Another Christian Fiction: Ignatius of Antioch, Syrian Bishop Who Knew No Aramaic

Ignatius of Antioch names a putative bishop of Syria who was supposedly martyred by Rome, and famously left a dramatic series of 7 letters detailing his thoughts and hopes (and Christology) along the way, sending each to a different party — 6 to churches and one to a disciple named Polycarp.  Supposedly these letters date from about 110 and lend credibility to the rise of early Christianity and its developments (e.g. the rise of the monarchic episcopacy). But all this assumes that this bishop actually existed when there is good evidence for doubting this.

That is, just as there are such reasons for doubting the historical existence of Jesus and the apostles, so there are in fact good reasons to doubt the existence of Ignatius.  Let us review a few of these. First, as wikipedia notes, the scholar most reknowned for the study of the 7 ignatian letters considered every one of them spurious (that is, fictitious, and from the third century, not from 110).  Wiki notes:

“Writing in 1886, Dr. William P. Killen regarded all the Ignatian epistles, beginning with that to the Romans, as having been pseudepigraphically composed in the early 3rd century. His reasons included their episcopal emphasis, which is otherwise unknown before the reign of Callistus, the Bishop of Rome around 220.”

Other good reasons to doubt the existence of Ignatius include the fact that he has precisely 7, not 4 or 9 letters sent, just as detailed by the first three chapters of the Book of Revelation — itself produced nascently around the year 110, the supposed (spurious) time frame for the Ignatian letters.  There was in fact no real persecution of the Christians during this time, and the later Carthaginian attorney and advocate for the christians against Roman persecution in 210  (Q.S.F. Tertullianus) can name two slave girls as important martyrs for the Christian faith, but he has never heard of either Ignatius of Justin “Martyr.”

If the well-educated Tertullian had not heard of the great martyr Ignatius in 210 (The year of his Apology, there probably was no such great martyr, nor any Justin by that surname either (supposedly around 145). Tertullian makes fun of a verdict regarding Christians allegedly issued by the Roman emperor Trajan in a letter received by one Pliny the Elder often dated around 110.

Tertullian knows of the verdict, which he dubs “O confused sentence, O sleepy postal service …,” but he knows nothing of any persecution of Christians from this time.  Obviously, if the imperial policy regarding Christians had been set in 110, then no martyrdom of Christians could have taken place based upon it until much later, and thus later letters of Christians unanimously omit any reference to a martyrdom from this time, to that of Ignatius or any others.

The first real persecution of note — Rome vs the Christians — took place under Commodus (or else Caracalla) after 180.  Ignatius’ supposed martyrdom, and those of Justin and Polycarp simply come way too early, and show the work of later revisionism that lacks any good historical sensibilities about the earlier empire and its actual attitude and policies aimed at the Christian people.

Did Ignatius write the seven letters? Evidence suggests that he did not.  This bishop would have been well familiar with a form of Aramaic from the east, named in fact after Syria, simply called “Syriac.” His primary missionary audience would have been diaspora Jews, or Jewish people who worshipped in synagogues and lived outside of Israel.  These made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the Temple at least 3 times each year for what they would have called the Holidays.  According to Luke in Acts 1.18-19, the primary tongue spoken in Jerusalem was at the time “Aramaic,” the language from which the “Field of Blood” was named “Akel Dama.”

Here is the problem — Ignatius’s seven letters do not display either any form of thought-construction we could call “Semitic” or “Aramaic,” and in fact they read like the work of someone familiar with Roman language conventions, not Semitic idioms and thought-arrangements (like the Bible’s peculiar way of speaking or reading).  In other words, Ignatian Greek is Roman Greek, not Jewish Greek.  This would not have been the case if an actual Syrian Bishop who lived and preached among diaspora (Syriac familiar) Jews had written these letters.  “Evangela” names a dialect of Syriac commonly in use still by the year 140.  There is simply no way to place the Ignatian letters earlier than 150 if their provenance of origin must be Syria.  It was doubtless Rome, not Syria, and probably not before Tertuallian’s apology.

This makes the work a dramatic work of fiction, espousing the glory of martyrdom (at about the time of Caracalla or later) retrofitted to a much earlier time — just like the Gospels and Acts themselves.

One of the more amazing of the features of the early Patristic literature is just how many of the later authors seem unaware of the earlier ones.  For instance, none of the epistles in the NT refers to the universal epistle (supposedly) sent out from the first Church Council at Jerusalem to all the Christian Churches in Acts 15.  In fact, not only has no one ever found this letter, but the later patristic authors never mention it, and seem never to have heard of it.



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