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The Ancient Church by William Dool Killen


The history of the Ignatian Epistles may well remind us of the story of the Sibylline Books. A female in strange attire is said to have appeared before Tarquin of Rome, offering to sell nine manuscripts which she had in her possession; but the king, discouraged by the price, declined the application. The woman withdrew; destroyed the one-third of her literary treasures; and, returning again into the royal presence, demanded the same price for what were left. The monarch once more refused to come up to her terms; and the mysterious visitor retired again, and burnt the one-half of her remaining store. Her extraordinary conduct excited much astonishment; and, on consulting with his augurs, Tarquin was informed that the documents which she had at her disposal were most valuable, and that he should by all means endeavour to secure such a prize. The king now willingly paid for the three books, not yet committed to the flames, the full price originally demanded for all the manuscripts. The Ignatian Epistles have experienced something like the fate of those Sibylline oracles. In the sixteenth century, fifteen letters were brought out from beneath the mantle of a hoary antiquity, and offered to the world as the productions of the pastor of Antioch. Scholars refused to receive them on the terms required, and forthwith eight of them were admitted to be forgeries. In the seventeenth century, the seven remaining letters, in a somewhat altered form, again came forth from obscurity, and claimed to be the works of Ignatius. Again, discerning critics refused to acknowledge their pretensions; but curiosity was roused by this second apparition, and many expressed an earnest desire to obtain a sight of the real epistles. Greece, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt were ransacked in search of them, and at length three letters are found. The discovery creates general gratulation; it is confessed that four of the Epistles, so lately asserted to be genuine, are apocryphal; and it is boldly said that the three now forthcoming are above challenge. [414:1] But Truth still refuses to be compromised, and sternly disowns these claimants for her approbation. The internal evidence of these three epistles abundantly attests that, like the last three books of the Sibyl, they are only the last shifts of a grave imposture. [414:2]

The candid investigator, who compares the Curetonian version of the letters with that previously in circulation, must acknowledge that Ignatius, in his new dress, has lost nothing of his absurdity and extravagance. The passages of the Epistles, which were formerly felt to be so objectionable, are yet to be found here in all their unmitigated folly. Ignatius is still the same anti-evangelical formalist, the same puerile boaster, the same dreaming mystic, and the same crazy fanatic. These are weighty charges, and yet they can be substantiated. But we must enter into details, that we may fairly exhibit the spirit, and expose the falsehood of these letters.

I. The style of the Epistles is certainly not above suspicion. On the ground of style alone, it is, unquestionably, somewhat hazardous to pronounce a decisive judgment upon any document; but, if such an element is ever to be taken into consideration, it cannot, in this case, be overlooked. It is well known that, of the seven epistles mentioned by Eusebius, there was one which scholars of the highest reputation always regarded with extreme dubiety. In style it appeared to them so different from the rest of the letters, and so unlike what might have been expected from an apostolic minister, that some who were prepared to admit the genuineness of the other documents, did not hesitate to declare it a forgery. We allude to the Epistle to Polycarp. Even Archbishop Ussher and Cardinal Bona [415:1] concurred in its condemnation. It so happens, however, that it is one of the three letters recently re-edited; and it appears that, of the three, it has been the least altered. If then such a man as Ussher be considered a safe and sufficient judge of the value of an ancient ecclesiastical memorial, the Epistle to Polycarp, published by Dr Cureton, must be pronounced spurious. Their editor urges that the letters to the Ephesians and Romans, as expurgated in the Syriac version, now closely resemble the Epistle to Polycarp in style; and if so, may we not fairly infer that, had they been presented, in their new form, to the learned Primate of Armagh, consistency would have bound him to denounce them as also forgeries?

II. The way in which the Word of God is ignored in these Epistles argues strongly for their spuriousness. Every one acquainted with the early fathers must have observed their frequent use of the sacred records. A considerable portion of a chapter is sometimes introduced in a quotation. [416:1] Hence it has been remarked that were all the copies of the Bible lost and the writings of these fathers preserved, a large share of the Holy Volume might thus be recovered. But Ignatius would contribute nothing to the work of restoration; as, in the whole of the three letters, not a single verse of Scripture is given at length. They, no doubt, occasionally use Bible phraseology, as without it an ecclesiastical document could not well be written; but not one promise is quoted, and not one testimony from the Word is repeated for the edification of the faithful. [416:2] An apostolical pastor on his way to martyrdom would have written very differently. He would have reminded his brethren of the |lively oracles,| and he would have mentioned some of those precious assurances which now contributed to his own spiritual refreshment. He would have told them to have |no confidence in the flesh;| [416:3] to take unto themselves |the sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God;| [416:4] and to lay aside every weight and the sin which did so easily beset them, |looking unto Jesus.| [416:5] But, instead of adopting such a course, this Ignatius addresses them in the style of a starched and straitlaced churchman. |Let your treasures,| says he, |be your good works. Let your baptism be to you as armory.| |Look to the bishop that God also may look upon you. I will be instead of the souls of those who are subject to the bishop, and the presbyters and the deacons.| [416:6] What intelligent Christian can believe that a minister, instructed by Paul or Peter, and filling one of the most important stations in the apostolic Church, was verily such an ignorant driveller?

III. The chronological blunders in these Epistles betray their forgery. In the |Acts of the Martyrdom of Ignatius,| he and Polycarp are represented as |fellow-scholars| of the Apostle John, [417:1] and the pastor of Smyrna is supposed to be, in point of age, at least as venerable a personage as the pastor of Antioch. The letter to Polycarp is evidently written under the same impression. Ignatius there says to him -- |I praise God that I have been deemed worthy of thy countenance, which in God I long after.| When these words are supposed to have been penned, Polycarp was only about six and twenty years of age; [417:2] and the Church of Smyrna, with which he was connected, did not occupy a very prominent place in the Christian commonwealth. Is it probable that a man of the mature faith and large experience of Ignatius would have thus addressed so youthful a minister? It also seems passing strange that the aged martyr should commit all the widows of the community to his special guardianship, and should think it necessary to add -- |It is becoming to men and women who marry, that they marry by the counsel of the bishop.| Was an individual, who was himself not much advanced beyond boyhood, the most fitting person to give advice as to these matrimonial engagements? A similar mistake as to age is made in the case of Onesimus, who is supposed to be bishop of Ephesus. This minister, who is understood to be mentioned in the New Testament. [417:3] is said at an early date to have been pastor of the Church of the metropolis of the Proconsular Asia; and the Ignatian forger obviously imagined that he was still alive when his hero passed through Smyrna on his way to the Western capital. But Onesimus perished in the Domitian persecution, [418:1] so that Ignatius is made to write to a Christian brother who had been long in his grave. [418:2] The fabricator proceeds more cautiously in his letter to the Romans. How marvellous that this old gentleman, who is willing to pledge his soul for every one who would submit to the bishop, does not find it convenient to name the bishop of Rome! The experiment might have been somewhat hazardous. The early history of the Roman Church was better known than that of any other in the world, and, had he here made a mistake, the whole cheat might have been at once detected. Though his erudition was so great that he could tell |the places of angels,| [418:3] he evidently did not dare to commit himself by giving us a piece of earthly information, and by telling us who was at the head of the Church of the Great City in the ninth year of the reign of Trajan. But the same prudence does not prevail throughout the Epistle. He here obviously speaks of the Church of Rome, not as she existed a few years after the death of Clement, but of the same Church as she was known after the death of Victor. In the beginning of the second century the Church of the Syrian capital would not have acknowledged the precedence of her Western sister. On the fall of Jerusalem, the Church of Antioch was herself the first Christian community in the Empire. She had a higher antiquity, a more distinguished prestige, and perhaps a more numerous membership than any other Church in existence. In the Syrian metropolis the disciples had first been called Christians; there, Barnabas and Paul had been separated to the work to which the Lord had called them; there, Peter had preached; and there, prophets had laboured. But a century had brought about a wonderful change. The Church of Rome had meanwhile obtained the first place among Christian societies; and, before the middle of the third century, |the See of Peter| was honoured as the centre of catholic unity. Towards the close of the second century, many persons of rank and power joined her communion, [419:1] and her political influence was soon felt to be so formidable that even the Roman Emperor began to be jealous of the Roman bishop. [419:2] But the Ignatian forger did not take into account this ecclesiastical revolution. Hence he here incautiously speaks in the language of his own age, and writing |to her who sitteth at the head in the place of the country of the Romans,| he says to her with all due humility -- |I am not commanding you like Peter and Paul| [419:3] -- |Ye have taught others| -- |It is easy for you to do whatsoever you please.|

IV. Various words in these Epistles have a meaning which they did not acquire until long after the time of Ignatius. Thus, the term employed in the days of the Apostles to denote purity, or chastity, here signifies celibacy. [419:4] Even in the commencement of the third century those who led a single life were beginning to be considered Christians of a superior type, as contrasted with those who were married; and clerical celibacy was becoming very fashionable. [420:1] The Ignatian fabricator writes under the influence of the popular sentiment. |The house of the Church| at Antioch, of which Paul of Samosata kept possession after his deposition about A.D.269, [420:2] seems to have been a dwelling appropriated to the use of the ecclesiastical functionaries, [420:3] and the schemer who wrote the first draft of these letters evidently believed that the ministers of Christ should be a brotherhood of bachelors. Hence Ignatius is made thus to address Polycarp and his clergy -- |Labour together one with another; make the struggle together one with another; run together one with another; suffer together one with another; sleep together one with another; rise together one with another.| Polycarp and others of the elders of Smyrna were probably married; [420:4] so that some inconvenience might have attended this arrangement.

The word bishop is another term found in these Epistles, and employed in a sense which it did not possess at the alleged date of their publication. Every one knows that, in the New Testament, it does not signify the chief pastor of a Church; but, about the middle of the second century, as will subsequently appear, [421:1] it began to have this acceptation. Clement of Rome, writing a few years before the time of the martyrdom of Ignatius, uses the words bishop and presbyter interchangeably. [421:2] Polycarp, in his own Epistle, dictated, perhaps, forty years after the death of the Syrian pastor, still adheres to the same phraseology. In the Peshito version of the New Testament, executed probably in the former half of the second century, [421:3] the same terminology prevails. [421:4] Ignatius, however, is far in advance of his generation. When new terms are introduced, or when new meanings are attached to designations already current, it seldom happens that an old man changes his style of speaking. He is apt to persevere, in spite of fashion, in the use of the phraseology to which he has been accustomed from his childhood. But Ignatius is an exception to all such experience, for he repeats the new nomenclature with as much flippancy as if he had never heard any other. [421:5] Surely this minister of Antioch must be worthy of all the celebrity he has attained, for he can not only carry on a written correspondence with the dead, but also anticipate by half a century even the progress of language!

V. The puerilities, vapouring, and mysticism of these letters proclaim their forgery. We would expect an aged apostolic minister, on his way to martyrdom, to speak as a man in earnest, to express himself with some degree of dignity, and to eschew trivial and ridiculous comparisons. But, when treating of a grave subject, what can be more silly or indecorous than such language as the following -- |Ye are raised on high by the engine of Jesus Christ, which is the cross, and ye are drawn by the rope, which is the Holy Ghost, and your pulley is your faith.| [422:1] Well may the Christian reader exclaim, with indignation, as he peruses these words, Is the Holy Ghost then a mere rope? Is that glorious Being who worketh in us to will and to do according to His own good pleasure, a mere piece of tackling pertaining to the ecclesiastical machinery, to be moved and managed according to the dictation of Bishop Ignatius? [422:2] But the frivolity of this impostor is equalled by his gasconade. He thus tantalises the Romans with an account of his attainments -- |I am able to write to you heavenly things, but I fear lest I should do you an injury.| .....

|I am able to know heavenly things, and the places of angels, and the station of powers that are visible and invisible.| Where did he gather all this recondite lore? Certainly not from the Old or New Testament. May we not safely pronounce this man to be one who seeks to be wise above what is written, |intruding into those things which he hath not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind?| [422:3] He seems, indeed, to have himself had some suspicion that such was his character, for he says, again, to his brethren of the Western metropolis -- |I know many things in God, but I moderate myself that I may not perish through boasting; for now it is becoming to me that I should fear the more abundantly, and should not look to those that puff me up.| Let us now hear a specimen of the mysticism of this dotard. |There was hidden from the Ruler of this world the virginity of Mary, and the birth of our Lord, and the three mysteries of the shout, which were done in the quietness of God by means of the star, and here by the manifestation of the Son magic began to be dissolved.| [423:1] Who can undertake to expound such jargon? What are we to understand by |the quietness of God?| Who can tell how |the three mysteries of the shout| were |done by means of the star?|

VI. The unhallowed and insane anxiety for martyrdom which appears throughout these letters is another decisive proof of their fabrication. He who was, in the highest sense, the Faithful Witness betrayed no fanatic impatience for the horrid tragedy of crucifixion; and, true to the promptings of his human nature, he prayed, in the very crisis of His agony -- |O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.| [423:2] The Scriptures represent the most exalted saints as shrinking instinctively from suffering. In the prophecy announcing the violent death of Peter, it is intimated that even the intrepid apostle of the circumcision would feel disposed to recoil from the bloody ordeal. |When thou shalt be old,| said our Lord to him, |thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not.| [423:3] Paul mentions with thankfulness how, on a critical occasion, the Lord stood with him, and |delivered| him |out of the mouth of the lion.| [423:4] Long after the apostolic age, the same spirit continued to be cherished, and hence we are told of Polycarp that, even when bowed down by the weight of years, he felt it right to retire out of the way of those who sought his destruction. The disciples, whom he had so long taught, took the same view of Christian duty; and accordingly, in the Epistle of the Church of Smyrna, which records his martyrdom, the conduct of those who |present themselves of their own accord to the trial| is emphatically condemned. [424:1] |We do not,| say the believers of Smyrna, |commend those who offer themselves to persecution, seeing the gospel teaches no such thing.| [424:2] But a man who is supposed to have enjoyed far higher advantages than Polycarp -- a minister who is said to have been contemporary with all the apostles -- a ruler of the Church who is understood to have occupied a far more prominent and influential position than the pastor of Smyrna -- is exhibited in the legend of his martyrdom as appearing |of his own free will| [424:3] at the judgment-seat of the Emperor, and as manifesting the utmost anxiety to be delivered into the mouth of the lion. In the commencement of the second century the Churches of Rome and Ephesus doubtless possessed as much spiritual enlightenment as any other Churches in the world, and it is a libel upon their Christianity to suppose that they could have listened with any measure of complacency to the senseless ravings to be found even in the recent edition of the Ignatian Letters. [424:4] The writer is made to assure the believers in these great cities that he has an unquenchable desire to be eaten alive, and he beseeches them to pray that he may enjoy this singular gratification. |I hope,| says he, |through your prayers that I shall be devoured by the beasts in Rome.| [425:1] ... |I beg of you, be not with me in the love that is not in its season. Leave me, that I may be for the beasts, that by means of them I may be worthy of God.... With provoking provoke ye the beasts that they may be a grave for me, and may leave nothing of my body, that not even when I am fallen asleep may I be a burden upon any man.... I rejoice in the beasts which are prepared for me, and I pray that they may be quickly found for me, and I will provoke them that they may quickly devour me.| [425:2] Every man jealous for the honour of primitive Christianity should be slow to believe that an apostolic preacher addressed such outrageous folly to apostolic Churches.

When reviewing the external evidence in support of these Epistles, we have had occasion to shew that they were probably fabricated in the former part of the third century. The internal evidence corroborates the same conclusion. Ecclesiastical history attests that during the fifty years preceding the death of Cyprian, [425:3] the principles here put forward were fast gaining the ascendency. As early as the days of Tertullian, ritualism was rapidly supplanting the freedom of evangelical worship; baptism was beginning to be viewed as an |armour| of marvellous potency; [425:4] the tradition that the great Church of the West had been founded by Peter and Paul was now extensively propagated; and there was an increasing disposition throughout the Empire to recognise the precedence of |her who sitteth at the head in the place of the country of the Romans.| It is apparent from the writings of Cyprian that in some quarters the |church system| was already matured. The language ascribed to Ignatius -- |Be careful for unanimity, than which there is nothing more excellent| [426:1] -- then expressed a prevailing sentiment. To maintain unity was considered a higher duty than to uphold truth, and to be subject to the bishop was deemed one of the greatest of evangelical virtues. Celibacy was then confounded with chastity, and mysticism was extensively occupying the place of scriptural knowledge and intelligent conviction. And the admiration of martyrdom which presents itself in such a startling form in these Epistles was one of the characteristics of the period. Paul taught that a man may give his body to be burned and yet want the spirit of the gospel; [426:2] but Origen does not scruple to describe martyrdom as |the cup of salvation,| the baptism which cleanses the sufferer, the act which makes his blood precious in God's sight to the redemption of others. [426:3] Do not all these circumstances combined supply abundant proof that these Epistles were written in the time of this Alexandrian father? [426:4]

It is truly wonderful that men, such as Dr Cureton, have permitted themselves to be befooled by these Syriac manuscripts. It is still more extraordinary that writers, such as the pious and amiable Milner, [426:5] have published, with all gravity, the rhapsodies of Ignatius for the edification of their readers. It would almost appear as if the name Bishop has such a magic influence on some honest and enlightened Episcopalians, that when the interests of their denomination are supposed to be concerned, they can be induced to close their eyes against the plainest dictates of common sense and the clearest light of historical demonstration. In deciding upon matters of fact the spirit of party should never be permitted to interfere. Truth is the common property of the catholic Church; and no good and holy cause can require the support of an apocryphal correspondence.

It is no mean proof of the sagacity of the great Calvin, that, upwards of three hundred years ago, he passed a sweeping sentence of condemnation on these Ignatian Epistles. At the time, many were startled by the boldness of his language, and it was thought that he was somewhat precipitate in pronouncing such a decisive judgment. But he saw distinctly, and he therefore spoke fearlessly. There is a far more intimate connexion than many are disposed to believe between sound theology and sound criticism, for a right knowledge of the Word of God strengthens the intellectual vision, and assists in the detection of error wherever it may reveal itself. Had Pearson enjoyed the same clear views of gospel truth as the Reformer of Geneva, he would not have wasted so many precious years in writing a learned vindication of the nonsense attributed to Ignatius. Calvin knew that an apostolic man must have been acquainted with apostolic doctrine, and he saw that these letters must have been the productions of an age when the pure light of Christianity was greatly obscured. Hence he denounced them so emphatically: and time has verified his deliverance. His language respecting them has been often quoted, but we feel we cannot more appropriately close our observations on this subject than by another repetition of it. |There is nothing more abominable than that trash which is in circulation under the name of Ignatius.| [428:1]

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