concerned in the historical evidence it affords as to the existence of in interesting tendency—not observable elsewhere—in the direction of free thought among the Christians of the first half of the second century, and of a number of views, in the domain of Christian dogma and history, which differ from the usual opinions as to the contents of the Gospel narratives.

23. Clement, Epistles to the Corinthians

Two epistles of Clement to the Corinthians (Klementos pros Korinthious) are found in Codex Alexandrinus (A), in the Jerusalem MS (J), and in an old Syriac version; the first also in an Old Latin version. It is claimed for them that they were written by Clement, in name of the Church of Rome, to the Church of Corinth in connection with disputes which had arisen there on questions of [3485] government. They have in reality the epistolary form, though not written by Clement.

24. First Clement

The first, which from the moment of its recovery from the Codex Alexandrinus (in 1633) was received with great distinction and accepted, in accordance with tradition, as the work of the bishop-martyr Clement, a disciple and one of the first successors of the apostles Peter and Paul at Rome, itself claims to have been written by the Church of God at Rome to that at Corinth. The form is not fortuitous; if the contents be considered, it must be regarded as merely a literary artifice. A "church" cannot write: usually it is held therefore that Clement wrote in name of the church; of this, however, there is no evidence. The writing has the semblance of a letter throughout, and calls itself so (epistolê, 63.2; cf. epistellomen and epesteilamen, 7.1 and 62.1); yet clearly this is not its real character, and probably it was never sent as such. Rather it is a book, in the form of an epistle; to speak more precisely, in the form of a Pauline epistle, prepared for, and made accessible to, all who cared to read it. It is an "exhortation concerning a peace and concord' (enteuxis peri eirênês kai homonoias), to use its own words (63.2) about itself; a "writing" (graphê), as Eusebius (HE 3.38.5) designates it; an "admonition" (nouthesia), as Dionysius has it in Eusebius (HE 2.25.8), designed to be publicly read in the church; cf. 2 Clem 19.1 and 1 Clem 7.1.

The contents do not relate exclusively to the disputes at Corinth, although these figure as having furnished the occasion for the letter.

The writing begins, after the superscription and benediction, with an apology, by reason of various troubles, for not having to attended to the Corinthians sooner (1.1); next follows an ideal picture of what the Corinthian Church had been (1.2-2.8); its fall is briefly described (3); a series of examples, drawn from the OT and the history of Christianity, is given to show the evils and misery wrought by jealousy and strife (4-6); a declaration that "we"—not the persons addressed merely, but also the church that is writing—are suffering from the same cause is made; wherefore it will be well that we should pay heed to the rule of tradition (kanôn tês paradoseôs), to attend to what God demands of us, and to fix our eyes on the precious blood of Christ (7.1-4).

This is the beginning of a long sermon in which it is set forth how God has all times demanded repentance (7.5-8.5); how we must turn ourselves to him, giving heed to what we read of Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Lot, Rahab (9-12); must be humble (13); obedient to God and not to the schismatics (14); must cleave unto those who are godly (15) and think upon Christ—who is described in language taken from the OT (16); copying the examples of the prophets and of Abraham, Job, Moses, David (17-19a), laying to heart the example of peace and harmony shown in the Divine ordering of the universe (19b, 20); in all things bearing ourselves Christianly (21, 22); holding fast our faith in the second coming of Christ and in the resurrection (23-27), fearing God and seeking to draw near to him by faith and good works (28-35), finding Christ by this road (36-39); observing how in Israel all things were orderly done (40-41); the appointment of bishops and deacons among Christians came of the will of God (42); Moses stilled a contention as to the priestly dignity (43); what the apostles have ordained for the regulation ot the episcopal office (44a); let no regularly chosen leaders of the church he dismissed, let contentions be avoided, love be stirred up (44b-50); where needful make acknowledgment of sin, be willing to yield, admonish one another, submit to the presbyters (51-59.2). The exhortation then passes over into a prayer (59.3-61), followed by a retrospect, renewed exhortation to submission (62-63), a benediction (64), a word about messengers sent; renewed benediction (65).

All that is here said about contentions at Corinth belongs to the literary clothing of the document. Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians may have suggested it (cf. ch. 47). Perhaps too, though this is very far from certain, it is connected with disputes that had recently arisen as to the continuance in office, dismissal, and election of persons for the government of the church. It was the author's main purpose to remove difficulties of this kind wherever they might have arisen. He spoke, under the mask of the Church at Rome, as a high authority, with growing emphasis, and finally as if he were one with the Holy Spirit himself (63.2; cf. Acts 15.22 - 29).

The unity of the work has been disputed and the [3486] existence of large interpolations has been supposed at various times, though without just cause. No doubt the author, besides drawing much from the OT, has borrowed here and there from various works both Jewish and Christian, possibly also Pagan, without careful acknowledgment to his readers, or perhaps even to himself.

25. 1 Clement: Authorship

The author is certainly not Clement of Rome, whatever may be our judgment as to whether or not Clement was a bishop, a martyr, a disciple of the apostles. The church of St. Clement at Rome, where the relics of the saint are reputed to rest, is evidently the third building on the site, and not older than 1059; the underlying second building may possibly be the basilica of which Jerome speaks (Vir. 15). The first, which in turn underlies this, certainly exhibits traces of its having at one time been dedicated to the worship of Mithras, but not of any connection with the martyr-bishop Clement. The martyrdom, set forth in untrustworthy Acts, has for its sole foundation the identification of Clement of Rome with Flavius Clement the consul, who was executed by command of Domitian. (See the proofs of this in Lightfoot.)

Clement, as bishop of Rome, be he the first, second, or third after Peter, can no longer be maintained in view of the discovery that the Church of Rome (see EB, ROME, CHURCH OF) had no monarchical government at all before Anicetus (156-166?). The disciple of Peter (and Paul) finds no support either in our present epistle or in Phil 4:3. He disappears in the diverging versions of the tradition.

The possibility, still firmly maintained by such scholars as Harnack and Lightfoot, that the writing may have been the work of a certain Clement concerning whom nothing is known except what can be gathered from "his" epistle, has no real value; and to connect it with the further supposition that this Clement was an influential member of the governing body of the Roman church —the martyr-bishop of legend— is not to be recommended. The epistle furnishes no ground for it, but rather the reverse. The oldest tradition as to its origin knows nothing of any such view. Irenaeus (3.3.3) had occasion to refer to it, had he known it, when in that context he mentions the name of Clement; yet he speaks, with some emphasis, just as Dionysius of Corinth does (in Eusebius, HE 4.23.11), of the epistle as having been sent by the Church of Rome in such a manner as to make it, and it alone, responsible for the contents. The first to express himself distinctly in another sense, and to name Clement of Rome as the writer, is Clement of Alexandria (Strom. 1.7.38).

From the work itself, all we can gather is that the author probably belonged to the Church of Rome. He was an educated man, well acquainted with the OT, and the Pauline and other NT epistles; a friend of peace and order; a warm advocate of the occasionally, perhaps often, disputed rights of the presbyters and deacons once chosen, who had adequately discharged the duties of their office.

26. 1 Clement: Date

The date, with regard to which we cannot follow Harnack in deducing anything from the lists of bishops, which have been found untrustworthy, cannot be sought as was done by the older scholars, and more recently by Hefele, Wieseler, and Mallinckrodt, in the time of Nero or immediately thereafter, but considerably later. There is nothing to compel us, with most scholars, amongst whom are Lipsius, Gebhardt-Harnack, Lightfoot, to assign it to the last years of the first century; with Krüger to leave it open till the reign of Trajan; with Volkmar to fix definitely on 125 A.D.; with Loman on the middle of the second century. Rather let us say with Steck, somewhere about 140 A.D.— especially on account of the author's acquaintance with the Pauline epistles (including, of course, Hebrews) and also with 1 Peter. [3486] Whether he also had read the Shepherd, or whether, on the other hand, it was Hermas that had read the epistle of Clement, is not quite clear. It is clear, nevertheless, that Polycarp, Hegesippuis, Dionysius of Coiinth, and Irenaeus were acquainted with his work.

The value of the epistle, not insignificant from an aesthetic or religious point of view, lies specially in what it tells us regarding the development of Christianity in the writer's time, and regarding the relation between clergy and laity.

27. Second Clement

The second epistle was almost immediately on its rediscovery in 1633 received with a certain amount of depreciation; soon it came to be regarded by some as simply a homily which cannot have been written by Clement, and ultimately this view was adopted almost unanimously. The epistle is, nevertheless, equally with the first, so far as form is concerned, a "letter," although it be as regards contents an edifying treatise designed to be from time to time read in church (19.1; cf. 15.1f.; 17.5).

The writer reminds his readers how they ought to hold high their Christian profession, live in accordance with it, make no compromise with the world, have no fear of death (1-5); not serving two masters —the present world and the world to come (6); struggle, seek repentance, believe in the resurrection of the body, do the will of God, have no fear about the future, but rather live in expectation of the great day at every moment, not put off the duty of repentance, make sure that they belong to the true church (7-14). Looking back upon what he has written, the writer calls it a "counsel respecting continence" (sumboulia peri egkrareias). He anew exhorts to fidelity to what has been learned, to dilligence in seeking repentance both for oneself and for others, to a joyful confidence in God (15-20).

The unnamed author to whose voice we are listening here is not Clement of Rome, nor yet another Clement to whom Hermas refers in Vis. 24, as Harnack for some time (from 1875) supposed, nor yet is he to be identified with the author of the first epistle we have just been considering (§ 25). It is probable enough, no doubt, that the writer was acquainted with the last-named writing, and was in harmony with it. This view is confirmed by many obvious points of agreement: its being met with only in conjunction with the first epistle; the later yet still old tradition which unfalteringly assigns both epistles to Clement; and the older tradition in Dionysius (see § 31) where, in his epistle to the Romans, he refers to the present epistle (just as Irenaeus did in the case of the first) as proceeding from the Church of Rome, but not, like the first, as written—whatever the words may mean—"through Clement" (dia Klêmentos; Eusebius, HE 4.23.11; cf. 9).

However the anonymous writer may seem to change his character —now as adviser (15.1), now as presbyter (17.3, 5), now as reader (19.1)— it is clear that he is a Christian of gentile origin (16.26), an educated man who interests himself in the growth of the religious life of the comnunity, and who when necessary stands up for the defence of the existing ecclesiastical order.

In date the work belongs to the transition period— approximately, after 140, but before 170 A.D.— towards the middle of the second century. Since we ought, in all probability, to attach no weight to the mention of Soter in Eusebius (Ibid.), we may say, certainly before about 160 A.D.

The importance of this letter, apart from the value which it possesses for those who are in search of earnest exhortation and edification in the Old-Christian literature, lies mainly in the contribution it makes to our knowledge of Christianity as it was about the middle of the second century, the emphasis here again laid upon conduct as compared with doctrine (though neither is this depreciated), and the demand for good literature to be used along with the OT and gospels in the public meetings of the church. [3488]

28. Epistles of Ignatius

A large number of epistles of Ignatius, handed down from antiquity in various forms, attracted much attention in their several groups from 1498 onwards. The protracted controversy, not only as to the genuineness and value of these writings, but also as to the relative antiquity of the groups —the longer, the shorter, and the Syriac recension named after Cureton— has at last resulted in a practically unanimous conclusion that only seven epistles of Ignatius, mentioned by Eusebius (HE 3.36) and preserved in two Greek MSS —or rather, properly speaking, only in one, for the first gives six epistles and the second one more—in an Old Latin version, and partially in Old Syriac, Armenian, and Coptic versions, belong to the category of Old-Christian literature. Towards the end of the fourth century they were worked over and augmented by the addition of five others, to which in turn at a much later date (11th or 12th century) three more were added, in Latin. Moreover, they were translated in an abridged form into Syriac. The text of three of these Syriac abridgments —those to the Ephesians, Smynaeans, and Polycarp —still treated with too great respect by Lightfoot, was published by Cureton in 1845.

The original group, has the aspect of being a collection of seven epistles written by Ignatius when, after having been thrown into prison for his Christian profession and sentenced, he was on his journey from Antioch to Rome, where he expected to suffer martyrdom. Four of the seven —those to the churches of Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, and Rome— appear to have been written at Smyrna; the remaining three— to the Philadelphians, to the Smyrnaeans, and to Polycarp —at Rome.

The first three treat the subject of monarchical church government with great earnestness, warn against heresies, and urge to a Christian life. The fourth treats of martyrdom, of which Ignatius must not be deprived. The fifth is chiefly devoted to the subject of church unity, by all the members adhering to the bishop. The sixth deals with docetism. and also with the recognition due to the bishop. The seventh, with the reciprocal duties of the church rulers and people, and of all to one another.

The form of this seeming collection, and of each of the epistles separately, however little prominence be given to the fact even where the genuineness is definitely given up, is artificial. The whole makes up a single complete book, designed for the edification of the readers.

To satisfy oneself of this it is enough to observe the absence of all trace of any such "collection" having been made of the epistles as has been assumed; their mutual relations as parts of a whole; the reference in the first to the second epistle as a "second tract" (deuteron biblidion) intended for the same readers (Eph 20.1); the peculiar form of the addresses and superscriptions; the meaning of the words there employed: "who is also Theophorus" (ho kai Theophoros), "of Asia" (tês 'Asias), "on the Maeander" (pros Maiandrô); the forced character of the assumed relations between writer and readers; the improbability of the details of the journey of Ignatius; its irreconcilability in various respects with the certainly older tradition— as such brilliantly defended by Völter against Lightfoot in 1892— according to which Ignatius died a martyr, not about 107 or 110 at Rome, but in the winter 115-116 at Antioch, by command of the Emperor Trajan, who was there at that time; the fact that the writer sometimes distinguishes himself from Ignatius; the testimony of Poly. Phil. 9 and 13 regarding Ignatius and his epistles; the points of agreement and difference between Ignatius and Paul. [3488]

After the example of Paul, who writes edifying and doctrinal epistles, and is on his journey towards Rome, where he looks forward to martyrdom as probable, our writer makes Ignatius of Antioch, well known as a Christian martyr, bear witness to what lies in his heart regarding the glory of Christian martyrdom; the need for close adherence on the part of all church members to the bishop and presbyters of the church; the purity of Christian doctrine and the uprightness of a Christian life to be secured in this way. "Ignatius" is not, however, as many with Baur have held, the mere advocate of the bishop or the mere assailant of docetism.

29. Ignatius: Authorship

Who this writer may have been it is impossible to ascertain or even to guess. Certainly not Ignatius.

Thirty years ago it seemed as if the time had wholly passed by in which "genuine" epistles of Ignatius would be spoken of at all. That the position has changed in recent years seems to be due, on the one hand, to the advocacy of Zahn (Ignatius von Antiochien, 1873; Pat. Ap., 1986) and of Lightfoot (Ap. Fathers: St. Ignatius, 1889), whilst on the other, no account has been taken of anything urged on the other side by Dutch and American scholars; also to the readiness to accept various plausible yet baseless suppositions, as full and adequate answers to objections.

It is in reality, however, of no avail, as has been frequently attempted, to separate, in the interests of the supposed "genuineness," the Epistle to the Romans from the others, and to attribute either the former only (so Renan), or the others (so Völter), to the martyr-traveller. It is also useless and contrary to all tradition to regard Ignatius as having been bishop in the late years of Hadrian (Harnack, Die Zeit des Ignatius von Antioch, 1878), or to keep the date open to 125 A.D. (Harnack, 1897, ACL, 2.1:406); to regard his advocacy of monarchical church government as made on behalf of an ideal only (Jean Réville, Études sur origines de l'épiscopat, 1891); to identify him with a second Ignatius, who lived about the middle of the second century (Völter, Th.T, 1886, 114-136), or with Peregrunus Proteus in the days when he was still a Christian (Völter, Th. T, 1887, 272-320; also Die Ignatianschen Briefe, 1892).

The unknown writer was, to judge his work, an earnest man with much zeal for martyrdom and all that made for what he thought right in doctrine and life. Perhaps he was a layman. and lived in Rome, at some date intermediate between Eusebius, Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, and "Polycarp," on the one hand, and Peter and Paul, the "apostles," Ignatius († 115-116), and a group of Pauline epistles, including Eph, 1 Thess, 1 Tim, Titus, on the other. The importance the writer attaches to acceptance of monarchical church government as a guarantee of purity of doctrine and life, and his animadversions on Marcionite errors, also point to a date near the middle of the second century, though at the same time it does not seem advisable to fix upon circa 175 as van Loon does.

The value of the little work lies in the region of history, particularly in that of the external and internal ordering of the life of the church. It speaks to the existence of a strong desire for vigour and unity in the government of the church in the interests of sound doctrine and life.

30. Valentinus, Marcion, Themiso, Diognetius

Epistles of Valentinus, an Egyptian gnostic who lived at Rome in the middle of the second century, are mentioned by Clement of Alexandria (Strom. 2.8.36; 2.20.114; 3.7.59), and were, it would seem, [3490] of a doctrinal character. So also an Epistle of Marcion, dating from his pre-heretical period, to which Tertullian refers (AM 1.1; 4.4; de Carne, 2)). A catholic epistle (epistolê katholikê) by the Montanist Themiso "in imitation of the apostle" (mimoumenos ton 'Apostolon), written, according to Apollonius (cf. Eusebius, HE, 5.18.5), for the enlightenment of those who were opposed to his views, is known to us only by this reference, and is noteworthy as the latest example of its kind from the time when "epistles" were still written without hesitation in imitation of the manner of "the Apostle"—i. e., "Paul."

The epistle to Diognetus, belongs to the category of Apologies, on which see BR OLD CHRISTIAN LITERATURE, § 41.

31. Dionysius of Corinth

Catholic epistles to the Churches (katholikai pros tas ekklêsias epistolai) is the name given by Eusebius (HE 4.23) to seven epistles, written by Dionysius, bishop of Corinth, about (it is conjectured) ± 170 A.D., by request, to the Lacedaemonians, Athenians, Nicomedians, the churches of Gortyna and elsewhere in Crete, at Amastris, and elsewhere in Pontus, the Colossians and the Romans.

The book is currently held to have been a collection of actual letters. To judge, however, by the character of the fragments preserved in Eusebius, we ought rather to regard it as a collection similar in kind to the Ignatian (see § 28), containing a series of precepts, suggestions, instructions regarding the true faith and right manner of life, the constitution and government of the churches. That Dionysius himself, and not that—after the practice of those times—a later author, should have written them and published them collectively under Dionysius's name becomes increasingly improbable as soon as we endeavour to do full justice to the complaint in the mouth of Dionysius about the falsification of his epistles; to the reasons given why he, Dionysius, wrote to one group of readers upon one subject and to another upon another, and so forth. Perhaps substantially the same has to be said of an epistle which Dionysius, according to Eusebius (HE 13), addressed to sister Chrysoptora.

32. Irenaeus

i.  An Epistle of Irenaus to Florinus, presbyter at Rome and a pupil of Valentinus, known from Eusebius (HE 5.20.1) and still regarded as genuine by Harnack (ACL 1:593-4) and Krüger (ACL, 93), is a later treatise, in epistolary form, on the unity of God, in connection with the question whether God is the author of evil. The manifest exaggeration to which Matthes years ago called attention ( De ouderdom van het Joh. Ev., 1867, 117, 162f.), coupled with the fact that Irenaeus, moreover, never shows any signs of acquaintance with Florinus, although he would constantly have had occasion to controvert him in adv. Haer. had he known him, and the manner in which the writer poses as Irenaeus in defence of orthodox doctrine, all enable us to perceive clearly that a writer otherwise unknown is speaking to us here and why he is doing so.

ii.  In like manner the Epistle to Blastus, connected with that of Irenaeus to Florinus, and named only in Eusebius (HE 5.20.1; cf. 5.15), is also, probably, not the work of Irenaeus, but a later treatise "on schism" (peri schismatos).

iii.  A third epistle, which according to Eusebius (HE 5.24.11), was sent by Irenaeus in name of the brethern in Gaul to Victor of Rome, and which is partially preserved by Eusebius (Ibid., 12-17), should confidently be regarded as a later treatise about the paschal feast (logos peri tou pascha), an earnest attempt at conciliation between contending parties in the paschal controversy, in which in all probability the name of Irenaeus at first did not figure at all.

33. Ptolemy

An Epistle of Ptolemy to Flora, preserved in Epiphanius (Haer. 33.3-7), takes the form of a friendly answer to the question: How ought we to think regarding the Law of Moses? Irenaeus, in writing about the gnostic Ptolemy, head of [3490] the school of Valentinus in Italy, neither uses this epistle nor shows any knowledge of it—a reason for regarding it as probably a treatise belonging to a somewhat later date than that usually assumed (the middle of the 2nd century). The same inference is suggested by the peculiar use here made of the gospels of Mt. and Jn, and of the Pauline epistles Rom, 1 Cor, Eph.

34. Apocryphal Epistles

As Apocryphal epistles the following may here be mentioned by way of Appendix: An interchange of letters between Abgarus and Jesus (see EB APOCRYPHA, § 29); between Seneca and Paul; between the Corinthians and Paul (= 3 Cor); from Paul to the Lacedaemonians (see EB PAUL, § 50).

Return to Home Page

Copyright © Institute for Higher Critical Studies, 1996

Darrell J. Doughty
Institute for Higher Critical Studies
Drew University, Madison, NJ, 07940