Ehrman on the long recension of Ignatius

Some busy days have prevented me getting to grips with Ehrman’s Forgery and counterforgery.  My query about the Apollinarians earlier today led me back to it, as a Google link brought me to the Google Books version, where I found material on the long recension of the letters of Ignatius of Antioch.  I thought that I would review this section, therefore.

Pages 460-480 are headed “the pseudo-Ignatian letters”.   Let’s have a quick refresher on the background.

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.

E. begins by stating more or less what I have told you, and then discusses the discovery in the 17th c. by Archbishop Ussher that the long version had been tampered with, and the recovery of the short version.  He then moves on to discuss the author, summarising the scholarship of Lightfoot and others, and including the recent (1975) work of D. Hagedorn suggesting that the interpolator is the same as the author of a commentary on Job attributed to Origen.[1]

E. usefully describes the argument that the commentary author may be an otherwise unknown Julian of Antioch, so named in 1 manuscript of a catena which sometimes ascribes the work to “Julian” — the abbreviated designations in catenae are a nuisance! — and whose name is, we are told, present in the prologue.  E. tells us that Hagedorn thought that the two works are by the same author, as well as the Apostolic Constitutions, a church order of the same period, introducing itself as from the apostles.  Usefully he tells us why the commentary and the AC should be associated: “…35 points of contact … precisely the same topics, using precisely the same somewhat unusual expressions” and then that verbatim similarities of wording show that the author of the long recension and the commentary must be the same.  The argument is, on the face of it, a reasonable one; although arguments based on similarities are notoriously subjective, and can easily give false positives.  The Arian nature of the Commentary is also explained — the author rejects both homoousios and homoiousios, which marks him plainly as an Arian.

However E. then goes on to address objections to the identification without actually making clear what those objections are.  The main objection is that the long recension is not markedly Arian, while the Commentary makes its loyalties quite clear.  This E. evades by appealing to the idea that the author might have developed his views.  So he might; but the reader deserves to have the objection stated plainly.  To his credit E. makes clear that there is anti-Arian seeming material in the long recension.

The next section is entitled “Purpose of the forgeries”.  It is hard to say why somebody composed the long recension, for the obvious reason that we know nothing for certain about the author (aside from the proposals of Hagedorn), and certainly not what his motivations were. E. proceeds to discuss this by suggesting that much of the material is written as if from a 2nd century outlook, and attack various heresies of the period, as listed in the stock anti-heretical treatises of the 4th century.  All this material is useful, and E.’s acknowledgement of Lightfoot is generous.

But at this point E.’s over-emphasis on “forgery! forgery!” causes the reader confusion.  E. tells us that the author must have wanted to put forward his own theological position.  This is probable enough, to be sure; but it tells us little, for the same is true of most authors, and we have already seen that we don’t know for sure what the author’s theology was, unless we accept Hagedorn’s theory.  Worse, it is speculation.  We don’t know what the author wanted: we can only infer.

Next he tells us that the author is:

… clearly engaged, consciously, in the act of forgery…

But surely we do not know this?  It is likely enough, again; but we actually know nothing about the origins of the long recension, nothing about its author, and treating theory as fact is for politicians, not scholars.

E. however believes that we know the author intended forgery because of the author’s “attempts at verisimilitude” and because some of his alterations to the genuine text are “highly significant”.  The logic is not easy to follow here.

The first point will make little sense to us unless we realise that E. is trying throughout his book to argue that small personal details in letters, far from being indications of authenticity, are in fact indications of forgery — he is, inevitably, thinking primarily of reasons to debunk the N.T. here.  Such broadbrush arguments are not impressive: if I write a letter, or a blog post, what I put in it depends on who I write to and what I have to say, and how I feel.  It would be unwise for E. to assign posts on this blog as “authentic” or “interpolated”, based on such a criterion.

The second point is left unclear; but E. then devotes a couple of pages to “important features” of the long recension, which is probably intended as explanation.  Unfortunately it is not easy to follow the argument, nor the connection to what precedes and follows it.  Lack of focus is a failing of this book throughout.  It makes it very hard to read a work critically, when the subject drifts off into points whose connection with the topic is tenuous.  Here E. has been poorly served by his publisher, who should most certainly have edited it more tightly.

He then moves onto some work of his own, looking for theological battle-cries in the text of the long recension (including changes to Ignatius’ own wording) and finding many phrases which sound a bit heretical, in one way or another, notably with a subordinationist flavour.  These ought to be tabulated, not left in the body of the text.  But this leads the reader nowhere; the text again loses focus and drifts off into a very vague discussion of whether the author might or might not be an Arian, and might be addressing somebody unknown rather like Marcellus of Ancyra.  This takes up most of the remainder of the section, and might perhaps be useful to someone interested in the long recension.  As E. rightly remarks, a thorough study would be nice to have.

One defect in this last section of the text is that E., on p.476, having already presented his data on fingerprint phrases on p.470-4, then starts to list further pieces of data.  This is very naughty.  Any critical reader will demand all of the data first; and then the theory later.  For to mingle the two makes it hard for the reader to evaluate the argument.  Indeed doing so is a trick of polemicists to shut down disagreement; and again the publisher should have caught this.

The discussion of the long recension is a bit waffly.  The bits that are good are mainly by others, and the bits that are original are not that well structured.  But on the whole it’s a useful summary.

  1. [1]E. does not give the full bibliographic reference: it is Dieter Hagedorn, Der Hiobkommentar des Arianers Julian, Patristische Texte und Studien, 14, Berlin: deGruyter, 1975.

2 thoughts on “Ehrman on the long recension of Ignatius

  1. We know only a little of “Roger Pearse”, from the early third millenium. Frustratingly few fragments of the Google “search engine database” survived the catastrophic events of 2050.

    This fragment of writings about patristics is attributed to Roger, but new accusations have arisen that documents were being systematically corrupted by a global computer virus in the moments before the catastophic collapse of all electronic equipment, making our task more difficult. We therefore don’t know if it was the content of an email, an official record of conversation, or a “blog post” (a form of self-publishing available to users of “the Internet” in Roger’s day).

    We are left to survey its contents for more clues.

    It appears to be a reference to a contemporaneous author known only as “Ehrman”. Clearly a close personal friend of Roger’s, because he addresses the man only by this simple appellation, presumably his first name because the full name is never given, and it is abbreviated to “E.”, a form of address which implies intimacy.

    It is a cutting critique, in which the author is apparently questioning Ehrman’s accusations of forgery in early Christian documents. We don’t have access to any of the source documents, including Ehrman’s document, so it is difficult to measure the voracity of Roger’s claims.

    We don’t know what has caused this bitter rivalry between close friends, but closer study leads us to important conclusions about this text. In short, there are parts of this tirade which appear to have been inserted, because the language is remote, lacking the familiarity that such close friends would normally have used in the early 2000’s. In addition, if the rest were authentically Roger, the last sentence would clearly be a redaction as it vitiates the entire piece.

    I therefore summarise my findings as follows:

    1. It is an email received by a third person, who is a close personal friend both of Roger and Ehrman.
    2. The recipient of the email is supposed to infer from it that there is bitter rivalry between Roger and Ehrman.
    3. Roger did not write the email.

    I tentatively suggest that this forgery was constructed by Ehrman himself, and that the recipient of the email is an unspecified woman, for who’s affections both men were competing. Ehrman was attempting to discredit Roger, and to win her heart by appearing to be a victim of a callous tirade. The final sentence is an indication that Ehrman could not suffer his ego to remain so bruised, even by the literary Roger of his own invention, and so he could not resist congratulating himself as a final vindication.

    We can only hope that the best man won the girl.

  2. LOL.

    It is, sadly, all too easy to parody the nest of speculation which tends to make up bad scholarship. The thing to remember is that this process is not scholarship as a whole, but bad scholarship; and that there is good scholarship.

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