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Ignatius and Jewish Christianity

As we have seen earlier, the epistle of James gave us the views of Jewish Christians around the end of the first century CE. The epistles of Ignatius give us a glimpse the views on the opposite side of the Jewish-Gentile divide around the same time.

  • Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, was a Gentile who was steeped in Pauline Christianity.

  • Two of his letters contain references to Jewish Christians:

  • In conclusion we can say that Jewish Christians were still around in Asia Minor around the beginning of the second century CE but were probably in the minority and were being forced to abandon their adherence to the Mosaic laws by their Gentile counterparts.

Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch

This is what the Church historian, Eusebius (c260-c340) told us about Ignatius (d c110):

History of the Church 3:36:2-4
And at the same time [During the reign of Trajan 98-117 -PT] ... Ignatius,... was chosen bishop of Antioch... Report says that he was sent from Syria to Rome, and became food for wild beasts on account of his testimony to Christ. And as he made the journey through Asia under the strictest military surveillance, he fortified the parishes in the various cities where he stopped by oral homilies and exhortations, and warned them above all to be especially on their guard against the heresies that were then beginning to prevail, and exhorted them to hold fast to the tradition of the apostles. Moreover, he thought it necessary to attest that tradition in writing, and to give it a fixed form for the sake of greater security.

Thus we are told that during the reign of Trajan, Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, was arrested and escorted to Rome where he was martyred. Along the way he wrote seven epistles. The seven epistles were written to the churches in Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, Rome, Philadelphia, Smyrna and a personal letter to Polycarp (c69-c155 CE). The first four were written while he was in Smyrna and the last three were written while he was at Troas. Most historians date these letters to around 110 CE. Nothing is known about Ignatius prior to these seven letters, and nothing further is known about him (except the obvious extrapolation that he was martyred in Rome) after he had written them. [1]


Probable Travel Route of Ignatius from Antioch to Rome
[Based on Staniforth & Louth, Early Christian Writings, p54]

Ignatius was a Pauline Christian. In his epistle to the Ephesians, this is what he wrote: [2]

Ephesians 12 [a]
You are initiates of the same mysteries as our saintly and renowned Paul of blessed memory (may I be found to have walked in his footsteps when I come to God!), who has remembered you in Christ Jesus in every one of his letters.

Our interest here is in knowing how an early second century Pauline Christian viewed Jewish Christianity. This we shall see below.

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The Epistle to the Magnesians

Ignatius did not pass through Magnesia on his travel through Asia Minor. While at Smyrna, he was visited by the Magnesian bishop, Damas. (Magnesians 2) The letter to the Magnesians was written in acknowledgement of the bishop's visit. [3] One of the problems the church in Magnesia had was with Jewish Christians. He spoke about the Jewish Christians in Magnesians 8-10.

For Ignatius Jewish laws had no place in Christianity:

Magnesians 8
Never allow yourselves to be led astray by false teachings and antiquated and useless fables. Nothing of any use can be got from them. If we are still living in the practice of Judaism, it is an admission that we have failed to receive the gift of grace.

Magnesians 10
To profess Jesus Christ while continuing to follow Jewish customs is an absurdity. The Christian faith does not look to Judaism, but Judaism looks to Christianity...

From the passages above it is clear that the problems were not with Jews but Jewish-Christians; for Ignatius wrote about people who were "professing Jesus" while continuing to "follow Jewish customs" (Magnesians 10).

The epistle also tells us that Jewish Christians observed the Sabbath but some had converted to Pauline Christianity:

Magnesians 9
We have seen how former adherents of the ancient customs have since attained a new hope; so that they have given up keeping the Sabbath, and now order their lives by the Lord's day instead.

This tells us that Christian churches allied with Ignatius no longer observed the Sabbath but had switched to using Sunday as a day to "order their lives". The obvious corollary is that Jewish Christians who had not converted to Ignatius' brand of Christianity continued to observe the Sabbath. When this information is coupled with Magnesian 8 & 9, we can surmise that the Jewish Christians continued to "practice Judaism" (Magnesian 8) and "follow Jewish customs". [4]

He also hinted the Jewish Christians did not identify themselves as Christians: [5]

Magnesians 10
[L]et us learn to live like Christians. To profess any other name but that is to be lost to God...

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The Epistle to the Philadelphians

This epistle was written while Ignatius was in Troas. He had passed through Philadelphia on his way there and obviously wrote the letter based on what he had personally witnessed while he was there. One of the problems here, as it was in Magnesia, was with Jewish Christians. We will look at the relevant passages below. [6]

Philadelphians 6
[I]f anyone should make use of them to propound Judaism to you, do not listen to him. Better hear talk of Christianity from a man who is circumcised than of a Judaism from one who is not-though in my judgment they are both alike...Shun such knavish wiles...

From this we can surmise that at least some of those who adhered to Jewish Christianity remained Gentiles, they were uncircumcised but were still "preaching Judaism." [7] This brings to mind the so-called Apostolic Decree (Acts 15:20) (the prohibitions which were rejected by Paul-see I Corinthians 8:7-8 and 10:19-29) where Gentiles were allowed to be followers of the teachings of the Jerusalem Church if they follow the Noachide Commandments (Genesis 9:1-11).

Ignatius' admonition to "shun such kvanish wiles" can be interpreted in a couple of ways. The first interpretation would be he was simply calling for a stop on "preaching Judaism". However the readers of his epistle are more likely the ones on the receiving end of such preaching ("If anyone...propound Judaism to you"). Thus the second interpretation, that Ignatius was telling his audience to avoid, or to ostracize, those who continued to "preach Judaism", is more likely. [b]

Philadelphians 8
Certain people declared in my hearing, "Unless I can find a thing in our ancient records, I refuse to believe it in the Gospel"; and when I assured them that it is indeed in the ancient scriptures, they retorted, "That has got to be proved".

The passage above shows us a couple of things. Firstly, the possessive "our ancient records" shows us that the "certain people" Ignatius was writing about were ethnic Jews. Since Ignatius was writing to the Christian congregation(s) in Philadelphia these Jews must have been part of that group-hence they were Jewish Christians. Coupled with the other passage we quoted earlier we can conclude that the Jewish Christian faction in Philadelphia consisted of uncircumcised Gentiles (who observed the Apostolic Decree) and circumcised Jews.

Secondly, the fact that these Jewish Christians refused to believe anything in "the Gospel" that was not grounded in the Old Testament, tells us that there are some disagreements over doctrine between the Pauline Christians and the Jewish Christians. [8] It should be remembered, of course, that "the Gospel" did not mean a written gospel like Matthew or Mark but the preaching about Jesus. We can surmise from here that it would have been very difficult for Ignatius to preach his Pauline "law-free" gospel by depending on the Old Testament alone!

Philadelphians 3-4
But make no mistake, my brothers; the adherents of a schismatic can never inherit the kingdom of God. Those who wander in outlandish by-ways of doctrine must forfeit all parts in the Lord's passion. Make certain, therefore, that you all observe one common Eucharist;

Here we are told that the "schismatic" do not observe a common Eucharist with the main congregation (which obviously consisted of Pauline Christians). Since the main "schismatic" touched on in the letter were the Jewish Christians, we can extrapolate that the reason why they did not share a common Eucharist was probably due to their restrictive food laws. [9] Again this is reminiscent of the incident at Antioch (Galatians 2:11-14) where Paul had a falling out with Peter due to the problem with Gentile food.

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Discussion and Conclusions

As we can see from the map above, Ignatius passed through Philadelphia, but not Magnesia, on his way to Rome. His information about Magnesia came to him "second hand", through Damas, the Magnesian bishop. Thus it is highly likely that in his advice to the Magnesians, he was supplementing his knowledge about the Jewish Christians using what he had personally witnessed in Philadelphia. We are therefore justified in combining what we can derive from these two epistles for our knowledge about Jewish Christians around that region during the early years of the second century CE. [10]

We can deduce a few things about Jewish Christians in Asia Minor from these two epistles of Ignatius:

  • They viewed the Old Testament as the test by which the gospel of Jesus must pass before it can be believed. (Philadelphians 8)

  • They continued to adhere to Jewish customs. We are told they continued to observe the Sabbath (Magnesian 9) and, probably, continued to observe kashrut, which prevented them from sharing a Eucharist with the Gentile Christians.(Philadelphians 3-4)

  • The Jewish Christian faction probably did not call themselves Christians (Magnesians 10)

  • The tone of Ignatius' writings suggests that these were internal problems of the Christian congregations there, it is highly probable that the Jewish Christians were still in "fellowship", or at least still in contact, with their Gentile Pauline counterparts.

We can also deduce that the developing Pauline, Gentile "proto-orthodox" were applying pressure on the Jewish Christians to give up their Jewish practices:

  • Ignatius rejoiced that some of them had given up Sabbath observations. (Magnesian 9)

  • By asking the Gentile Christians to observe "one common Eucharist", a situation had arisen where Jewish Christians who wanted to remain in contact with their Gentile counterparts were forced to give up their food taboos. (Philadelphians 3-4)

  • The fact that some Jewish Christians required proof from the Old Testament about the "Gospel" means that the Pauline Christians were engaging in debates with them on doctrinal issues which almost certainly would have included the issue of Jewish customs. (Philadelphians 8)

  • Apart from engaging in debates, the call for Gentiles to "shun such knavish wiles" may include ostracizing those who continued to "preach Judaism". (Philadelphians 6)

In conclusion we can say that although there still were Jewish Christians in Asia Minor at the beginning of the second century CE, they were probably in the minority and were being pressured by the more numerous Gentile Christians to abandon their adherence to the Mosaic Laws.

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Notes

a.Quotations from the Ignatian Epistles are taken from Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers by Maxwell Staniforth & Andrew Louth, Penguin, London 1987
b.Although Ignatius did talk about "unity" a little later, it probably applies only to those who "shun such knavish wiles" and may not include the Jewish Christians.

References

1.Ferguson (ed), Encyclopedia of Early Christianity: p559
Staniforth & Louth, Early Christian Writings: p55
2.Goulder, St. Paul vs. St. Peter: p114-115
3.Staniforth & Louth, op. cit.: p70
4.Sanders, Schismatics, Sectarians, Dissidents, Deviants: p159-160
Wilson, Related Strangers: p164-165
5.Brown & Meier, Antioch & Rome: p80
6.Staniforth & Louth, op. cit.: p92
7.Wilson, op. cit.: p164
8.Goulder, op. cit.: p116
9.Sanders, op. cit.: p187-188
10.Wilson, op. cit.: p164

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