St. Ignatius of Antioch, a disciple of the Apostle John, wrote a series of letters somewhere about c. 107-110, en route to his martyrdom in Rome. These letters are richly Catholic, so much so that the Reformer John Calvin was convinced that they couldn’t be authentic. I mentioned this on the radio recently, and a listener wrote in to ask:
I heard you on Catholic Answers yesterday, and enjoyed the informative show. I am a Protestant far along on the road into the Catholic Church. I heard your message about Ignatius of Antioch and The Real Presence, and his letter to Smyrna on the road to his martyrdom. Then I read his letter to the Smyrnaeans.
Your blog noted John Calvin calling the letter to the Smyrnaeans into question, as if it were not authentic. I too am a lawyer and am eager to know more about the authenticity of the letter to the Smyrnaeans concerning the Eucharist. The letter is compelling on its own. The letter, if authentic, is doubly compelling given Calvin’s response to it.
Can you shed light on the question of the letter’s authenticity please? What are those proofs?
I’d be happy to, but I have to warn you that this story has a lot of twists and turns.
I. The Three Collections of Ignatius’ Letters
There were false letters claiming to be from St. Ignatius of Antioch (you can read them here, if you would like, but again: they’re spurious). These forgeries are themselves ancient, so Catholics and Orthodox for centuries believed that Ignatius of Antioch had written 13 letters. Protestants, including Calvin, often rejected all 13, since they seemed too Catholic. Today, nearly everyone agrees that there are 7 letters (called the “Middle Recension”) which were altered in the late fourth century (creating what’s called the “Long Recension,” a blend of real and pseudo-Ignatius). So here’s the threefold distinction:
- Long Recension – These were the 13 letters attributed to Ignatius of Antioch. Copies of this Long Recension are found in both Greek and Latin. It includes both altered versions of Ignatius’ actual letters and entirely-spurious letters.
- Middle Recension – These are the seven Ignatian letters now recognized, nearly-universally, as authentic.
- Short Recension – There are Syriac collections with very abbreviated versions of Ignatius’ letters. These were likely just translations / summaries into Syriac. (You don’t need to know about this, but I just include it for the sake of thoroughness).
In the Greek manuscript tradition we find numerous manuscripts of a collection of 13 letters attributed to Ignatius of Antioch, the apostolic father. This is known as the long recension; for 7 of these letters have reached us, but only just, in a handful of manuscripts in a shorter version, which we will refer to as the short version. The differences between the two seem to relate to late 4th century theological arguments, with an Apollinarian or Arian tinge. Finally there is a Syriac epitome of 3 of the letters, and I have seen a reference in Aphram Barsoum to Syriac texts of other letters.
The Anglican J.B. Lightfoot, no great fan of Catholic (whom he terms “Romanists”) nevertheless concedes that “throughout the thirteen letters the same doctrines are maintained, the same heresies assailed, and the same theological terms employed. In this respect no difference can be traced between the two sets of epistles.” So while there may have been theological reasons (responding to the Apollinarian or Arian heresies) for the forgery of the additional 6 letters, nothing theological (between Catholics and Protestants) turns on these spurious letters. Anything that Protestants would object to in the six false letters is also found in the seven genuine letters.
In other words, the fact that the Middle Recension is authentic should give Protestants serious pause, since it disproves many Protestant theories about the nature of the early Church.
II. Jaroslav Pelikan on the Scholarly History
Jaroslav Pelikan (1923-2006) was a Lutheran pastor, scholar and historian who, in 1998, converted to Eastern Orthodox. Nearly three decades before that, in 1969, he wrote a book called Development of Christian Doctrine: Some Historical Prolegomena. In it, he has an honest and relatively-detailed history of the controversy over the letters of Ignatius. He shows how the discovery and confirmation of the seven authentic Ignatian letters owes a great deal to Protestant scholars willing to follow the evidence wherever it led, even when it undermined their own theology or views of Church history. Although I agree with the vast majority of what he says, I want to nuance a couple of points, so I’ve added a few footnotes of my own [I’ve also removed his own extensive footnotes, which are present at the link for anyone interested]:
A brief reference to two celebrated instances from the history of philological research in the fathers during the past one hundred years will illustrate some of the subtle interrelations between denominational loyalty and historical-literary investigation.
The first is the question of the authenticity of the traditional version of the seven epistles of Ignatius of Antioch. In the first edition of Newman’s Essay these epistles were the chief proof for the development of “theological science” during the period immediately after the apostles. The epistles have been transmitted in three divergent manuscript traditions. The generally accepted text or “middle recension” of the seven epistles is represented in such witnesses as the so-called Medici manuscript in Florence, although this important manuscript happens to contain only six of the seven epistles in Greek. The “long recension,” present in both Greek and Latin manuscripts, is an extremely expanded version of the seven epistles, with several epistles added. There is also a recension much shorter than the first, available in a Syriac translation.
It has been agreed since Ussher [James Ussher, 1581-1656, Anglo-Irish bishop and scholar] that many of the other epistles circulating under the name of Ignatius during the Middle Ages were not authentic. But there has been no such agreement on the authenticity of the received text of the seven epistles of Ignatius. Because this text showed such an advanced stage of doctrinal development in its emphasis on the hierarchical nature of the Church and made such explicit reference to the authority of the bishop, certain Protestant scholars insisted that this version could not have been written by Ignatius, who died during or shortly after the first decade of the second century, perhaps as early as 107. Most Roman Catholic scholars, on the other hand, “maintained the authenticity and integrity of the twelve epistles of the Long Recension.” Each side began with a set of presuppositions and decided the question of authenticity in a way that was consistent with these. 
But it was not quite that simple. For while the polemical historians were exchanges theses, antitheses, and hypotheses, other historians were patiently at work sorting out the documentary evidence and drawing reasonable conclusions from it. John Pearson, an Anglican scholar, published in 1672 a careful defense of the authenticity of all seven epistles, which had been attacked by the French Calvinist, Jean Daillé. In 1845, the same year as Newman’s Essay, the conflict over the Ignatian epistles erupted again, as a result of the discovery and publication by the Anglican scholar, William Cureton, of the Syriac version of three epistles of Ignatius – those to Polycarp, to the Ephesians, and to the Romans – which were the only epistles he was willing to acknowledge as authentic. Once more, other Protestants joined the campaign against the traditional version of the epistles while Roman Catholics defended it, both sides on confessional grounds; and Newman was moved to write his provocative epigram: “The interpolated Epistles… are too Scriptural to be Apostolic.” 
Again it was Protestant historical scholarship that vindicated the authenticity of the seven epistles. Theodor Zahn, an orthodox Lutheran, published his defense in 1873. And from 1885 to 1889, Joseph B. Lightfoot, by then the Anglican bishop of Durham, wrote the definitive analysis of the evidence, together with a detailed history of the research into it. The highly developed hierarchical conceptions of the bishop of Antioch were not at all congenial to Zahn, nor even to Bishop Lightfoot, just as, for that matter, the omission of references to the primacy of the bishop of Rome in the epistles of Ignatius was a puzzle to his Roman Catholic interpreters. But both Zahn and Lightfoot developed their literary, textual, and historical analysis with such careful attention to methodology and sound scholarship that there is now virtually unanimous acceptance of the seven epistles in their middle recension. The dispute was not settled by a priori theories about doctrinal development on either side, but by philological history and honest historical research into the facts of the development.
1. I’d be cautious about making too much of the symmetry that Pelikan leans on, because there’s an important difference: the Catholic claim would certainly be aided if some of the pseudo-Ignatian letters turned out to be genuine, but no Catholic claim relied upon them. In contrast, the authenticity of the seven letters of the Middle Recession really does invalidate Protestant claims about the nature of the early Church.↩
2. Cardinal Newman’s argument is actually a great counter-example to the pattern that Pelikan describes, in which Protestants and Catholics decide the case based on whether it helps or hurts them. Newman argued that sometimes the evidence was just too good to be true, saying in his An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine:
“Thus it is possible to have too much evidence; that is, evidence so full or exact as to throw suspicion over the case for which it is adduced. The genuine Epistles of St. Ignatius contain none of those ecclesiastical terms, such as ‘Priest’ or ‘See,’ which are so frequent afterwards; and they quote Scripture sparingly. The interpolated Epistles quote it largely; that is, they are too Scriptural to be Apostolic.”↩
3. Actually, in the authentic version of Ignatius’ letter to the Romans, he refers to the church of Rome as the church “worthy of God, worthy of honour, worthy of the highest happiness, worthy of praise, worthy of obtaining her every desire, worthy of being deemed holy, and which presides over love” (or “presiding in love”). This is less explicit than the sort of papal description given later in the second century (c. 180) by St. Irenaeus of Lyons, but it’s hardly on the level of ‘puzzling omission.’↩
III. J.B. Lightfoot on the Scholarly History
Pelikan mentioned how important J.B. Lightfoot was for the authentication of seven Ignatian letters. Lightfoot (1828-89) was an Anglican bishop and has been described as “the most famous New Testament scholar of the 19th century in the English-speaking world. His commentaries on Paul’s letters in the New Testament and the Apostolic Fathers are especially well-known.” It is in his commentary on the Apostolic Fathers that he goes into this question. His point is mostly to show that the Longer Recension is wrong, but in the process, he defends the Middle Recension:
To the critical genius of Ussher [James Ussher, 1581-1656, Anglo-Irish bishop and scholar] belongs the honour of restoring the true Ignatius. As I have already stated , he observed that the quotations of this father in certain English writers from the thirteenth century onward agreed with those of the ancients, and he divined that in England, if anywhere, copies of the original form of these epistles would be found. He made search accordingly, and his search was successful. He discovered two Latin MSS [manuscripts], containing a text of which the Long Recension was obviously an expansion, and agreeing exactly with the quotations in Eusebius [c.260-c.340, considered the first Church historian], Theodoret [393-c. 466, bishop and theologian], and others. There could be no doubt then, that this Latin translation represented the Ignatius known to the fathers of the fourth and fifth centuries. But the Greek text was still unknown; and Ussher could only restore it from the Long Recension with the aid of his newly discovered Latin version, by lopping off the excrescences and otherwise altering to bring it into conformity thereto.
Ussher’s book appeared in the year 1644. Altogether it showed not only marvellous erudition, but also the highest critical genius. It was however marred by one blot. Though Eusebius mentions seven epistles of S. Ignatius, Ussher would only receive six. The exception was the Epistle to Polycarp, which he condemned as spurious. […] This part of Ussher’s theory was almost universally rejected, as it deserved to be; but his main argument was irrefragable, and those who have since attempted to reinstate the Long Recension have beaten their heads against a stone wall.
As yet however the original Greek of the Middle Recension was not forthcoming. Ussher had heard of a MS [manuscript] in the Medicean Library at Florence, which promised to supply the deficiency, but had not succeeded in getting a transcript. The discovery however was not long delayed. Two years after the appearance of Ussher’s work, Isaac Voss published six out of the seven epistles of the Middle Recension from this Florentine MS; which the absence of the seventh – the Epistle to the Romans – was easily accounted for by the fact that the MS was imperfect at the end, so that this epistle (as in the corresponding Latin) must have been incorporated in the Acts of the Martyrdom of the saint, with which the volume would close, and both together must have disappeared with the missing sheets. About half a century later the missing Greek Acts of Ignatius with the incorporated Epistle to the Romans were discovered in a MS belonging to the Colbert collection  and published by Ruinart (Paris A.D. 1689) in his Acta Martyrum Sincera. Thus the Greek text of the seven epistles of the Middle Recension was completed.
So you can see how the Ignatian letters were authenticated: first, by carefully looking at how other Church Fathers (and later writers) quoted these texts. That gave us a sense of what the texts must have looked like at the time. This then led to a hunt for the unaltered texts, which quickly led to their discovery in Latin in the Medici’s library in Florence, followed by Greek versions of the same unaltered letters.
IV. Why This Matters
So what does all of this mean, practically-speaking? The Reformers weren’t unreasonable in rejecting Ignatius’ letters, given what they knew in the 16th century. Counterfeit letters existed, and the Humanist scholars of the Renaissance had discovered that many letters long assumed to be from the Church Fathers were actually forgeries. As we’ve seen, there were even counterfeit letters of St. Ignatius mixed in with his real letters. So it’s easy to see why someone like Calvin would laugh off citations to Ignatius as a joke.
But now we know to a high degree of certainty, on the basis of careful scholarship and critical analysis, that these seven letters of Ignatius are authentic. This means that the Bishop of Antioch, a disciple of the last living Apostle (John), really did write somewhere about 107-110 to say things like this, condemning the Gnostics for not believing that the Eucharist was really the Flesh of Jesus Christ:
They [the Gnostics] abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again. Those, therefore, who speak against this gift of God, incur death in the midst of their disputes. But it were better for them to treat it with respect, that they also might rise again. It is fitting, therefore, that you should keep aloof from such persons, and not to speak of them either in private or in public, but to give heed to the prophets, and above all, to the Gospel, in which the passion [of Christ] has been revealed to us, and the resurrection has been fully proved. But avoid all divisions, as the beginning of evils.
And this, calling for all Christians (upon risk of damnation) to be in total union with the bishop, and celebrate the Eucharist only within his communion:
Keep yourselves from those evil plants which Jesus Christ does not tend, because they are not the planting of the Father. Not that I have found any division among you, but exceeding purity. For as many as are of God and of Jesus Christ are also with the bishop. And as many as shall, in the exercise of repentance, return into the unity of the Church, these, too, shall belong to God, that they may live according to Jesus Christ. Do not err, my brethren. If any man follows him that makes a schism in the Church, he shall not inherit the kingdom of God. If any one walks according to a strange opinion, he agrees not with the passion [of Christ.].
Take heed, then, to have but one Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup to [show forth ] the unity of His blood; one altar; as there is one bishop, along with the presbytery and deacons, my fellow-servants: that so, whatsoever you do, you may do it according to [the will of] God.
And this, distinguishing between bishops and presbyters (a distinction denied by Calvin and by many modern Protestants):
For, since you are subject to the bishop as to Jesus Christ, you appear to me to live not after the manner of men, but according to Jesus Christ, who died for us, in order, by believing in His death, you may escape from death. It is therefore necessary that, as you indeed do, so without the bishop you should do nothing, but should also be subject to the presbytery, as to the apostle of Jesus Christ, who is our hope, in whom, if we live, we shall [at last] be found. It is fitting also that the deacons, as being [the ministers] of the mysteries of Jesus Christ, should in every respect be pleasing to all.
Many Protestants make historical claims about how Christ founded the pure, Apostolic Church but that this Church slowly fell away from the truth: either after Constantine legalized Christianity in the fourth century, or during the so-called “Dark Ages,” etc., then corruption slowly crept in. The Apostolic Church, it is claimed, had a body of “presbyter-bishops,” governing the church by committee. These committees were slowly replaced by individual bishops (even though we have no record of a single church recording such a takeover!); meanwhile, superstitions like the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist crept in.
Ignatius shows that all of these historical claims are pure fiction. Ignatius isn’t inventing belief in the Real Presence or in the distinction between the bishop and presbyters, or about the necessity to be in union with the visible Church (in the person of the bishop) for salvation. He’s speaking to people who already believe this, and speaking to them within a few years of the death of the Apostle John.
For Protestants to be right on these questions, we would have to assume that (a) the Church fell into heresy almost immediately and universally after the death of St. John, and (b) that modern Protestants understand Apostolic theology better than the men who sat at the feet of the Apostles. But those assumptions beggar belief. So we now know what Calvin did not: that his beliefs about the early Church are demonstrably false, and point to the fact that his theology is demonstrably false.