In recent weeks the Letters project has been examining the letters attributed to Ignatius, that is to say St Ignatius of Antioch, who died during the reign of Trajan (98-117 C.E.). According to the letters themselves, he was condemned to death for his Christianity, and the main versions of the collection appear to reflect a narrative of Ignatius’ incarceration in Antioch and subsequent travel in stages to Rome for execution. If the letters are authentic, this would make them a very early example of a letter collection of a church father. (But their status is controversial!)
The transmission of the letters of Ignatius is not straightforward and forms a nice illustration of the kinds of complexities the project has encountered in several collections. Three different versions of the collection of Ignatius’ letters have been transmitted in medieval manuscripts: the so-called Short, Middle and Long versions. The Long version contains 13 letters in generally slightly extended form (as compared with the Middle version). The fullest representatives of the Middle version are Latin manuscripts containing 17 letters, of which the majority are slightly shorter versions of those found also in the Long version. The extra letters in the Latin Middle version consist of a narrative of the martyrdom of Ignatius and further letters of substantially different character, whose addressees are John the Evangelist and Mary (the mother of Jesus). The Greek manuscripts of the Middle version contain only the first 9 letters found in the Latin Middle version, ending abruptly before the end of the ninth letter, owing to the loss of the end of the codex. The Short version contains only 3 letters in a still more condensed form, and survives only in Syriac manuscripts.
Which, if any, of the versions of the collection is authentic? Which is most authoritative? A clue (but a difficult one!) is provided by the earliest certainly dateable testimony about the letters of Ignatius. This is a reference to the letters of Ignatius as a collection in Eusebius, who wrote his history of the church in the fourth century AD. At Hist. Eccl. 3.36.5ff. Eusebius refers to seven letters that Ignatius wrote while on his way from Syria to Rome to his martyrdom: during his stay at Smyrna he sent four letters (to the church of Ephesus, to the church of Magnesia, to the church of Tralles, and to the church of Rome); and from Troas he sent three letters (to the church of Philadelphia, to the church of Smyrna, and to Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna). The seven letters mentioned by Eusebius appear to correspond to letters also found both in the Long and the Middle versions of the collection. It is often supposed that the evidence from Eusebius indicates a settled collection of 7 authentic letters in late antiquity, which was later supplemented by newly written letters (to produce the Middle version) and then extended through interpolation (to produce the Long Version). However, the silence of Eusebius on letters found in the manuscripts both of the Middle and Long versions cannot be taken as definitive evidence for the compilation and circulation of a collection consisting of only seven letters. Eusebius may have chosen to mention only those letters that suited his rhetorical, narrative or other purposes in the writing of his history.
At any rate, the majority of surviving Greek and Latin manuscripts of the letters of Ignatius preserve the Long version, consisting of 13 letters in the following order: 1) Maria of Cassobola to Ignatius; 2) Ignatius to Maria of Cassobola, 3) to Trallians, 4) to Magnesians, 5) to Tarsians, 6) to Philippians, 7) to Philadelphians, 8) to Smyrnaeans, 9) to Polycarp, 10) to Antiochians, 11) to Hero deacon of Antioch, 12) to Ephesians, 13) to Romans. The Middle version of the collection contains (in Greek manuscripts) 9 letters in a different order and in shorter form. It is transmitted by one Greek ms and its apographs, as well as by translations in Latin, Armenian, Syriac and Coptic. In the latter two languages only fragments remain. The oldest Greek representative of the Middle version is Mediceus Laurentianus pl. 57.7 (11th c.), in which the letters are numbered in the margin α’-θ’: 1) Smyrnaeans, 2) to Polycarp, 3) to Ephesians, 4) to Magnesians, 5) to Philadelphians, 6) to Trallians, 7) Maria to Ignatius, 8) Ignatius to Maria, 9) to the Tarsians. The final letter breaks off abruptly, apparently due to the loss of some sheets at the end of the codex.
The character and nature of each of these versions of the collection, and any principles underlying their different arrangement, still needs careful examination. However, it seems likely that the Middle Version – at least as it circulated in the Greek world – represents a collection that offers a sharper focus on the churches of Asia Minor than does the Long version. Perhaps it was put together by a proud citizen of Antioch or someone who identified in a very local sense with Ignatius?