Does Ignatius Demonstrate Reliance on the Acts of the Apostles?

I recently discussed whether Ignatius relied on Paul’s letter to the Ephesians when he wrote his own letters. During my review of the letters and secondary literature, I revisited the issue of Ignatius’s awareness of Luke-Acts. I had previously touched on this issue in my article about the the Acts of the Apostles and concluded that the points of contact were insufficient to establish awareness of Luke or Acts. Upon further review, I believe the issue deserves more in-depth discussion and a stronger case for Ignatius’ dependence on Luke-Acts can be made.

Knowledge of Paul’s Connection with Ephesus

The most important piece of evidence that prompted my review of this issue was Ignatius’ reference to the Ephesian Church and Paul’s martyrdom.

You are a passageway for those slain for God; you are fellow initiates with Paul, the holy one who received a testimony and proved worthy of all fortune. When I attain to God, may I be found in his footsteps, this one who mentions you in every epistle in Christ Jesus. (Ign.Eph., Ch. 12, Loeb Ed.)

Ignatius knew that Paul had a special connection with the Ephesian Church. Standing alone, this fact might be adequately explained by Ignatius’ knowledge of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians and references to the Ephesians in other Pauline letters, such as 1 Corinthians or 1 and 2 Timothy. Or, possibly, there already were widespread traditions about Paul’s missionary activities featuring Ephesus that had circulated among the early churches. But there is more to the story which suggests that Ignatius is referring to a specific event as it is recounted in Acts.

The reference to the the Ephesian Church being “a passageway for those slain for God” and Paul’s connection with that passageway was likely meant to be a reference to Paul’s expected martyrdom, as suggested even more by the reference to Paul receiving a testimony and being proved worthy just after the reference to being a passageway for martyrs. Further, Ignatius describes the Ephesians as being “fellow initiates” with Paul,” further suggesting a connection between Paul’s martyrdom and the Ephesian Church.

A likely candidate as a source for Ignatius’ reference is the scene narrated in Acts 20:13-38. Paul is on his way to Jerusalem, intentionally bypasses Ephesus to save time, and lands in Miletus. Nevertheless, Paul summons the “elders” from the Ephesian Church to meet him in Miletus. Acts then recounts a speech Paul gives to the Ephesian elders that has a sense of foreboding. Paul states that he is “going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there,” yet he expects “prisons and hardships” and persecution by his Jewish opponents. He also refers to “finishing the Race” God has set before him. Acts 20:22-24. Then the Ephesian elders bid Paul farewell with much sadness, “What grieved them most was his statement that they would never see his face again. Then they accompanied him to the ship.” Acts 20:38.

As William R. Schoedel notes, the statement in Acts 20:38 “probably suffices to explain the reference to Ephesus as a highway for martyrs. For the whole passage is highly idealized and tends to make sweeping claims on the basis of few instances.” Ignatius of Antioch, Hermenei, page 73. Paul Trebilco agrees and notes that Ign.Eph. 12.2 “probably refers to Acts 20:38 where the Ephesian elders formally farewelled Paul, aware that they would never see him again. They are also fellow initiates [] with Paul, which again probably simply refers to the strong links Paul has with Ephesus.” Paul Trebilco, The Early Christians in Ephesus from Paul to Ignatius, page 687.

Unlike with many of the other examples of literary dependence in 1 Clement and Ignatius’ letters, we are not dealing here with similarities in vocabulary but with a reference to a particular event reported in a particular way. The question then is whether it is more likely that Ignatius is describing a relationship and event based on the account in Acts or whether he learned about them in some other way.

It is possible that Ignatius knew from other sources that the Ephesian Church had been involved with Paul in some way associated with his martyrdom. However, we have no evidence of a source other than Acts recounting the tradition. We could hypothesize that the Ephesian Church itself publicized this account but again we have no evidence that such was the case. Although Ephesus’ connection with Paul was likely well known, why would that church or others have associated it so closely with what Ignatius took to be a reference to Paul's martyrdom absent the account in Acts? According to Acts, Paul visited many places on his way to Jerusalem, including Corinth, Thessalonika, Miletus and Athens. Indeed, the farewelling of Paul by the Ephesian Church did not even take place in Ephesus. Paul avoided Ephesus on the final leg of the trip to Jerusalem. He met with the Ephesian church’s elders in Miletus.

It seems more likely, therefore, that the special association of Ephesus with Paul’s martyrdom by Ignatius is best explained by the way the scene in Acts 20 is recounted. The uniqueness of the association in Luke-Acts should not be understated. Paul’s farewell speech to the Ephesians has a foreboding note to it. It is also the only speech in Acts in which Paul addresses a Christian audience and the last speech Paul gives before he is arrested in Jerusalem and transported to Rome. Ignatius likely understood it -- as have some others -- to be a reference to Paul's expected death. Even if the connection is not explicit, given Ignatius' own situation he can be forgiven for assuming that the references are to Paul's martyrdom.

It is this last fact that, in my opinion, tips the scales in favor of Ignatius' reliance on Acts 20. The story in Acts about Paul summoning the leaders of the Ephesian church to visit him and its perceived relationship to Paul's martyrdom has interesting similarities to Ignatius’ own situation. Ignatius was on his way to martyrdom in Rome as well. Like Paul, he did not travel to Ephesus but met a delegation from the church in Ephesus (not in Miletus but in Smyrna). This may explain why Ignatius wrote that when he "attains to God, may he be found in [Paul's] footsteps." He related his own situation to that of Paul, on the passageway to martyrdom and sharing that road with the Ephesian Church in the same manner as Paul. All told, it is more likely that Acts 20 is the source of Ignatius' references in Chapter 12 than a more general tradition associating Paul with Ephesus.

Reliance on Luke-Acts’s Passion and Resurrection Narratives

The second issue that caused me to rethink my initial dismissal of the idea that Ignatius demonstrated awareness of Luke-Acts is three to four points of apparent contact between Ignatius’ letters and the Passion and Resurrection Narratives as recounted in Luke-Acts. What is most interesting and, perhaps, telling about these connections is that Ignatius seems to demonstrate awareness of features of Luke-Acts’ recounting of Jesus’ death and resurrection that are found in none of the other Gospels.

First, Ignatius notes that Jesus was crucified “under Pontius Pilate and Herod the tetrarch” in Ign.Symrn. 1.2. Luke is the only Gospel that associates Herod with Jesus’ crucifixion, as recounted in Luke 23:7-12. Although Herod is mentioned in other Gospels, they nowhere associate him with the trial or death of Jesus. Further, Luke-Acts references Herod as tetrarch on four occasions (three times in Luke, once in Acts). He is not described as tetrarch in Mark or John. Matthew refers to Herod as tetrarch once, but not in connection with the Passion Narrative.

Second, Ignatius refers to Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance to the disciples and invitation to touch his physical body as evidence of his material, rather than ephemeral, form. Symrn. 3.1-2 (“For I know and believe that he was in the flesh even after the resurrection; and when he came to Peter and those with him, he said to them: 'Take hold of me; handle me and see that I am not a disembodied demon.'”). In Luke 24:39, Jesus appeared post-resurrection to the disciples and stated, “Behold my hands and my feet, that is it I Myself. Handle me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.” Eduoard Masaux calls this a “striking parallel” and notes that both authors use the same Greek expression for “Handle me and see". Edouard Massaux, The Influence of the Gospel of Saint Matthew on Christian Literature Before Saint Irenaeus, page 98. Massaux advises caution because Eusebius was unsure of the source of Ignatius’ reference but in my opinion this makes Luke all the more likely as there are no other likely candidates known to Eusebius. More to the point, Luke is the only Canonical Gospel that includes a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus were Jesus emphasizes his corporeality by inviting His followers to "Handle me and see."

Third, Ignatius refers to Jesus’ post-resurrection meal with His followers, with emphasis on his eating and drinking. Symrn. 3.3 (“And after his resurrection he ate and drank with them like one who is composed of flesh, although spiritually he was united with the Father.”). There are two candidates from Luke-Acts that recount a similar occasion. Acts 10:41 states, “He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.” As for the Gospel of Luke, Luke 24:30-34 recounts how after the resurrection Jesus joined his disciples, who did not at first recognize him, for a meal and broke bread and handed it out. Thereafter, in Luke 24:41-43, Jesus returns, shows his hands and feet (as discussed above), and eats broiled fish “in their presence.”

The vocabulary of Acts is more similar, but the event recounted in Luke could also explain the reference, as it is meant to carry the same significance. Massaux leans towards “a literary contact with Acts” instead of Luke. Massaux, op. cit., page 99. So too does Richard Rackham (“His statement that after the resurrection (the Lord) ate with them and drank with them as being of flesh (Smyrn. 3) seems based on Acts x 41.”). The Acts of the Apostles, page xv. Linguistically the reference is closer to Acts, but Acts is likely a summary that references the occasion in Luke 24. At the very least, therefore, we have a likely literary contact with Acts recounting a tradition also preserved in Luke, but in none of the other Canonical Gospels.

Finally, there is a possible literary contact between Ignatius’ letter to the Magnesians and Acts. In Magn. 5.1 Ignatius writes, “all things have an end, two things together lie before us, death and life, and everyone will go to his own place.” In Acts 1:25, the same phrase is used and associated with death, but is specifically associated with Judas’ betrayal: “to occupy this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place." Standing alone, it is not strong evidence of dependence, but it adds at least minor cumulative weight to the overall case given its uniqueness to Luke-Acts, association with the Passion and Resurrection Narratives, and similar vocabulary.

Other Possible Points of Contact

Although the reference to Ephesus’ association with Paul’s martyrdom and references to facts unique to Luke-Acts’ passion and resurrection narratives are the strongest part of the case, there are at least two other possible points of literary contact which are worth mentioning. The first is another passage from Ignatius’ letter to the church in Smyrna. At Smyrn. 10.2, Ignatius writes, “May my spirit be a ransom on your behalf, and my bonds as well which you did not despise, nor were you ashamed of them. Nor will the perfect hope, Jesus Christ, be ashamed of you.” This idea of having shame for Jesus being reciprocated by shame from Jesus is also found in Luke 9:26 (“If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.”).

Another possible contact arises from Ignatius’ comment in Polycarp 2:1, that “If you love good disciples, it is no credit to you; rather with gentleness bring the more troublesome ones into submission.” This sounds similar to Luke 6:32, which states, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.” Although the sentiment is similar, this is not a strong literary parallel.

Neither of these two examples, or some others rated as a "D" (which the Oxford Society of Historical Theology describes as "those books which may possibly be referred to, but in regard to which the evidence appeared too uncertain to allow any reliance to be placed upon it"), add much to the case other than to allow for the possibility of broader familiarity once a meritorious case for dependence elsewhere is made.


A good case can be made for Ignatius' awareness of Luke-Acts. The two strongest factors weighing in favor are the apparent familiarity with the scene in Miletus found in Acts 20 and the three to four points of contact with events unique to the Passion and Resurrection Narratives in Luke-Acts. Although the points of strong vocabulary similarities are few -- though present -- the familiarity with scenes recounted in Luke-Acts but not in any other likely source make the case for dependence more likely than the case against it.


JD Walters said…
Excellent new entry in this series, Chris. Personally I find the parallels with the Luke-Acts passion narrative to be the most convincing, but as you say establishing a strong likelihood of dependence in some cases leads to a more favorable assessment in others where points of contact are less secure.
Vinnie said…
"""""Massaux advises caution because Eusebius was unsure of the source of Ignatius’ reference but in my opinion this makes Luke all the more likely as there are no other likely candidates known to Eusebius. More to the point, Luke is the only Canonical Gospel that includes a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus were Jesus emphasizes his corporeality by inviting His followers to "Handle me and see." """""""

"However, Origin connects these words to the Doctrina Petri; Eusebius says that he doe not know the source of Ignatius' text; and Jerome states that the passage in Ignatius is drawn from the Gospel of the Hebrews. In the end, Massaux concludes that the tradition of these Church Fathers makes literary dependence on Luke doubtful." --- Bellinzoni in Trajectories by Gregory and Tuckett.

I have been toying with an HJ historicity argument on the basis of the gospel parallels in 1 Clement, Ignatius, at al. that are not demonstrably dependent upon the synoptic traditions. Though Ignatian dependence on Luke is by no means exhaustively ruled out.

Vinnie said…
I think tis a good idea to balance Massaux with Koester. Bellinzoni has several good articles commenting on and summarizing them.
Layman said…
I don't think an otherwise plausible case can be made for dating either the Doctrine of Peter or the Gospel of the Hebrews earlier enough for them to be a source for Ignatius.

And to be clear, Origen does not attribute the Ignatius statement to the Doctrine of Peter. He notes that the Preaching of Peter contains a reference to Jesus saying he was not a bodiless demon. De Princ. praef. 8. Just as important, the rest of the passage similar to Luke-Acts is not mentioned at all.

We should also keep in mind that Jerome wrote around 300 years later. I'm skeptical he had any independent tradition ascribing the Ignatius' reference to the Gospel of the Hebrews. He likely was mistaken about which came first -- there was plenty of confusion about the source and even distinctions among those Aramaic or Hebrew language gospels -- and zeroed in on the reference to the "demon" without a body.

Luke-Acts is a much more likely candidate than either of these two, especially given the other points of contact with the passion narrative in Luke-Acts and with, IMO, Acts 20.

As for Massaux, I balance him with a number of other sources, including Hagner, The Oxford Historical Theological Society, Gregory and Tuckett, and Barnett.
Vinnie said…
I wanted to see your response. I haven't gotten to Ignatius yet. Still on 1 Clement which I am finding to be independent of the gospels. I'll come back and comment when I move to Ignatius and take your arguments into consideration with the other works I use as preliminaries the YABD and the Dictionary of Later NT and Developments and then Koester, Massaux, Apostolic Fathers in NT which I believe is your Oxford rererence, Bellinzoni, and Gregory and Tucket, etc)...the last reference I don't have I use google books... to browse through parts...

Vinnie said…
Oh and GHebrews can dated anywhere from 50 to 150. Mention by Ignatius is not ruled out by the accessibility criteria any more than the synoptics are though in their case we at least have other good arguments for dating them this early without using Ignatius.
Layman said…

Saying that something can date over a 100 year stretch is not to say that all points on the graph are equally likely. I have seen little reason to date the GH nearly that early but much more reason to date Luke-Acts before 100 AD.
Vinnie said…
I have seen no reason to date GH early or late that convinces. It is an open question AFAIAC. But if you know of reasons to suggest that it should be late then I would like to know them.


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