Monday, January 04, 2010

heretical diets in Ign. Trall. 6.1

Now that I've finished my review of Chris Keith's book I've been able to get back to reading the Apostolic Fathers. I've tried not to stop completely, but certainly my progress was slowed as I paid particular attention to reviewing Chris's book.

So this morning I turned to Ignatius' epistle To the Trallians. Here's the Greek text, along with translation, of Ign. Trall. 6.1 from Michael Holmes (third edition; 2007: 218, 219):

Παρακαλῶ οὖν ὑμᾶς, οὐκ ἐγὼ ἀλλ᾽ ἡ ἀγάπη Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, μόνῃ τῇ Χριστιανῇ τροφῇ χρῆσθε, ἀλλοτρίας δὲ βοτάνης ἀπέχεσθε, ἥτις ἐστὶν αἵρεσις.

I urge you, therefore—yet not I, but the love of Jesus Christ—partake only of Christian food, and keep away from every strange plant, which is heresy.

As I consider Ignatius' view of food (and remember, this is far afield from my specialties), I'm reminded also of Ignatius' demonstrable affinity for Paul and his writings. If Ignatius was as fond of Paul as he seems to have been, and if Paul argued forcefully—both in his letters and in Luke's portrayal of him in Acts—that issues of diet should not disqualify a person from being counted among God's people, then how can Ignatius have deviated so far from Paul in prescribing a quite restrictive view of diet and fellowship?!

Paul was quite emphatic: The unity of the people, and not the food on their plate, mattered to him (see 1 Cor 8–10; Rom 14–15). This is also the point of Luke's portrayal of the Jerusalem council in Acts 15: Through Peter's ministry in Caesarea and Paul and Barnabas' work among the gentiles in Asia Minor, God had made clear that he had "made clean" (Acts 10.15) the people who eat pork and shrimp and [O, the greatness of his mercy!] even Taco Bell. Is Ignatius really capable of getting it this wrong?

It has been about eighteen months since I read Daniel Boyarin's Border Lines (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), which was a fascinating, very technical exploration of heresiology among Jews and Christians and its role in the "parting of the ways" between them. But if I remember correctly, Boyarin argues that the Greek word αἵρεσις [hairesis; "sect, division, party"] did not take on the "heretical" connotations of the English word heresy until the third or fourth century.

If this is the case (i.e., if Boyarin did make this argument as well as if this is a more helpful way of reading αἵρεσις), then the consequence for our understanding Ign. Trall. 6.1 is fairly clear. Ignatius' letters are often dated to c. 110 CE (though some have suggested a later date of 125–150 CE), which obviously antedates the third or fourth century. The texts of the New Testament (which also, obviously, antedate the third or fourth century and which, in my estimation, also antedate Ignatius), use αἵρεσις in the sense of "sect" (Acts 24.5, 14; 1 Cor 11.19; Gal 5.20; 2 Pet 2.1) or "party" (Acts 5.17; 15.5; 26.5; 28.22) rather than of "heresy." So I would render Trall. 6.1 as follows:

Therefore I urge you—yet not I but the love of Jesus Christ—only make use of Christian food and abstain from [every] strange plant [or herb], which is divisive [αἵρεσις].

If this gets us closer to Ignatius' intended meaning (or to his audience's likely understanding of his language), then he actually appears more Pauline here than in Holmes's translation (if I have understood Holmes rightly). The problem isn't that eating the wrong foods pushes a person or group of people beyond the pale of "Christianity"; rather, the church(es) in Tralles has/have formed groups [αἱρέσεις; haireseis (groups, divisions)] around distinctive menus. This coheres, I think, with another distinctive Ignatian emphasis: the importance of submitting to the bishop and other church leaders (see, inter alios, Trall. 2–3). Ignatius' emphasis on the bishop ensures both the unity of the church and its protection from false teaching. If the Trallians will accept "only Christian food" [μόνῃ τῇ Χριστιανῇ τροφῇ; monē tē Christianē trophē (6.1; = "food sanctioned by the bishop"?)], their unity will be restored/preserved and their ability to submit "to the bishop as to Jesus Christ" (Ign. Trall. 2.1) will likewise be restored/preserved.

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