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The Epistles of St. Ignatius




AROUND the letters bearing the name of St. Ignatius there has been waged a literary controversy that has extended from the time of the revival of learning to the nineteenth century. The subject is of special interest to Englishmen, as the discussion of the genuineness of these letters found a place in the religious controversies of England in the seventeenth century, and the decision of the question has on three occasions been associated with the names of English, scholars, i. e. Archbishop Ussher and Bishop Pearson in the seventeenth century, and Bishop Lightfoot in the nineteenth century. During the Middle Ages there were current in Europe seventeen letters connected with the name of St. Ignatius. Four of these embrace the spurious correspondence with St. John and the Virgin. They include—

(i) Two letters from Ignatius to St. John.
(ii) A letter from Ignatius to the Virgin.
(iii) A letter from the Virgin to Ignatius.

The letters only exist in Latin, and were most probably composed in that language. An attempt has been made to claim the authority of St. Bernard in support of their genuineness, because in one of his sermons he says that Ignatius 'saluteth a certain Mary in several epistles, which he wrote to her, as Christ-bearer.'  But the word


quandam [1]- 'a certain (one),' shows that he is speaking of some less famous person than the Virgin, the reference being, doubtless, to Mary of Cassobola, to whom one of the letters of the Long Form is addressed. As the object of the forger was undoubtedly to do honour to the Virgin, Lightfoot is inclined to connect the letters with the outburst of Mariolatry which took place in the eleventh and following centuries. The forgery was speedily disposed of as soon as the revival of the study of antiquity began.

The remaining thirteen epistles, known as the Longer Form, include a longer version of the seven letters of the present collection, together with six additional letters, i. e., Mary of Cassobola to Ignatius, Ignatius to Mary of Cassobola, to the Tarsians, to the Philippians, to the Antiochenes, and to Hero. This Longer Form is contained in several Greek MSS. and also in a Latin version of which the MSS. are numerous. The six additional letters are also found attached to the seven letters of the present collection not only in the Greek MSS., but also in the Latin, Syriac, Armenian and Coptic translations. The Latin version was printed in 1498, and was followed in 1557 by the publication of the Greek text. Neither of these editions contained the letter of Mary of Cassobola to Ignatius, which appeared, however, in subsequent editions.

 It was not long before the suspicions of students were aroused. They could not fail to be struck by the wide divergence of the text of Ignatius in the current editions from the quotations of early Christian writers such as Eusebius (c. A.D. 310—325) and Theodoret (A.D. 446). It was noticed further that Eusebius only makes mention of seven letters, and that no others but these are referred to by Christian writers for some considerable period after the time of Eusebius. Internal evidence confirmed these suspicions by pointing out obvious anachronisms and mistakes in the letters. At the same time the prejudices

[1] The omission of this word in some MSS. assisted the misconception of the passage. But there is no doubt that it forms a part of the true text.


of Protestant writers, and especially of those who favoured Presbyterian views, were excited against the letters, because their presentation of Church order conflicted with their own views. On the one hand it was recognized by the Jesuit Petavius, that the epistles were interpolated, and on the other hand many Protestant writers were prepared to believe that they included some genuine letters of Ignatius. Vedelius, a professor at Geneva, published an edition of the letters in 1623, in which he attempted to separate the genuine from the spurious letters. The seven letters mentioned by Eusebius were placed in one class, and the remaining five, which he regarded as spurious, were formed into a second class. He also maintained that the seven letters contained interpolations, and in proof of this he showed that the interpolator had made use of extracts from the Apostolical Constitutions. 

The genuineness of the Long Form was commonly accepted by English writers of eminence before Ussher's time, and we find the letters in that form quoted by Hooker and Bishop Andrewes. The question, however, was prominently brought forward by the controversies of the day. Episcopacy was being vehemently attacked by the Puritans. This attack reached its climax in the famous Smectymnuus controversy (so called from the initials of the names of the five Presbyterian divines), in which Bishop Hall defended, and the Presbyterians attacked, the government of the Church by bishops. In this controversy Ussher was induced to take a part. In his pamphlet The Original of Bishops and Metropolitans, he made use of the evidence of the Ignatian epistles, carefully confining, however, his quotations to the passages in which the interpolated version agrees with the genuine text. Ussher's pamphlet was replied to by the poet Milton in his treatise Of Prelatical Episcopacy , published in 1641. He attacks the genuineness of the Ignatian epistles and says, 'To what end then should they cite him as authentic for episcopacy, when they cannot know what is authentic of him?' But Ussher had already engaged in the task of rescuing the genuine 


epistles from the interpolated and spurious additions of the current text. He had examined the quotations of Ignatius found in the writings of Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln (c. A.D. 1250), and two other English writers, John Tyssington and William Wodeford, who wrote in the fourteenth century and were members of the Franciscan house at Oxford, to which Grosseteste left his books. These quotations, he found, differed from the common text of Ignatius and agreed with the quotations found in Eusebius and Theodoret. This led him to conclude that there might exist somewhere in England manuscripts containing this purer text of the epistles. The result was the discovery of two Latin MSS. of the epistles. The first of these was found in the library of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. This MS., of which Ussher procured a transcript, was written by Walter Crome, D.D., a former Fellow, being completed in the year 1441, as we learn from a note in Crome's own handwriting, while another note in the same hand on a fly-leaf states that the MS. was presented to the College in A.D. 1444 'on the feast of St. Hugh.' 

The second MS. came from the library of Richard Montague or Montacute, Bishop of Norwich. It has, however, disappeared since Ussher's time, although we possess a collation of its readings contained between the lines or in the margin of Ussher's transcript of the Caius MS. This transcript is now in the library of Dublin University. 

Of these two MSS. the second appears to be the earlier and the more accurate. In fact Lightfoot thinks that it closely represents the version as it came from the translator. Ussher found that the quotations of Ignatius in the works of Grosseteste were taken from the Latin version preserved in these two MSS., and further study led him to believe that Grosseteste was himself the translator. Such a view is consistent with the interest shown by the great Bishop of Lincoln in Greek learning and in the translation of Greek authors. Moreover we know that among the books of which Grosseteste caused a translation to be made were the writings of Dionysius 


the Areopagite. These appear frequently bound up in the same MS. as the Ignatian epistles. In recent times there has been more direct confirmation of Ussher's view. This is supplied by a note in a fourteenth-century MS. in the library at Tours, attributing the Latin translation to Grosseteste. 

Ussher published his shorter Latin text in 1644. But as yet the Greek text corresponding to this shorter Latin version had not appeared. This link was supplied two years later by the publication at Amsterdam by Isaac Voss of the Greek text of six out of the seven letters, the epistle to the Romans being missing. This Greek text was based upon an eleventh-century MS. in the Medicean library at Florence. Finally the Greek text of the missing epistle to the Romans was published by Ruinart in 1689 from a MS. of the tenth century, now in the National Library at Paris. The MS. contains the Greek Acts of the martyrdom of Ignatius, and the epistle to the Romans is incorporated in them. Ussher's labours thus enabled students to recognize the genuine epistles of Ignatius, and to separate from these the interpolated portions, as well as the spurious epistles, found in the Longer Form. 

But the publication by Voss of the Greek text of the seven epistles led to a new controversy set on foot by the French Puritans, who attacked the epistles because of the support which they lent to episcopacy. The most formidable opponent was Daillé, whose work appeared in 1666. This new attack was concentrated upon the seven letters as published by Voss. The attack was met, and the genuineness of the letters vindicated by Bishop Pearson, who wrote his Vindiciae Ignatianae in 1672. 

The next important date in the Ignatian controversy was the year 1845, when Canon Cureton published a Syriac version of the epistles to St. Polycarp, the Ephesians, and the Romans. The three epistles contained in this version appear in a much shorter form than is found in the Greek text and Latin version. A fragment of the epistle to the Trallians is incorporated in the epistle to the Romans, but none of the other epistles 


appear in the collection. The text of Cureton's edition was based upon two MSS. in the British Museum. The former of these two MSS. dates from the sixth century. It was purchased by Archdeacon Tattam from the convent of St. Mary Deipara in the Nitrian desert in 1839. The second MS. dates from the seventh or eighth century, and was brought from Egypt by Archdeacon Tattam in 1842. Cureton maintained that these three epistles alone represented the genuine Ignatius, that the Vossian collection contained these three in an interpolated form, and that the remaining four letters of the Vossian collection were forgeries. This rekindled the controversy. Dr. Christopher Wordsworth, afterwards Bishop of Lincoln, declared the newly-discovered version to be an epitome of the genuine letters made by an Eutychian heretic. This led Cureton to a fuller treatment of the question. He had meanwhile discovered an additional MS. of the three epistles, brought, like the first-named, from the convent of St. Mary Deipara, and dating from at least the ninth century. He now published his great work Corpus Ignatianum (London, 1849), which contains a full treatment of the whole question. Cureton's view was supported by Bunsen and several eminent scholars. But it has failed to hold its ground. Apart from the fact that the seven letters of the Vossian collection were plainly known to Eusebius and Theodoret, they exhibit a perfect unity of authorship and style throughout. Cureton's theory requires us to suppose that the interpolator was able to reproduce in his additions to the letters the most subtle characteristics of language and grammar. A similar difficulty occurs when we examine the relation of Cureton's Syriac version to the Syriac version of the seven letters. The one is plainly derived from the other, and it is far more probable that the Curetonian Syriac version is an abridged form of the Syriac version of the seven letters, than that the latter is an expansion of the former. 

The works of Zahn ( Ignatius von Antiochien, 1873) and of Bishop Lightfoot (Apostolic Fathers, Part II., Ignatius and Polycarp , 1885) have convincingly demon- 


strated the genuineness of the seven letters in the form edited by Voss, as against the claims of the Curetonian letters, and this conclusion has been generally accepted by modern scholars. 

The author of the Long Form probably wrote in Syria in the latter half of the fourth century. He has been identified by Harnack and Funk with the compiler of the Apostolic Constitutions. His doctrinal position is not altogether clear. Funk regards him as an Apollinarian, Lightfoot as slightly leaning to Arianism. His object appears to have been to present, in the name of a primitive father, a conciliatory statement of doctrine to which men of all parties might assent (Lightfoot). 

The Curetonian Syriac version is probably due to the careless abridgment of the letters by some scribe, and represents 'neither epitome nor extract, but something between the two.'[1]  Lightfoot is inclined to assign it to the sixth century. 

[1] Lightfoot, I. p. 325. 

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