Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Biblical imagery in Ignatius' letter To the Ephesians

Yesterday as I sat in the lobby of my doctor's office I picked up Ignatius' epistle To the Ephesians (as one does). I continue to be impressed by the freedom Ignatius apparently feels vis-à-vis Hebrew biblical traditions, at least compared to the constraint (I think that's the word I want) other authors exhibited to live within a world defined by those traditions. Paul may have written his letters in Greek, and the evangelists (or someone[s] before them) may have translated the sayings from and stories about Jesus into Greek, but Ignatius seems to be transposing the gospel into another cultural-linguistic system rather than simply translating. Here, perhaps, is yet another example:
1 Ἄμεινόν ἐστιν σιωπᾶν καὶ εἶναι, ἢ λαλοῦντα μὴ εἶναι, καλὸν τὸ διδάσκειν, ἐὰν ὁ λέγων ποιῇ. εἷς οὖν διδάσκαλος, ὃς εἶπεν καὶ ἐγένετο· καὶ ἃ σιγῶν δὲ πεποίηκεν ἄξια τοῦ πατρός ἐστιν. 2 ὁ λόγον Ἰησοῦ κεκτημένος ἀληθῶς δύναται καὶ τῆς ἡσυχίας αὐτοῦ ἀκούειν, ἵνα τέλειος ᾖ, ἵνα δι᾽ ὧν λαλεῖ πράσσῃ καὶ δι᾽ ὧν σιγᾷ γινώσκηται. 3 οὐδὲν λανθάνει τὸν κύριον, ἀλλὰ καὶ τὰ κρυπτὰ ἡμῶν ἐγγὺς αὐτῷ ἐστιν. πάντα οὖν ποιῶμεν ὡς αὐτοῦ ἐν ἡμῖν κατοικοῦντος, ἵνα ὦμεν αὐτοῦ ναοὶ καὶ αὐτὸς ἐν ἡμῖν θεὸς ἡμῶν, ὅπερ καῖ ἔστιν καὶ φανήσεται πρὸ προσώπου ἡμῶν, ἐξ ὧν δικαίως ἀγαπῶμεν αὐτόν.

1 It is better to be silent with substance than to speak and lack substance. It is a good thing to teach, as long as the speaker heeds his own words. There is one teacher who speaks and reality conforms to his word; even the things he does in his silence are worthy of the Father. 2 The one who truly possesses Jesus' word is even able to hear [Jesus'] silence, so that he is perfect and he acts in accordance with what he says but is known through the things he doesn't need to say. 3 Nothing escapes the Lord; even our secrets are at his fingertips. Therefore, let us do everything in light of his dwelling among us, so that we would be his temples and he would be our God in our midst (since that is what he is, as will be made evident to us by those things we do out of our just love for him). (Ign. Eph. 15.1–3; Greek text from Holmes 2007: 194)

Holmes listed Eph. 15.1 as one of Ignatius' few allusions to biblical traditions (2007: 174, n. 14), as I mentioned here. Ignatius' description of Jesus [!] as the one teacher who speaks reality into existence [ὃς εἶπεν καὶ ἐγένετο; hos eipen kai egeneto] echoes the Septuagint's translation of Genesis 1. For example, "Then God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light" [καὶ εἶπεν ὁ θεός, Γενηθήτω φῶς. καὶ ἐγένετο φῶς; kai eipen ho theos, Genēthētō phōs. kai egeneto phōs (Gen 1.3 LXX)]. This pattern of (i) God speaking [εἶπεν; eipen] and (ii) it being [ἐγένετο; egeneto] continues throughout Genesis 1 (see 1.6, 9, 11, 14–15, 20, 24). Interestingly, there is no corresponding egeneto after God eipen, "Let us make humanity in our image . . ." (1.26), unless I've missed something.

But even here, where I'd like to say that Ignatius is somewhat constrained by the world of Israelite tradition, nothing about Ignatius' language seems to capitalize on the semiotic potential of the first biblical creation account. Instead, Ignatius portrays Jesus as the one who speaks creation into existence (cf. John 1.1–5; Col. 1.15–17) and then goes on to speculate that even Jesus' silence is creative (redemptive?). Ignatius, in other words, seems to be reflecting less on the tradition of God creating the cosmos and more on New Testament traditions of Jesus, traditions which themselves do reflect more conscientiously and pervasively on, among other things, the tradition of God creating the cosmos.

But what I think is really interesting is that Ignatius could have taken up creation traditions in order to make the point he's making. The statement in Gen 1.26 that God wants to make humanity "in his image" takes aim, among other things, at polytheistic religious practices. The other nations worship images of their gods, but Israel is the image of her God. And if the images of the nations' gods dwell in man-made temples, the Spirit of Israel's God dwells among his people and sanctifies them as his holy presence. Ignatius, arrested for some unknown reason and being marched across the Roman empire to face the lions in Rome's newly built Coliseum, could have consoled himself and his readers that the Lord will avenge the desecration of his image (is anyone aware of any use of the creation accounts in this fashion among Jewish and Christian martyrological traditions?).

But instead, he turns immediately to the contrast between Jesus' creative word "in the beginning" and his redemptive silence before the Sanhedrin and before Pontius Pilate. In other words, Ignatius seems to dwell in a world colored by Hebrew biblical tradition only indirectly, inasmuch as Hebrew biblical tradition colors the texts and stories coming out of the first two or three generations of Christian activity. If I'm reading him rightly, Ignatius is reflecting consciously on various New Testament texts and only dimly, if at all, aware without any concern that those texts are indebted to the forms and expressions and significances of biblical tradition.

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