Ignatius of Antioch and the Gospel of Matthew

The question of whether Ignatius was familiar with the Gospel of Matthew has been a subject of scholarly dispute for quite a while. Basically, there are two positions taken by mainstream scholars. First, that Ignatius was familiar with the Gospel of Matthew and made good use of it in his own epistles. Second, that Ignatius was familiar with oral traditions similar to, perhaps even related to, the Gospel of Matthew in some way, but that he did not know the Gospel of Matthew itself.

If you want to look into the issue yourself, this website is a useful starting point. It shows, in Greek, the linguistic similarities between Ignatius' letters and the Gospel of Matthew. To see them in English you can check the references and look them up in your Bible and at Peter Kirby's earlychristianwritings.com. Another helpful resource is Eduoard Massaux's excellent study of the apostolic father's use of the New Testament books. Therein, he demonstrates that Ignatius has an affinity for following uniquely Matthean traditions in the gospels. The Influence of the Gospel of Matthew, Vol I, pages 86-96. In his own words:

Saint Ignatius of Antioch undoubtedly knows the Gospel of Mt. More than once, his letters reveal the use of this gospel: the various analyses I have just made establish, in fact, the existence of definite literary depenence on them. He thereby demonstrates a very great familiarity with the gospel. I mentioned two cases of references to Matthew, seven cases of definite literary contact, and five where this contact is quite probable.

Ibid., page 96.

Personally, I have found Massaux's discussion persuasive. But what clinches the case for me is the points of contact identified by the above website and studies like Massaux's in light of the manner in which Ignatius alludes to other literary works. Whether referring to the Old or the New Testament, Ignatius tends not to identify his sources.

Although there is no dispute that he alludes to certain books in the Old Testament, Ignatius does not identify them. Generally, he does not even hint that he is using a source. Of course, there is no dispute as to the preexistence of these works. When it comes to Paul's letters, the evidence is even stronger. For example, Ignatius' citations to 1 Corinthians are overwhelming (at least 46 allusions by one scholar's count). Nevertheless, Ignatius never once identifies the source of these allusions.

Ignatius' failure to attribute explicitly the Old and New Testaments is clear, but its significance may not be. This was not considered plagiarism because everyone was assumed to know the scriptures to which he was referring. The ancients simply had different ideas about citations.

In addition to the failure to attribute his sources, the difficulty in detecting allusions in Ignatius’ letters is compounded by the fact that ancient writers often were quite loose in the use of their source material. As if that was not enough of a problem, the circumstances in which Ignatius wrote his letters were not conducive to accurate citations. Ignatius was not writing from his Bishop’s office in Antioch, with his library of scrolls spread out before him -- a cumbersome effort in the best of circumstances. Rather, Ignatius wrote while traveling – under arrest and in the custody of unfriendly soldiers – to Rome to become a martyr. Due to his circumstances, Ignatius’ allusions were based on memory rather than on close readings. As a result, his allusions tend to be “free and inexact.” Barnett, Paul Becomes a Literary Influence, page 152.

All told, despite all of the impediments to detecting points of literary contact, Ignatius often reveals clear knowledge of particularly Matthean gospel traditions. The best, most simple, explanation for these points of contact is that Ignatius knew the Gospel of Matthew.

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