Sunday, 10 February 2019

Ryan Bowley: The Letters of Ignatius of Antioch in Ancient Liturgical Context: Parallels with the Oral Recitation of Greek Hero Stories

Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians suggests that Ignatius of Antioch, with whom he was in correspondence, intended his own letters to be read in a liturgical setting for the moral edification of believers. Polycarp tells the faithful at Philippi: “As requested, we send to you the letters of Ignatius that were sent to us by him, along with others that we had with us. […] from them you will be able to benefit greatly” (13.2). This statement indicates that Ignatius was retaining copies of correspondence with various churches along his route to martyrdom, which could be transmitted as a collection to the bishop Polycarp and through him to other churches. Clearly Ignatius is imitating Paul, whose letters were already circulating as collections by the second century and widely read in liturgical contexts for the purpose of Christian formation. I contend that this fact, paired with Ignatius’ demonstrable use of Hellenistic discourse, suggests that the ancient Greek practice of orally reciting the tales of heroes before an audience can serve as a model for early Christian liturgical events in which the deeds of martyrs like Ignatius were recited. Hero poetry was, in this world, a fundamental means of moral formation; it was a primary medium through which the culture expressed its values. Exploring the connection between the oral recitation of the deeds of Greek heroes and the liturgical recitation of the extraordinary deeds of the martyrs illuminates the ways that the ancient Church redeployed a culturally-intelligible practice for its own ends.

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