Here we stand, most of the way through the authentic letters of Ignatius of Antioch, over halfway through the ‘Apostolic Fathers‘. Most of what we have seen so far has been in epistolary form — that is, letters. We started with 1 Clement, a letter from the church in Rome to the church in Corinth; then we read Ad Diognetum, which may be a letter (however, Andrew Louth, Early Christian Writings, thinks it an apology akin to Justin Martyr’s). Next we delved into the letter of Polycarp to the Philippians, and soon it was the letters of Ignatius, which include some pseudepigrapha, like the Epistle of Barnabas in a week — but even these pseudepigrapha are written in the form of a letter.
And these are not the last letters we’ll see, although it will be a while until more emerge after we hit Justin Martyr — although apologies tend to be addressed to someone, they are not, properly speaking, real or fictive correspondence. However, in September we will hit three letters of Origen’s, but it will not be until next Advent that we will again land upon a major corpus of Christian correspondence, that of Cyprian of Carthage. Nevertheless, the letter is an important genre in most Christian history.
After Cyprian, famous Christian epistolographers include Athanasius of Alexandria, Antony the Great (the Abbot), Augustine of Hippo, Ambrose of Milan, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, popes from Damasus onwards, especially Leo the Great and Gregory the Great, Sidonius Apollonaris, Ausonius, Paulinus of Nola, Jerome, Cyril of Alexandria, and others who escape me now, but could include famous Christians of the Middle Ages such as Alcuin and Boniface as well as of the Reformation, such as Luther and Erasmus. This is to say, as we read the Fathers, we will meet with letter-writers on many occasions, especially now and with greater frequency starting Year 2.
Two questions I shall now address: What is a letter? Why do Christians write so many? A related third question: What do we learn about the nature of early Christianity from this?
What is a letter?
This seems like a dumb question, but it’s the sort of basic question I like to ask sometimes. A letter is a piece of correspondence, written from one person to another due to a lack of immediate presence. Thus, letters are a mediated form of communication; traditionally, many have thought of letters as a poor substitute for live conversation. However, as the work of Jacques Derrida has demonstrated, even live conversation is, at some level, mediated. And, as the work of Walter J Ong, especially Orality and Literacy, there are certain thought-processes that are more easily and more fully expressed through writing, such as philosophy or certain types of story-telling.
That is to say, either everything is mediated, or a letter is as unmediated a glimpse of your friend as a conversation. It’s just a different aspect of the person’s mind.
In letters, people express their thoughts and fears, their joys and sorrows, their news. I once wrote a letter that presented a fictive account of me encountering a dragon on the streets of Nicosia, Cyprus. Another time, I wrote a letter wherein I waxed eloquent about an air freshener with an icon of Christ Pantokrator on it. In the vast epistolary corpus of Cicero (d. 43 BC), he writes letters consoling friends on the death of their children, letters lamenting the political situation, letters recommending one friend or acquaintance to another, letters about art, literature, oratory, or philosophy.
The breadth of the letter, in fact, led Derrida to say, ‘the letter, the epistle . . . is not a genre but all genres, literature itself’ (La Carte Postale, p. 48). The letter, whether from real correspondence such as the Ignatian letters we have been reading now or fictive such as Derrida’s in La Carte Postale or the upcoming Pseudo-Ignatian letters, is a short piece of literature that brings distanced minds together, usually on a single topic or theme — epitomised by the correspondence of Pliny the Younger (d. AD 112).
Why do Christians write so many letters?
The earliest Christian literature is the Pauline corpus of letters, possibly with 1 Thessalonians c. AD 51. Recently, the letters of Christian scholar C S Lewis (d. 1963) have been published for us to read. Who knows if someday the e-mails and other missives of this generation will find their way into edited volumes? I hope so, for in these e-mails much of the stuff of daily life, mission, and theology is embedded. Why has the epistolary habit been such a feature of Christian life?
I believe that it is partly because of the example of Paul’s letters. We all strive to follow Jesus in the Apostles’ footsteps. Our Scripture contains apostolic letters. So we, too, write one another letters. Another reason, I believe, is the close-knittedness of the early Christian communities. The church at Rome was distressed by goings-on in the church at Corinth — so 1 Clement was penned and sent forth. A letter, unlike a conversation, is a lasting testament to a relationship. So Ignatius sends letters not only to those he has not met but to those he has — testaments to their relationship, enduring repositories of his wisdom.
Another reason is the epistolary breadth I’ve mentioned above. In antiquity, there were no blogs. Publishing tracts and brief literature was fairly uncommon. But people sent letters to one another. The letter was a brief moment to craft what I think of as the ancient equivalent of the modern (and dying) familiar essay. It was an informal, tightly-knit, short treatment of an interesting subject that you hoped your friend would also like. And if your friend liked it, he could pass it on to others (we know that this happened from the correspondence both of Cicero and Pliny as well as explicit instructions or requests for letters in early Christian letters). Thus ideas could circulate in a brief, readable manner.
And Christians have always had a lot of ideas to share with each other, whether the importance of bishops or the truth of the general resurrection or the mystery of the Son’s union with the Father. Unlike a hefty volume such as Plato’s Republic or Augustine’s City of God, a letter could be copied and distributed widely without too much trouble. Christianity is a faith not just for learned philosophers but for common shepherds and carpenters — who might have time to read, or listen to a reading of, a letter, if not a lengthy, multi-volume philosophical treatise.
In investigating these two questions, I hope that we have seen some of the third, of what letters show us about early Christianity — its mutual love and affection, its attachment to ideas and words, its accessibility to all.
I also hope this will help us all appreciate the many Christian letters we’re going to encounter over the next seven years.