Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Pt. 12
Three Voices on the Historical Jesus – No. 2: Ignatius of Antioch
COVERED IN THIS POST:
Are the Ignatian letters forgeries?
- What does “truly” mean for Ignatius:
- historical fact?
- Ignatius knows no Gospels, even in 110 CE or later
- implications of this
- rumours of an allegorical tale interpreted as history
- no teachings of Jesus, no miracles,
- no apostolic tradition
- Why did docetism arise in Ignatius’ time?
- two reactions to the historical Jesus
- A Christ myth in Ignatius’ Ephesians
* * * * *
Evidence for Jesus from Outside the Gospels
(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 101-104)
Ignatius of Antioch
Did Ignatius write the Ignatian Letters?
Bart Ehrman seems to assume the authenticity of the story that Ignatius was caught up in a persecution of Christians at Antioch around 107-110 CE, was condemned to death and sent to Rome under military escort to die in the arena. Along the way, he wrote letters to six churches in Asia Minor and one to bishop Polycarp of Smyrna.
Many doubt the feasibility of such an enterprise, including the likelihood that the authorities would have undertaken to send him all the way to Rome for execution. But that is the story told in later tradition, and it is to be found within the letters themselves.
I will not go into the arguments for and against authenticity here, but if they are later forgeries (that is, the versions known as the “Shorter Recensions” which have traditionally been considered the originals, with the Longer Recensions coming much later in the century and filled with obvious insertions based on the Gospels), such forgeries cannot have been made much later than a decade or two after Ignatius’ death. (I myself might opt for forgery, but I will continue to refer to the writer as “Ignatius.”)
Arguing for a “true” life on earth
One of the principal purposes of these letters is to attack fellow Christians who espouse doctrines and practices Ignatius cannot countenance. Ignatius makes a set of claims about Jesus which he declares to be true, in opposition to those who deny them. The fullest statement of these claims is found in the epistle to the Smyrneans (as translated by Ehrman):
For you are fully convinced about our Lord, that he was truly from the family of David according to the flesh, Son of God according to the will and power of God, truly born from a virgin, and baptized by John that all righteousness might be fulfilled by him. In the time of Pontius Pilate and the tetrarch Herod, he was truly nailed for us in the flesh. . . [Smyrneans 1-2]
How does Ehrman (and scholarship traditionally) interpret a passage like this? What is Ignatius arguing for and what is the position of those he criticizes? According to Ehrman, the latter are
. . . Christians who insisted that Jesus was not a real flesh-and-blood human. These opponents of Ignatius were not ancient equivalents of our modern-day mythicists. They certainly did not believe that Jesus had been made up or invented based on the dying and rising gods supposedly worshipped by pagans. For them, Jesus had a real, historical existence. He lived in this world and delivered inspired teachings. But he was God on earth, not made of the same flesh as the rest of us. (p. 102)
In other words, Ehrman sees Ignatius’ opponents as docetists (from the verb dokein, to seem), holding the doctrine that Jesus only seemed to be human, only seemed to possess a body of human flesh. In reality, this was only an illusion; he was and remained in spiritual form, so that he did not partake of human nature and did not suffer on the cross.
But is this the meaning that can reasonably be taken from some of Ignatius’ statements?
The word “truly” (bolded above) in the Smyrneans passage (Greek alēthōs) could fit a docetic scenario, meaning “genuinely” as opposed to something illusory. But it can also fit a claim that something was true in actuality, that it really existed or took place (as in Mt. 14:33: “Truly you are the Son of God”). Note also the declaration that our Lord was “Son of God according to the will and power of God.” This is something that would have no relation to docetism, and can only be a statement of the actuality of the claimed situation.
Consider another passage, from the epistle to the Trallians (9:1-2):
Close your ears, then, if anyone preaches to you without speaking of Jesus Christ. Christ was of David’s line. He was the son of Mary; he was truly (alēthōs) and indeed born, and ate and drank; he was truly persecuted in the days of Pontius Pilate, and truly and indeed crucified…He was also truly raised from the dead.
That first sentence tells of preachers who do not speak of Jesus Christ, which Ignatius defines as a human born of David’s line, son of Mary, persecuted by Pontius Pilate, crucified and risen. Those opponents are failing to teach such a figure having those historical characteristics. It is not merely a case of teaching such a man while claiming that these features of his life were illusory. Such docetists would not have been claiming that Jesus was not the son of Mary or crucified by Pilate.
The point that Jesus “ate and drank” is usually claimed to point to a docetic issue, in that a phantom or illusory being would not eat and drink. But in the context of this particular passage, the phrase can be seen as having another meaning. In fact, it’s an expression representing the idea that Jesus had led a normal human life, doing the normal things real historical men do. Such a meaning can be found in Luke 17:27: “They ate, they drank, they married, they were given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all…” Nothing of docetism there.
William R. Schoedel (Ignatius of Antioch, p.124-5) recognizes that such passages as the above in Trallians 9 suggest that “Ignatius had in mind a denial of the passion more thoroughgoing than our argument has so far indicated.” He acknowledges that what some seem to deny “is the very reality of Christ’s death,” and thus of the incarnation. The opposing view offers not simply a docetic Christ, it offers something which gives Christ “no place in our lives” (Magnesians 9:2).
Another Magnesians passage (11:1) makes this clear:
I wish to warn you not to fall into the snare of stupid doctrine, but to be convinced of the birth, passion and resurrection, which took place at the time of the governorship of Pontius Pilate.
Here the issue is plainly one of historical fact. Why would the latter have been in any doubt, let alone be denied by some, if an actual crucifixion under Pilate had taken place—regardless of whether Jesus was docetic or fully human? Ignatius is making a firm declaration that such events did indeed happen. He is championing the basic Gospel story in the face of those who preach without it or openly deny it.
Ignatius ignorant of a Gospel
Before looking at some of Ignatius’ other remarks, we need to note that in none of his letters, even when putting forward his claims about a human Jesus, does the bishop of Antioch appeal to a written Gospel. He knows a handful of basic biographical ‘facts’ about Jesus, his birth to Mary, baptism by John, crucifixion by Pilate, a rising from the dead, all at an historical time and place. But he gives no sign that he has in his possession a document which is the source of that information. If he had, we can certainly expect that he would appeal to it, point his readers to it, throw it in his opponents’ faces.
A single passage in the letters resembles a Gospel scene. In Smyrneans 3, Ignatius offers a “touch me” post-resurrection scene to ‘prove’ that Jesus rose in the flesh of his former body and was not a phantom. But here, too, he does not point to a document as his source, or even to apostolic tradition. Scholars like Schoedel (op.cit., p.225) tend to judge that he is not deriving it from Luke’s similar scene, nor from John’s ‘doubting Thomas’ scene, but either from something of his own or some Christian prophet’s invention, or from a floating oral tradition.
Consider the implications
Ehrman fully supports this lack of derivation from a written Gospel for anything Ignatius says. After all, if Ignatius did not derive his data from a Gospel, then he must know it through separate tradition, and so this constitutes for Ehrman “another independent witness to the life of Jesus.” But consider the implications.
This is the year 110 (or later if the letters are forgeries) in Antioch, a stone’s throw from the Syrian-Galilean region where Jesus conducted his ministry, where the evangelists Mark and Matthew wrote (Matthew is commonly dated c.80 CE with a suggested provenance in Antioch itself!), and yet the bishop of that city does not possess a copy of a written Gospel?
The story of Jesus which this bishop has received is limited to the bare-bones biography he puts forward over six letters? Not once in all of the seven letters is there a reference to a single teaching by Jesus, a single prophecy or a single miracle.
Facing a body of heretics who deny all that he holds dear, it is astonishing that Ignatius has not managed to obtain a copy of an account of Jesus’ life reputedly written almost 40 years before (or longer). Mark’s passion account alone, with its scene of a tortured Jesus in Gethsemane and the despairing cry from the cross, would have been perfect ammunition against those who were claiming that Jesus did not suffer.
Christians may not have had photocopiers, but the clamor we should expect for the first written account of the figure they all worshiped did not lead to getting a copy to Antioch from Mark’s home town (a couple of hundred miles away?) by the time 40 years had passed? Even the Israelites did better crossing Sinai!
An Allegory reaches Ignatius as History
Even 20 years or so, if Mark was written around 90, should not have been a stretch. Unless, of course, Mark was originally written as a piece of symbolism, not meant as history, and it took a couple of decades for the story’s basic features to filter out to the surrounding Christian world, through rumor and missionary contact, through expansion and redaction of the story in other nearby communities, eventually to be accepted by some as historical fact — particularly those who would have found it appealing and useful.
Ignatius seems to have received those rumors and reports, and he and others in his circle of communities have swallowed the new fish whole, while having to contend with those who have failed or refused to do so.
No Apostolic Tradition
Not only does Ignatius not possess a copy of a Gospel, he also argues from a position which lacks a few other things. One of them is apostolic tradition, another is an appeal to simple history within his faith movement: the argument that “Christians have believed these things for generations.” Ehrman is quite mistaken when he says:
And he was bishop in Antioch, the city where both Peter and Paul spent considerable time in the preceding generation, as Paul himself tells us in Galatians 2. His views too can trace a lineage straight back to apostolic times. (pp. 103-104)
And just where in Paul do we find views like those of Ignatius, that Jesus was the son of Mary, that he was baptized by John the Baptist, that he was crucified by Pilate? Tracing a lineage of ideas back through preceding generations, through a chain of apostles and their teaching, is something which Ignatius never does.
Not even the bishops and other community leaders who he urges should be obeyed are appealed to as holding passed-on truths going back to the apostles. (We might note that whatever the dispute in 1 John 4, neither does that writer appeal to a lineage of belief and history, or to the principle of apostolic tradition. In fact, the Johannine community seems at this stage to have nothing that can be traced back to a Jesus, and God is the source of its revelation.)
Ignatius and Docetism
At the same time, we can tell from some passages that Ignatius is also dealing with an issue of docetism, although it seems not to be within any gnostic context. Ignatius’ opponents are members of his own community, and no other doctrines characteristic of Gnosticism contribute to raising his ire. This is a point which scholars usually overlook. If this particular brand of docetism is not part of a wider gnostic outlook, why has it raised its head in Ignatius’ community?
First, let’s look at a couple of representative passages (to which we could add the ‘touch me’ scene of Smyrneans 3 mentioned above):
It is asserted by some who deny God…that his sufferings were not genuine [Trallians 10].
So what is the point of my standing well in the opinion of a man who blasphemes my Lord by denying that he ever bore a real human body? [Smyrneans 5:2]
The whole issue of docetism is a perplexing one. Why, whether here or in a developing gnostic community, would it suddenly appear after almost a century of traditional belief in an historical Jesus, during which no one voiced any objection to believing in a divine son of God who had actually suffered in flesh, who actually partook of human nature? Paul certainly shows no problem with the idea, nor is there any sign that anyone around him did. (Of course, apart from a couple of ambiguous statements, the epistles don’t show the very concept that any human flesh or nature was involved, but let’s consider the situation if it were.)
The traditional view of docetism sees it as a sudden about-face by certain Christian teachers and thinkers, the complete rejection of a presumably universal view of Jesus held for three-quarters of a century as a human being born of a human mother and suffering in human flesh. What would explain this throwing of the Christian faith train into reverse? Why would there be a widespread enough acceptance of such new preaching — or at least a willingness to consider it — that Ignatius must regard it as of the greatest danger to contemporary communities and preach so virulently against it? What established Christian would be ready to subscribe to a dramatic reversal of the faith to such negativity: that Jesus Christ had not been real, had not suffered, had not taken on true humanity?
The solution is to realize that prior to the end of the first century, no one had believed the opposite. Christ was a heavenly figure who suffered, died and rose in the spiritual dimension. But at precisely the time when the first idea that Christ had been on earth arose (largely through an evolution within the Q sect and a misunderstanding of the Gospels which grew out of it) we find the first objections to a human Jesus, a philosophically-based resistance but one dependent on the new claim that the heavenly Son of God had been on earth in a human incarnation.
This is why a type of docetism could arise in a ‘traditional’ Christian community (of the Pauline type) which had nothing to do with Gnosticism, and why it had not arisen earlier. It is why Ignatius cannot appeal to traditional belief, because both outlooks — an historical Jesus and a docetic Jesus — are of recent vintage, competing on the same level playing field.
Reactions to the historical Jesus
In Ignatius’ milieu, we see that the new development of an historical Jesus gave rise to more than one type of push-back.
- Some were saying, well, if there was a human Christ on earth, he had to have only seemed to be human, since God would not lower himself so far as to take on human nature.
- Others had a different reaction: they simply denied (as they seem to be doing in 1 John 4 as well) that such a thing had happened, and thus Ignatius had to declare that Jesus Christ had really been born, really been baptized, had really been crucified by Pilate.
Ignatius’ language in various passages shows that he was dealing with those two different and equally unacceptable positions. (He also tackles those who want to re-establish certain Jewish practices, so scholarship has already recognized that his opponents are of different varieties.)
From the heavenly Christ to the historical Christ
If Ignatius (or his forger, who would have inhabited the same thought-world) straddles the crossover line, one foot in the old cultic heavenly Christ camp and the other in the new historicist camp, we would expect to find indications of both in the letters, a sign of the old morphing into the new. And so there are, notably in Ephesians 19 in which a cultic myth is set in the realm of the stars, with revelations to the heavenly aeons, things such as the conception and birth of Christ as well as his death being hidden from “the ruler of this age” which is an unmistakeable reference to Satan. (Compare the same phrase and concealment motif in 1 Cor. 2:8.)
Such secret events were “brought to pass in the deep silence of God.” In other words, in a mythical dimension.
None of this is consistent with a life on earth — which failed to deter Ignatius, who craved a human Jesus suffering like himself in flesh. We again meet the idea that “God was manifested/revealed in the likeness of men.” All these motifs and language are familiar from the epistles — akin to the atmosphere of the pre-Pauline Christological hymns — but which are foreign to the Gospels and established historicism.
Upon that highly mythological ‘hymn’ Ignatius has superimposed one obvious Gospel element: the ‘virgin’ to whom the Lord was born was named Mary, an item Paul never gives us. It would be the same as if some later Christian had taken chapter 12 of Revelation, with its mythical scene of the heavenly birth of the Messiah to “the woman robed with the sun,” and given her a name out of a later earthly story. Or the “virgin” in the Odes of Solomon, No.19, originally referring to personified Wisdom, being identified with the Gospel Mary — which it has been by some conservative scholars today.
None of this complex and subtle dimension to be seen in the figure and epistles of Ignatius is even remotely recognized by Bart Ehrman.
. . . to be continued