early church letters

Today I read (and in some cases, re-read, as I’d seen them in other places) Clement’s epistle to the Corinthians, the 7 epistles of Ignatius, Polycarp’s lone epistle and the scribal account of his martyrdom, the anonymous epistle to Diognetus, the wacky epistle of Barnabas, and the Didache.

In terms of citation, which is my main interest, Clement, the fourth bishop of Rome, writing in the mid to late 90’s, loves citing the Septuagint, Isiah for sure, though he does so “from memory,” as more than one translator likes to opine. In modern terms, it’s sloppy citation, though way better than the much later Barnabas, who, in his supposedly pious glee to allegorize the OT, does a good impression of one of my 1020 or 1010 students by over-citing and blowing one direct quotation after another.

The Synoptic parallels are scanty, but very telling when they crop up. I found it fascinating that Ignatius’s epistle to the Smyrneans paraphrases Luke-only material and his letter to Polycarp Matthew-only material. Polycarp certainly knows Matthew, and the Latin part of the letter refers to ‘the Holy Scripture’ and then quotes Ephesians. Ignatius knows of Paul’s letters, but does not speak of them as Scripture.

Clement quotes twice from synoptic sayings but in both cases he appears to have some other parallel gospel that we don’t have in mind. They’re different enough that I don’t think ‘memory’ is sufficient for explanation. He is not in chains, like Ignatius.

Speaking of which, I found Ignatius’s repeated reference to his chains – and Polycarp’s later fascination with them – to be striking, even obsessive. Certainly Ignatius is writing from a strange headspace – on the way to his martyrdom in Rome – and he seems to take some solace in writing these letters, with the one to the church in Rome being a kind of climax, where he positively longs to be ripped to shreds and begs his supporters not to block his martyrdom (which is inconsistent with Matthew’s call to book it to another town when you can – but he may not know Matthew) Maybe there is an article there, if it does not pre-exist, on his use of his chains as a rhetorical figure.

And speaking of climaxes, I could also make a case that Ignatius’ recurrent obsession with being consumed by wild beasts is a fortunate if ironic case of vorarephilia, given a few allusions here and there. If the account of Polycarp’s martyrdom is even half accurate – or of Stephen’s – then extended prayer and the ability to form rather witty, Jesus-worthy comebacks is more typical for soon-to-be martyrs. If you’re sexually aroused by the possibility of martyrdom, then I suppose it would be a tad easier to stroll into the circus.

I’m glad that I haven’t sent out my article on gospel metaphor yet as there is much more evidence here in 1st century writings of food metaphors. Ignatius uses quite a bit, which would make sense, if he is familiar with Luke. And the Didache has a passage that I think is strong evidence the way in which food was thought of metaphorically in the early church, when it is cautioning against false prophets, i.e. clever beggars, that come by and call out ‘in the spirit’ for food and then actually eat it; this presupposes both a literal and spiritual sense of food that is commonly known enough to be exploited.

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