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Kirchengeschichte: Alte Kirche, Christliche Archäologie


Brent, Allen


Ignatius of Antioch. A Martyr Bishop and the Origin of Episcopacy.


London-New York: T & T Clark 2007. XII, 180 S. 8°. Geb. £ 55,00. ISBN 978-0-567-03200-3.


James Carleton Paget

In a recent monograph (Ignatius of Antioch and the Second Sophistic [Tübingen 2006]), and a series of articles, Allen Brent has sought to explain the origins of the distinctive ecclesiology of Ignatius of Antioch by reference to the religio-political culture evidenced in the Greek states of the Second Sophistic. The present volume seeks to make these highly original conclusions accessible to a broader public.
B. begins his discussion with what he sees as the earliest en­gagement with the so-called Ignatian problem. This he places in the ferment of the middle 17th century as clerics and others debated the issue of the correct governance of the Anglican church. Those who favoured an Episcopal polity pointed to early Christian documents which seemed to support their position. In this context Ignatius’ letters, dated traditionally to the reign of Trajan (see Eusebius, HE 3.21–22 and 26) in the early first century, and thought to reflect ›apostolic‹ testimony, played a significant role. However, as all of those who have studied Ignatius’ letters know, there existed two corpora of the letters, one, the so-called ›middle recension‹, consisting of seven letters, and another, evidenced since the Mid­dle ages, consisting of 13 letters. To complicate matters further, the middle recension existed in a shorter and longer form. After pre­sent­ing this ›problem‹ succinctly, B. shows how Archbishop James Us­sher, on basically text-critical grounds, defended the legitimacy of the middle recension. While Ussher’s arguments, published in 1644, did not convince all, his detailed detective work ensured, as B. notes, that »all future attacks on the authenticity of the letters were to be directed against that (the middle) recension« (8). B. then adds a brief account of what information this collection of the letters gives us about Ignatius, ending the chapter with a list of questions which emerge from such an account, questions which form the Ignatian problem and which bear principally on the question of the origin (and authenticity) of the church order to which the letters witness. The remaining chapters are, then, an attempt to answer this problem through an as yet overlooked lense.
In chapter 2 B. tackles at some length the problematic issue of the relationship of Ignatius to his own Antiochene community. Amongst other things B. argues that the origin of Ignatius’ condemnation lies in part at least in a dispute between Ignatius and his own community about the question of the governance of the church, in particular as this related to the resolution of disputes. In this context should the church ascribe more importance to the views of Christian charismatics or to church officials like presbyters and bishops? These tensions between differently conceived forms of government, implicitly evidenced in the redactional seams of Matthew’s Gospel, itself a product of Antioch according to B., and more explicitly in the composite Didache, form the background to Ignatius’ own solution conceived in terms of the one bishop. B. here notes two things: first, that Ignatius’ own solution did not assume the absolute power of a monarch bishop (he notes that the presbytery are included together with the bishop as the object of the submission of the laity [see Magnesians 2]); and secondly, that Ignatius’ attempt to introduce the idea of the monepiscopate drew on Hel­len­istic ideas of ›homonoia‹ or ›concord‹, a concept that had played a significant role in treaties between disputing city states. Ignatius’ suggestion clearly did not produce harmony in his own community, and the dispute that Ignatius’ views elicited »spilled over into pagan, civil society« (42); and led to his arrest by the Roman magis­trate and Ignatius’ quick dispatch to Rome. On his way to Rome, his opponents in Antioch relented and the argument for a single, Petrine bishop was accepted.
In chapter 3 B. attempts to show how this transformation occurred by arguing for the view that Ignatius creates a self-image of himself as martyr by turning his journey to Rome into a martyr procession. In this context B. shows how Ignatius’ presentation of himself as a ›peripsema‹ or scapegoat (Ephesians 21.1) serves to re­lieve tensions within the Antiochene community; and how, perhaps more significantly for B., this same sacrificial language builds on the idea of the ›sunthusia‹ or ›joint sacrifice‹, which ambassadors between cities during the Second Sophistic would make to pro­mote ›homonoia‹. In this reading Ignatius’ journey to Rome, which itself involves the sending of ambassadors between the different churches, becomes like a procession of ambassadors between city states creating harmony as they move along. »Thus Ignatius in his writ­ing activity and in his designation of members that have joined this procession as ›divine ambassadors‹ proclaiming a message of ›peace‹ and ›homonoia‹ within and between ekklesiai is very much paralleling contemporary pagan political structures and enterprise …« (63–64). Ignatius’ striving for ecclesial unity parallels, then, similar attempts to create unity amongst Greek city states. B. goes on to argue that the Hellenistic structure that he is outlining should not be conceived of in secular terms. So, for instance, the koinon, or common association of Ephesus was a religious institution whose base was in the mystery religions, »whose processions formed a considerable part of the festal life of those cities, and which were be­com­ing associated with the imperial cult …« (66). It is precisely the relationship between these cultic processions and the thought world of Ignatius’ letters, with their strong emphasis on things that are common (koinos) which B. will develop in the next chapter.
B. begins chapter 4 by arguing for the mystery-related language of Ignatius, placing particular emphasis on Ignatius’ assertion in Ephesians 9.2 that »You are all cult associates (›sunodoi‹)«; and upon what he takes to be Lucian of Samosata’s covert reference to Ignatius in his Peregrinus 11 as a ›thiasarchos‹ or cult leader. He then goes on to note what went on in these cultic processions, noting how the leader of the procession was a cult leader who bore the im­age (tupos) of the gods of the mystery in his garland-crown, or as medallions on his chest or as portable images in his hands and thus the priest became the god whose image he bore and how priests bore portable images of gods. »Thus we see«, writes B. »how images or tupoi can either be carried or worn as an icon of divinity being made present in the office of a pagan priest in a procession« (77); or put more extravagantly, »the priest became the god whose image he bore« (151). B. also notes how what we would term a sacramental quality to this ceremony (the unity of the city state was symbolized in what was done and the unity thus symbolized was effected). In this view the rites of an elite, expressed in a public ceremony, came to involve a community and express the unity of their common life. B. then goes on to show how Ignatius makes use of the ideology and implicit theology of these cult processions in his letters, how this elucidates Ignatius’ description of himself (and the bishop more generally) as ›theophoros‹ at the beginning of each letter, and of those who associate with him (note in particular Ephesians 9.2 and its reference to fellow cult bearers, temple bearers, Christ bearers and bearers of holy things). More importantly, he shows how Ignatius’ understanding of the eucharist in which the church gathers together with its bishop, presbyters and deacons gives Christian liturgical expression to elements of the pagan mystery cult’s ideol­ogy. »Thus Ignatius had the vision of an ekklesia reconstituted as a mystery cult that achieved both union with the divine and concord or homonoia between different congregations and within congregations bearing the common Christian name. In this way the Eucharist as a mystery play would overcome the divisions of the church at Antioch …, and wherever divisions were reflected in church life elsewhere.« (94)
In chapter 5 B. shows how the original conclusions he has out­lined in the previous chapters bear upon recent attacks on the authenticity of the Ignatian. Here he concentrates on five theories associated with R. Weijenborg, J. Rius-Camps, R. Joly, T. Lechner, and R. Hübner and M. Vinzent. In a helpful way, B. introduces the complexities of each of these theories, and then proceeds to their dismantlement. Notable in this discussion is B.’s attempt to show how Rius-Camps’ view that the forger of the middle recension was dependent for his views on the Didascalia betrays a failure on the part of Rius-Camps to note that the former text has in fact misun­derstood Ignatius’ concept of church order precisely because its author does not realise that it has its origins in the Greek mystery cults. B. also makes plain an obvious point but one that needs to be emphasised that any view of the middle recension as a late second century or later forgery has to contend with the fact that Ignatius’ understanding of episcopacy does not promote the view that be­came customary in the church that the bishop was the successor of the apostles. »As we have seen, the bishop’s function is to preside at the Eucharist as an image or icon (tupos) of God the Father … We are never told how the bishop is appointed.« (127)
Emerging in part out of the discussion of authenticity, comes a detailed engagement with the role of Polycarp and his epistle in the whole Ignatian problem (all those who oppose the authenticity of the middle recension either hold this letter with its reference to letters of Ignatius [Philippians 13.1–2] to be interpolated or a forgery). After giving a plausible explanation as to how, on the basis of the evidence in Polycarp’s Philippians, Ignatius’ letters could have been collected together (B. is clear that there were originally more than the seven we have), he approaches one of the central problems in the Polycarp/Ignatius discussion, namely that Polycarp does not witness to Ignatius’ church order, preferring to refer to himself as ›Polycarp and his fellow presbyters‹ (Philippians, Pref.). B. is clear that potentially this is a considerable problem but it is only a prob­lem, he argues, if we assume that the letters of the middle recension »presupposed an established church order into which all around him (Ignatius) would already have fitted« (150), which, of course, had been the view of those ideologically motivated critics of the 17th century like Ussher. But that is precisely what should not be assumed, claims B. Ignatius in his complex weaving of an enacted procession, elements of pagan mystery cults, and distinctively Christian ideas, was in the process of creating reality, not reflecting it. So when, for instance, he calls Polycarp a bishop, he is anticipating a reality; and the same idea applies to his dealings with others he calls bishops. People who arrived with Ignatius as ›presbyters‹ and ›deacons‹ found themselves recast in the mould of his rhetoric, a point B. expands upon at some length, showing in the process how facets of what Ignatius is asserting are lost on Polycarp.
The final chapter attempts to show how the argument of B.’s book supports what he, B., has argued for earlier, namely a serious call for the establishment of cultural rather than geographic bi­shops.
This is a strikingly original and imaginative book which provides a fascinating solution to an apparently intractable problem. Its strength lies not simply in its originality but in the importance it attaches to the wider cultural (and pagan) world out of which Ignatius emerges. While some might deem B.’s discussion of the Second Sophistic a little inadequate (the emphasis of his discussion is al-most entirely political), he shows how engagement with that period should be an important task of the early patristic scholar intent upon explaining the emergence of Christianity in the second century. Ignatius emerges from this work as the radical transformer of the language and cultic habits of his background. Moreover, in his stim­ulating attempts to lead us into Ignatius’ transformative project, B. presents us with a very different image of Ignatius than the one we are often presented with. Perhaps, most intriguingly, his work has helped us to make sense of why it was that apparently as innovative a man as Ignatius apparently failed to influence later developments of church order – his radical reworking of a particular cultural world was either anathema to or lost upon later generations.
In criticism some might wonder whether B. has too easily mixed and blended language from the pagan mysteries and public ceremonial. There were, he claims, overlaps but were these as extensive as he wants us to believe? One reviewer of an earlier essay of B. in a larger volume on the Apostolic Fathers has wondered whether some of his attempts to align language in Ignatius with the mystery cults is a forced. So, for instance, when he argues that ›tupos‹ is often used of the divine figures portrayed on the crowns of pagan priests, and makes this central to his understanding of the description of the bishop as ›eis tupon theou‹ ( Magnesians 6.1), has B. not made too specific language that is in fact quite general in its use; and that all Ignatius is in fact doing here is making the bishop a model of God, the presbyters a model of the apostles and the deacons a model of Christ? We might also wonder how reliant B. is for his understanding of Ignatius as a cultic leader upon his view, following some others, that the description of Peregrinus as ›thiasarches‹ in Lucian’s work of that name is in fact a reference to Ignatius. Finally, we might ask whether B. has not made Ignatius too innovative, and forced himself into artificial interpretations of passages which seem to assume the presence of a bishop (see Ephesians 2.3 and Trallians 1.1). B.’s view that Ignatius is creating a reality with his ›procession‹ to Rome is brilliant but difficult straightforwardly to sustain on the basis of the text, although here we might argue that he is merely responding to the odd discrepancy between Ignatius’ claim that Polycarp is a bishop and Poly­carp’s own view that he is a presbyter.
Some of these questions might be partially answered by referring to B.’s study of 2006, referred to above, and those stimulated by his work would do well to go there to see his arguments worked out in greater detail. More comments could be made but it would be quite wrong to end on a critical note. B.’s work on Ignatius, found here, and in many other places, constitutes a powerful and invigorating new reading of this strange material which no future Ignatian scholar can afford to ignore.