Ignatius of Antioch's Letter to the Magnesians

Ignatius of Antioch's Letter to the Magnesians
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  Ignatius of Antioch’s  Letter to the Magnesians Assuming its authenticity, 1  and that it was actually written within the dates specified by Coakley and Sterk (c. 98-117), 2  Ignatius of Antioch’s Letter to the Magn esians, 3    both alone and when considered with other writings, suggests quite a few things about Christians and Christianity in Asia Minor and Syria, and the Roman Empire, at the time Ignatius was being transported from Antioch to Rome expecting to be martyred. To begin with, the Letter to the Magnesians shows that unlike Jesus in Jerusalem, or the later martyrs at Lyons, Ignatius was not being martyred quickly or locally, but instead being taken on a comparatively stately tour across Asia Minor, during which he was in bonds but nonetheless able to write letters, meet with Damas, Bassus, Appolonius, Zotion, and Polycarp and other Ephesians, and provide his counsel to them. 4  Moreover, Damas, Bassus, Appolonius, Zotion, Polycarp and others felt comfortable enough to meet with him. Ignatius ’ long journey could mean that he was a Roman citizen, and thus srcinally from Italy, a local person of high rank once viewed with favor by the local Roman hierarchy, or a former Roman soldier. Pliny’s correspondence with Tr  ajan says that, if Christians confessed 1  For centuries, scholars have debated the authenticity of more than a dozen letters which have sometimes been attributed to Ignatius, with the shorter surviving versions of seven, including the Letter to the Magnesians, being the most accepted. Paul Foster, “The Epistles of Ignatius of Antioch (Part I),” The Expository Times 117 (2006), 487-492. 2  Some scholars suggest later dates, as late as 175 if its text was really written by Ignatius, and even later if written by an anonymous other author, there being little evidence to support any particular date. Foster, 490-492. There are no official documents recording Ignatius’ death or execution in Rome.” Ibid., 490.   3   Ignatius of Antioch, “Letter to the Magnesians,” in  Readings in World Christian  History, Vol. 1: Earliest Christianity to 1453 , ed. John W. Coakley and Andrea Sterk (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 2006), 3-5. 4   Eusebius, “The Martyrs of Lyons,” in  Readings , 24-30; Ignatius, “Letter,”  3 (preface and I.2, II.1, ), 5 (XIV and XV)   .  their Christianity before him and refused to recant, he “ordered them for execution” –   without saying where  –   unless they were Roman citizens. 5   If they were Roman citizens, Pliny “noted them down to be sent to Rome. ” 6   Pliny’s statement may be revealing because t he decree of Caracalla, giving Roman citizenship to most free people living within the Empire, did not come until 212. 7  A century earlier, Rome only grudgingly extended elite status to non-Italians in the eastern Empire. 8   “ Roman citizenship was only sparsely distributed in the Greek East, even among the provincial upper classes,”  with fewer than half of hundred highest local officeholders in Lycia/Pamphylia  being Roman citizens. 9  And retired Roman soldiers settled in colonies of their own. 10  If Ignatius was not a Roman citizen, his journey, and his meetings with other Christians during his journey, likely reflect a more general belief  –   seemingly expressed by Pliny in speaking of Christian oaths being “not   for any crime” and Christian food being “ordinary and harmless, ”  and by Trajan in instructing that Christians were “not to be sought out 11    –   that Christians did not pose an imminent threat of violence or other danger. 5   “Correspondence of Pliny and Trajan,” in  Readings , 23. 6  Ibid. 7  Ibid., 15-16. 8  Ibid., 8-9. 9  Peter Garnsey and Richard Saller, The Roman Empire: Economy, Society and Culture  (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), 15. 10  Ibid., 27. 11   “Correspondence,” 24.    They certainly imply that there was no significant uproar in Antioch, akin to the multitude’s reported cries for Jesus’ crucifixion in Jerusalem, or the popular fury and clamoring Eusebius described in Lyons, to be appeased by publicly executing Ignatius there. 12  Nor apparently, despite his bonds, were their fears that Ignatius presence on the road would have excited violence. If anywhere, Rome itself was seemingly more interested in viewing Christian executions because of the long-term threat  –    evidenced by the “almost deserted” Roman templ es Pliny reported in the Greek East  –   which Christianity might pose to Rome itself. 13  Foster cautiously opines , with good reason for caution, that “ It is not impossible . . . that Ignatius' attempts to suppress alternative forms of church structure and leadership resulted in his opponents betraying him to Roman authorities in Antioch. ” 14  That seems unlikely given the scorn with which Christian believers apparently regarded Judas Iscariot. 15  Although Pliny did write of informers, he did not further describe them, and disaffected Christians currying favor with Rome, or disgruntled non-Christians, seem more likely to have been informing. 16   Ignatius’ Letter to the Magnesians certainly reflected an extraordinarily interest, if not an obsession, with order, unity, the authority of Christian bishops, and lines of authority within Christianity. He begins by praising the Magnesians for “the great orderliness” of their love of God, and later counsels them not let themselves become divided, to “respect one another,” a nd 12  Matthew 27:20-24, in The Holy Bible: King James Version  (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2004), 907; Eusebius, 24-25. 13   “Correspondence,” 24.   14   Paul Foster, “The Epistles of Ignatius of Antioch (Part II),” The Expository Times 118 (2006), 4. 15  Matthew 27:1-10. 16   “Correspondence,” 23.  not to “regard a neighbor according to the flesh” but rather to “in everything love one another according to Jesus Christ” 17  He analogizes the relationships between believers and bishops to that of the Apostles with Christ and the Father: “Be subject to the bishop and to one another; even Apostles were subject to Christ and to the father in order that there may be a union of the flesh and the spirit.” 18  He describes Christ as “the bishop of all.” 19  Zolton is “subject to the bishop” of Magnesia “as to the grace of God, and to the presbytery as to the law of Christ.” 20   “For the honor therefore of him who desired us, it is right that we yield obedience without hypocrisy,” because attempting to deceive bishops is attempting to deceive Christ.” 21  Indeed, the Magnesians were instructed to do “nothing without the bishop and the presbyters.” 22   “Do not attempt to make anything appear right for you by yourselves.” 23  All this certainly shows that there was enough disorder, disharmony, disrespect, and disregard of bisho  p’s directions, in Antioch and Asia Minor, to arouse Ignatius’ concern. The srcinal Apostles had died, those who had actually heard and known them were dying, there were differing views among Christians on where best to look for guidance (to authority figures, or to prayer, or to documents), the accuracy of the documents supposedly describing Christ’s life 17   Ignatius, “Letter,” 3 (I.1), 4 (VI.2).   18  Ibid., 5 (XIV). 19  Ibid., 3 (III.1). 20  Ibid., 3 (II). 21  Ibid., 3-4(III.2). 22  Ibid., 4 (VII). 23  Ibid.    and words was uncertain, Christianity was an outlawed religion whose believers were sometimes  prosecuted (witness Ignatius himself), and Roman emperors wanted Rome’s gods to be worshiped. 24  Ignatius saw order, unity, and unwavering support for bishops and presbyters as answers to each of those dilemmas. As to the substance of appropriate Christian teachings, the Letter to the Magnesians shows Ignatius di stress with “strange doctrines” and “old fables” which are, it thus seems, still in circulation. 25  Other letters of Ignatius decry itinerant Christian teachers whose teachings he viewed as questioning Jesus’ suffering and even his death. 26  Hence his further counsel, to the Magnesians, that church meetings held without bishops are invalid, and that Christianity is not  based upon Judaism. 27  The Pharisee party was already triumphant in Jerusalem, with Christians  being excluded from synagogues and migrating elsewhere, like to Antioch. 28   24  Dale T. Irvin and Scott W. Sunquist,  History of the World Christian Movement  , Vol. 1:  Earliest Christianity to 1453  (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 2001), 40-44, 50-52. 25   Ignatius, “Letter,” (VIII.1). 26   Ignatius, “ Letter to the Ephesians, ” in  Early Christian Fathers , ed. Cyril C. Richardson, vol. 1 of The Library of Christian Classics, ed. John Baillie, John T. McNeill, and Henry P. Van Dusen (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1953), 90 (IX.1); Ignatius, “Letter to the Tralli ans,”  in  Early Christian Fathers , 100 (IX.1, X). 27   Ignatius, “Letter,” 4 (IV) , 5 (X.3).. 28  Irvin and Sunquist, 51.
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