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Igniting an Ignatius Explosion

Not a week after my close encounter with Kenneth Howell’s fine new translation (with theological commentary) of Ignatius of Antioch’s letters, I find myself curled up with another book on this eloquent and theologically profound bishop of the first century, who died at the beginning of the second. A reader of Ignatius can’t help but marvel at the richness of Christian thought, so early in Christian history. Already in 107 A.D. we find an integrated theology of the Church and the sacraments, of martyrdom and morals, of authority and discipline. The theology is there in its complexity, though the martyr-bishop’s language is lovely in its simplicity and passion. He is a pastor and a preacher. He is above all a father of the family that is his church. So he’s not lecturing his recipients, not explaining or defending, so much as laying out the Gospel in terms he assumes they already know.

Well, the book that’s renewing last week’s renewal of my appreciation of Ignatius is Thomas A. Robinson’s Ignatius of Antioch and the Parting of the Ways: Early Jewish-Christian Relations. It’s just out from Hendrickson, and I’m just today dipping into it, but I’m finding it hard to put down.

A biography of Ignatius is, alas, an impossibility. We know nothing about his manner of exercising his office. We know nothing with certainty about his time in Antioch. The (much) later historians drop a few anecdotes here and there, but they’re not much to go on. We know his letters, and they are rare, warm, vital witnesses to the Church’s life in 107 A.D. But they’re hardly autobiographical.

So how to draw closer to this attractive Christian life?

Robinson does it the only way possible, this side of heaven. He gives us guided tours of the cultural contexts that would influence a man like Ignatius. He leads us through Antioch, a bustling commercial and military center, multicultural and multi-religious. He guides us through the varieties of Jewish religious experience during the first century — the sects, the migrations, the wars and the riots, the literature, the proselytes and God-fearers and God-worshippers. He does all of this in clear, concise, lively prose. The book is encyclopedic, but it never reads like an encyclopedia. It’s a sustained argument. It’s just colorful, picturesque, engaging, dramatic, riveting — like the first century.

Robinson is most concerned with Ignatius’s relations with the Jews. What do his letters tell us about Christianity’s relationship with Judaism in those crucial first decades after the passion of the Christ and the destruction of the Temple? Modern scholars tend toward two extremes: they either vilify the early Christians as anti-Semites or they explain away Christian rhetoric so that it’s toothless and practically senseless. Both approaches err in refusing to understand early Christianity on its own terms. Robinson, a professor of religious studies at the University of Lethbridge, helps us to see the first-century Jews and Christians as they established and defended their distinctive identities. Their positions are fairly well marked out, even then. I won’t spoil the ending, but I can’t help but believe that this clear, clean window on the first century will also help us catch a reflection of the state of our arguments in the twenty-first.

Along the way, Robinson takes aim at current fashions in early Christian studies, exposing them with rare common sense. Take, for example, his take on the charge that Ignatius “invented” the office of bishop.

Ignatius supplies the earliest evidence of what appears to be a fairly clearly defined three-part structure of authority: a bishop, with a subordinate presbytery, assisted by a group of deacons. This structure is referred to as a “monarchical episcopate,” or perhaps more precisely, the “monepiscopate,” so named after the nature of its highest office. Since Ignatius is the earliest witness to this structure, some scholars have suggested that he was either the creator of this ecclesiastical framework of authority or the primary promoter of it and the reason for its success.

The problem with this thesis is that Ignatius is able to use the term “bishop” in its rather full-blown form in letters addressed to churches far removed from Antioch. Ignatius assumes that the churches in the province of Asia have a three-fold division of leadership and that the members  there understand the terms of office in roughly the same way as he uses them. Indeed, the terms for the offices prominently dot the pages of Ignatius’s correspondence.

He’s just as good when he deals with the tiresome terminology of “Christianities” and “Judaisms.”

In recent years it has become fashionable to speak of Judaisms and Christianities and to discount any meaningful use of the singular forms of these terms. To complicate the debate even further, some scholars have challenged the adequacy of other “monolithic” terms, such as “early Christianity,” “Jewish,” “Gentile,” “pagan,” and “Greco-Oriental.”

Added to this is an overly careful policing of terms to prevent any anachronistic employment. What is inadequately appreciated is the fact that monolithic terms, by their nature, include ambiguities on the edges, whether of subject or of time. Such terms may well have a proper “anachronistic” use, in that the terms, by their nature as monolithic terms, can identify movements from their early stages, before the time a formal label was coined and applied.

… But such nuancing of the debate often fails to appreciate that the larger world in which Jews and Christians lived commonly employed such general and sweeping terms to identify Jews and Christians. The ancients almost entirely missed the diversity that many modern reconstructions see as the most distinctive aspect of these movements.

Those passages aren’t at the core of his argument. But they do touch upon my pet peeves, and I own this property. So there.

There’s so much more — not to mention excellent notes, bibliography, and indices. I hope you’ll buy Robinson’s Ignatius of Antioch and the Parting of the Ways: Early Jewish-Christian Relations (along with Howell’s Ignatius of Antioch), and talk about them here!

3 thoughts on “Igniting an Ignatius Explosion

  1. Robinsons’s book sounds interesting. This is the second time in recent months I’ve encountered this argument for the early episocpacy. Both Ignatius and Paul (in the Pastorals) assumed that the early communities were led by bishops. They were not creating a new church order out of thin air; they were describing and defending an existing order. The conclusion is inescapable. The “monepsicopate” (what an unwieldly term!)preceded both Ignatius and the pastorals.

  2. I was wondering how Howell’s commentary compares to Schoedel’s Hermeneia volume. Although my specialty is Paul of Tarsus, I find Ignatius to be of tremendous importance and have been looking for an update to Schoedel’s great volume as 1985 is starting to be a bit dated. (Yikes that’s a hard pill to swallow!) I would appreciate any comparisons you could provide.

  3. Schoedel’s Commentary was the last major commentary on the Ignatian letters. Robert M. Grant’s (mid 1960s)remains very helpful and insightful in spite of its age. The two differ in their views of many significant issues. So you might want to have access to both while reading Ignatius. I haven’t received my copy of Howell’s work as yet. But he “has a tough act to follow” on the heels of these two commentators. I would look in his study for “new directions” and some fresh thinking both of which this field needs.

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