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  • Ignatius of Antioch and the Parting of the Ways: Early Jewish-Christian Relations
  • John-Paul Lotz
Ignatius of Antioch and the Parting of the Ways: Early Jewish-Christian Relations. By Thomas A. Robinson. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers. 2009. Pp. xiv, 285. $27.95 paperback. ISBN 978-1-598-56323-8.)

Catholic and Protestant scholars have debated the seven letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch since the Reformation. After all, Ignatius is an early witness to the threefold ministry of bishops, elders, and deacons, and a vital theological [End Page 751] link between the New Testament period and the so-called early-Catholicism of the second century. In the last half of the nineteenth century, the Zahn-Lightfoot consensus resolved many of the historical ambiguities surrounding the Syrian bishop (although by no means all); however, this was challenged in the twentieth century by new concerns no longer focused on the authenticity of Ignatius's writings but rather on the authenticity of their claims. Was Ignatius really a celebrated bishop carried off to martyrdom for his faithful leadership of the Church in Antioch, or was he somehow a tragic figure who was psychologically suspect and writing apologetically to defend the discord over which he presided (or possibly caused) while shoring up his legacy through voluntary martyrdom?

The debated figure of Ignatius also features largely in another debate: the parting of the ways between Jews and Christians in antiquity. It is into this matrix of unresolved issues that Thomas A. Robinson steps with remarkable confidence and clarity. Whereas modern scholars have tended to view Ignatius as an eccentric and unrepresentative figure in early Christianity, and other scholars have begun to blur the alleged boundaries between "Judaisms and Christianities" in the age before Constantine, Robinson has edged carefully but decisively in the opposite direction.

Methodologically, Robinson provides an historical overview of key features in the debate: the demographics and history of Antioch, the question of proselytes and God-fearers on the boundaries of Judaism, and the motive for Ignatius's letters to the seven churches. In each case, supported by a comprehensive engagement with modern scholarship, Robinson disentangles key suppositions and hypotheses that undergird much of modern scholarship's deconstruction and reconstruction of the two issues.

In chapter 1 key demographic and historical presuppositions are ferreted out of the sparse but available evidence on Antioch, arriving at an account that affirms the privileged, but politically contingent, place of Jews in Antioch. By the time of Ignatius, this position was likely more fragile than at other times, due to the war with Rome. The ambiguous position of the Jewish community in Antioch must have been a feature in anxiety over boundaries following the war and the rise of an increasingly gentile-Jewish Christianity.

Chapters 2 and 4 deal with the question of the parting of the ways between Judaism and Christianity. In these analyses, the issue of boundaries plays a major role. Was the Jewish community diverse and its boundaries fluid, or were they aware of Christians and proselytes, and did the historical exigencies of the war and refugees narrow their sense of insiders and outsiders? In particular, can the place of proselytes and God-fearers have featured largely in this question about the boundaries and belonging? Robinson does not think so, and he buttresses his view by undermining some untested notions about these two allegedly significant groups. [End Page 752]

In chapters 3 and 5 Robinson takes on the Ignatian enigma by assessing the fruits of twentieth-century scholarship on the new Ignatian perspective—that Ignatius was a failed bishop embroiled in discord and moved by an unanchored psyche toward voluntary death. Robinson shows, first of all, that Ignatius was a representative figure of a normative Christianity, as opposed to the pluriform "Christianities" of the Bauerian hypothesis, and that he understood boundaries between "Christianity" and "the other" quite clearly, whether this was "Judaism" or the docetic heretics. Second, Robinson undermines many of the arguments used to construe an alternative narrative to the traditional "persecution and martyrdom" hermeneutic that posit discord, personal ambition, and a rivalry between "Christianities" in Antioch.

The concluding chapter 6 addresses the weaknesses of revisionist interpretations of the parting...


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