Ignatius of Antioch’s New Testament

Detail from Uncial 076 (Gregory-Aland), Greek manuscript of the New Testament (5th or 6th century). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Detail from Uncial 076 (Gregory-Aland), Greek manuscript of the New Testament (5th or 6th century). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

It is sometimes falsely claimed that the Church arbitrarily selected the 27 books of the New Testament in the fourth century.

While it is true that the 27 books of our New Testament were not formally recognized as ‘the New Testament’ until near the end of the fourth century, and our earliest canon list containing the exact 27 books in our New Testament today didn’t appear until A.D. 367, the choice of which books made the final ‘cut’ was not at all arbitrary. It was based on the books which earlier Christian writers and theologians had regarded as authoritative in their time.

One such writer was Ignatius, bishop (or overseer) of the church at Antioch in Syria at the beginning of the second century. By analyzing the use he makes of the New Testament books in the seven letters he wrote just before his martyrdom around A.D. 107, we can see what were the apostolic writings he considered authoritative, divinely-inspired writings.

For a brief history of how the New Testament canon came about, please refer to The Lion Handbook: The History of Christianity (©1977, 1990 Lion Publishing, Oxford), 1996 paperback edition, pp.130-136. For an online reference see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Development_of_the_New_Testament_canon.

Some difficulties

“One of the issues we face in asking the question, ‘What were the New Testament books which Ignatius was using?’ is that it is not always easy to tell when Ignatius is alluding to a particular passage, or when he is directly quoting a passage from the New Testament.”

One of the issues we face in asking the question, “What were the New Testament books which Ignatius was using?” is that it is not always easy to tell when Ignatius is alluding to a particular passage, or when he is directly quoting a passage from the New Testament. (Remember that ancient Greek didn’t have speech marks!)

Thus, in the table below I have had to use a certain amount of discretion in deciding whether some words by Ignatius were an allusion to, a direct quotation of, or merely a possible quotation of/allusion to, some New Testament text.

Another difficulty — but also a blessing — is that Ignatius was so close in time to the apostles themselves (the last of the twelve apostles, John, is generally believed to have died around A.D. 95), is that we can’t always be sure whether a ‘New Testament allusion’ isn’t actually a reference to the oral tradition of the apostles. This is particularly so when Ignatius ‘quotes’ the writings of the Apostle John, since he is believed to have known John personally.[1]

Thus when we try to reconstruct what were the New Testament books which Ignatius had before him, and regarded as authoritative, inevitably we face uncertainty in some cases.

Nevertheless, even if we meet with uncertainty around the edges, what is clear from an analysis of his seven letters is that he was definitely familiar with a substantial part of what we now call the New Testament, and apparently already regarded these writings as authoritative.

Note: In considering Ignatius’ citations of and allusions to the New Testament, we will use the ‘shorter’ Greek form of his letters, which is generally considered to be the authoritative version. This ‘shorter’ form of his letters can be found in my The Shorter and Syriac Epistles of Ignatius, available on Amazon.

1. Direct quotations from the New Testament

The table below gives the (more or less certain) direct quotations by Ignatius from books of the New Testament, in the standard Western order of the New Testament:

PassageReference from
Matthew 10:16Ep. to Polycarp 2
Matthew 12:33Ep. to Ephesians 14
Matthew 16:26Ep. to Romans 6
Matthew 19:12Ep. to Smyrnaeans 6
John 3:8Ep. to Philadelphians 7
Romans 1:3Ep. to Ephesians 20; to Romans 7; to Smyrnaeans 1
1 Corinthians 1:10Ep. to Ephesians 2
1 Corinthians 1:20Ep. to Ephesians 18
1 Corinthians 4:4Ep. to Romans 5
2 Corinthians 4:18Ep. to Romans 3
Ephesians 5:2Ep. to Ephesians 1
Ephesians 5:25Ep. to Polycarp 5
Table 1. Direct quotations by Ignatius from the books of the New Testament
 

2. Allusions to texts of the New Testament

The table below gives the (more or less certain) allusions by Ignatius to books of the New Testament, again in the standard Western order of the New Testament:

PassageReference from
Matthew 2:1-2Ep. to Ephesians 19
Matthew 3:15Ep. to Smyrnaeans 1
Matthew 6:6,18Ep. to Magnesians 3
Matthew 18:19Ep. to Ephesians 5
Matthew 23:27-29; Luke 11:44-48Ep. to Philadelphians 6
Matthew 24:45Ep. to Ephesians 6
Matthew 26:7-12; Mark 14:3-8Ep. to Ephesians 17
Matthew 27:52Ep. to Magnesians 9
Luke 3:1Ep. to Smyrnaeans 1
John 1:1; 1 John 1:1-2; etc.Ep. to Magnesians 8
John 6:32-33Ep. to Romans 7
John 6:35Ep. to Romans 7
John 6:53-56Ep. to Romans 7
John 6:53Ep. to Magnesians 5
John 12:31; 14:30; Ephesians 2:2Ep. to Ephesians 17; and passim throughout his letters
Romans 1:4Ep. to Smyrnaeans 1
Romans 2:16Ep. to Philadelphians 7
Romans 8:17Ep. to Smyrnaeans 4
1 Corinthians 1:18,23Ep. to Ephesians 18
1 Corinthians 4:13Ep. to Ephesians 18
1 Corinthians 6:9,10Ep. to Ephesians 16
1 Corinthians 6:19Ep. to Ephesians 15; to Philadelphians 7
1 Corinthians 7:10Ep. to Trallians 6
1 Corinthians 10:31Ep. to Polycarp 5
1 Corinthians 15:8-9Ep. to Romans 9
1 Corinthians 15:9Ep. to Trallians 13
1 Corinthians 16:18Ep. to Ephesians 2
Galatians 1:1Ep. to Philadelphians 1
Galatians 1:11-12Ep. to Philadelphians 7
Ephesians 5:1Ep. to Ephesians 1
Ephesians 6:19-20Ep. to Philadelphians 7
Philippians 4:13Ep. to Smyrnaeans 4
Colossians 1:23Ep. to Ephesians 10
1 Thessalonians 5:17Ep. to Polycarp 1
1 Timothy 1:1Ep. to Magnesians 11; to Trallians, Introduction & 2
1 Timothy 1:3; 6:3Ep. to Polycarp 3
1 Timothy 1:5Ep. to Ephesians 14
1 Timothy 1:14Ep. to Ephesians 14
2 Timothy 1:6Ep. to Ephesians 1
2 Timothy 3:6Ep. to Philadelphians 2
1 Peter 2:5Ep. to Ephesians 9
1 John 3:6,9Ep. to Ephesians 14
Table 2. Allusions by Ignatius to the books of the New Testament
 

3. Possible quotations from, and allusions to, the New Testament

Finally, the table below gives the remaining possible quotations from, and allusions to, books of the New Testament from Ignatius’ writings. The level of probability of these possible quotations and allusions is somewhat variable; the interested reader is asked to judge each instance on a case-by-case basis, using the translation of his letters to which I referred above.

PassageReference fromReference type
Matthew 1:1Ep. to Romans 7Possible allusion
Matthew 5:13; Mark 9:49-50Ep. to Magnesians 10Possible allusion
Matthew 7:15; Acts 20:29Ep. to Philadelphians 2Possible allusion
Matthew 27:51; Mark 15:38; Luke 23:45Ep. to Philadelphians 9Possible allusion
Luke 24:39Ep. to Smyrnaeans 3Possible quotation
John 12:32Ep. to Ephesians 9Possible allusion
2 Timothy 1:10Ep. to Philadelphians 9Possible allusion
Titus 3:13Ep. to Romans 9Possible allusion
Philemon 8,9Ep. to Ephesians 3Possible allusion
Hebrews 11:39-40Ep. to Philadelphians 5Possible allusion
James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5Ep. to Ephesians 5Possible quotation
James 1:16Ep. to Ephesians 16Possible quotation
James 1:16; 1 Corinthians 15:33Ep. to Philadelphians 3Possible quotation
1 John 5:20Ep. to Smyrnaeans 4Possible allusion
Table 3. Possible quotations of, and allusions to, books of the New Testament by Ignatius
 

Conclusions

New Testament books known to Ignatius

Based on the (more or less certain) direct quotations and allusions (Tables #1 and #2, above), we can confidently say that Ignatius had in his possession — or was very familiar with — the following books of the New Testament:

  • Matthew (4 direct quotations + 8 allusions)
  • Luke (1 clear allusion)
  • John (1 direct quotation + 6 allusions[2])
  • Romans (3 direct quotations + 3 allusions)
  • 1 Corinthians (3 direct quotations + 10 allusions)
  • 2 Corinthians (1 direct quotation)
  • Galatians (2 allusions)
  • Ephesians (2 direct quotations + 2 allusions)
  • Philippians (1 allusion)
  • Colossians (1 allusion)
  • 1 Thessalonians (1 allusion)
  • 1 Timothy (6 allusions)
  • 2 Timothy (2 allusions)
  • 1 Peter (1 allusion)
  • 1 John (1 allusion)

(15 books)

“The evidence is particularly conclusive for Matthew, John, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Ephesians and 1 Timothy. There really can be no doubt at all that Ignatius was familiar with these six books.”

Although based on these quotations and allusions we can be confident that Ignatius was familiar with the above books, the evidence is particularly conclusive for Matthew, John, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Ephesians and 1 Timothy. There really can be no doubt at all that Ignatius was familiar with these six books.

Moreover, based on possible quotations and allusions, we can say that Ignatius may have been familiar with these New Testament books in addition[3]:

  • Mark (2 possible allusions)
  • Acts of the Apostles (1 possible allusion)
  • Titus (1 possible allusion)
  • Philemon (1 possible allusion)
  • Hebrews (1 possible allusion)
  • James (3 possible quotations)

(6 books)

What this means is that within Ignatius’ surviving writings we have quotations from, or allusions to, somewhere between fifteen and twenty-one of the 27 books of our New Testament.

“Within Ignatius’ surviving writings we have quotations from, or allusions to, somewhere between fifteen and twenty-one of the 27 books of our New Testament. To see such a degree of collection of these writings already to have taken place by this time truly is remarkable.”

This is remarkable. Ignatius’ seven letters by no means constitute a huge body of writings; it is quite possible to read through all of them in about an hour.

And it shows an impressive degree of collection of the apostolic writings already to have taken place by the first decade of the second century. Remember that there was no such thing as printing during this age; copying of books was laborious and expensive. Nor were there any ‘bound’ copies of the entire New Testament, such as we have today. Remember also that many of the books of the New Testament were originally written to specific contexts — e.g., to the church in a particular city. To see such a degree of collection of these writings already to have taken place by this time truly is remarkable.

New Testament books not referred to by Ignatius

If of the 27 books of the New Testament, between fifteen and twenty-one are referred to by Ignatius in these seven letters, that leaves the following six books to which no discernible reference is made:

  • 2 Thessalonians
  • 2 Peter
  • 2 John
  • 3 John
  • Jude[4]
  • Revelation

It is worth noting that, aside from Revelation, these books are all among the shortest in the New Testament (three of them are only a single chapter!), and it therefore should not surprise us if we find no discernible reference to them in such a small body of writings.

This doesn’t, therefore, mean that Ignatius was unfamiliar with some or all of the above books; remember, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. It simply means that we do not have any positive evidence that he was familiar with these six books.

Contemporary significance

There is a great deal of value, in several ways, to our possessing these seven letters. For one, they make a significant contribution to our understanding of the development of the New Testament canon.

“These letters cut the ground from under the contemporary myth that the list of New Testament books simply came about by ‘fiat’ of some emperor or other in the fourth century.”

Perhaps one of the most important contributions which these letters — and their use of what we now call the New Testament — make, is that they cut the ground from under the contemporary myth that the list of New Testament books simply came about by ‘fiat’ (authoritative decree) of some emperor or other in the fourth century (usually Constantine is mentioned, quite unjustifiably).

Rather, what we see in Ignatius’ use of these books — and in his contemporary Clement of Rome’s use of them — is that certain writings from a very early period were regarded as authentic productions of the pen of those who had known Jesus, and therefore as carrying apostolic authority.

Thus, when the canon of 27 books reached its final shape towards the end of the fourth century, it wasn’t some arbitrary choice — “we like those, but don’t like those” — rather, it was simply confirming and approving the books which had always been regarded as authoritative scripture by the majority of the Christian Church throughout the preceding ages.

“[T]here is one God, who has manifested himself by Jesus Christ his Son, who is his eternal Word, not proceeding forth from silence…”

Ignatius, Epistle to the Magnesians, chapter 8

These letters also cut the ground away from the related myth, that the Emperor Constantine (or anybody else in the fourth century) ‘wrote back’ the divinity of Jesus into the New Testament. The idea that statements in the New Testament affirming the divinity of Jesus could have been ‘written back’ at such a late date is preposterous when we see Ignatius, in his Epistle to the Magnesians, directly allude to John 1:1-2,

“[T]here is one God, who has manifested himself by Jesus Christ his Son, who is his eternal Word, not proceeding forth from silence…”
Epistle to the Magnesians, chapter 8

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.
John 1:1-2[5]

What this tells us, is that there are good, sound historical reasons why Christians accept the 27 books of the New Testament as authoritative, apostolic, and divinely-inspired writings.

Why not read some of those writings during this Christmas season? You can find a Bible, quite inexpensively, in most high street bookstores or online from such outlets as 10ofThose.com.

 

My recently published translation of the seven letters of Ignatius, The Shorter and Syriac Epistles of Ignatius, is available on Amazon.

 

 

Note
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Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 


[1] Ignatius of Antioch, Graham Harter, Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, A. Cleveland Coxe, The Shorter and Syriac Epistles of Ignatius. 2018: p.7

[2] For the purposes of this count, I am treating his frequent references to “the prince of this world,” which allude to John 12:31; 14:30; Ephesians 2:2, as a single reference.

[3] These possible allusions and quotations supply additional evidence in support of some of the books of the New Testament we have already confidently asserted were known to Ignatius. For simplicity, I have not mentioned this additional support for the books already listed.

[4] Some regard a reference in his Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, chapter 7, as a reference to the early Christian practice of agapae, love-feasts, and thus a possible allusion to Jude 12. However, the evidence is extremely slender: he is as likely referring merely to the practice as to any written text. I have discounted it for the purposes of this analysis.

[5] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+1%3A1-2&version=ESVUK

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