The problem of Smyrnaeans 3

I would like to revisit the post “Did Jesus nom the fish?” and make several observations based upon my further research into the subject.

Although I do not intend to go into the details of the argument here, the first observation I would like to make is that Luke 24:40 is likely to be a later interpolation. [1]  This particular sentence makes no difference to the overall meaning of the passage and appears to have been added only to reinforce the physicality of Jesus that was earlier implied.  The interpolation is ultimately insignificant, but I believe it is good form to point it out here nonetheless.

My second observation is of far greater significance – the events narrated by Luke have a strong parallel in the letter of Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans.  The letter to the Smyrnaeans is dated to the early second century by the majority of scholars and is thus a rough contemporary of some of the later works included in the New Testament.  I have placed the two passages side by side below for comparison:

Luke 24:36-43 [interpolation bracketed] (NIV) Smyrnaeans 3
While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’  They were startled and frightened, thinking that they saw a ghost.  He said to them, ‘Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds?  Look at my hands and my feet.  It is myself!  Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have’.  [When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet.]  And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them ‘Do you have anything here to eat?’  they gave him a piece of broiled fish. And he took it and ate it in their presence. For my own part, I know and believe that He was in actual human flesh, even after His resurrection.  When He appeared to Peter and his companions, He said to them, ‘Take hold of me; touch me, and see that I am no bodiless phantom’.  And they touched Him then and there, and believed, for they had contact with the flesh and blood reality of Him.  That was how they came by their contempt for death, and proved themselves superior to it.  Moreover, He ate and drank with them after He was risen, like any natural man, though even then He and the Father were spiritually one. [2]

There are important similarities between the two.  Both Ignatius and Luke refer to the idea that the disciples touched Jesus’ resurrected body and to the idea that the resurrected Jesus ate food, and both connect these events to the restoration of the belief of the disciples in Jesus.  Both authors use these stories in order to make a point about the physicality of Jesus’ resurrection body.  Additionally, the words spoken by Jesus in Smyrnaeans have a parallel in Luke.

Yet although these accounts are similar, they are far from being identical.  The differences between the accounts are a clear indication that Ignatius is not directly quoting Luke:

  1. The way in which Jesus describes his resurrection body differs.  Though it has been claimed that Ignatius quotes the words of Jesus from Luke [3], it is evident from the text that he does not.  Although the sentence conveys a similar meaning, the only direct equivalent is found in the short phrase ψηλαφήσατέ με καὶ ἴδετε (touch me and see).  Igatius does not include the notable phrase σάρκα καὶ ὀστέα (flesh and bones) and uses a different word to describe Jesus’ supposed body – Luke uses πνεῦμα (a Spirit), while Ignatius uses the more unusual words δαιμόνιον ἀσώματον (a bodiless phantom/demon). [4]  If Ignatius were referring to Luke it is difficult to see why he would make these arbitrary changes to Jesus’ words.
  2. Ignatius omits the specific reference to Jesus’ hands and feet.
  3. Significantly, Ignatius identifies this as an incident that happened to “Peter and his companions” while Luke does not explicitly mention Peter.
  4. Ignatius refers to eating and drinking, while Luke refers only to eating.  Ignatius also fails to explicitly mention the fish.
  5. In Luke the act of eating was required as a further demonstration in order to convince the disciples, while in Ignatius the disciples appear to be convinced by merely touching.   Indeed, for Ignatius the reference to Jesus eating and drinking is disconnected from the narrative about touching the resurrection body of Jesus.

Given that Ignatius was not directly quoting Luke’s account, we are left with two possible explanations for the differences in the passages; either Ignatius was referring to a tradition that he knew independently of Luke’s account or Ignatius was referring to Luke indirectly (by memory or through direct use of a corrupted version).  Though it is difficult to determine which of these solutions is correct with any certainty, it strikes me as rather unlikely that Ignatius or an intermediary between Luke and Ignatius could have either forgotten or omitted quite so many of the distinguishing features of Luke’s narrative.  Indeed, the conclusion I draw is that Ignatius knew the tradition independently from Luke – the implication being that Ignatius was familiar with a version of Luke’s source material.  I believe this conclusion is given greater plausibility if one observes the problem of Smyrnaeans 3 in context of other supposed quotations in the letters of Ignatius.

It has long been observed that Ignatius includes numerous parallels to passages in Matthew in his letters.  In some cases the resemblance is strong.  Ignatius’ knowledge of Matthew’s apologetic for the baptism of Jesus is particularly impressive (that it was carried out in order to fulfill righteousness, Matthew 3:15, Smyrnaeans 1:1), as is his use of Matthew 10:16 in his letter to Polycarp:

Polycarp 2:2 Matthew 10:16
Φρονιμος γινου ως ο οφις εν απασιν και ακεραιος εις αει ως η περιστερα γινεσθε ουν φρονιμοι ως οι οφεις και ακεραιοι ως αι περιστεραι.
Be as wise as the serpent in all things and as innocent as the dove forever Be therefore as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.

However, several scholars have argued that Ignatius was not familiar with the Gospel of Matthew in its final form.  J Smit Sibinga identifies seven noteworthy possible allusions to Matthew, including the two already given, but argues that Ignatius ignores specific points that Matthew changed in editing his source material in six of them, concluding that Ignatius did not know Matthew but was familiar with Matthew’s original sources instead. [5]  In addition, W R Inge has suggested that of the seven passages he regards as most likely to be drawn from Matthew, six of them are unique to Matthew’s independent source material, M. [6]  If these analyses are correct the letters of Ignatius are important external witnesses to Matthew’s source material and they suggest that the source materials of the gospels was still independently extant in some form during the early second century.  In this case, the idea that Ignatius was familiar with a version of Luke’s source material is not particularly far fetched.

The conclusion that Ignatius was familiar with a version of Luke’s source, while speculative, has some very interesting implications.   First, it represents multiple attestation to the tradition that Jesus ate after his resurrection.  This, if nothing else, is sufficient to demonstrate that Luke did not simply invent his resurrection account.  Second, given how Ignatius distinguishes between the suggestion that Jesus ate and drank from the narrative about the disciples touching his body, it is possible that Luke’s source material recorded this in two distinct traditions.  If this is the case, then Luke, recognising their common implication of physicality, must have combined them into one continuous narrative and embellished it with detail, while Ignatius was content to merely list the two together.   Thus, one should draw a distinction between the narrative of Jesus eating fish contained in Luke and the much simpler contention that Jesus ate and drank after his resurrection contained in Ignatius.

Evidently, the possible existence of a tradition, multiply attested, dating to the early first century means that the conclusion in my first blog post that the story was unhistorical based on a contradiction with Paul was premature.  I intend to revisit this in a future post.


1. Ehrman, Bart, The Orthdox Corruption of Scripture (2011), Oxford University Press, p 255

2. The Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, translated by Maxwell Staniforth in Early Christian Writings (1968), Penguin Classics, p 101 – 105

4. Interestingly, in the Codex Bezae Luke 24:37 reads φαντασμα (phantasma) rather than πνευμα (spirit).  This is perhaps closer in meaning to Ignatius’ δαιμόνιον ἀσώματον than πνευμα, but clearly a significant difference still remains.

5. Siginga, J Smit, Ignatius and Matthew, Novum Testamentum, Vol. 8, Fasc 2/4 (Apr- Oct, 1966), pp 263-283

6. The New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers, Oxford, 1905, p 76-78

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